Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 8/12: Adam is Formed)

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Book eight opens with Raphael still being hosted and questioned by Adam. Adam is delighted and astonished by all he has heard, and after Raphael is done speaking, is silent awhile, meditating on his new knowledge. As the conversation continues, Eve wanders out of their little bower to tend some of her special flowers. Raphael speaks of creation, and the order of the celestial bodies. He says that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Heaven is, or if the Earth or the Sun is the center of the universe; Adam (and by extension, his offspring) should leave these things to God alone, since they can do nothing to change them, and focus instead on serving the Maker Himself. He tells Adam to “joy thou in what he gives to thee; this Paradise/ And thy fair Eve…” (169-70).

Twice in book eight already, Milton has referred to Adam’s questions as “doubts.” It is unclear if what he means is truly a troubled questioning of God and His ways or a curiosity of origin and the world before his creation. In either case, Adam is described as being “cleared of doubt” (179) by all of the angel’s explanations. He agrees that he should not be too curious about things “too high” for him, lest he be tempted or “intoxicated” by things he should not have. One might be hearing echoes here of Proverbs 5:18 and the command to “rejoice in the wife of your youth”, but also be getting a bit of a history lesson into common church teachings at the time, where Galileo’s idea of heliocentrism was seen as pagan and contrary to scripture. In any case, Adam immediately recognizes—even having never yet sinned nor known what sin was—that a roving imagination is bound to get into trouble.

Raphael then returns the favor and asks his own question. It seems that he was sent on a mission to Hell to make sure no one got out on the day that Adam was created, and wants to know the particulars. Adam complies, telling simply of waking up on a bed of flowers. “But who I was, or where, or from what cause,/ Knew not; to speak I tried, and forthwith spake,/ My tongue obeyed and readily could name/ Whate’er I saw” (270-3). He knows immediately that some “great maker” made him, but he doesn’t know who. Milton’s description reminds me vaguely of the children’s book Are You My Mother? where a small robin asks everyone around if they are his mother until he finds her. That’s rather what Milton describes Adam as doing, first asking the sun, then the earth, the rivers to tell him how he came to be there. He wanders for a time, and then lies down for a nap. At this point, God comes for him, and takes him to a perfect garden that is so beautiful, Adam can’t help but worship. Yet God picks him up and tells him, “Whom thou sought’st I am…This Paradise I give thee, count it thine” (316,9).

Then comes the famous command to not eat of a particular tree. If Adam will “shun to taste” he will “shun the bitter consequence” of disobedience. Milton paints God as fearful for Adam to look on as he gives this warning, then becoming kindly again. Then two by two, the animals are brought to him to name. In this process, Adam begins to see an empty space. With the heightened language of royalty, Adam asks his question. “Hast thou not made me here thy substitute, / And these inferior far beneath me set? / Among unequals what society/ Can sort, what harmony or true delight?” 381-4). Animals coming two by two has made it clear that he is only one, and one far above all the rest of creation.

The following conversation gives me pause; there’s a lot to unpack.

God answers that He is alone, and has no one save those which He creates. Milton has already used words that seem to indicate that this is his position on the Godhead—that God the Father actually begot God the Son (or created Him) with so far no mention of God the Spirit anywhere. So there’s that. Adam’s response is that is God is so much higher and perfect and in need of nothing; man is imperfect and defective, and therefore needs “collateral love”. This points up the problem of a poet who knows his own imperfections and broken world trying to put words in the mouth of one who isn’t and doesn’t. Further, it seems very odd that the newly created Adam would refer to himself as “defective” to His perfect Creator, in essence a sort of criticism. Further, if God is truly perfect, why would he initially create something broken? As I said, problematic. But the result of the conversation is, of course, leading up to…another nap for Adam.

The sleep is a strange one, for Adam describes it as both being asleep but allowed to see what is going on, almost as if in a dream. He sees his own surgery take place, both blood and healing, as God removes a rib from his side. He sees God take the rib and mold it in a woman that is so beautiful, he wakes up to look for her. He finds her being filled in by God on “nuptial sanctity and marriage rites” and here, Milton inserts Adam’s short speech from Genesis 22. The whole garden seems to rejoice at their marriage, and Adam describes himself as complete in mind, soul, and body. There is, then, a moment of comedy after Adam describes his own marriage and relationship with Eve. He asks if angels have similar relationships or intimate love. Raphael “glowed Celestial rosy red” and answers that it’s different and they don’t have to deal with the annoyance of bodies. (It’s worth noting that Milton has already sort of dealt with this as the Satan more or less raped the daughter he birthed out of his own head named Sin–very like Greek mythology). Milton has some interesting ideas.

