Angels are a natural fit for SFF. In appearance they can range from the most shocking beauty to the utter grotesquerie. They are conduits between one plane of reality and another, tasked with trying to help very different species understand each other. (What is an angelic encounter but a first contact story?) And according to some traditions, they have their own high drama built right in, a tale of celestial war, a fall from grace, and a new and terrible kingdom forever building itself as a monument to horror.
See? Pretty dramatic. I’m not going to retell that story, though, that’s too much drama even for me. Instead I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite angels from books, film, and even video games. Come add yours in the comments!
Aziraphale already had a rabid, if polite, fanbase. Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens became an increasingly beloved book over the decades since it was published, and inspired a thriving fanfic community. But when Michael Sheen stepped into the role for Amazon’s adaptation, Aziraphilia truly came into its own. Sheen’s portrayal was absolutely true to the book, but watching him play off David Tennant’s Crowley and fuss over his books and fret over tea and just generally be the cuddliest personification of ineffability anyone could imagine added a whole new dimension to the character. And when the Nebula Award-winning episode “Hard Times” expanded on the book’s narrative, we got to see the full scope of his love for Crowley, and came damned close to angelic perfection.
Katherine Addison’s latest, The Angel of the Crows, started life as a fanfic riff on Sherlock Holmes: what if, rather than simply being “on the side of the angels”, Sherlock was transformed into one of them? From that core concept a fascinating alternate Victorian London grew, crowded with public houses run by werewolves and revenants who stalk the night in search of their missing skulls. By far the most important supernatural creatures in Addison’s universe are the angels. “Good” angels claim mystical ownership of particular site, maybe taking up residence in a tavern, or watching over the Underground. But if some harm befalls their home, the celestial beings are offered a choice: “Dissolve” yourself, with no hope of resurrection, or join The Fallen. Our Watson analogue, Dr. Doyle, has just returned from fighting The Fallen in Afghanistan when he meets a mysterious angel named Crow who needs a flatmate.
But why does Crow need a flatmate? And how has he managed to survive freely, without a home, without Falling himself?
OK, so this one might be stretch, but I have to honor this JRPG’s dedication to angelic symbolism. Sephiroth is the strongest member of a powerful military group subtly called SOLDIER, but his life is turned upside down when he discovers that he was implanted with cells from an alien/god named Jenova. Not a fan of half measures, he decides to tap into the mystical Lifestream to become a full god. And if he has to harness interdimensional powers and destroy his planet to do it, well, that’s a small price to pay to achieve his true goal of repeatedly traumatizing Cloud Strife.
In the game’s final battle, he transforms in Safer-Sephiroth, and sprouts a magnificent black wing. Just the one, though. Two wings would be overkill.
There are a whole host of angels in Kushner’s iconic play, from real celestial entities to the pristine statue of Bethesda in Central Park. But the one who gets the most stage time is the Angel who reveals herself to be “four divine emanations: Fluor, Phosphor, Lumen, and Candle; manifest in One: the Continental Principality of America.” She closes the first play in the cycle, Millennium Approaches, by crashing through protagonist Prior Walter’s ceiling. Over the course of the second play, Perestroika, she grinds Prior’s will down as she tries to force him to become a new prophet, with a terrible prophecy of stasis. It turns out that humanity’s need for constant progress and growth causes cataclysm in Heaven, and America and the other Angels are pretty sure the humans drove God away, too.
Following on Kushner’s Angels, JD Scott created a fable of the AIDs epidemic in “Their Sons Return Home to Die”
Here the angels are the urban queer communities that welcomed wave after wave of rural misfit boy, sons that couldn’t live their true lives in oppressive small towns, only to have to watch as these sons went back to their homes to die.
A tableau vivant: the sky like toy stuffing, polyester dyed sea foam, like goose down, like loose down, and when the plush clouds open, their sons descend down. Their sons come with wings too small for their bodies. The wings are costume, but also attached to their skeletons. The bones are part of their bodies. The wings are real too.
