New Welsh Review
Secular, Scriptural or the Heavenly Host: 6 Angel Rules
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Truman Capote, it is said, wrote like an angel. Is there a higher compliment? Writing like an angel is synonymous with ease, with perfection of sound and sense. But, my experience of writing a story with an angel at its centre (‘Anna and the Angel’ won third place in this year’s New Welsh Writing Awards Rheidol Prize for Prose with a Welsh Theme or Setting) was a much more visceral and negotiated process. I think I’ve come away with some ideas about embedding angels in writing that I’ll come to later.
First, though, I want to look at the breadth and depth of angels in our cultural landscape. Angels are everywhere! Think the Angel of the North sculpture, the advertising for yoghurt, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘I Believe in Angels’ by Abba, ‘There Must be an Angel’ by Annie Lennox, countless films from It’s a Wonderful Life to The Wings of Desire, not to mention the appearance of angels in the last line of Hamlet. There are angels for childhood – think tinsel and sheets in a nativity play. There are angels associated with death – I’m thinking cherubs on headstones. We all know what an angel looks like. Not only that, but the presence of angels is consistently reinforced, occupying quite a privileged place in our world – they live at the intersection of spirituality and sci-fi, where what is known shades into what is unknown. The niche that they occupy is… well… niche.
This universality might mean that it is easy to place an angel in a story. It might have been for Truman Capote, but I found that I needed to think through my angelic options. These included:
- Is your angel going to be scriptural? The Jewish faith, the Muslim faith and the Christian faith all refer to angels in their sacred texts. As my story was taken from the Bible, my angel was necessarily scriptural. In the Bible he is Raphael, the angel of healing. All Biblical angels have names ending in ‘el’ – remember Gabriel who told Mary she would conceive?Traditionally, they are all men, which you might have to consider.
- Is your angel going to be secular? So, a human being who behaves in an angelic manner and then disappears as soon as they’ve appeared. It’s this constituency who are thanked on the ‘thank you’ slot on Radio 4 on ‘Saturday Live’. You’re already thinking of someone.
- Is your angel going to be by themselves, a lone wolf, or will there be a ‘heavenly host’ Remember the three women – Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time? Are they, paradoxically, easier to sneak in if there are more of them?
- Is your angel going to be out in the open? So, does everyone know they’re an angel? The only time I can think of this working is in relation to a secular angel in, Great Expectations. There, Dickens makes his hero Pip believe that Miss Havisham is a benevolent angel, financing his London lifestyle. And how did that particular angelic belief work out? Clever old Dickens.
- Is your angel going to be undercover? The earliest example of this, perhaps, is the story in Genesis of Abraham giving hospitality to three men. Only afterwards does he realise he’d been ‘entertaining angels unawares.’ The danger here is that it all gets a bit clunky and pantomimical. You have to keep tabs on who knows what. In my story, Raphael is undercover, assuming the name Azriel. I found that by importing emotion, I could suspend a character’s disbelief. So, the character Anna, of the title, falls in love with Azriel, and in her infatuation, finds him angelic anyway. I didn’t have to be so fastidious about concealing his true identity when they were together.
- How does your angel manifest their angelic nature? This is allied to the previous two questions, but it is worth thinking about how you’re going to deal with the paraphernalia of wings, halos and harps, if you’re going to need them.
Once you’ve thought about these, it’s time to put your Angel Rules in place. For what they’re worth, mine are:
- An angel is a messenger – they always have their own agenda. In the Bible, most of what they say seems to be prefaced with, ‘Do not be afraid’ which I think is a lovely message in its own right.
- Being angelic is not far from being diabolical – in my story, Azriel gives Anna an almost impossible choice – he’s not completely nice. He’s tough; he’s there to get a job done.
- Don’t even try and explain everything – no one knows where angels come from or where they go. That’s all part of it.
- Angels are the ultimate change agents – don’t bring an angel into it unless you want change.
- An angel shines. They don’t have to literally shine. But, I do think that their traditional shining quality underscores the ‘otherness’ of the angel. And that ‘el’ we saw earlier often denotes a shining. Not for nothing did the English word ‘elf’ originally mean a white or shining being.
- Angels take themselves lightly, which is one reason why they can fly. You don’t want an agonised angel. Where’s the fun for your angel?
I thought quite a lot about angels just as I started writing my story, when I was having radiotherapy after breast cancer. In Velindre, I’d lie, quite contentedly, every day under beeping machines. The operators would be looking at me through a window; I was alone in the room. Except, there was an empty chair, just out of my sight. I used to imagine that the angel Raphael was sitting there, all through my treatment, just watching me. And so the story wrapped around the angel. I suppose that’s another rule – don’t worry about rules, just breathe deeply, authentically. And declare, like Truman Capote’s angelic creation Holly Golightly, ‘I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.’
An extract from Eleanor Williams’ novella ‘Anna and the Angels’ will appear in New Welsh Reader 130, autumn 2022. It was placed third in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2022 Rheidol Prize for Prose with a Welsh Theme or Setting, judged by Gwen Davies in April. Eleanor wins a stay at Gladstone’s residential library in Hawarden, Flintshire.