Book Review: Paradise Lost by John Milton (125 Pages)

Posted: July 6, 2013 in Books

paradise lost

Satan has been banished to Hell, by God.  Satan works his way out of Hell, and tricks angel Uriel into telling him the way to paradise, the Garden of Eden. Once in paradise, Satan takes many forms, finally as a toad and starts whispering to Eve, about the fruit from the tree of life.  Gabriel is guarding the Garden of Eden, and Satan is ready to fight with Gabriel, but God creates a sign, the Golden Scales of Justice, and Satan scampers away.

God sends angel Rafael to warn Adam about Satan and tells him to be on his guard.  Meanwhile Satan goes back to Hell, and plots a war in Heaven, the battle lasts for two days, God’s forces are again victorious, and arch-angel Michael seriously injures Satan with a sword, and Satan is again vanquished.  Undeterred, Satan returns to Eden, this time in the guise of a serpent, and entices Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and she entices Adam to eat the same fruit, and he does.  They get the knowledge that God didn’t want them to have, that they are naked, but also have lustful thoughts about each other.  God is angry that the two have disobeyed His commands and asks Michael to escort them out of Eden, and where Adam is forced into manual labor and Eve forced into maternity labor, both are made mortal, and the rest of the Bible’s chronology, from Abraham to David, and from David to Jesus.

Paradise Lost is an epic poem written in 1667. What Milton did was basically embellish the Bible story, adding characters, the angels, Jesus as intercessors for Adam and Eve. The strength of Paradise Lost is it’s powerfully descriptive language. Satan is described as a “prowling wolf”, when he jumps over the wall that blocks the Garden of Eden from the outside world. God is given more conventional descriptions, “the Almighty Father” and the “Great Creator.”   Michael the arch-angel is described as having “Godlike powers.” And Michael is the one who injures Satan with his sword.  And Milton’s knowledge of the Bible is obviously impressive and almost encyclopedic; He describes every famous Biblical patriarch from Abraham to Noah, from David to Jesus.  The problem with Milton’s construction is this, he has angels guarding the Garden of Eden, Rafael warns Adam and Eve about Satan, Jesus is also in Heaven waiting to keep Satan out of Paradise, and Omniscient and omnipotent God is in Heaven too, and they all have stopped Satan all throughout the poem, and then on his third try, they don’t stop him.  I don’t know why Milton tried to interweave Roman gods like Jove, and Greek references in what is essentially a Christian story.  I found that to be offputting.

So in Milton’s version of the story, how Omnipotent and Omnipresent is God? Or is Milton saying that God does not want to stop mankind from sinning?  All because God gave us free will?  Really?  I’ve read a lot about Satan as Hero in Milton’s work, but I didn’t think Satan was that heroically portrayed, it’s just that God seems powerless to stop man’s fall, and that is not the vision of God that comforts most Christians.  God doesn’t even kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he makes Michael do it.  Has  God given up on his favorite creation already?  Is He so disgusted by our disobedience that He can’t look us in the face? Milton doesn’t seem to have much faith in the power of God at all. In the original story God tells Adam and Eve not to do something and they do it.  That story seems to be more telling about human nature than the fiction that Milton has built

Also if angels can be deceived by Satan, like Satan posing as a cherub, how are angels any different than men? Why construct this intricate web of angels and archangels to stop Satan, and then have them stop, why don’t the angels stop Satan every time?  If they can’t do it every time why post them as sentries in the first place?

Another problem that I have with Milton is the description of Eve, first, she is eye candy. Plain and simple, her long flowing hair, her virginal beauty, and then she is made a villain for wanting knowledge, for wanting to be considered the equal of Adam.  And for that she is shunned by her husband, who wanted the same knowledge by the way. She is also shunned by God, and shamed into a subordinate position.  Adam could have said no to her, could have talked her out of her decision, if he’s the stronger person mentally, he should have stopped her.  I always thought that was the weakest part of the Creation story, blaming women for the fall of man, and Milton exacerbates the sexism.

Milton’s re-imagining of the Creation story does have its strong points, strong descriptive language, a wily foe, up against the angels and arch-angels that makes up the army of God, but this is hardly a flawless epic, the misogyny is disturbing, the angels, arch-angels meant to be God’s defense against sin fail, and God won’t stop Original Sin, although He does it once.  I find the inconsistency maddening.

If anyone thinks that the ideas in Paradise Lost are subversive, read the book of Job in the Old Testament.  This is a book in the Bible that has God and Satan essentially betting on a human life, Satan betting that Job will curse God, and God betting that he will stay faithful.  Satan curses Job, kills members of his family, takes away his wealth and gives him sores throughout his body.  If the idea of God and Satan making a gentleman’s agreement on a human being isn’t radical enough for you, Job starts to question God, why did you do this to me God, I’ve been faithful to you, and God tells Job, Who are you to question me, I made you, I made the world, I can do with you what I want.  The idea that God can test your faith even if you are as faithful as Job was is a radical and scary idea to most people of faith, and makes Paradise Lost look downright conventional by comparison.

Paradise Lost:  A lost opportunity.

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