At this point, the sun is setting and Raphael must leave, so he gives one final warning and reminder to love God and obey His great command. “So parted they, the angel up to heaven/ From the thick shade, and Adam to his bower” (652-3).

Paradise Lost: A Book Review Series (Book VII: Creation)

Book 7 of Milton’s Paradise Lost begins with the author intruding upon the story (as was customary at the time). He calls on Urania, one of the nine Greek muses, and then immediately makes it clear that he is after the wisdom—not Greek goddesses. He is after wisdom that is “…heavenly born…In presence of almighty Father…” (7, 9). He compares himself to Bellerophon, who once rode Pegasus bareback to kill the Chimera, having flown so very high in the literary skies. He seems to be a little exhausted at this point, which I mildly understand, having a certain amount of exhaustion just trying to digest books 1-6. But he even says, “Half yet remains unsung…” (21) and seems to be remarking even on his own physical and mental health as he continues,“On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues; In darkness, and with dangers compassed round, And solitude; yet not alone…” (26-8). He has the heavenly born Urania.

Raphael is still with Adam and Eve, having told them the great fall of Satan, the war in Heaven, and warned them again not to disobey God.

Adam asks to know more—this time about creation itself. How did the stars form? How did the air come to wrap around the earth? (I am interested that Milton chose to have Adam and Eve ask an angel their questions, instead of God. In Genesis, God walked and talked in the garden with Adam and Eve. Why use an angel? Perhaps Milton drew a line at conversations between God and man…we’ll see.) Raphael agrees, telling Adam that he has been given license to tell all that has been revealed to him.

As soon as God pronounced in Heaven that there would be a new creation, all of Heaven rejoiced. “…heaven opened wide/ Her ever during gates, harmonious sound/ On golden hinges moving, to let forth / The king of glory in his powerful word/ And spirit coming to create new worlds” (205-9). With golden compasses, God prescribed the boundaries of the new world; the orb of earth was spun out of sheer air. Genesis states Creation as fact; Milton rhapsodizes.

Let there be light, said God, and forthwith light

Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure

Sprung from the deep, and from her native east

To journey through the airy gloom began,

Sphere in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun

Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle

Sojourned the while. God saw the light was good… (243-249).

The creation account reads like a ballet; no word is less important than another, each necessary to paint a picture. In Milton’s description of Creation, “…the grey Dawn, and the Pleiades…danced…” (373) and the moon, still unnamed, is a mirror for the sun. He describes the ocean floor coming to life with “fins and shining scales” (401), while birds already begin to nest. He describes animals coming to life out of the dust: “The grassy clods now calved, now half appeared/ The tawny lion pawing to get free/ His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds/ And rampant shakes his brindled mane” (463-5). He briefly describes (still in Raphael’s voice, of course) the serpent, who has a “hairy mane” but isn’t yet to be feared.

Finally, it is the sixth day of creation, and God determines to make the masterwork, a creature in His own image. Here, Milton pulls directly from the King James scripture. Raphael tells Adam that he was made of the dust of the ground, and Eve after (though he doesn’t go into how). They should know the rest. But Raphael reminds them for the fourth time of God’s one rule: don’t eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Can they possibly miss it after so many warnings? He speaks to them of Sin, a dreaded enemy, as is Death.

Then he describes the Creator, rising above the earth to survey it. Now Raphael is speaking of things Adam and Eve remember: The Heavenly music accompanying this finale. And the gates that had opened when the Creator left Heaven open again to receive Him. He will send messengers back and forth to His creation—still no mention of God Himself going to and from.

