Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise Lost?  Are you kidding?  How can you tackle Paradise Lost in a blog?  Where do you even begin to start?

That’s the voice of reason banging on inside my head.  And that’s why it’s taken me so long to get my bum on the seat to write the ruddy thing.

So, why Paradise Lost?  If you’ve read my review of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, you’ll know I loved those books.  Now I have to admit I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to books, or maybe it’s simply that I like my VFM.  However you spin it, I read a book from cover to cover: the review quotes, the list of books the author has written, the ‘about the author’ page, the frontispiece, the acknowledgements – you name it, I read it.   It just so happens that in the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights, the page before the contents page has the following quotation:

Into this wild abyss

The womb of nature and perhaps her grave

Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,

But all these in their pregnant causes mixed

Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,

Unless the almighty maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more worlds,

Into this wild abyss the wary fiend

Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,

Pondering his voyage…

 John Milton: Paradise Lost, Book II

 I always find it interesting, how authors name their books.  It would have ended there, though, as a mildly interesting fact filed in a section of my brain labelled “quotations for book titles”, were it not for the fact that in the final book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, Pullman gives a direct acknowledgment to Paradise Lost.

 The thing is I’d read Paradise Lost at University – or rather I’d read the bits of Paradise Lost my tutor had told me to read for a tutorial, no more, and never so much as opened it afterwards – but from what I could recall (which wasn’t much, admittedly) I didn’t see how it could inspire an contemporary fantasy.  I decided it was time to plug the gap in my education.

 Paradise Lost tells the story of Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man.  Yawn, yawn.  What I’d forgotten – or, more likely, what I’d never cottoned onto in the first place – is how richly imaginative is Milton’s version.  In Genesis ‘Creation and Fall’ is over and done with in 80 verses, whereas Milton’s epic is a whopping 10,565 lines.  Even allowing for the fact that some of the bible verses run to several lines it’s still clear there’s a whole lot more to Paradise Lost than a simple rehashing of the tired original.

Reading Paradise Lost from cover to cover this time, I fell in love with it: its epic showdowns, its rhetoric, its humour – yes, that’s right, humour, who’d have thought it? (I certainly didn’t remember that from cherry-picking the “best” bits for my University tutorial.)  True, the language and lack of classically grounded education can makes it tricky to follow at times for a modern reader (it was written in the 1660s after all) but stick with it and you’ll discover a work so potent, so powerful, so packed full of genius that you’re more than rewarded for the extra effort you have to put in.

But how do I communicate this in a blog?  That brings me right back to where I started.  So after much humming, and hawing, and hair-pulling I’ve decided to simply write a few paragraphs about the most charismatic character in the poem: Satan.

In a conventional dramatic sense Satan is the ‘hero’, his ambition the flaw that leads to his fall. (‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’.)   After an invocation to the ‘muse’ the story opens with Satan, freshly cast out of Heaven, on his back in a sea of fire in Hell.  ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’  Satan extolling the power of positive thinking!

But while it’s all well and good trying to think happy thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that Hell is…Hell.  And as he speeds towards Eden hell-bent on revenge (pun intended) it’s clear that rather than thinking himself out of Hell, he’s actually doing the reverse.  ‘Me miserable!  Which way shall I fly/Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell…’  Heaven and Hell have taken on a psychological reality as well as a physical reality and Hell has become a manifestation of Satan’s state of mind.

His ‘torments’ are such that he contemplates asking God’s forgiveness but he knows ‘ease would recant/ vows made in pain.’  And even on the brink of his temptation of Eve he hesitates ‘but the hot hell that always in him burns/…soon ended his delight/…Fierce hate he recollects.’  Milton’s Satan is not a one-dimensional stereotype ‘devil’ but a fully-fleshed out, tortured soul.

