Archives for posts with tag: Epic

Book III opens to God consulting with his son, Jesus about the upcoming “Fall of Man”. Being omniscient, God knows what Satan is up to and the end result, but he decides not to interfere and justifies this decision with a lecture on free will. (I have a problem with this doctrine of obedience that is so fundamental to Christianity. I find it impossible to reconcile obedience to love. A doctrine John Milton, I feel, struggles with too, especially as it concerns the politics of his day.) At this point, the poem devolves into metaphysics and legalese.

“But yet all is not done; man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealty, and sins
Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
Affecting Godhead, and so losing all,
To expiate his treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or Justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.” [III: 203-212]

The theology of these lines is hard to interpret, but it almost seems as if there’s some greater law and God is only acting as the judge, albeit a judge who always makes the just decision. God apparently cannot ignore this “greater law” hinted at in the poem, less he disrupt the order of the universe. There’s a strange sense of competing mythologies in Paradise Lost. On the one hand, Christianity has the “God created everything!” approach. On the other hand, classical mythology says that the universe arose out of Chaos from which the gods and the world spontaneously? emerged. I certainly see an uneasy tension between these philosophies.

Back to the narrative, God is willing to return man to grace, if someone else would ‘take the fall’ for them, and takes the offer to his angels only to be received with non-enthusiasm. “Well don’t everybody speak up at once.” I half expected God to quip, because, wow angels, your devotion towards humanity is really touching. The crickets were deafening compared to your clamorous response, or non-response I should say. Luckily Jesus, being the incarnation of love, intercedes on humanity’s behalf.

“His words here ended, but his meek aspéct
Silent yet spake, and breathed immortal love
To mortal men, above which only shone
Filial obedience: as a sacrifice
Glad to be offered, he attends the will
Of his great Father.” [III: 266-271]

But his speech seems to deflate at the end (at least for me) because the son effectively concludes with “Besides, I’m immortal so it’s not like I’m actually going to die for real, right Dad? And while I’m at it I might as well kill Death too.” Cue the round of applause.

Meanwhile, Satan arrives on Earth at the borders of Eden. He’s having trouble finding his way so he stops and ask for directions from the angel, Uriel. Uriel’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. I know, I know, Satan’s in disguise, but still, God has just given this huge speech about how humanity is going to succumb to sin, and Uriel thinks nothing of it when some strange guy comes asking about Paradise because he’s so desperate to witness God’s creation. Uriel, you done goofed.

Satan, while the angels try to find him after realizing their mistake, stumbles upon Adam and Eve, and dare I say it, falls in love. He almost regrets the sin he will lead the pair to, but necessity and the expansion of his empire call for the deed. Nonetheless Satan consoles himself with the thought that mankind will come live with him in Hell.

“Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest gates,
And send forth all her kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring” [IV: 381-385]

Huh. Satan has a point, I suppose. Earth is overpopulated as it is. Could you imagine Eden? In all seriousness, Milton dwells for some time on life and love in the Garden of Eden. First of all, Adam and Eve perform labor on their garden, rather than idle the time away. A sense of purpose appears to be one thing that sets Man apart from animals. This book abounds with descriptions of flower, tree, and animal life.

Naturally, the relationship between Adam and Eve is examined at length. For one thing, they had really good sex. This seems like a silly thing to bring up, but sex is a significant facet of their marriage, as it is for most marriages. Though Milton is careful to make the distinction between true heartfelt love vs the lustful sort. However, his contemporaries and even modern day Christians to be honest view sex as an impure, shameful act that didn’t occur in this perfect setting. Milton argues that sex in the right context is a beautiful act that definitely would have occurred in Eden. However, the doctrine of obedience returns in a very troubling form: Eden’s submission to Adam. Based on Milton’s tone, I doubt he views this imbalance positively. However, it remains as foreshadowing at this point in the epic.

Overall, Books III & IV examined the nature of love whereas Books I & II concerned themselves with hope and despair.

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.

“And even though all other animals
Lean forward and look down toward the ground,
He gave to man a face that is uplifted,
And ordered him to stand erect and look
Directly up into the vaulted heavens
And turn his countenance to meet the stars;” [ I : 118-123]

Trans. by Charles Martin

Metamorphoses Cover

All of existence arose out of chaos, or so claims Ovid in his Metamorphoses. But this so-called “orderly” world has not forgotten its original nature as reflected in this compilation of Greek and Roman myths. Tragic yet comedic, thoughtful yet parodic, the epic flows, almost imperceptibly, from one extreme to another as it traverses the ages. It contains no central hero, no linear plot, and no unifying theme except that of transformation. Change is the one constant: an ironic concept for an ironic work. Categorizing Ovid’s Metamorphoses in its entirety amounts to a Sisyphean task; the challenge lies in its sheer scope. This work attempts to convey all of human existence, all of the joy, sorrow, love, hate, desire, anger, despair, and hope.