So God rested, while the angels sing wonderingly of how this magnificent King turned war into glorious creation, loss into a new domain, and Raphael ends his creation account.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 6/12–The War)

Book six picks up where five left off; Raphael is in Eden with Adam and Eve, telling them the story of war in Heaven. Abdiel is flying fast back to the throne of Heaven, to inform the Father and the Son of the rebellion brewing. He arrives to war preparations: “Already known what he for news had thought/ To have reported…(20-21). Though Abdiel had left with the legions of the rebels, he is warmly welcomed back; he alone has returned. Michael and Gabriel are preparing for war that will toss the rebels into Hell. Smoke rolls; a sea of spears spreads into the distance; Satan and his hosts are already approaching fast, hoping that they will catch Heaven unawares, or at least, confident that they will win.

Here Raphael remarks, …strange to us it seemed/ At first, that angel should with angel war,/ And in fierce hosting meet, who wont to meet/ So oft in festivals and love/ Unanimous, as sons of one great sire… (91-5). Here, Milton gives the angels a kind of “sonship” that Biblically is only given to Christ and the descendants of Adam and Eve. Merely poetic or Milton’s theology? But there is a brief picture of what life in Heaven might have been like, which is totally poetic; a picture of traditions and daily life amongst angels, which goes on to include singing hymns. But it seems much more like what the New Testament describes ideal Christian fellowship to be like rather than angels, and by extension, the rending of those fellowships. In any case, Raphael seems to be fairly blasé about it as he moves on with his description.

At the advance of the armies, Abdiel meets Satan and they exchange pleasantries. Satan tells Abdiel that once, he had deemed Heaven and freedom the same; now he sees it otherwise. Abdiel objects: Satan is enslaved to himself, and is further, not blessed, or can he bless himself. Before Satan can raise his shield, Abdiel has dealt the first blow of the war, and Satan is sent reeling backwards; his followers are both shocked and infuriated and retaliate. Michael sounds the trumpet and the first days’ battle begins.  

“…all heaven

Resounded, and had earth been then, all earth

Had to her centre shook. What wonder? when

Millions of fierce encountering angel fought…” (218-20).

The battle field suddenly parts as Michael and Satan meet, and Michael deals him a blow that nearly splits him in half and spills his “nectarous humour” (332) (ew). But here, Milton (he’s earned it) waxes eloquent on how angels are made, the nature of their eternality, and how they had never felt pain until this battle; how Satan will heal overnight, though carried off the battle-field today by his compatriots. The day ends; Michael and his numbers set up camp on the battlefield. But in spite of his wounds, Satan is encouraged. His strength was met with strength; they were an actual match. “…fallible, it seems, /Of future we may deem him, thought till now/ Omnicscient thought” (428-30). In Satan’s mind, this means they really could win. He just needs bigger weapons…

So Satan’s minions dig…until they have the elements to make gunpowder “…whereof to found their engines and their balls/ Of missive ruin…with one touch to fire…” (518-9). Milton has set up a clear day and night even in these battlefields of Heaven, and all this building and alchemy only takes one night for the army of rebels. In the morning, a lookout from the army of Heaven sees them coming and flies back to warn the previous day’s victors. They soon see the weapon of war that Satan as constructed—something not unlike modern weapons of mass destruction, and what Milton might have called a cannon.

It is clear that Satan now has the upper hand; he laughs and mocks his enemies, and he and Belial are in a “gamesome mood” (620)…until the hosts of Heaven respond to the carnage the cannon has wrecked by throwing the very mountains back at them. The (literally) Satanic engines are crushed, and all they can do in response (once they dig themselves out of the upturned mountains) is to tear up their own hills. But here Milton returns to the mind of God, who has foreseen all of this, and has waited until this prime moment to act so that the Son may get the most glory.

Note: Philip Pullman remarks (as do other literary figures of history) that this is, to his mind, the very thing that puts him on the side of Satan. Pullman notes that “…it’s difficult to warm to a God who watches complacently while his forces suffer terrible punishment, deliberately waiting before letting his Son rout the enemy so as to make his triumph seem more splendid…” But is this not the limitations of literature? We can only talk about the Heavenly in terms of the Earthly; so we only talk about God in terms of Man. If a man or woman allowed a war so that their child could win and look good, we should rightly condemn them—we who are condemned ourselves. Milton can only talk about Heaven itself in terms of Earth because that’s all he knows: mountains, mining, day and night. We can only talk about God in terms of our experience and our physical selves: for instance, we refer to His hands, Who has none. Likewise, Satan struggles in a very…human way. So we empathize. But I digress.

