Writing in the Language of Angels

One of the big problems when writing about the after life or spiritual realms is that no one knows exactly what happens when you die. An author can’t meet up and interview a spiritual being for research in the way they would, say, a police officer.

John Milton faced this problem when composing his epic poem “Paradise Lost” – how to write a convincing celestial world?

The archangel Raphael complains that trying to describe the war in heaven to Adam is a “Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate/To human sense the exploits/of warring spirits?”

Adam, and humankind, have been cast out of paradise and earthly language is now too debased  for the angel to describe events in the spiritual realm.

Critics have often said the epic’s portrayal of God, and heaven, are the weakest points of the poem.

Maybe Milton struggled because he was forced to portray the warring spirits as he would people in the real world. After all, the poet was writing in seventeenth-century English, not the language of angels.

These mundane acts of description made it hard to sustain the requisite air of mystery and wonder.

Some writers of the supernatural have tried to side-step the issue, concluding that when it comes to  portraying other-worldly creatures “less is more.”

The English storyteller M.R. James said: “from the artistic point of view… Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it.”

Ghosts in his tales are only ever glimpsed and never “blatant.”

Similarly the undead villain Quint in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is only ever seen behind a window or on a distant tower.

James thought he had solved the problem of portraying the spirit world by seeing the action of his novella through the eyes of an “unreliable narrator” – a possibly neurotic governess – whose credibility with the reader is compromised.

“We want it clear,” he said of supernatural description, “but we also want it thick, and we get the thickness in the human consciousness that entertains and records”.

I’m currently trying to write about some supernatural events and am pondering what is the most effective way to do so – if indeed there is one?

As ever, any opinions welcome!

An audio version of this blog is available here:

2 thoughts on “Writing in the Language of Angels

  1. If today’s science fantasy/horror movies are any comparison to novels at all, “less is more” is unheard of and “blatant” isn’t enough. Personally, I prefer the former to angels and demons leaping at you at every turn.

    Liked by 1 person

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