But I believe the key to understanding Ovid’s magnum opus lies within the passage above. The ability to stand and gaze upon the stars separates humans from birds and beasts. Those infinitesimal points of light that pierce the dark shroud of space lie forever beyond our reach but reside ever in our hearts. To gaze upon the distant and immortal stars is to become aware of a greater existence. They are beacons of stability in this ever-moving, ever-changing world.

 

Throughout the epic, the revenge against the suitors is referred to as a “blood wedding.” They have been courting death, perhaps literally. After all, it is Queen Persephone of the underworld who governs the spirits of the dead. Hard and cold, the goddess’ mortal equivalent may in fact be Penelope.

The climax is set in motion by of all people, Penelope. She in capitulation announces a contest that will determine her husband. She will marry whoever can use Odysseus’ bow to shoot an arrow through twelve axes. Penelope has surrendered… or has she? Penelope is as much a trickster as Odysseus. It’s possible she held this contest, expecting that none would have the strength. After the suitors fail to draw the bow, Odysseus takes his turn. He succeeds and promptly turns the bow against his foes. Odysseus, Telemachus, and two servants take up arms against the army of suitors. At one point the battle turns against them. However, Athena upholds her promise and leads Odysseus to victory. The battle turns into a slaughter.

Penelope, cunning, cold, and suspicious, doesn’t believe that Odysseus could possibly have returned. Thus she puts him to the test. Telemachus responds with indignation but Odysseus sends him away. This is between husband and wife. We come to learn why Odysseus sought so desperately to return to Penelope. The two are of the same mind. She is also the one person Odysseus actually trusts. Disregarding Agamemnon’s advice, Odysseus proceeds to tell her everything.

One challenge still looms though: retribution. We have learned that gods don’t take abuses perpetrated against their offspring lightly; the same holds true for mortals. The lords of the realm learning of the their sons’ death, prepare to take revenge. The cycle of revenge is the central theme of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s tale as well. For without intervention the cycle is never-ending and disrupts the welfare of families, cities, and nations. Athena, like in that tale, arbitrates a peace and installs order. Perhaps this is the message Homer wanted to convey with this epic: to end this cycle and allow peace to reign.   

At last the day has dawned. Odysseus and Telemachus must venture into the den of beasts itself, the lair of the suitors. We learn of the sort of abuses that are perpetrated within that household. We have heard Telemachus and Penelope lament the actions of the suitors; now we witness it for ourselves.

The suitors reveal themselves to be brutal and insensible to moral codes. Their demeanor is similar to that of the Cyclops. In fact much of the events of these chapters recalls that episode. Odysseus to deceive the suitors and divine the loyalties of the household again dons the disguise of the beggar. To Polyphemus he claimed himself to be ‘Nobody.’ Now Odysseus is considered by all to be a nameless stranger, a nobody.

Odysseus ever sensitive to blows against his pride must find it in himself to endure their taunts and abuse. Like the Cyclops, these suitors have a gross disdain for the laws of hospitality. They mock the idea of giving gifts and when pressured do not hesitate to launch projectiles at the disguised king. But Odysseus must not give in to his ego. His life depends on it. Revealing his true name to the Cyclops was the most unwise decision Odysseus ever made. Perhaps having learned something, the king reins in his temper. He must act as a beggar would.

The portrayal of Odysseus among the lower class is interesting in a culture more concerned with the elite. Each of Odysseus servants is depicted with a personality and history of their own. The betrayal of his own servants seems to cut him deeper than the abuse of the suitors. However, the poem does refer to Odysseus as the beggar king in an ironic way. 

Instead of a rich lord, a poor swineherd hosts Odysseus. The old nurse, Eurycleia, is the one to realize Odysseus’ true identity and not Odysseus’ own wife, Penelope. Homer may be pointing out the lives of the lower class have a lot more influence than the elite would suspect.

Speaking of Penelope, she has an unusual dynamic with Telemachus, Odysseus, and her suitors. Telemachus seems rather bitter towards her. He returned to Ithaca because he feared the decisions of his mother while he was abroad.  His comments are also laced with barbs and accusations of fondness for the mob that occupies the hall. Penelope appears surprised at Telemachus’ boldness but she will also take it upon herself to reprimand her son. We must remember that Telemachus has been raised by solely by his mother and is reacting as a rebellious, headstrong young man would.

Still, Telemachus does have a point. Penelope also has the dream of the eagle slaughtering the geese. Yet, she feels sorrow for the loss. Perhaps the queen is basking in all the flattery and attention while Odysseus is away. She remains loyal no doubt, but this adds complexity to her character. Then again, Penelope does have a mind to match her husband, and not infrequently does he marvel at her.

The stage is set. The players are here. We have seen what Odysseus is up against, though we also see his doubt for the first time. Chapter 20 ends on the dawn of a new day and on the eve of plans and battles.

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