Paradise Lost as an Epic
Copyright: Anthony Lademan
All rights reserved



Homer is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Epic Poetry.” He established several conventions that define the epic: First, there must be an argument and an “invocation to a guiding spirit” at the beginning. Secondly, the tale must begin in the middle of the story (eg. The Odyssey starts out with Odysseus telling to a local king what has happened to him during his adventures thus far.). 1 The epic is “a long narrative about a serious or worthy traditional subject.” 2 The language of the poem must also be very stylistic and figures of speech should be plentiful. And, of course, the success or failure of the hero of the epic will invariably determine the fate of his or her people. Milton had wanted to write the great epic of English Literature for quite some time before starting Paradise Lost. 3 Following in the paths of Homer and Virgil, Milton wrote his long poem in blank verse and without a rhyme scheme. Milton himself described rhyme as “being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter...” (Norton Anthology 421.) With the structure set, Milton needed a story worthy of becoming an epic poem. He needed something that was meaningful to his audience. What greater story is there to the English than that of the Fall of Man? For Christians and Protestants, it explains why the world is as it is. Because of Eve's decision to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, humanity lives in a fallen world. Comparable only to the story of Jesus Christ, the Fall of Man is the perfect story upon which to write a long poem; an epic. Is Milton's Paradise Lost an epic? Milton can claim, that with Paradise Lost, though written fairly recently compared to The Iliad and The Odyssey and even Beowulf, he has indeed written the great epic of the English language.

Milton starts Book I of Paradise Lost just as he should, with a prayer to a muse and an argument. Though the argument is not quite an argument, as it is an assertion: “I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” (421.25-6.) This, however, does not lift the status of “epic” from Milton's work. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an argument may be defined as “A course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating truth or falsehood.” 5 Milton is, in writing Paradise Lost, providing an argument for God. Milton grew up in a very Protestant, Puritan England. He was born in 1608, studied hard at St. Paul's School, and, in 1624, started studies at Christ's College in Cambridge under what would be known as a scholarship. He was extremely skilled with the Latin language, and, at fifteen years of age, “versified” Psalms 114 and 136. (Life of Milton, pars 6-8.) Milton grew up surrounded by God. He even had a goal of entering the church, but changed his mind, saying “that whoever became a clergyman must 'subscribe slave and take an oath withal, which, unless he took with a conscience that could retch, he must straight perjure himself. He thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.'” (17.) He then dropped out of the university and lived with his father. He is said to have read “all the Greek and Latin writers.” (20-1.)

Milton was not only quite the religious man, but also a well-learned and educated man. Milton read the works of Homer and Virgil. He knew how to write an epic. But what to write it on, was the question. Surely the tales of Odysseus and Aeneas were a “worthy” traditional subject for the Greeks and Latins, respectively. They were but mere fairy tales to the seventeenth century English, however. One thing that most English believed in was God and Christ (as the Protestant religion was the official religion of England), and as stated, what better story than that of the Fall of Man to be the basis for the great English epic? Milton was, at first, a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, self-titled “Protector of England.” Cromwell dictated that the religion of England would be Puritan. Milton soon came to distrust Cromwell, however, and even modeled the character of Satan after him. 7 Not only is Paradise Lost a retelling of the Fall of Man, it can also be considered a satire of the events of the time. Nothing could be considered more serious than civil war, governmental disruption, and religious wars.

Though an unlikely hero, Lucifer provides Paradise Lost its protagonist. Following traditional epic conventions, the story of Lucifer's fall from grace is told to Adam via the angel Gabriel in Books V and VI. Satan, angry at God, vows revenge in the form of attacking Adam and Eve, God's newest creatures. In an epic, “the hero's success or failure will determine the fate of that people or nation.” (“What is an Epic?”) Satan's act surely determines the fate of the people of Earth. By tricking Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and thereby causing Adam to also do so out of love for Eve, Satan has ensured the destruction of Eden and the Fall of Man seemingly forever from the perfect life. Though the Fall of Man is quite tragic, and is the high (low?) point of the poem, Adam and Eve, and humans in general, are not Satan's people. The hero's act “will determine the fate of that people or nation.” Satan is an angel. Specifically a fallen angel. He belongs to Hell, not Earth. So his act must have had some effect upon his nation, his people. And upon returning to Hell, Satan finds that all of his cohorts have turned into snakes and he is greeted with a harmony of hisses for his victory.

