And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,
And to the fierce contentions brought along Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven
The first book begins by outlying the premise of the work with Milton calling upon his muse Urania, recast as a Christian inspiration, to recount the Fall of Man. The story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil are probably familiar to everyone, even those who've never read Genesis. Milton picks up the story in the midst of things with Satan cast down to Hell after the failed rebellion in Heaven.
Obviously, to those already familiar with Satan's role in the Fall and those who believe in God, he is clearly cast as the villain, the antagonist of the Biblical story of creation. He is vainglorious, charismatic and defiant of God's will. However, Milton's portrayal is notably nuanced and there is a sense of compassion towards his fate. This isn't simply a fiery sermon warning against the perils of invoking God's wrath. It begins with a lament as to what was lost and lays on the reader what distinguishes Satan from other souls who have turned against God.
Satan was once God's most highly favoured creature, the Morning Star, the most charismatic, intelligent and mighty of the spirits of Heaven. Whilst Milton gives us only the briefest accounts of what Heaven is like, it is clearly a place of grace, light and peace. We will learn in greater detail how the Son, who in Milton's telling came after the creation of Heaven and the angels, made Satan envious and in doing so brought forth Sin into existence. It is the envy of God's power, resentment towards God's judgement upon the throne and ambition to overthrow Him that begins Satan's fall from grace. It is also clearly outlined that until Satan attempted this ultimately futile and foolish act, there was only God's word as to his Almighty stature. It is God's mercy and love that had belied the fact that He was all powerful. Satan's pride compelled him to challenge this claim, as God no doubt intended, and try in vain to usurp the throne of heaven.
We also learn that a good number of angelic creatures, many of the greatest perhaps of the angelic hosts of Heaven, were persuaded by Satan to join his cause. The Prince of Lies is portrayed as highly persuasive and as an inspirational leader who seems to favour subtle influence rather than giving loud commands. In formulating a plan for his own redemption, without accepting God's sovereignty, he whispers his strategy but allows others to make the arguments for and against. He sets in motion the events that lead to Man's fall and Hell's war on the World not through displays of muscular coercion, of which he is more than capable. Instead, he brings others to his way of thinking. He does this without even appearing to have had a direct hand in the process itself.
It is important to note that these spirits of heaven, these fallen angels, are not one-dimensionally evil although they acknowledge and embrace their evil nature more so than most men would ever admit, even in the privacy of their own thoughts. They have qualities that make them admirable to men; after all, a monstrous creature in which man could not recognise anything good would be a poor temptress. More than this, these are creatures created by God who is good. It is in them to be good, to find redemption and to use their gifts to bring praise to the Almighty. It is perhaps those very generous gifts that led to the pride and corruption that made their fall so great. So when Satan speaks he does so with an admirable spirit of resilience, despite his current predicament. When he wishes to inspire, he does not shirk from putting himself in danger. In fact, his pride and ambition compels him to lead from the front. He is truly a figure of heroic proportions, capable of beguiling man to admire him greatly.
The spirits who have fallen into the lake of fire after the failed war of heaven are many, but it is Satan who rises first and after some contemplation awakes the others. We learn about some of the most mighty fallen in the first book.
Beelzubub is Satan's right hand and to whom he puts the question of whether given their recent loss they should submit to the will of God. However, the question is couched in the language of resistance and it can only lead in one direction. Satan is not prepared to make peace with the "tyranny of Heaven." Beelzebub is a familiar character, the loyal lieutenant who toads along to great power and relishes in evil deeds. His role is to console his master, to pledge his allegiance even after such a terrible defeat. He acknowledges that God is Almighty for only the truly powerful could have defeated them but even in the unending torture and pain of Hell, he is unwilling to repent. His loyalty would be commendable if it were sincere but Beelzebub is as calculating as many a general of an evil dictator. He is, quite literally, betting it is better the devil you know. Once the old allegiances are established, Satan outlines his plan to continue the rebellion through guile rather than force of arms. This seems obvious as the only course of action but it is shown as a testament to Satan's intelligence and stubbornness. It illustrates his manipulative and calculating nature in that he already knows his will on this before the show of the consultation with the other Princes of Hell.
The depictions of the legions of Hell and their fallen situation is lengthy and full of references to Biblical and classical stories. Milton casts many of the gods and spirits of the pre-Christian world as fallen angels, who would later be named by men, their heavenly names scrubbed from existence. Before the "great consult" begins in Book II, we are given the vision of Mulciber, the artificer and fabled craftsman, building Pandemonium, Satan's city in Hell; whilst Mammom leads the excavation of the riches of Hell, vast in gold and gems.
