Posts Tagged ‘satan’

heroes and villains; books i-iii of paradise lost

October 6, 2009

Heroes and Villains
A Discussion of Books I – III of Paradise Lost


Points of discussion;

  • Plot overview
  • A Classical checklist
    • How does anyone react to the massive emphasis on Classical allusions; does it detract from the Biblical narrative if the reader is unfamiliar with the Greek myths, particularly the Titanomachy?

  • Satan: hero or villain?
    • Simply, why is Satan such an alluring, engaging, appealing, almost admirable, character?

  • A fallible God
    • How do the reactions of Christians compare with those of non-Christians when first introduced to the Satan character, and to a lesser extent that of God?

  • Heaven’s evil twin – how heaven & hell are remarkably similar
  • The Parliament of Demons – the parliamentary regime & the illusion of power
    • Is Belial a more perceptive character than Satan?
    • If we are to accept that the opening of Paradise Lost is a political/social allegory, should the role of Satan be clearly comparable with just one of the recent English forces (Cromwell or Charles I); is a vague Satan also a detrimental Satan?

  • The character of Milton – the blind bard
    • Does the stalling of the narrative at the opening of Book III – when a Muse is once again invoked – disrupt the reading? Or is it necessary for Milton to pull us out of hell and back into his world for a moment because the shift to heaven is such a dramatic one; ie, a mood must be established again?


    Plot overview

    Very briefly, Satan and his army are cast out of heaven and into hell. Satan rallies his troops in the newly built palace, Pandaemonium, in which Beelzebub reveals to the other fallen angels the creation of Man. Satan resolves to go alone to Earth, to tempt and bring out the ultimate Fall of Man. In heaven, God watches Satan traverse through Chaos, discussing with the Son why he will not feel any guilt over Man’s corruption – the Son then volunteering himself to be sacrificed in order to redeem Man of his sins. Satan reaches the created universe, disguises himself as a cherub, and deceives Uriel into guiding him to Paradise.
    There are three distinct ‘movements’, each one occupying one book; the militaristic nature of Book I, the political nature of Book II, and finally a complete shift from hell to heaven in Book III.

    A Classical checklist

    Even before the epic begins, in ‘The Verse’, Milton justifies his use of the epic form and iambic pentameter, the metre of, for example, classical Greek and Shakespeare. So already, subject of the poem aside, Milton has grand plans for this piece of literature.
    In the opening lines of the poem proper, Milton invokes the Muse to aid him and inspire him to create this work. This falls into the well-trodden territory of, most notably, Virgil and Homer, Latin and Greek poets extraordinaire. For a notable puritan, protestant, this is pagan symbolism. Pagan themes are visited frequently throughout the first two books, as the pagan gods of Greek antiquity are a popular point of comparison for the Christian figures now residing in hell; indeed, some of the characters amongst Satan’s troops are pagan constructs, not appearing in the Bible at all. This cannot help bring to mind a rather more heterodox position than that of an Orthodox Christian, with so many gods and demi-gods populating the pages.
    Following the call to the Muse, we are straight into the action, that is, we begin in media res. A traditional epic opening; recalling the beginning of The Aeneid, where we first meet Aeneas trying to escape unharmed with his family from the final night of the Trojan War – the gods themselves tearing the place apart – or The Odyssey, in which Odysseus has already been shipwrecked as he attempts to reach his home of Ithaca after the war. The background to these follows later, often in a form of dialogue from one particular character.
    Milton writes an extensive list of the names of the most notable character in hell – each of which is accompanied by a traditional epithet, in order for us to get a glimpse of their attributes. For an obvious reference point here, see The Iliad, as the Greek troops are introduced, or Hesiod’s Theogony, which at times feels like just an extended list.
    The Dorian mode, and “Doric pillars” of Pandaemonium, allude again to a Classical notion. The Dignified, solemn, unornamental attributes of the Dorian sound or image.
    It’s hard not to feel at times that this is simply a checklist, a who’s-who of admirable precedents. Which makes Milton’s claim that he will be attempting “things unattempted” all the more peculiar. The Bible has obviously already been written, the basis for this poem, the epic form is already well established, the metre has already been used. It becomes rather difficult to decipher what this brief but clearly meaningful, phrase alludes to. Perhaps, as he states in ‘The Verse’, Milton believes this a return to the the uncorrupted style he longs for, and that this story is yet to be attempted in English in such a grand manner.
    Quickly, several more small, perhaps tenuous, similarities include the debate near the beginning of the story (as in The Odyssey), a reference to Dante’s famous idiom ‘Abandon all hope, you who enter’ at line 66, the “nine times” the angels fall reflect the fall of the Titans in Hesiod, Sin itself is born from the head of Satan in a flame (as Athene is from Zeus), and the strong, heroic leadership of Satan.

    QUESTION:
    How does anyone react to the massive emphasis on Classical allusions; does it detract from the Biblical narrative if the reader is unfamiliar with the Greek myths, particularly the Titanomachy?

    Satan: hero or villain?

