Thursday, February 25, 2010

Islington: Angels Above and Below

Before I proceed I just want to stop any readers (this assumes there are readers beyond Paul and myself and cast and crew but just in case) who might not yet have read the book or seen the television series or play because I don't want to spoil any particular plot points.

The most obvious counterpoint to the Angel Islington is Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. In fact most people fail to realize that much of the what are thought of as canonical representations of angels in Christianity come from Milton and his efforts to “justify the ways of God to man”. If an angel is meant to be a creature of understanding and abilities far surpassing those of humans it is not surprising that an angel might overreach and grasp at some greater glory. What has always interested me about Paradise Lost is the way Milton seems put some compelling arguments in the mouth of his Satan. This Satan is more akin to a Renaissance humanist who is seeking more knowledge and broader vistas and finds himself chafing at restrictions. In Islington one feels this same strain.

When we first see Islington it's clothing is white and reflective only the eyes are dark. Gaiman carefully uses the neutral pronoun and in many ways it is preferable not only does Islington have an androgynous beauty. Like other beings that populate London below it is not human it is a creature and with any creature that is not human there is a sense of mystery about the motivations and drives which may not be human. Islington gives Richard and Door wine from Atlantis which, switching mythological metaphors to the Greek, is like ambrosia, the drink of the gods which was reserved for the gods and forbidden to humans or at a stretch like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Over-reachers have to trouble enticing others to over reach themselves. Richard and Door are intoxicated by the drink and ill prepared to handle its effects. They would have made easy prey for Croup and Vandemar if the pair’s instructions had not already changed (although they would have made easy prey for Croup and Vandemar anyway on the way to Islington).

It also becomes clear that Islington was the angel responsible for Atlantis and is implicated in some way in its fall. Atlantis, the city reputed to have created technologies and arts beyond those of any neighboring societies. It feels like the tower of Babel, the Biblical tower meant to reach to heaven that was destroyed and the builders punished by suddenly speaking different languages. Down Street is described as looking like a painting of Babel Tower turned outside in.

Striving after too much knowledge is punished. But it is not just the striving, but striving with the idea of making oneself like a god. That is why overreaching angels, drinkers of ambrosia and eaters of knowledge fruit must be punished. Their attempts to build towers to heaven threaten the diving order. Also the means by which they seek to attain their ends are often morally questionable. In Greek tragedies, it is the hubris of the central character that brings about fall from a great height.

I am also suddenly reminded of a story I heard about Milton and the control of knowledge. He taught his daughters how to pronounce words in Latin and Greek but not the meaning of the words so that late in life when he was blind they could read to him but without knowledge of what they read. (This is apparently from Professor Philip Gough but I think I heard it in a lecture some years ago.) It is the extreme opposite the transmission of knowledge, a ghastly punishment to prevent the inadvertent transmission of knowledge he might have considered unsuitable for women. It is a story that has always bothered the author of a great work of literature treating his own daughters so shabbily. Perhaps that is why Islington is so terrible it is disconcerting to see the beautiful do something so ugly.

When we first see Islington it is post-punishment. He is in his prison and that first journey to him is relatively easy but the return visit is a descent into the deepest and most dangerous part of London below. It is like a reverse tower of Babel descending below London or the levels Dante's Inferno.

Finally, there are a couple of other ideas that seem to resonate well with Islington. Guy Fawkes and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and the Wim Wenders Film Wings of Desire. The Gunpowder plot is nice because it did take place underground in the cellars against a joint religious/sovereign authority in King James I. Wings of Desire pops into my head anytime angels are mentioned in popular culture because of the stark mostly black and white film making of angels in cold war Berlin observing and recording are such strong visuals that they stay in the memory. It also ties angels to a city in this case Berlin and I would argue that London (or a variety of London’s from different time periods) is a character Neverwhere. The angels in Wings of Desire are very different so I won’t push the metaphor too far but they are urban modern angels with long histories and it is fascinating to see them represented on film.

It strikes me that Islington is like another Renaissance figure, Niccolo Machiavelli, whose book The Prince was the first how to succeed at any cost self-help manual. Islington is quite successfully pulling strings from a distance and keeping his hands and his white robes clean. It is the slightly shady Marquis de Carabas who recognizes that there are larger machinations at work in the assassination of Door’s family.

Islington as a north London neighborhood is known for gentrification and being the home of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Islington Person” became a term for a socially aware middle-class person with center-left views or left views that supposedly characterized residents of Islington. Certainly being upwardly mobile, politically connected seems to fit with the Angel Islington. Of course there is the Angel tube stop in Islington, which was apparently named for the Angel Inn a pub that dated to the mid-1600s. So this brings clever naming of characters based on London place names continues and brings me back to earth after flights of fancy. Paul published some great pictures of the tube station in an earlier post so be sure to go back and look at them.

Okay I have just edited this today (2/26/2010) because I discovered more about the etymology of Islington that was not in the OED. It actually comes from either of a couple of Anglo-Saxon words Gislandune meaning Gisel "hostage" and dun "hill" or Isendone which is from isel "lower" and don "a fortified enclosure" so Angel Islingdon would (of course) be that fortified low place where you might keep an angel hostage.


  1. I don't know how this might be helpful, but on the grounds that more knowledge is generally better than less:

    "The Angel Islington" also appears as one of the squares on the British version of the Monopoly board. That was where I first encountered it, although I think I'd learned of the inn it was named after by the time I read Neverwhere.

  2. pedanther, I like more knowledge, that is very interesting. I will now have to look for images of the British Monopoly board.

  3. According to the urban dictionary Islington is the best section of Westwood, MA. A section of Westwood, MA that is tucked away but so close to everything. Islington has one of the most prestigious elementary schools, Downy, fantastic access to the Rt 1 and 128. The average resident is upper-class, mostly white and upwardly mobile. Real estate tends to hold its value very well.


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