They throw mountains at each other for a second full heavenly day until Heaven is in danger of being destroyed. Then God grants the Son all power to end the war—which only the Son can do. So on the third morning, the Son rides into battle with twenty thousand Chariots of God. As He comes, he commands the mountains back into place. He is so terrible that that the previously fearless Satan and armies lose all courage, and even drop their weapons. “Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked/ His thunder in mid-volley, for he meant/ Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven…” And He does: for nine days they fall down toward Hell; truly rooted out.

Here, Milton imagines that the Son had a triumphal march like that of the entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, palm branches and all: the conquering General of Armies. So Raphael ends his story to Adam and Eve, and further warns them of the enemy which stalks them—a third warning, mind you: “…remember, and fear to transgress” (912).

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 5/12)

Book 5 begins without Satan himself, but with the dreams he has left behind for Eve; his evil work over God’s new creation has begun. She wakes up startled, and not unlike a lot of us after a nightmare, she needs a hug. It is interesting that pre-Fall, Milton depicts Eve dreaming “…of offence and trouble, which my mind/ Knew never till this irksome night…” (34-5), and knowing it.  In the dream, a figure like an angel invites her to eat from the tree of knowledge. But the fact that Eve recognizes this dream as “not good” seems like she is immediately not deceived.

Adam recognizes this dream as “…of evil sprung I fear…” (98). But he knows that this evil can’t have been generated of Eve herself, and wonders where it came from. He remarks that he has “…hope/ That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,/ Waking thou wilt never consent to do” (119-21). So in Milton’s epic, they are once warned. They worship God together, and are comforted.

Meanwhile, God the Father calls the angel Raphael to him. He is sent to warn the couple of Satan’s impending temptations, and of their free that will allow them to give in–a second warning. So Adam and Eve are in their little bower, he resting and she preparing a meal, when Raphael arrives. They hurry to be hospitable and welcome their guest. Milton notes that upon arriving at the door of their bower, Raphael “Bestowed, the holy salutation used/ Long after to blest Mary, second Eve” (386-7).

Here Philip Pullman makes a humorous note. “…there is a curious passage of which I can only call gastro-theology: Milton becomes unnecessarily (it seems to me) literal about whether angels can eat, and if so, what, and what happens to the food once eaten. That’s the sort of thing that happens when a storyteller takes his eye off the impulse of the story for a short while.”

Eventually, after such peculiar conversation, Raphael gets around to his mission. Adam responds that “…nor knew I not/ To be both will and deed created free;/ Yet that we never shall forget to love/ Our maker, and obey him…” (548-50). But Raphael finds it difficult to explain how others before Adam have fallen from glory by disobedience. He describes a day in Heaven when (another frankly strange choice on Milton’s part) God announced “…I have begot whom I declare/ My only son…” (603-4) and went on to instate him at his right hand, and Raphael gives this as the reason Satan rebelled.

From Milton’s perspective, it would seem, God the Father actually created God the Son, which is problematic from a good many theological perspectives. Raphael continues to tell about the ensuing plot against God; Satan cannot rest for jealousy against the newly appointed Son and convinces a third of Heaven’s host to follow him. Raphael tells about how only one member of heaven in that group opposes Satan: a seraphim named Abdiel. He tells the whole rebelling group how good God is; how just and delightful it is to worship him. “Cease then this impious rage/ And tempt not these…While pardon may be found in time besought” (845-6, 8). But no one backs Abdiel up. We learn that Satan felt himself as likely an “heir” to the throne of Heaven as anyone, thinking that he had created himself since he could never remember not being. Since the Son has been created by the Father (once again, problematic) Satan sees the Son as inferior to himself.

Abdiel has tried his best, and he leaves with a warning, alone, but secure in his scorn of the rebellious.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 4/12)

We open Book 4 (I should note here that the “Books” are in essence, chapters) in Paradise, with a look at Satan’s inner monologue. He is awash with grief for what he so recently used to be—a glorious, powerful angel. Milton has described the fall from Heaven as physically changing Satan; certainly, he has lost innumerable glories. It is not exactly regret that he seems to suffer, but more like what we have all experienced at one point or another: grief over being caught and punished, not repentance. “Me miserable! which way shall I fly/ Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” (73-5). Yet he considers repentance in lines 79-80, and knows that it requires submission. But his pride is too great even now for that; he has too much to lose in front of all those who made him ruler of hell; he told them he was great enough to defeat God. And even if he could go back, be forgiven and reinstated, he knows it would never be genuine on his part. “For never can true reconcilement grow/ Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep:/ Which would but lead me to a worse relapse” (98-100). He arrives at this final conclusion: “Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;/ Evil be thou my good…” (109-110).

