Despite being a voracious reader, I’ve always been intimidated by Medieval and Renaissance literature. So I had somehow gotten this far in my life without reading Paradise Lost. But in preparation for teaching a British Literature class this fall, I decided it was time to overcome my fear.
In the Christian Guide to the Classics series, I discovered that Leland Ryken had written a guide for Paradise Lost which I found invaluable during my reading. It broke the text up into manageable sections and provided a summary of the plot that helped me follow along. Additionally, the questions and ideas that Ryken explored made the book more fascinating and thought-provoking to consider.
Rather than summarizing the text or trying to make some sort of persuasive argument, which I am not knowledgable enough to do, I will just share some of the aspects of the text that I find most interesting.
First, the examination of Paradise Lost as both an epic and anti-epic. The opening lines,
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe
With loss of Eden till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat
Sing Heav’nly Muse…
are reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, though of course Milton is making a reference to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, rather than the inspiration of pagan Muses. The grand scope of the story fits well into the epic genre, for what could be more epic than the creation and redemption of the world? In the historical context, it is fascinating to think about Milton reading the original Greek epics and being inspired to write the first Christian epic. It is a perfect example of how artists throughout time have interacted with each other and built upon the work that has been done before them. Although it is clear that Paradise Lost can be considered an epic, it does have some significant deviations from the classical understanding of an epic. Odysseus is considered a hero and his story is an epic because of the great challenges he overcomes through his own strength and ability. He is a charismatic individual who is able to prevail, even against the anger of the gods, due to his intelligence, strength, and skill. Although Athena plays an important role in his success, Homer is clearly celebrating Odysseus himself. So in the style of The Odyssey, one might expect Paradise Lost to open with the story of an heroic protagonist. Instead we are introduced to Satan and his followers just after they have been caste down to Hell. In the next few books, Satan appears to be a heroic leader; he has the resolve and appeal needed to persuade the other demons of his plan, and then carry it out. However, as the story develops we begin to see that it isn’t about Satan, he becomes the malevolent, and eventually pitiful, antagonist. One might think that Adam then is the rightful hero of the story, but that doesn’t fit into the epic definition either. Adam is far from the victorious hero overcoming the challenges of nature and his foes. Instead, he is the reason why Paradise is lost—and he is completely powerless to regain it. Milton was obviously inspired by the classical epics, but rather than glorifying the sheer strength of humanity, he reverses the pagan archetype. The story is not about man’s ability, but God’s grace. In a way that reverses our human expectations of heroism, we eventually realize that Christ is the true hero of this story. Milton gives this away in the opening lines, “till one greater Man/Restore us and regain the blissful seat,” but then it takes the rest of the books to circle back to this theme and see how it is accomplished. Unlike the epics before it, this is not a humanistic paean but an exploration of God’s sovereignty and mercy to His fallen creatures.
The second theme, which I briefly mentioned above, is the development and appeal of Satan’s character. The first books of Paradise Lost take place in Hell, where Satan begins to conspire with the other demons to continue their rebellion against God. Satan’s persuasive speeches make a compelling case for his plight, and it is easy for the reader to become sympathetic. I think Milton’s goal with developing Satan’s character so thoroughly was to demonstrate the dangerous appeal of evil. However, one has to ask if Milton was too successful at this task. It becomes problematic when Satan’s arguments against God’s authority become rational and understandable to even a Christian. From an artistic perspective, it is fascinating to study how well Milton created this character, such that readers to this day are captivated by this fallen angel.
In contrast to Satan’s appealing character, we have the uninspiring paradisiacal dynamic of Adam and Eve. Although in terms of literary development, the scenes of Adam and Eve before the Fall are certainly beautiful and well-written, they lack the emotional appeal of other sections in the text. It seems that a portrayal of Paradise should captivate our imagination, but instead the scenes seemed flat and without interest. The relationship between Adam and Eve was not particularly inspiring—their conversations and interaction seemed stilted and forced. I was struck by the difference between how Satan appears to the reader, particularly in the first few books, and how we are introduced to Adam and Eve. I am not sure if this discrepancy is due to how the work is written, and that Milton could have done a better job at describing life in Paradise. But how could we expect a fallen man to come close to depicting something so far beyond our experience? And perhaps the fault is not to be found in the author, but the audience. I wonder if scenes of perfection bore us because we are fallen and our minds gravitate towards that which speaks to the darkness in our own hearts.
Lastly, a broader theme to consider is Milton’s artistic license and its implication for Christian artists. Milton took great liberties with the Biblical text in order to write Paradise Lost. He developed a sympathetic Satan who has captured the imagination of readers to this very day. He felt the freedom to imagine scenes in Heaven between the Godhead. He chose to use a traditionally secular genre to portray the Biblical story of creation. And should we consider all of these artistic choices acceptable as Christians? While it is ideal from an artistic perspective to create a sympathetic antagonist, is it wise to make the arguments of Satan so emotionally appealing? And is it artistic license or presumption to imagine dialogue between members of the Godhead? Is this creating an idol in words, just as we are forbidden to make idols in other artistic mediums? How much freedom does a Christian have when expanding upon Biblical texts? What is the right way for Christians to interact with the secular culture and art forms? What ought we to reject and what can be redeemed? I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, but I keep pondering them. While there is no definitive answer for all Christian artists, I think it is our responsibility to recognize the impact of our art and seriously consider these topics.
I still feel like I’ve only touched the surface of this text, and I plan to return to it at least a few more times in my lifetime. It reminds me of The Odyssey in that I only began to really appreciate Homer’s work after studying and rereading it over the course of several years. While these works seem daunting and take much effort to understand, I have found them to be some of the most rewarding pieces of literature.