These two fallen angels represent the evils of avarice and attachment to worldly things, to works by mortal hands, pride in the temporal rather than praise of the eternal glory of God. It is through their skill and labour that evil builds its foundations. They are the tools by which the charismatic Satan will wage his war from a secure fortress. It is the innovation of Mulciber and the affection for the treasure of Mammon from which evil learns sophistication. It is also easy to recognise in these characters a common polemic against measuring worth by worldly things. In this Milton's views seem to be grounded very much in his own impoverished life experience. It is also a common tract of Christian thought that struggles against the juggernaut of the values of the material world. The resonance of the crafts of Hell with its great riches in corrupting the spirit is timeless. Given the talent and the bounty of heaven, these fallen angels fell so hard they found a perverse happiness in their new element. As we learn in the dialogues to follow, even with the eternal suffering of their situation, they preferred to bask in their material riches, forsaking everything else including heavenly salvation.
The first book of this epic poem is striking in the rationality of the infernal actors in their fallen state. Their values strike familiar chords in their elevation of power, cleverness, loyalty, bravery and material wealth. It is easy to get lost in the depiction of their suffering, to view it all as grand imagery and become numb to their self-inflicted torment. They like the reader become accustomed to their situation. Instead of seeking redemption, they quickly focus on making the most of the place for some illusory advantage. Even with the recent memory of God's power fixed in their minds, they remain intransigent to accept His mercy. Their immortal spirit only briefly acknowledges, in defiant tones, that the peril they suffer could be worse. Their existence continues and they show despite their eternal nature a fear of annihilation. It is also clear they need leadership and hope. Even in Hell, there is hope for the wicked but they remain misguided, seeking their own path to salvation by their own works. In not acknowledging God as their creator and redeemer, they illustrate the folly of pride and the dangers of following their ruinous leader.
To union, and firm faith, and firm accord,
More than can be in Heaven, we now return
To claim our just inheritance of old,
Surer to prosper than prosperity
Could have assured us; and by what best way, Whether of open war or covert guile,
We now debate. Who can advise may speak.
The council begins with Satan attempting to snatch victory from the recent defeat of the power of Heaven. The clever postulation presented to the princes and powers of Hell will be familiar to any student of earthly dictators. As the leader of the rebellion against the throne, Satan lays claims to the most severe punishment, the greatest fall from grace and in doing so puts to rest any question of who would wish to replace him. After all, given what they know now, who would challenge him? Who would want to suffer as he is suffering? In such a way, an issue that may have become contentious had they succeeded is put to rest. His credentials established he subtly warns against factionalism and with cunning invites others to advise him on the path ahead.
The model of the charismatic revolutionary leader who has burnished his record with suffering under the yoke of tyranny is recognisable in historical figures such as Mao, Lenin and Hitler. The revolutionary council of Hell, in turn, presents arguments familiar in tone to the disaffected of any unloved regime. Of course, earthly kingdoms are imperfect and their tyranny sometimes worthy of revolt. However, it is not hard to draw parallels between the moral weakness found in the portrayals of the denizens of Hell and those who would overthrow one tyrannical regime in order to replace it with their own dictatorship. And there can be no doubt that Satan, despite his inclusive demeanour, seeks to rule in Hell; to replace the throne of God with his own. Proud enough to believe he can outmatch all his rivals in any contest, his nature is not to contest against them but to subvert them to his cause. To do this, he allows others to debate whilst playing his own cards close to his chest until the right moment.
First to speak in the council is the classic brute, an unsophisticated argument from Moloch, who represents the seething hatred brought about by an overriding desire for vengeance, regardless of the cost. His argument is simplistic and defies logic: having lost to an Almighty power, they should resume the conflict at a disadvantage because in doing so they deny their victors the prize of peace. Moloch is rage incarnate, the madman who kills the innocent and throws his own life away. He recognises strength and fighting prowess is meaningless in the game of deceit and corruption that would play to Satan's advantage. Yet he has no means by which to influence those not already similarly disposed of, of which there is quite a number. His fate is to be mocked by the next prince to speak for his unsophisticated position.
Belial speaks with a forked-tongue, appearing nobler than the brutish Moloch but his thoughts consumed with ignoble pleasures. He turns Moloch's desperation and acknowledgement of the futility of open conflict against him. He disheartens his fellows with talk of the impregnable fortress of heaven's defences. He goes further than just advocating no open war, he wishes no conflict at all. He uses the fear of defeat, of a worse fate at the hands of the Victor, to mask his desire to wallow in the situation and see what pleasure he can from his surroundings. Belial represents the compromising evil that has no courage, no purpose but to enjoy himself. Even bathing in the shit of Hell would be preferable to him than further struggle. He speaks eloquently and is portrayed as appealing to the eye but his heart is consumed by lazy corruption. In him are manifest sloth and a portrait of the worst human lawyers and apologists for evil.
