Author: John Milton
Publisher: Penguin Classics
American release date: (reissue) April 29, 2003
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/ Poetry/453 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★
A terrible battle has been waged, two great forces arrayed against one another, both composed of angelic beings. But the outcome is ordained, even before the first blow is struck. And the vanquished are cast from Heaven—despite the fact that their number includes a third of the heavenly host—to a new place, newly created by He who banished them from His sight. A little place known as Hell.
The Fallen Angels lie dormant for seven days, atop a burning lake, before they finally begin to come around. First to recover is their leader, Lucifer himself. And from the moment he regains consciousness, he is nothing but optimistic and determined.
The first order of business is... what now? So Lucifer calls a counsel of those who were cast out with him and presents what he sees as their options. One, they can stay where they are, and accept Hell as their new home. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
Secondly, they can crawl before God, ask to be taken back into Heaven... and then what? Sing his hosannas for all of eternity? And just exactly what will have changed? And why should they possibly want to do that?
Or door number three... Lucifer’s intelligence tells him that God has decided to replace those whom he has cast aside, unhappy with what has occurred, and so he has decided to make a new creature, one he can lord over and accept this new being’s songs and praises and whatnots. And this creature will be known as man. And what God has wrought, Lucifer can turn against him...
Paradise Lost is the story of the fall of Lucifer and his followers, and what came after. Lucifer persuades his followers that the third choice is the best, but of course, he cannot work his wiles upon Adam and Eve from a distance, and they are locked in Hell. Being Lucifer, he finds a way to flee his captivity. It doesn’t hurt that standing guard at the gates of Hell are Sin (his daughter) and Death (his son/grandson).
From the moment he takes the stage, Lucifer is the dominant character in this book, without a doubt. With his take-charge, overcome everything attitude, he is the hero, despite any evidence to the contrary. He persuades his followers to agree to his course of action, and volunteers to be the one to go to Paradise and do what must be done, as no one else seems to be too eager to accept the task. Lucifer, alone among them, knows no fear, despite the fact that his path will be most perilous, even after he manages to exit Hell.
Why did Lucifer choose to defy God? Overweening pride? Hubris? Was it because he believed himself to be God’s equal? Or was it a case of “sibling rivalry”, when God placed his son, Jesus, at His side, as His right hand man, and instructed that everyone was to obey Jesus as they would Him, paving the way for him to inherit everything?
Lucifer had to know, going in, that everything was stacked against him, and yet he stood firm and he did it. That shows a great deal of faith in himself, a strong will, and a fierce determination. On the other hand, God knew everything beforehand, including the outcome. And He allowed it to happen. What sort of Supreme Being does that? Certainly not a loving one.
As Lucifer makes his way to Paradise, we join Adam and Eve. Their story is, to me, less interesting, because they are depicted as less interesting people. Adam is downright boring and Eve is too caught up in being in his shadow and can’t seem to think for herself. The couple receives visits from God and from some of the angels. They tend their fruit. And they have sex. And Adam names animals. When Raphael visits Adam with news of the Rebellion, he describes it to him, at Adam’s behest, in agonizingly longwinded detail. Some of the details he relates should not even be known to him, but even so, it is excruciatingly long and I felt like he’d never stop talking. And then, just as he winds up his tale, Adam hasto go and ask for more! I wanted to slap him! Then follows Adam’s own boring story. All told, this part of the book was of less interest to me, despite being as well written as the other. But compared to Lucifer’s story, all else pales in comparison.
And then, of course, comes the temptation, as Lucifer enters into the serpent and beguiles Eve into eating the tree of forbidden fruit. So, what was the point of putting that tree there to begin with? If it was off limits, why place is there? To test them? He had to know they were going to fail. And yet He permitted it. So it can be argued that God is as much the architect of Man’s fate as Man is.
I loved this book from the beginning, loved the language that Milton used. And I loved this Penguin edition for being annotated, the notes serving to enhance the reading. It is beautifully written, and I’m the first to admit that I’m not big on reading poetry, but I loved it. There is strength and beauty in Milton’s words, and he brings the story alive. My only complaint, other than being bored by Adam and Raphael, is that Lucifer’s end in the story is almost an afterthought, and weakly written.
From the get-go, Lucifer makes no apology for being the way he is, and shows no intention of changing. “...but of this be sure, To do aught good will never be our task, But ever to do ill our sole delight, as being the contrary to his high will, Whom we resist.”
He has a silver tongue and after allowing the others to have their say, he uses his words to convince them that his way is the best. Is there any doubt he would? That he would not suffer the judgment of fools to hold sway?
I had so many questions while I read this book, concerning God and Lucifer, and why each did what he did. Lucifer’s motives are usually clearer than God’s. It often felt like a huge set-up, a trap that mankind could not avoid, no matter what he did. There are those who argued that Eve’s eating the apple was indicative of Free Will, that she and then Adam, made their choices? But did they really? If God knew all along that it would happen? Food for thought. You could debate the questions that arise from this book for a long time to come.
I never studied this book in school, so this was my first exposure to it, and I wasn’t forced to read it. I loved it, thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and loved the insight it gave into familiar Bible tales. Next stop—Paradise Regained!