Angels in Supernatural Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917
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H. G. Wells, in A Wonderful Visit...draws an angel down and lets him tell the citizens of the earth of the land he comes from. I make no attempt in this discussion to decide concerning the personality of angels, whether they are the spirits of the just made perfect or pre-Adamite creatures that never were and never could be man. For the present purpose, they are simply angels. This book of Wells's is an example of the satiric treatment of heaven and earth that constitutes a special point of importance in the modern supernaturalism. It is a social satire, and a burlesque on the formal and insincere manifestations of religion. A vicar takes a pot shot at what he supposes is a rare bird, seeing a rainbow flash in the sky,-but instead, an angel comes tumbling down with a broken wing. This thrusts him upon the vicar as a guest for some time, and introduces complications in the village life. The parishioners do not believe in angels save in stained glass windows or in church on Sunday, and they make life difficult for the vicar and his guest. The angel shows a human sense of humor, that quaint philosophy of the incongruous which is the basis of all true humor, and his naive comments on earthly conventions, his smiling wonder at the popular misconceptions in regard to his heaven-to which he is surprised to learn that mortals are thought to go, since he says he has never seen any there-make him a lovable character. But village custom compels him to fold his shining wings under a coat till he looks like a hunch-back, put boots on so that he "has hoofs like a hippogrif," as he plaintively says to the vicar, and he finds conformity to convention a painful process. The novel ends sadly, symbolizing the world's stupid harshness, for the angel is sent away from the village as unworthy to live among the people, and his heart is almost broken.
The same type of humor and satire may be found in James Stephens's The Demi-Gods, and in Anatole France's, The Revolt of the Angels. Stephens's novel contains an insert of a short story of heaven previously published, which depicts a preliminary skirmish in heaven over a coin a corpse has had left in his hand and has taken to eternity with him. In each novel several angels come tumbling down from heaven and take up earthly life as they find it, engaging in affairs not considered angelic. Stephens, in addition to the two fighting celestials, gives us an archangel, a seraph, and a cherub. There is in both stories a certain embarrassment over clothes, the fallen ones arriving in a state of nudity. The necessity for donning earthly garments, the removal of the wings, and the adaptation to human life furnish complication and interest, with the added feminine element, though Stephens's novel is not marred by the unclean imaginings of Anatole France.
The revolters in the French novel take up Parisian life, while Stephens's angelic trio join an itinerant tinker and his daughter who are journeying aimlessly about, accompanied by a cart and a sad-eyed philosopher, an ass. They engage in activities and joys not conventionally archangelic, such as smoking corn-cob pipes, eating cold potatoes, and, when necessary, stealing the potatoes. The contrasts between heavenly ideas and Irish tramp life are inimitable. At last when the three, having decided to go back to heaven, don their wings and crowns and say good-bye, the cherub turns back for one more word of farewell with Mary. Seeing her tears over his going, he tears his shining wings to shreds and casts them from him, electing to stay on earth with the tinker's cart, for the sake of love. It is really quite a demi-god-like thing to do.
Unlike France's book, which is a blasting satire on religion, these two English novels are amusing, with a certain measure of satire, yet with a whimsicality that does not antagonize. France's angels remain on earth and become more corrupt than men, and Wells's wonderful visitor is banished from the village as an undesirable alien. Stephens's archangel and seraph go back to heaven after their vacation, while the cherub turns his back on immortal glory rather than break a woman's heart. In all three of these books we notice the same leveling tendency shown in characterization of the angels that we have observed heretofore in the case of ghosts and devils, werewolves, and witches. The angels are human, with charming personality and a piquant sense of humor, whose attempts to understand mortal conventions reveal the essential absurdity of earthly ideas in many instances. The three taken together constitute an interesting case of literary parallelism and it would be gratifying to discover whether France was influenced by Wells and Stephens, or Stephens by Wells and France,-but in any event Wells can prove a clear alibi as to imitation, since his novel appeared a number of years before the others. The possible inspiration for all of these in Byron's Heaven and Earth suggests an interesting investigation. A more recent story, The Ticket-of-Leave Angel, brings an angel down to a New York apartment, where he has peculiar experiences and illustrates a new type of angelic psychology. The tendency to satirize immortality has crept even into poetry, for in a recent volume by Rupert Brooke there are several satiric studies. One, entitled On Certain Proceedings of the Psychical Research Society, ridicules the idea that spirits would return to earth to deliver the trivial messages attributed to them, and another, Heaven, is a vitriolic thrust at the hope of a better life after death, sneering at it with unpleasant imagery.
One of the recent instances of satiric pictures of the hereafter is Lord Dunsany's The Glittering Gate, a one act drama, where Bill and Jim, two burglars, crack the gate of heaven to get in. Sardonic laughter sounds while they are engaged in the effort to effect an entrance, and wondering what heaven will be like. Bill thinks that his mother will be there.
"I don't know if they want a good mother in there who would be kind to the angels and sit and smile at them when they sing, and soothe them if they were cross. (Suddenly) Jim, they won't have brought me up against her, will they?"
Jim: "It would be just like them to. Very like them."
When the glittering gate of heaven swings open and the two toughs enter eagerly, they find nothing-absolutely nothing but empty space, and the sardonic laughter sounds in their ears. Bill cries out, "It is just like them! Very like them"!
Was not this suggested by Rupert Brooke's poem, Failure?*
In the stories treating satirically or humorously of the future life we find the purpose in reality to be to image this life by illustration of the other. Eternity is described in order that we may understand time a little better. Angels and devils are made like men, to show mortal potentialities either way. The absurdities of mankind are illustrated as seen by angel eyes, the follies as satirized by devils. The tendency now is to treat supernatural life humorously, satirically or symbolically, rather than with the conventional methods of the past. Commonplace treatment of great subjects is liable to be unsatisfactory, and any serious treatment, other than symbolically simple, of heaven or hell seems flat after Dante and Milton.
*Failure, by Rupert Brooke:
BECAUSE God put His adamantine fate
Between my sullen heart and its desire,
I swore that I would burst the Iron Gate,
Rise up, and curse Him on His throne of fire.
Earth shuddered at my crown of blasphemy,
But Love was as a flame about my feet;
Proud up the Golden Stair I strode; and beat
Thrice on the Gate, and entered with a cry--
All the great courts were quiet in the sun,
And full of vacant echoes: moss had grown
Over the glassy pavement, and begun
To creep within the dusty council-halls.
An idle wind blew round an empty throne
And stirred the heavy curtains on the walls.