The next speaker is Mammon who begins by acknowledging the futility of great ambition, the vanity of attempting to overthrow the throne of heaven. He proceeds to outline the only sure way of leaving Hell for the fallen spirits: the acceptance of God as their sovereign. This is not something he will countenance as in mocking terms he reveals his hatred of God. Instead, he proposes to take the riches of Hell and build a new order. There is an interesting but false analogy, often used by rich men who forfeit God's grace, in using moral relativism to claim for himself the ability to recreate heaven in hell. This is the root of Mammon's fall, to value his own labour and proudly claim to match or exceed God in his works. He looks at wealth as the reward, the goal of his undertaking and all the wealth he covets is to be found in hell. What use then of heaven? What profit in God's mercy? And to turn away from God through resentment of his wrath, to place your trust in the riches of the earth is Mammon's folly. Of the arguments made thus far, this is the most pleasing to the assembled host of fallen spirits. It is the most pleasing to hear because it offers the mirage of a self-made salvation: the pursuit of worldly riches, in place of a servile life in praise of God.
However, the court draws to a conclusion once Beelzebub, acting as Satan's mouthpiece, finally speaks. He clarifies the simple truth for the rest: there can be no peace, they are prisoners of heaven, not masters of a nether empire to be yet formed. Hell is torture and punishment, the riches of it is ashes in the mouths of those who have tasted heaven. Could the punishment be worse? Perhaps, but how would they provoke God further than his omniscience has already allowed? If He wanted to destroy them or punish them further, He would have done so already.
Open war would be futile given His power but acceptance without repentance would achieve nothing either. None of the assembled is prepared to repent so it is to guile and deceit they have to turn if they wish to upend the order of creation. It is through their own free will they have to subvert God's plan if they wish to escape their circumstance. The vanity of it all is striking and there would be no hope for it. However, the creation of the World and Man upon it gives them an opening, Beelzebub argues. For in man, the fallen spirits see a way out of Hell. A way to a place, not quite heaven, but certainly better than Hell. And through man, they could have the triumph of domination they seek. Finally, their greatest victory would be in turning Man away from God. If vengeance is their goal, he advocates, then what better way to stick it to the divine than turning the creatures that He loved more than the angels against Him?
Beelzebub gives the denizens of Hell everything they could want in his speech and it's clear this is Satan's plan all along. Vengeance for their Fall, vindictiveness against God, a vainglorious desire for power and sovereignty over Man. So the stage is set as Beelzebub calls on a brave spirit to break out of Tartarus and head beyond the realms of Chaos to find the World. To seduce Man for the fallen angels or conquer the paradise given to them by God.
It is, of course, Satan's cue to rise up at this point and display his majesty and awesome power above his peers, and take the quest upon himself. Of course, he makes much of the dangers ahead to dissuade anyone who may wish to tag along now he has accepted the challenge. His is a quest without fellowship built on pride and he is unwilling to share the glory with any other. He is utterly effective and the other spirits fall to worship him as a God Emperor. As he makes his way to depart, the fiends disperse and sow the seeds of evil in preparation. Satan had given them what they most needed in the absence of heaven's mercy: leadership and hope. A plan for living their eternal existence without accepting their punishment. In their legions, they go about establishing their fiefdoms and hell is less of a prison in their mind than a staging ground. How quickly they seem to forget heaven and embrace their nightmarish surroundings.
Satan puts on 'swift wings' and travels to the edge of his new domain, the landscape rich with borrowed mythology such as the guarding spirits of Cerberus and Medusa until he reaches the first boundary. The gate is guarded by his daughter Sin whom he does not recognise nor does he recognise the shape that is Death, sprung from their incestuous relationship. It's noteworthy that Satan doesn't know who they are at first and it is Sin's lament that informs him of their connection. Ravaged by hell-hounds born from Death's rape of her, set to cause her endless torment, Sin has been entrusted to keep the key to the gates of Hell by God. A duty she doesn't fulfil with much diligence; given the opportunity, she sides with Satan against God. The metaphors of this triad of spirits are obvious enough: Satan brings Sin into being through jealousy and pride, Sin brings about Death when none existed before and Death is Sin's punishment. The theology presented here is a little narrow-minded, dating the poem but it is a worthwhile exposition on the foulness brought about by Satan's disobedience.
The gates of Hell are opened and will not be closed until later when the Son defeats Satan. He continues his mission through the vastness of Chaos until the powers beyond granting him knowledge of the World. Loving nothing more than to bring destruction and profit from the mischief Satan will cause, they help him. The rest of Satan's journey is smooth sailing and with the thought of revenge on his mind, the second book closes.
The second book is a familiar narrative template for the epic adventure. The story of Satan's quest to corrupt man, set forth by the Council of the Princes of Hell, has only just begun. Milton has given us an insightful portrait of the ruinous powers and florid depictions of the underworld that have endured over the years. There is much to consider philosophically but it is a strange affair to follow the villain in the place where a hero would normally tread. In this Paradise Lost differs from the Homeric epics or modern works like The Lord of the Rings. We are left with a lot of familiar character depictions in a tested plot but none who merits our empathy. For that, we shall have to wait a little while longer.