While on the subject of Satan, an epic has action that “contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess,” it has “Gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action to affect the outcome,” and “the narrative focused [sic] on the exploits of a hero or demigod who represents cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group.” (“What is an Epic?”) Taking a look at these points, one at a time, one can plainly see that they apply greatly to Paradise Lost. In his first retaliation, Satan leads his army of fallen soldiers against God's angels in Heaven in an effort to take it. He even develops a cannon with which to combat the angels. Satan is a military commander, no doubt. Save for both Adam and Eve, all of the characters in Paradise Lost are “gods or supernatural beings:” God himself, Christ, Satan and his followers, and the angels (specifically Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel). And they certainly “take part in the action to affect the outcome”. Satan wages a war against God, and upon defeat decides to ruin man. Practically all of the story revolves around supernatural beings affecting the outcome. The most important moment, when Eve eats the fruit, and later when Adam eats it, however, is entirely the work of non-supernatural beings. Or is it? Eve could have resisted Satan, but instead she was drawn to his smooth, enticing ways. Had she resisted, and told Adam of what was happening, all of Satan's work would have been for naught. And then God and the angels and Satan would not have affected anything in the peaceful Garden of Eden. Man would still be free from sin. One could argue, however, that even Eve's choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was the work of God. God made her na├»ve and irrational. God allowed Satan to enter the Garden of Eden. Surely if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, he would have foreseen Satan's venture into the Garden. In fact, he did. Adam was warned of Satan's current actions. He was warned of what would happen should either he or Eve eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Yet God let Satan in, God let Satan tempt Eve, God let Eve eat the fruit. On one end of the spectrum, we have God who created everything. His initial actions set the stage for the Fall of Man. His later inaction allowed Satan to succeed in his vile plot. On the other, we have Satan. He who created but only a castle in Hell, from which he could rule his evil domain. Satan's only power is through action. Adam and Eve know that he is evil, and that he wants to corrupt them, so the only way he can get them to do what he wants is to coerce Eve with false promises of grandeur and glory while hiding who he really is. He can't just sit idly by while they do his work for him, as for God they do.

The last argument, “the narrative focused sic on the exploits of a hero or demigod who represents cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group,” deals more with who Satan represents than who Satan is. Richard Hooker described Satan as “clearly Oliver Cromwell.” 7 Cromwell wanted to rule England as the “Protector of England.” He wanted to set up a military government. Cromwell wanted power. Satan wanted power. Satan uses his “military prowess” to attack Heaven. Satan was of the belief that he could rule Heaven better than God. When Satan is speaking at the angel conferences, he is described as being deceitful and dubious. Cromwell claimed to support the ideas of aristocracy and democracy, but really just ruled as he wished. (Hooker.) Milton may have been trying make a statement about Cromwell and his rule as “King” of England. When Cromwell took power in England, he executed the previous King, Charles I. Surely Satan would have tried something similar had he even had a chance of gaining power in Heaven. The main difference between Satan and Cromwell is that Satan was doomed to failure. There is no besting God. He knows all, he sees all. Satan knew this, yet he tried anyway.

John Milton's Paradise Lost can easily be considered an epic long poem in the same vein as The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf. It has all of the major requirements of an epic, and even goes beyond. The story is one that most everyone is familiar with, the characters like family. The language, as always Milton, is superbly elevated, formal, and dignified. The actions of Satan and Eve set off a series of events that could never have been predicted (save for by God himself). Satan becomes a hero that the reader can almost sympathize with, which is quite a feat, to get someone to sympathize with the devil. Satan, however, is a characterization of Oliver Cromwell. The Odyssey and The Aeneid may or may not be based on real Greek and Latin warriors, but those epics are glorifying their tales. Paradise Lost expands upon the tale of the Fall of Man while at the same time dealing with (then) current issues. Which is all quite impressive for a blind man claiming to be inspired by a muse in his sleep.


Bibliography
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