The word "angel" (derived from the Latin angelus) is consistently used by translators of the Bible to render Hebrew and Greek words for "messenger". And it is as a messenger – usually a messenger of God – that the angel most often appears, almost invariably embodying a sense that something is being made visible that is otherwise ineffable, or of too heightened a nature for human Perception to bear. In modern fantasy the function of the angel as a Liminal Being may well be detached from more traditional uses; but the angel, whenever encountered in its pure form, has a tendency to bear news.
The hierarchical division of angels into several courtly ranks – in descending order, Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, Angels – dates from the very earliest days of Christianity, though it was first articulated in the 5th century AD by Dionysus the pseudo-Areopagite. The Church did not officially renounce the hierarchy until well into the 15th century.
Perhaps because of their powerful association with a living religion, angels do not proliferate in Secondary Worlds, being much more commonly encountered in Supernatural Fiction, where their liminality often registers as a beacon, signalling the presence of a higher state of being. Angels (as opposed to Devils, who are, like Satan, fallen angels) appear frequently in the later 19th century, less so through the 20th century, until recent years. There are, though, many examples. The hero of Marie Corelli's Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self (1889) falls in love with one in contemporary Babylon, then Timeslips into an ancient world where he becomes worthy of her. In H G Wells's The Wonderful Visit (1895) – the Arthur Rackham cameo on the cover is of a winged Cupid – an angel visits Earth and is immediately shot. Angels bedevil the protagonist of Mark Twain's Extracts from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909). Anatole France's La Révolte des anges (1914; trans as The Revolt of the Angels 1914 UK) is one of the very few Satires in which angels do not seem mawkish. An angel surfaces through the Et in Arcadia Ego obfuscations of Barry Pain's Going Home (1921). They appear in The High Place (1923) and The Devil's Own Dear Son (1949) by James Branch Cabell; they accompany Mr Weston (who is God) in T F Powys's Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927); in Robert Nathan's The Bishop's Wife (1928) an angel helps a bishop in a campaign to fund cathedral repairs; one becomes mortal (a theme typical of much Supernatural Fiction) in Helen Beauclerk's The Love of the Foolish Angel (1929); a multivalent angel performs many acts simultaneously in J B S Haldane's My Friend Mr Leakey (1937); they have an intrinsic role in a Christian sequence like the Ransom trilogy (1938-1945) by C S Lewis; the Archangel Michael warns the protagonist of T H White's The Elephant and the Kangaroo (1947 US) of a second Flood; and it is made clear in J R R Tolkien's posthumous The Silmarillion (1977) that Gandalf and the other wizards are indeed angels, though they bring news of a prior (rather than a higher) reality. Angels can be seen in Shamus Frazer's Blow, Blow Your Trumpets (1945), in Taylor Caldwell's Dialogues with the Devil (1967), and elsewhere. The eponymous protagonist of Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye (1953) actually becomes one.
More recent genre examples include Manuel Mujica Lainez's El unicornio (1965; trans Mary Fitton as The Wandering Unicorn 1982 Canada), in whose depiction of the Middle Ages Fairies and angels Crosshatch with cool equanimity; the "cavern angel" who monitors – in the form of the itinerant WillyBoy – the life of the Eternal Champion who fights the eponymous Dark Lord in Roderick MacLeish's Prince Ombra (1982); R A Macavoy's Damiano sequence (1983-1984), in which the archangel Raphael loses his angelic status when he becomes too much involved; Richard Condon's Money is Love (1975); Stephen Brust's To Reign in Hell (1984), where they are central; Nancy Willard's Things Invisible to See (1985); Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters (1986); The Urth of the New Sun (1987 UK) by Gene Wolfe; Brian Stableford's Werewolves of London sequence (1990-1994), where they are again central; Neil Gaiman's and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens (1990); Gary Kilworth's Angel sequence (from 1993); Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994); and Sean Stewart's Resurrection Man (1995). In nongenre books, angels continue to have a metaphorical presence; an angel participates, for instance, in the Carnival revolt of The Milagro Beanfield War (1974) by John Nichols (1940- ); and the protagonist of his American Blood (1987) believes himself to be one. There is a tendency for recent angels to be androgynes, and evocative therefore of earlier religions than Christianity, specifically those faiths built around the worship of the Goddess.
Movies in which angels feature are numerous, though are rarely very serious in their attempts to render angels in visual terms. Those in which angels wear wings are generally comic in intent, if not in accomplishment; while those featuring actors in togas often achieve their comic effects inadvertently. The most successful renderings of angels tend to be those in which they appear in mortal guise, as in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Paul Hogan's Almost An Angel (1990). In Wings of Desire (1987) two angels discover the temptations of mortality in modern Berlin; although they appear human on the screen, it is understood that this is merely an appearance they have adopted, their true appearance being incomprehensible to we mortals. The possibility of angels physically taking on human form is, however, explicit: part of the plot is that the actor Peter Falk, playing himself, is in reality an angel who some years ago chose to become human. Other movies in which angels make themselves known include: Faust: Eine Deutsche Volkssage (1926); The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), debatably; Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) and its remake Heaven Can Wait (1978), in which angels are shown as having the same inefficient bureaucracy as we mortals, much as they do in A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Angels in the Outfield (1952); Barbarella (1967), where the angel is a physical rather than a spiritual being; Always (1989), rather unimaginatively; Angel on My Shoulder (1946); Field of Dreams (1989), arguably (the mystic guiding voice is never formally identified); Orlando (1992); and even Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Angels of death appear in Orphée (1949) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; > Indiana Jones). Gabriel in person, although never seen, plays a part in Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Fallen angels – Satan excepted – appear in Born of Fire (1986 tvm) and to especially chilling effect in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where the angel/temptress, an emissary of Satan, is depicted as a young, seemingly innocent girl. The Devil attempts to regain readmission to God's chosen circle of angels in Bedazzled (1967). [JC/JG]
see also: Afterlife.