    By far the most dominant, exciting, developed character in the first few books, Satan is also the most confusing. It is almost as though Satan, for Books I – II certainly, is the hero.
    We first meet Satan at line 34. “An infernal serpent”. Whilst this is the established image of Satan through Biblical form, it is the not the form that Satan takes until well into the poem. Already, Milton has subverted our expectations of the fallen angel. By line 53, he has become “confounded though immortal”; although these two states are not mutually exclusive, perhaps Milton is already working on undermining the apparent heroism of Satan to come, by referring us to God, a being immortal and, reputedly, infallible. However, this works to humanise Satan, and it’s easier for us as a reader to relate to a humanised angel than an omniscient one.
    Even in his earliest appearance, though he is neither calm nor collected, he is still comparable with the heroes of ancient epics; Odysseus was anything but calm, stranded so often as he was on various islands.
    When Satan first talks we can clearly hear the eloquence with which he addresses Beelzebub. Inspiringly, he demands there be “courage never to submit or yield”, and he still seems to believe that God can be defeated – even Beelzebub alludes to the fact that they “endangered heaven’s perpetual king”. This desire to refuse defeat, to “hurl defiance toward the vault of heaven”, whether or not their aim is a realistic goal, is an incredibly heroic trait.
    His magnificent form is apparent throughout the first book; he is as large, and perhaps as deceptive, as the Leviathan. He throws his shield over his back, large as the moon, and strides through the fires of hell. Even in Pandaemonium, the most important angels still retain their grandest forms. There is an abundance of epithets for the character – “superior fiend”, both detrimental and, most obviously, complimentary. “his form has yet not lost all her original brightness”, line 591. he gives an inspiring speech to his troops, again in line with the Classical heroes of Homer and Virgil.
    Often this commanding power is set-off someway by a negative reading of it – superior fiend, for example, or the thunder entrenched in his face, despite his brightness.
    Perhaps Milton creates this great character knowing that Christian readers of his poetry will recognise this alluring danger of evil, and despite this delusion of grandeur that Satan may have, he is still essentially an evil, malevolent force.

    QUESTION:
    Simply, why is Satan such an alluring, engaging, appealing, almost admirable, character?

    A fallible God

    In stark contrast to the introduction we get to Satan, God’s is somewhat less epic, and certainly comes off the lesser of the two. His opening words are typical, though slightly uninspiring, and he lacks that rousing passion that Satan clearly feels. Is perhaps the simplicity an indication of the puritan sympathies; God is divine and just, and he does away with fanciful language and twisted metaphors, to simply deliver his speech clearly. As Richard Bradford notes, God does not need to convince himself that he is God; whilst men use poetry to both that they are spiritually aware and veil meanings, God has no need to create an illusion.
    Most importantly, however, God seems to have a slightly flawed agenda. It seems odd that he would set himself up only to be corrupted by the forces from hell. Although it is fate, and God makes it clear that he need feel no guilt over our Fall, it is strange that he would create Man with full knowledge that it will be polluted, ruined. This falls nicely into the belief that Satan may have, that God is not quite as omnipotent as others would have you believe, but this clearly isn’t the case – as we see from the first encounter with God and the Son, as he watches Satan in Chaos, heaven, and the universe. However, it is wrong to think that this is a problem Milton wrote himself; it is evident too in the Bible.
    Milton doesn’t allow us to bond as closely with God as we can Satan. This may be because of the inherent sin in man – which will always place us in easier grasp of hell than heaven. We simply cannot match the purity of God.

    QUESTION:
    How do the reactions of Christians compare with those of non-Christians when first introduced to the Satan character, and to a lesser extent that of God?

    Heaven’s evil twin

    The debate we see in hell in Book II seems almost directly paralleled in a similar scene in Book III.
    The two counsels both follow two or more angels engaged in discussion that we later discover had a foregone conclusion, thus rendering the entire scene almost pointless from the characters’ perspectives; Satan and Beelzebub have already discussed the possibility of going to Earth, and Satan has already volunteered to go himself through Chaos, whilst, from a Christian belief, God will already know that he intends to send the Son to Earth as redeemer, so there is no reason for him to ask the congregation of angels for someone to go.
    When Beelzebub throws the floor open all the angels are quiet, and when God does the same “all the heavenly choir stood mute”. This suggests that the basic nature of the fallen and non-fallen angels are not so dissimilar. Suggesting evil may be more subtle than one might imagine. Neither angel nor ‘demon’ are keen to risk their lives for mankind – perhaps out of jealousy that Man is so favoured by God. As a result, Satan and the Son, two of the most commanding powers in their respective regions have to step forward to fulfil the demands.
    Having been cast out of heaven so recently, it is possible that the angels with Satan are mimicking, even unconsciously, the society that they are trying now to distance themselves from. This way the parodical nature of the debate in Pandaemonium is highlighted. It is strange then that Milton presents us first with the parody, and then the exemplary way in which it should be conducted. We also can assume that the scene in hell is a parody of a much more realistic institution.

