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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.

 

Fear is death, or so Paul Atreides has been taught. To survive the treacherous desert world of Arrakis, Paul must master his emotions and learn the ancient wisdom of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive and powerful organization. Only then can he reclaim his stolen birthright…

Dune Book Cover

Written By: Frank Herbert

I give up. I tried, but the boredom engulfed me like a tidal wave of quicksand. Ten years ago I would probably have loved Dune. It has all the elements of a great Fantasy/Sci-Fi novel: an interesting world, magical powers, secret cults, conspiracies, Chosen Ones, ect. However, Dune suffers from a critical flaw: the presence of the protagonist roboticus.

All the characters sound so lifeless and mechanical. A page doesn’t go by without one of them spouting off some wise religious epithet….and the monologues, Oh! the monologues. The characters don’t breathe any life into the story because they themselves have none. The people that populate this world are but mechanical vehicles constructed to deliver a message.

I just wanted one of the ferocious sandworms to emerge from the dunes and put these poor souls out of their misery. Actually that might be it! Everyone is so serious and miserable in this story. Not a hint of humor, never a sign that the world is something to enjoy.

Reading this book, I became lost in a storm that held little meaning and emotion for me. Then, I decided. I had traversed two-thirds of this volume and gained nothing. Why continue? After all I had already experienced this story elsewhere but with a lot more spirit and fun included. So I will jaunt on over to the Star Wars universe leaving the Dune universe, thankfully, behind.

What exactly is religion? Is it the belief in gods and the worship of those deities? But then, what is a god? In most faiths, a deity is an immortal, supernatural entity who controls and directs all of existence. A mere human can never fully comprehend the true nature of a god, the absolute power that a god embodies. In contrast gods have the power to lift a mortal man to a higher or lower plane of existence.

Religion is absent in 1984. References to Christianity litter the pages (the old churches in the rhyme stand out in particular) but no sign of actual worship is to be found. But on closer examination, a religious organization does in fact encompass this reality: the religion of Big Brother.

However, the ever-present image on the poster is only his human guise. Big Brother, to appeal to his believers, must present himself in a form comprehensible to mortal humans. His true form, intangible and immortal, lies beyond the scope of human imagination. 

Captured by the Thought Police, Winston Smith must now confront the ultimate test of his faith, the belief in the immutable past and unbending reality. The Thought Police, servants of Big Brother, are not content with outward obedience. True belief and willing obedience are their true aims.

In their headquarters, they will systematically deconstruct Winston Smith on all levels, physical, mental and spiritual. Then they will rebuild him in the party’s image. They will not stop until complete victory is achieved. Not even death will stop theme. There are no martyrs in 1984.

The man who performs the deed is none other than O’Brien. Perceived as an enemy of the Party, O’Brien is in fact a true believer. In many ways he serves as Winston Smith’s foil, both his opposite and his equal. Within this man lies the confidant that Winston has always searched for.

However, O’Brien embodies the philosophy and government that Winston despises. In fact, one could even say that O’Brien is the incarnation of Big Brother himself, presenting himself in a comprehensible form. O’Brien is God.

Winston on the other hand is just a mortal man. Suspended in a place beyond time and cut off from the outside world, Winston’s perception of reality falters. Without these connections, the foundation of Winston’s worldview begins to crumble. Tormented physically and emotionally, he is at his most vulnerable.

And thus does the final confrontation take place, the last battle between a man and a god. The outcome is predetermined.

At the end Winston comes to realize the truth, and the truth destroys his mind. While this god presents himself in the form of the man, his true form is the Party itself. The Party is absolute power. God is Power. The Party is God.   

Leaving poor Telemachus hanging from a figurative cliff, Homer switches over to see what Odysseus has been up to all this time. Books 5-8 tell of Odysseus’ escape from Calypso’s island and his reception by the Phaeacians. In fact, the events of Books 5-8 parallel Telemachus’ own journey up to this point.  

For seven years, Odysseus has been held captive by the nymph Calypso who desires to wed the man. In spite of the nymph’s beauty and promises of immortality, Odysseus still yearns for his own wife, Penelope, and the island of Ithaca. Finally, the Olympian gods order Calypso to release the man.

Calypso notes the double standard for males and females. For the male gods are permitted to lie with whom they choose while the lovers of the female gods are torn away. This is a startling bit of insight for that time period. This point is further accentuated by the fact that Odysseus and Calypso immediately retreat to her bed after he is granted his freedom in contrast to Penelope who must remain chaste to preserve her honor. I am actually not sure if Homer is writing according to the morals and expectations of his time or if he is pointing out a moral fault in Odysseus.

In the end, Calypso does allow Odysseus to go free, telling him to construct a raft while she supplies the provisions. Odysseus, wily and crafty, nevertheless fears the guile of others. Suspicious of Calypso’s motives, he demands her oath, an attitude for which she chides him. He is after all treating those who would help him with unwarranted suspicion. Of course, learning of Poseidon’s fury towards Odysseus we can hardly blame the man. After a horrific sea crossing he manages to reach the shores of Phaeacia, a blessed though isolated people and encounters the princess, Nausicaa.  

The contrast between the reception he finds on the island of Phaecia and the reception he will find when he returns to Ithaca is startling. The Phaeacians don’t even know Odysseus’ name and still they honor him with feasts and games. For all they know he could be Joe nobody, but they treat him like a king. Such are the laws of hospitality in the time of Homer. Ironically his own people to whom he was like a father will greet Odysseus quite differently. There he will encounter greed and treachery.  

Throughout Odysseus’ stay with the Phaeacians he alludes to the sufferings he has endured along the way. The story up until now has been peppered with such references, teasing us with their mystery. However, we must wait until Book 9 for Odysseus to tell of his journey.  

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