Milton tells us that this inner discourse so affects Satan, that the disguise he has worn to worm his way into Paradise actually flickers, and Uriel—the angel who let him in—sees the shifting disguise. Unaware that he has been “seen through,” Satan enters Eden by leaping over the wall into the tree of life, and sits there, looking down and “…devising death…” (197). Here, Milton gives way to rapturous description of the most beautiful and perfect garden of gardens, and there, in the distance, his object: “…Two of far nobler shape erect and tall/ Godlike…” (88-9).

(Here, Milton takes a moment to describe a few things about these two people in this perfect place that appeal to OT hair-length laws and NT gender roles. It does make a person wonder if such things were in place–in practice only, of course–and the laws later were designed in reflection of perfection, or if it’s just an artist writing post-Fall, doing one’s best to be Biblical and describe the indescribable. But I digress.)

On the whole, the scene of man and woman in perfect union with the garden and the animals in it is so breathtaking that, for a moment, Satan forgets his purpose and is speechless. Shaking loose of his awe, he jumps from the tree and lands among the animals playing with Adam and Eve, taking the shape of several different creatures as he finds it necessary. Satan changes from lion, to tiger, and is preparing to pounce on these two perfect beings when Adam and Eve begin talking about their origin and Eden. Satan can barely stand their sweet conversation, and turns jealously away, but not before he learns that God has kept the tree of knowledge from them. “…do they only stand/ By ignorance, is that their happy state,/ The proof of their obedience and their faith?” (518-20). Now he knows exactly what he will tempt them with: knowledge, and doubt in God.  

Meanwhile, Uriel has gone to find Gabriel, and told him about the suspicious visitor, afraid that he is one of the fallen. Gabriel promises to find the unwelcome alien. So at the end of this day in the garden, Satan is touring, looking for a creature to help him, Gabriel is hunting Satan, and Eve is seeing the stars for the first time. Adam explains the night sky to her as we learn that this is the end of their very first day together. Yet even in their newness, Milton has already made sure that they have clear conversations about God’s expectations for them. There will be real deceit in this epic, not merely ignorance. So the two of them rejoice and praise God, and go to sleep.

Elsewhere, Gabriel is changing the watch, and sending out search parties. He sets a special watch where Adam and Eve are sleeping—and that’s exactly where they find Satan. He is in the shape of a toad, whispering into Eve’s dreams, having marked her as his target.

It’s one of the most famous moments in the epic; the angel Ithuriel sees the suspicious toad engrossed in his whisperings to Eve and pokes him in the backside–ever so slightly–with his spear. Satan’s very skin responds, “…for no falsehood can endure/ Touch of celestial temper, but returns/ Of force to its own likeness; up he starts/ Discovered and surprised” (811-4). With a jerk of surprise and no chance to recover, Satan is standing before the two angels—who are just as shocked to see him as he is them. Yet they don’t recognize him. Zephon tells him, “…thou resembles now/ Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul…” (839-40). Refusing to go until he has seen their commander, the devil is taken to Gabriel—and Gabriel knows him. It looks like there will be a fight, but God puts a sign in the heavens, making it clear that Satan will lose, and he flees.  

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 3/12)

As Book 3 begins, the reader is treated to another panorama: God the Father, the Son on his right, both looking down to Earth on “our first two parents, yet the only two/ of mankind, in the happy garden placed” (65-6). God the Father points out Satan, “coasting the wall of heaven on this side night” (71) and “Him God beholding from his prospect high/Wherein past, present, future he beholds/Thus to his only son foreseeing spake” (77-79).