    The Parliament of Demons

    The entire scene in hell reads like a satire of political debate. Considering the proximity of Milton to various political institutions and upheavals, it is highly unlikely that these events were not at the front of his mind when writing this section. He had experienced the fall of the royalist regime, the execution of Charles I, the establishment of a governing Parliament, its ultimate collapse and the reinstatement of the monarchy. So embroiled in all this was Milton that he very nearly lost his life because of his political allegiance to the Cromwellian party, acting as a propagandist for them, writing several pamphlets in defence of regicide.
    The only question that arises from the almost-absurd parallel in Book I is, who exactly is Milton parodying? Clearly, our instincts tell us that it must be the fallen royalist regime. But it could also represent the lost hope of his that there could really be some deep-rooted change in England, in which case the Satanic party is the leftovers of the Cromwell sympathisers. This is not to say that Milton is in anyway endorsing the motives of Satan and his troops, but he may at the very least be drawing a comparison.
    This issue is made all the more complex when you considering who exactly Satan represents. Again, instinctively it is Charles I. The deluded God-a-like figure. However, the parallels with Cromwell almost come much more easily: Satan is a revolutionary, he is then a failed revolutionary, and his ambitions are ultimately far too monumental to ever work. It may even be Beelzebub that appears most like Charles I. He stands “princely” above the others, “a pillar of the state” and, most blatantly, “fit to bear the mightiest of monarchies”. Were it not for the fact that we know these are rebellious, corrupt angels, Beelzebub would perhaps be a Cromwellian character, but we have to take the description of him with a sense of irony – he is not actually princely, quite the opposite – and thus he best fits Charles.
    Indeed, Satan’s mission results in extended misery for mankind. After his short time in jail, could Milton not be feeling also that his own mission has resulted in a more miserable situation than they had to begin with?
    The language the angels in hell direct against God also reflect the language Milton used in various pamphlets decrying the position of the king. Most notably God is often ‘tyrannical’ throughout the text; in Eikonoklastes, Milton refers to the “glorious war against tyrants for the common liberty”.
    Considering his religious standpoint, it seems nonsensical that he should make the fugitives in hell the characters with whom, in reality, he sympathises.
    In a more general sense, then, let us see how Milton makes a mockery of political debate. There is, as already discussed, pointless rhetoric bandied back and forth, since Satan could step in at any time and commit the angels to a goal predetermined. There arise two distinct factions; the pro-war faction, headed by Moloch, the one-dimensional, hot-headed militaristic figure, and the more pro-passive faction, headed by Belial, a talented speaker, able to make laziness and inaction sound appealing. The unity of this group, then, is already fractured; ironic, considering an earlier statement that, because of their miserable conditions in hell, there would be no need for factions, there could be no possible reason to be jealous. Belial himself seems to represent the corrupting power of rhetoric. Although he realises they cannot overpower God, his clever speech is designed to sound so much more responsive and empowering than it actually is. He just argues for an apathetic reaction to their fall. It is an illusion to think that any of the characters are debating or advocating a ‘good’ plan of action, they are all deeply morally flawed beings, they merely suggest different kinds of evil; murder, sloth, deceit.
    Furthermore, Milton seems to extended this attack to philosophers and religious debate. Following the dismissal of the angels from Pandaemonium, they all go away in their separate groups to discuss various ‘profound’ concepts. Their speeches “ride the air in whirlwind”, and is “in wandering mazes lost”. The madness, ever-cyclical nature of philosophical debate is visited again in Book III, referring directly to people such as Empedocles, who, with immortal delusions, “leaped fondly into Aetna flames”. He places the “indulgences, dispenses, pardons, bulls” of religion into “The Paradise of Fools”. Even his own puritan order is not safe from his scathing pen, as he disagrees with the fundamental belief that our fate is preordained; the most striking of all religious notions is that God and the Son are separate entities, and that the Son was created after his father.

    QUESTION:
    Is Belial a more perceptive character than Satan?
    If we are to accept that the opening of Paradise Lost is a political/social allegory, should the role of Satan be clearly comparable with just one of the recent English forces (Cromwell or Charles I); is a vague Satan also a detrimental Satan (does it weaken his character)?

    The Character of Milton

    Milton is not famously ‘the blind bard’. That honour is reserved for Homer. He was however, completely blind when Paradise Lost was composed, and in the second invocation compares himself directly to various famous, occasionally legendary, blind poets and prophets; Homer and Tiresias, for example.
    Again, this draws us very neatly in mind of the Greek epics. It perhaps also serves to illustrate how, more than anyone, because of his lack of one sense and heightened ‘inwardness’, Milton alone was capable of undertaking this poem. That it comes directly before the introduction of God may have been an attempt to justify this mortal putting words into the mouth of the Father.

    QUESTION:
    Does the stalling of the narrative at the opening of Book III – when a Muse is once again invoked – disrupt the reading? Or is it necessary for Milton to pull us out of hell and back into his world for a moment because the shift to heaven is such a dramatic one; ie, a mood must be established again?

    j.

    post-script; blogosphere meet academia. never shall you two brush shoulders again.