The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France: Book Review

Anatole France
The Revolt of the Angels

What if some Gnostics (and Platonists) were correct in thinking that Yahweh is actually a nefarious demiurge, and that Lucifer and the fallen angels aren’t all that bad? Anatole France took this idea and ran with it in his 1914 novel The Revolt of the Angels. Eventually, France’s entire works were placed on the Catholic Church’s Prohibited Books Index (from 1922, two years before his death, till the index was abolished in 1966).

revolt of the angelsThe novel begins by describing the library of the d’Esparvieu family. Its curator, Monsieur Sariette, begins to notice books being misplaced and damaged overnight, and even sees them floating out of the library to the summer-house. Finally, the culprit is discovered in Arcade, the guardian angel of the family’s worldly and libertine son, Maurice d’Esparvieu. Arcade has been using the library to study religion, philosophy, and science, and he informs Maurice that he’s joining the angelic revolt against Ialdabaoth (God) and will no longer be his guardian angel. He tells Maurice that while the first of the Seraphim revolted through pride, he is revolting due to science: “I first attacked the monuments of Judaism, and I read all the Hebrew texts. . . . I have delved deep into Oriental antiquities and also into those of Greece and Rome. I have devoured the works of theologians, philosophers, physicists, geologists, and naturalists. I have learnt. I have thought. I have lost my faith.” It’s a powerful commentary on the effects of scientific “advances” during the Third French Republic.

revolt of the angels

Image from the 1953 Heritage Press edition

Not only is Arcade leaving his post, but he also plans to organize a revolt of the angels to once again attempt to defeat Ialdabaoth. “I deny that He created the world,” Arcade explains. “At the most He organised but an inferior part of it, and all that He touched bears the mark of His rough and unforeseeing touch. I do not think He is either eternal or infinite, for it is absurd to conceive of a being who is not bounded by space or time. I think Him limited . . . I no longer believe Him to be the only God . . . in the beginning He was a polytheist; later, His pride and the flattery of His worshippers made Him a monotheist.” “And, to speak candidly,” Arcade continued, “He is not so much a god as a vain and ignorant demiurge.”

Maurice pleads with Arcade to not revolt, but his angel is devoted to the cause of installing Satan on the Heavenly throne. Through another fallen angel, Nectaire, we hear the story of the first battle of the angels, the creation of the world, and then how the vanquished angels became the teachers of men. He also gives a history of the world, from the peak of civilization when the fallen angels appeared as various gods and nymphs (and Satan as Dionysus and Iacchus) and the jealous God was absent from society, to the time when, taking advantage of the Roman peace that allowed free exchange of ideas and merchandise, Ialdabaoth invented a fable that would eventually enslave the world: that man had committed a crime against him, would be sent to Hell, and that he sent his son to repay their debt. The story amusingly recounts all of history from the viewpoint of the fallen angels: the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, French Revolution, and Napoleon’s reign.

revolt of the angels

Image from the 1953 Heritage Press edition

What will be the fate of a person whose guardian angel has abandoned him? Arcade answers this question according to the Church rather than natural philosophy: “The loss of your guardian angel will probably deprive you of certain spiritual succour, of certain celestial grace. . . . You will lack an assistance, a support, a consolation which would have guided and confirmed you in the way of salvation. You will have less strength to avoid sin, and as it was you hadn’t much. In fact, in spiritual matters, you will be without strength and without joy.”

La Revolte des Anges has an amusing cast of characters, and the reader gets a first-hand glimpse into Parisian society at the end of La Belle Époque. The hierarchies of angels described by France are not “by the book,” but it’s still immensely enjoyable to hear the rebel angels debate which classes of angels they can most easily convert to their cause.

revolt of the angels

Image from the 1953 Heritage Press edition

When I first read this book years ago, the only place I could find a copy was the university library. Today, it appears that there’s still not a good recent version on the market. I purchased a used 1953 edition from Heritage Press, with illustrations by Pierre Watrin, and couldn’t be happier with it. There are a number of copies of this version available on Amazon for less than $15. It’s a tall folio-sized hardcover, with stylized angel wings as typographic decorations.

The ending of the The Revolt of the Angels is surprising, and so to not spoil it I’ll only share one of Satan’s realizations:

The overthrow of God in Heaven is meaningless unless we understand that “Victory is a Spirit, and that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth.”

You might also like my review of another novel dealing with angels, Balzac’s Seraphita