Here as reader, I pause for a moment to try to understand Milton’s theology. God tells the Son that no bars or restraints can keep Satan in, which seems to indicate that Milton thinks God isn’t capable to doing so. Satan learned by experience in Book 1 that God was powerful enough to defeat him and his entire army—but Satan didn’t know that until it happened. His insufficient knowledge of God was his undoing. Had he believed defeat impossible, he never would have attempted it. Yet, in the beginning of Book 3, we have here that same peculiar paradox: God triumphant, yet unable to keep Satan in hell, yet fully aware that Satan is on his way to the fresh, clean creation, yet also aware that he will seduce and be the cause of it’s fall. This is where Philip Pullman interprets Satan as the sympathetic character; what kind of benevolent God would allow disaster to fall without stopping it, and then further, lay the blame on the one who fell? Pullman doesn’t find grace to be enough of a gift, and we might agree with him in this text unless you have others which better speak of grace. But I might note that this work is called Paradise Lost, and more centered on how it might have happened and the ones who have lost it rather than on the promise of gaining it back. To continue:

Milton writes in the voice of God (a task too large even for high poetry): “…they themselves decreed/Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,/Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault…They trespass, authors to themselves in all/ Both what they judge and what they choose; for so/I formed them free, and free they must remain…” (115-8, 122-4).  He tells the Son that man, in his fall, will find grace where Satan will not, because man was deceived; Satan was not. At this explanation of the gift of grace, Heaven rejoices.

God the Father goes on to explain his plan for grace, mercy, conscience and bringing the blind to the light, but then says that in spite of his desire to do this, man still must die, unless another will do so for him. He asks Heaven at large: “…Which of ye will be mortal to redeem/Man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,/ Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?” (214-6). Heaven is silent; no one responds. Man, then, is doomed, until the Son answers. “…me for him, life for life/I offer, on me let thine anger fall…” (136-7). And all of this transpires while Satan is still winging his way toward Earth. A hundred hymns could be written from this third book, the conversation between Father and Son covering grace, redemption, freedom, free will, eternal life dwelling in the Son, the judgement day, and at one point a remark that “…hell her numbers full,/ Thenceforth shall be forever shut…” (332-3), indicating that perhaps Milton did in fact intend to communicate that Satan escaping hell was part of the eternal, if ineffable, plan. In fact, Milton writes a sort of hymn that the members of Heaven sing in exultant response to the Son’s gift of himself, as Satan alights on Earth.

Here, he finds the staircase ascending into Heaven that Jacob later sees in a dream, but of course, he cannot mount it. But beyond that, “…some renowned metropolis/ With glistening spires and pinnacles adorned…” (448-9). At the entrance, he encounters Uriel, one of the seven who stand in God’s presence. Satan pretends to be a member of the cherubim choir, only desiring to see this new creation of God’s. “So spake the false dissembler unperceived;/ For neither man nor angel can discern/ Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks/Invisible, except to God alone…” (681-4).

So Satan is admitted into Eden.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 2/12)

By John Milton; introduction and academic notes by Philip Pullman; ISBN 978-0-19-955422-5

“Oh shame to men! Devil with devil damned firm concord holds, men only disagree of creatures rational, though under hope of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace, yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife among themselves, and levy cruel wars, wasting the earth, each other to destroy. As if (which might induce us to accord) man had not hellish foes enough besides, that day and night for his destruction wait” (496-505).

Satan speaks to the company of Hell: “…but who here/Will envy whom the highest place exposes/Foremost to stand against the thunderer’s aim/Your bulwark, and condemns to greatest share/Of endless pain? Where there is then no god/For which to strive, no strife can grow up there/From faction; for none sure will claim in hell/ Precedence, none, who portion is so small/Of present pain, that with ambitious mind/ Will covet more. With this advantage then/To union…” (26-35).

This is part of Satan’s reasoning as he opens conversation with his followers. No one, he argues, has a better cause for unity than they do, in their shared misery. But how should they proceed ? Molech describes them as “Heaven’s fugitives” (57) and argues further that as creatures which have nothing now to lose, even fear itself, another full assault on Heaven is called for. Belial persuasively and gracefully objects; now that they know their enemy’s immense power better, another attempt at armed coup seems futile; “ignoble ease and peaceful sloth” (227). Mammon is next, and agrees that war is pointless, and a return to worship the one that they hate, impossible. He suggests that they should “…rather seek/ Our own good from ourselves, and from our own/Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,/Free, and to none accountable…” (252-5).  

