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.
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).