The angels are the sons, and they are the men who have, so far, remained healthy. Heaven is a blacklit club, a pulse of music, a crush of arms and feathers.
Is Gabriel my favorite angel on this list? After a somewhat hackneyed opening, his appearance is the first hint the audience gets that Constantine is going to be a bit more interesting than yet another riff on The Exorcist. John Constantine, dying of lung cancer and doomed to Hell, tries to plead his case with the angel, who acts as a conduit between Heaven and Earth. His argument is that each time he “deports” a demon back to Hell, he’s kinda sorta doing God’s work, right?
Gabriel, with a crispness only Tilda Swinton could provide, tells John: “You are going to die young because you smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 15… and you’re going to go to hell because of the life you took. You’re fucked.”
And he only gets more fun from there. I don’t even have the emotional bandwidth to talk about his shift from bespoke suits to a tattered gauze corset-and-legging ensemble. Whenever the perennial “Which movie deserves a sequel?” question makes the rounds on Twitter, there is but one correct answer.
Proginoskes, or Progo as he is soon nicknamed by his human friends, is a singular cherubim. Like the rest of his species, he is a frightening cluster of folding wings and blinking eyes. He’s also pretty cranky about being stuck with a mission on Earth—among angels, anything to do with humans is a tough assignment. In A Wind in the Door L’Engle uses Progo to build on her already bustling theological fantasy realm, using him as a mouthpiece for morality in a similar role to the three Mrs. W’s in A Wrinkle in Time. This time, Progo has to help Meg Murry save her little brother Charles Wallace from a terminal illness that is as much spiritual as physical. Along the way he snarks on every human concept, and explains the terrifying concept of “X-ing”, in which a cherubim summons an immense burst of energy as a defense mechanism…but also ceases to exist. Much like The Angel of the Crow‘s idea of “dissolution” this is a noble act that undercuts the presumed immortality of heavenly creatures.
In the beginning there were two Angels, Adam and Lilith. Fifteen more angels descended from the pair, while the human race call Lilith mother. Unfortunately for humanity, Adam’s fifteen kids have all eaten of the Fruit of Life, making them very, very difficult to kill. And they just keep attacking humanity, in a nightmarish cycle of destruction and pain. Luckily humanity can rely on a small team of emotionally-unstable child robot pilots, and their alcoholic guardian, to sometimes, just barely, keep the Angels at bay.
As we all know, Alan Rickman was always perfect. He was perfect in Die Hard, perfect in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, perfect in Truly, Madly Deeply, and perfect in Love, Actually. But he might have been most perfect in Dogma, simply because the movie, while heartfelt and often good, is also, often… less good. But as scattered and overstuffed as it was, Rickman’s turn as The Metatron was amazing—particularly because it didn’t have to be. He could have just been snarky and annoyed at the human antics. Instead, by the end of the film, he genuinely cares for the people he’s been stuck with. He also proves a meta point, because after being annoyed with Bethany for not recognizing him, but knowing all about the Plagues of Egypt (“Tell a person that you’re the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody’s a theology scholar.”) it’s probably safe to say a lot more people have learned about The Metatron from this movie than Sunday School.
Sometimes angels have to fight their fallen siblings. Sometimes, they are charged with driving humanity from Paradise. And sometimes, they have to battle megalomaniacal robot blacksmiths. Such is the fate of Geno in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. After the Star Road is shattered, the celestial spirit enacts a very specific take on tikkun olam, gathering Star Pieces so that he can end the evil reign of Smithy, the previously-mentioned robot blacksmith. But since celestial spirits don’t have much weight in Mario’s world, he chooses to do this by possessing a doll named Geno.
Look, judge if you must, but as Geno himself says: “I serve… a higher authority…”
Those are some of my favorite feathered folks—who’s your pick for best fantasy angel?