Belial and Mammon’s point of view is applauded loudly, until Beelzebub stands up to speak. He is stern, and Hell falls silent at his face. He reminds them that their enemy has not granted them a free place to roam; they are in a prison. “…be sure/In height or depth, still first and last will reign/Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part/By our revolt, but over hell extend/His empire…” (323-7). Their fate is sealed, and they should not delude themselves by thinking they can change it. But then Beelzebub reminds them that a new place, and a new race were being planned. What if, “…To waste his whole creation, or possess/All as our own, and drive as we were driven/ The puny habitants, or if not drive,/ Seduce them to our party…” (365-8). He suggests this as a much better revenge; one that will strike just will it will hurt the Creator the most.

But to find this new world? Satan alone volunteers and sets out on a sort of hero’s journey to find it. When he finally reaches the gates of hell, he finds them guarded by Sin and Death (whose origins is a true horror story), and persuades them that he intends to free the both of them in his quest to find a new home to inhabit. So Sin opened the gates—though Milton tells us that she doesn’t have the strength to close them again—and Satan flies out…until he finds, in the distance, “…fast by hanging in a golden chain/This pendent world, in bigness as a star/ Of smallness magnitude close by the moon” (1051-3).

Paradise Lost: a book review series

By John Milton; introduction and academic notes by Philip Pullman; ISBN 978-0-19-955422-5

I will be reading and reviewing the second edition that Milton published in 1674. He reworked the piece from ten books to twelve and made a few minor revisions from his first edition. In this review series, I will be reading and writing about one book at a time.

Book 1/12

“The experience of reading poetry aloud…like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ…The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it.” –P.P.

When Milton wrote that he intended to create “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (16), I think it’s fairly safe to say that he accomplished it, though it sets the bar pretty high, but to say so inside the work itself is brazen. There is no clip-clop or sing-song quality here, but a reader better have a fair background in the Bible as well as Greek mythology or a reference book nearby.

Book 1 lands the reader in the middle of the action in Hell. We are given a panorama of Satan’s downcast army, lying stunned in the lake of fire. Satan awakens first, and confers with his second in command, Beelzebub. It is they who have lost Paradise, for thinking they could overthrow God. He realizes—seemingly for the first time—how powerful God really is, to have defeated such an illustrious army. Satan promises that “…But ever to do ill our sole delight/As being the contrary to his high will/Whom we resist. If then his providence/ Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,/Our labour must be to pervert that end,/And out of good still to find means of evil” (160-5). Book 1, then, is really about Satan; he is our protagonist. It closes after he strides ashore and calls his army back to life, and their chief architect—having once designed the vaults of Heaven—builds them a palace wherin they plot their next move. They have heard that the Most High was planning to make a new race—how best to keep their new vendetta?

Pullman notes, then, that he personally is rooting for Satan’s success. How different from a religious reader, who sees the stories of the Bible as history. Pullman, a well-known atheistic writer, explains that this work inspired him to write his own series His Dark Materials, the very title itself coming from Book 2. The context of the reader does inspire understanding; it is an interesting juxtaposition of modern writer against John Milton.

We Turn Keys

We decided that we were going to write short stories.

An annual contest publishes the first and the last paragraph; contest writers must supply 18 paragraphs that fit neatly between them. That means, of course, that every story submitted will start and end the same way. It must be fascinating to read.

E and I decided to do it together.

We would each pursue the prompts in our own way, then take a look at each other’s work. We’d ask questions, poke squishy plot points, and encourage each other’s ideas into existence. We would not have the same story, but it would be a way of doing something long-distance together.

Photo by Mark Neal on

There’s a lot of that going around right now; people figuring out how to be together when they can’t actually manage it in person. It’s not all ye-old-plague-related, but that has stimulated community creativity on the subject. If you’ve ever played an online game with someone you know, invisible to you and yet present, that’s kind of what we did. Oh right, E said that was confusing; I’ll try to come up with three different ways to say this…Ok, if she laughed at that comment then I’m on the right track. E was my test audience and an editor; a friend and a critic. It feels like what friendship is supposed to be. This is why, I suspect, we had The Inklings and The Detection Club, the Wolfe Pack and, I’m sure, others. We need creative fellowship.