But if that makes it sound like Satan is a victim-figure, far from it.  He knows what he wants – his own self-aggrandisement, initially, and then revenge – and sets to using his skills – as an influencer, an intriguer, an orator – to try to get it.  He spins God’s appointment of his Son as Lord of Heaven as a ‘yoke’, convincing half of Heaven to rebel; he talks Sin and Death, guarding the exit from Hell, to open the gates for him; he deceives the angel Uriel into directing him to Paradise and Adam and Eve.

And it is Satan, not God or Adam, who drives the narrative forward and adds the salt of suspense, in a how-on-earth-will-he-pull-this-off kind of way.  Yet even while you’re rooting for him (and you will, at times, strange as it seems) the characterisation of Satan as silver-tongued political machinator also makes the reader inclined to be sympathetic towards Eve.  After all, if Satan can pull the wool over angels’ eyes, what chance a mortal?

To finish, I can’t resist sharing five of my favourite bits:

  1. Sin and Death.  These are personified as a mother and son combo. Sin is half-woman, half snake, surrounded by ‘Hell Hounds’ that ‘kennel’ in her womb.  Nice. Death is a fierce, black ‘shape’ armed with fatal ‘Dart’.  The twist comes when Sin reveals she popped out of Satan’s head, they had sex, and Death is their offspring.  Cue family reunion, promises from Satan, and the opening of Hell’s gates.  (The dogs, in case you’re wondering, are Sin’s children by Death.  Now, about the dangers of non-diversification of the gene pool…..)
  2. War of the angels. The angel Raphael is relating to Adam the back-story to Satan’s fall.  He reveals that Satan’s rebellion provoked a war that escalated to the point where the angels were uprooting hills and hurling them at the opposing sides.  ‘All Heaven/ Had had gone to wrack, with ruin overspread…’   Somehow you expect angels to have more style.  The problem is that angels are immortal beings and so their war is a self-perpetuating farce – until the Son of God wings in on the third day to rout the rebel forces.
  3. Satan’s return to Hell.  When Satan, fresh from corrupting Eve (and so Adam), returns to Hell to announce the good news to his fellow fallen angels ‘he hears/ On all sides, from innumerable tongues/ A dismal universal hiss, the sound/ Of public scorn…’  As it turns out this isn’t a sign of disapproval, it’s because they’ve all metamorphosed into snakes.  Even as he realises this, Satan himself is likewise transformed, ‘his visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare/ His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining/ Each other, till supplanted down he fell/ A monstrous Serpent on his belly prone.’ I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that he would have felt worse if his speech had bombed.
  4. Future revealed to Adam.  The archangel Michael has gone down to Earth to kick Adam and Eve out of Paradise.  Before he does so he takes Adam to the top of the highest hill and shows him visions of ‘the effects which thy original crime hath wrought’, which include the murder of Abel by Cain, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, and so on, through to the birth of Jesus, and finally to Judgement Day and the time when ‘Earth/ Shall all be Paradise’. It’s a whistle-stop tour of the old and new testaments that wouldn’t be out of place in a cinema montage and makes for a neat synopsis ‘to justify the ways of God to men’ – Milton’s stated intention right at the start of Book 1.
  5. Adam and Eve.  Their loved-up stage predictably doesn’t survive the test of the Fall, which brings tears and recriminations on both sides, but ultimately they stick together – in other words, their relationship follows a pattern that will familiar to most of us. The final lines of the poem touchingly show the pair as ‘They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow/Through Eden took their solitary way.’  They’ve lost everything but still have each other. And whatever Milton’s stated intention, it is this immediate human source of consolation, and not the future divine promise of salvation, that has the last say.

And where is God in all this?  Mainly issuing decrees ‘admist/Thick clouds and dark…/darkness round/covers his Throne; from whence deep thunders roar.’  And there, in a nutshell, is the inspiration for Pullman’s Dark Cloud.

Overall rating: ***** (one of the best I’ve read)

How could I say otherwise?


One thought on “Paradise Lost by John Milton

  1. “Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” — William Blake, The marriage of Heaven and Hell.

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