Paradise Lost - CoverParadise Lost by John Milton

Edited by John Leonard

Heaven has won the celestial war, and triumphing over Satan, God in all his might has cast the fallen angel and his followers down to Hell. So begins Milton’s great epic, Paradise Lost. You would think in this retelling of Genesis that Milton would start from the beginning with the creation of heaven and earth or perhaps with God’s first words, “Let there be light.” He doesn’t. The tale begins in the midst of utter darkness and despair.

Our “Hero” is Satan, because honestly, it’s boring to read about good people living in paradise. As humans, we revel in imperfection and flawed characters, and Satan just so happens to fit the bill. Who cares if he’s evil incarnate? Evil has its virtues after all. By casting Satan as the protagonist of this story, Milton makes a fascinating and troubling artistic choice. What does it mean to root for the devil, the enemy of mankind?

In Book I of Paradise Lost, the reader encounters Satan who, having been utterly vanquished by the Almighty, finds himself in the midst of Hell and eternal torment. Although in great pain, the devil manages to raise himself out of the depths of despair, and with his strength and courage manages to rally his fellow demons to endure. It is impossible not to sympathize with him, for in this moment he shows qualities that speak to the best of humanity. Satan will not let “tyranny” [II: 59] keep him down; he will find a glimmer of hope so as to keep existing, to keep living. Unfortunately for the race of man, his great hope is our ruin. If Satan cannot defeat God then he can at least spite the deity and uphold his pride in spite of the danger to his very existence.

“But I should ill become this throne, O Peers,
And this imperial sov’reignty, adorned
With splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment, in the shape
Of difficulty or danger could deter
Me from attempting.” [II 445-450]

Pride, being Satan’s defining quality, places him square in the tradition of the Ancient Greek and Roman epics. Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneus, each and every one of the demigods, see pride and renown to be the sought after prize. Milton himself has no little pride stating that his poem “with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’Aonian mount” [I:14-15]; he, thus, has created a striking amalgamation of the mythic and biblical worlds.

There are also allusions to the real world of politics and power play embedded in the epic. The rebellion of Satan against God is coached in the language of civil war, monarchy, and freedom. Such language grounds this ethereal, unworldly tale firmly on terra firma. Take the following lines:

“For so the popular vote
Inclines, here to continue, and build up here
A growing empire; doubtless; while we dream,
And know not that the King of Heav’n hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heav’n’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude:” [II: 313-323]

As an American, the words zing with accusation. For the demons claim to be on the side of freedom and democracy, while God and his angels are portrayed as cruel tyrants. Milton, in making such a comparison, invites comment upon the England of his own time. The English Civil War (1642-1651) in which the Monarchy and Parliament battled for control of the land, influenced much of Milton’s perspective. Ironically, Milton turned against the monarchy in favor of a Republican form of government, which sheds an interesting light upon Paradise Lost, for God is the embodiment of the monarchy that rules by force, and Satan is the embodiment of meritocracy. So we as readers must ask who in the poem is the villain? Is it Satan or God?

It’s no wonder Milton was considered a heretic.

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