It took us both about three days. An old axiom of writing is that the fewer words you have to write, the more time you will need to write them. Thank goodness we didn’t decide to write haiku. Short stories turn like a key; they require the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to actually practicing magic. I’ve written a fair number of them where I knew good and well that I had mispronounced that incantation. The darn tumblers wouldn’t turn and I had to abandon the effort. But this short story, whether it will be a winner of said contest or not, had magic in its ether. I liked it; it had promise. But E helped make it sparkle. She asked, poked, encouraged and texted late into the night and little by little, the key turned…

I will probably never be good enough as a writer to be truly independent, but I don’t think that’s the point or the goal. (Is there even such a thing?) While writing may always be an inherently lonely sort of work, that doesn’t mean the entire process is accomplished alone. Most frequently, it isn’t. And in some ways, it never will be. For the process to be complete, there must be readers or listeners invited in. And as I work, I will always need another to give me a little shove, a good boot, or a lit match, as the case may be. The longer I do this, the more I value the small writing community I have around me; people who haven’t stopped writing, making, building, creating.

Creativity isn’t born into empty space; it’s nudged into being by something else. Anything else. Sermons, movies, scenery, broken things, new things, lost things, tears, goodbyes, chaos, calm, offhand comments, intentional words, memes, jokes, insults, songs, poems, trees, clouds, children, empty playgrounds, walkers, coffins; all of them light fires of thought. We are inspired to build, to make, to write, to try.

E is one of my intentional people. Her photography, persistent writing, determined shepherding (I mean that literally; she has a growing flock), and forward motion encourage me to keep creatively moving forward, too. You need that, sometimes. It helps to know that you’re not crazy for still turning keys.

This is what it means to be a member of a body—or more colloquially, a member of a community. No one really works alone, and much is lost by pulling away from the whole. It takes effort and deliberation to be a meaningful member of something. It can be inconvenient and irritating when we are opposed, but how often do we inconvenience or irritate others? This is what it means to live with others when we cannot read their minds. It’s inevitable. It is the effort to understand that counts; the sweetly persistent, intentional trying.

We turn keys.

Photo by George Becker on

Jesus Doesn’t Cancel Me

I have had an enormously encouraging recurring thought in the tumultuously political past few weeks:

Thank God that Jesus doesn’t cancel me.

In Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve ONE rule in a perfect world; they broke it. Surrounded by goodness, they just had to find out what was being kept from them. There is no doubt in my mind that if I were the Artist who had created the world, I would have called it a failed Round 1 and started over. But I’m not (thank goodness) and He didn’t. He promised Eve a redemption.

God didn’t cancel Adam and Eve.

When I think of the Apostle Paul, it gives me an odd sense of comfort to remember that this man was once a government-mandated murderer. He chased people down and had them executed because he thought their religion was false. The resurrected Jesus Himself met Paul on the road to show him he was wrong. Paul later became a martyr himself.

Jesus didn’t cancel a grossly erroneous Paul.

I next think of a nameless woman. I often wonder about her. She was married five times, and when Jesus met her, the guy she was living with wasn’t one of them. To the religious people of her day, she was anathema; avoided on the streets, at the local well, likely kept from many social gatherings. Jesus waited for her by a well specifically to talk to her.

Jesus didn’t cancel the woman by the well.

There is no forgiveness in the social medias. There is no room for growth or maturity; what is forgiven in person when a foolish high-schooler speaks is not forgiven when it is Tweeted and re-discovered ten years later. There is no forgiveness in a public interview, a public opinion, or a quote out of context. Even without proof, certain kinds of accusations are political and social death knells. But my God doesn’t only forgive me when I ask, for He does something else I cannot do and forgets what I have done against Him. He wants my reconciliation. He has given and gives me every chance to come.

The more broken the world is around us, the lovelier is the God of the Bible. He doesn’t constantly change His mind. He is utterly remarkable and unique in His forgiveness. He is completely perfect in His equity: all are under perfect justice for sin and all are offered forgiveness. We get to choose. Try reading the book of Romans. He doesn’t forgive me and then put my relationship with Him on trial, nor wait for me to perfect myself before He takes me back. He does not surgically remove me from Himself when I am unpleasant or downright toxic. Anyone can come to Him and be changed; everyone is welcome to His forgiveness and grace.  

Thank God He takes me as I am to make me better than I was.