Having read most of the great classic epics—the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid—I’ve been wanting to read Paradise Lost for some time. I read C. S. Lewis’ introduction, which I greatly enjoyed, and it piqued my curiosity to finally sit down and read the poem. I was prepared for formal speeches and the ritual and solemnity of an epic, and in that respect, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, though, by a few things. First, I could see why so many people sympathize with Satan. By introducing him first in the poem, and by showing him as someone who is struggling to find dignity in a loss, Milton makes him the underdog. He is, in some respects, the Aeneas of the piece, kicked out of his home, his nation destroyed, his followers on the run. Perhaps he wanted us to temporarily consider this, and to realize how cunning Satan is by making his position look honorable even when we should know better, but he is the most human of the characters.
We have felt what he feels, and he doesn’t come across nearly as evil as he should. When he sees Eve, for example, he hesitates to act, overcome by her beauty. He is petty, wanting to bring others down to his level and lessen their joy, but it is an almost childlike evil. He is unhappy, so he wants all else to be happy—is this the evil that broke forth war in Heaven?
The second thing that surprised me was how many Christian assumptions are based on the poem (or perhaps, Paradise just summarized the theological beliefs and assumptions of the day—Milton may not have been the one to make the assumptions, but he certainly passes them on to us). The forbidden fruit is an apple, and the entire fall is primarily Eve’s fault. She decides to leave Adam’s side, and she encounters the serpent and is tempted, first by compliments and then by power, while Adam is tempted in nothing but in losing his beautiful, precious wife. Adam’s sin is almost noble in comparison to Eve’s, which includes murder for the sake of love, when she shares the apple with Adam, yet none of this is included in the original, Biblical tale.
I was also frustrated by how distant God and the Son are from Adam and Eve. We are told that the latter walked with Adam, shortly after his being formed, and that He presented Eve to Adam, but after that, they only communicate through angels—until He came to judge Adam and Eve, that is. Angels tell them of their great foe, Satan, and of why they were formed, and how, giving us the creation story, yet this seems inconsistent with the Biblical text (Angels aren’t mentioned as having any kind of interaction with humanity until after the Fall, when sin had made it impossible for God to come into their midst without destroying them).
But what surprised me most was how fallen Adam and Eve are, even before they fell. They knew that Satan was going to seek to entice them into sin—but forewarned, they fall, because they must. The reasons for their fall didn’t make sense to me, though.
First, Adam seems to fear the attempt, for when Eve suggests they split up so that they can get twice the work done, he objects, saying that harm might befall her if she is severed from him. She takes this as a slight, becoming miffed that he would suspect her of being shaken or seduced by the tempter if left to her own devices, and he has to reply with “healing words.”
She then claims that gaining the victory over such temptation would gain them double honor—but why would she seek honor, if not from pride or ambition? They are already honored over all the rest of creation, and only ambition to become more than she is would urge her on—an ambition that Milton has already equated to Satan and his scheme of gaining the throne of heaven.
This doesn’t sound like a couple free from the taint of sin, shame, and pride. The only reason Eve would feel slighted in the first place was if her pride was hurt by the suggestion that she is not as strong as he is…but humble perfection cannot be slighted and needs no healing, for it would not be injured. She would know they complement each other and are stronger for being together, and he would not fear for her, trusting as he does in the Almighty. So Milton’s motivation for the fall seemed faulty. They should be perfect until Satan tempts Eve and gains mastery of her will through deception, but they aren’t. Eve is petty, though extraordinarily submissive and retiring, and Adam is infatuated to the point of weakness, even before he falls (Raphael warns him about this, but it doesn’t change things).
This aside, there is some excellent poetry in the work, including some lovely psalms, and it was interesting to read Milton’s take on the war of Heaven. However, I think it fails to give us a true understanding of what was lost and why. The beauty before the Fall is marred by the aforementioned character flaws in Adam and Eve, and the “Bible-in-a-few-hundred-eBook-pages” at the end, covering the Old Testament, New Testament, and Church Age, made their fall seem insignificant.
Very little emphasis is placed on the souls that will be lost, the lives cut short, the horror let loose. Adam is foretold of what will come—Eve is left asleep—but it feels saccharine in its triumph, telling them of the future victory before they’ve tasted much of fear and pain and death. All was lost…but don’t worry, it will be restored, Michael tells him, and they leave Paradise with almost joyous hearts, looking forward to the future salvation that is thousands of years away, for them. It just felt like it took the greatest tragedy the Earth has ever known and watered it down, focusing on the beauty of angels and how much they lost through their rebellion more than on what was lost by human willfulness and sin.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
4 thoughts on “Where Milton’s Paradise got Lost”
Great analysis! I’m wrote my ma thesis on Satan in Paradise Lost 🙂
Thanks! He really is the most complex character in the piece…which I thought was rather sad, since we aren’t suppose to admire or sympathize with him. Your thesis must have been fascinating!
I wonder if Milton’s theological difficulties reflect a fundamental problem we have in depicting perfection, God and paradise since, as fallen people, we don’t have a good grasp of complete goodness, but we really understand fallenness and can have an inner conviction that perfection wouldn’t make for a very good story and so all the little sins (like resentment) keep popping up because people have trouble writing stories without them.
That was a really wonderful, insightful review!
Thanks! I think perfection can be very hard to write, and sometimes, we may not see the faults in our characters. Milton may not have seen the pettiness or he may not have known how else to get Adam and Eve apart without a quarrel.