Memoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.
At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.
There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.
The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.
Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.
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As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?
But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.
In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”
In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.
The guardian angels were at work.
Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.
There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:
C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.
Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.
In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.
But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.
Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?
The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.
This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.
Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.
The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.
This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.
And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?
In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”
So how does one represent this best in fiction?