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Essay on John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the War in Heaven

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Paradise Lost and the War in Heaven   

 

From the beginning of book 1 the war in heaven seems more than a simple, finished event. In reality, we have the authorized formal side presented: the war was ambitious, impious, proud, vain, and resulting in ruin. Satan’s first speech implies that there was another side-even after we have partly discounted the personal tones of the defeated leader who speaks of the good old lost cause, “hazard in the Glorious Enterprise.” That too is a formal side, presented by the losing actor in the drama. Then Satan goes on, to reveal, before he can pull himself together in defiance, something more:

 

Into what Pit thou seest

From what highth fal’n, so much the stronger provd

He with his thunder: and then who knew

The force of these dire Arms? (I, 91, ff)

 

A little later the surprise has been bolstered with a kind of indignation:

 

But still his strength conceal’d

Which tempted our attempt, and wrought our fall. (I, 641 f.)

 

We soon learn that we cannot get answers in hell, but we begin to see certain questions, and the possibility that their answers may appear when we see the actual dramatic presentation of the rebellion. For one thing, Satan’s “innumerable force” receives a definite tally later- it is only one third of the angels. And this fact will look different when we learn that God opposes the enemy force with an equal number only, and then puts a fixed limit on the individual strength of the contestants, and then sends only the Son against the rebels, and with His strength limited too. Satan puts so much concentration on having shaken the throne of god, against “His utmost power”-“Who from the terrour of this Arm so late/...


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...s; and then the gigantic niceness of the detail that pictures the mountains, pulled up by the tops, coming bottom side up toward them. In between we are forced to look away, to separate ourselves from the action, and see it as a spectator, not as a participator. In the grand finale of physical ridicule the rebels are again left exposed to laughter by the interrupted point of view. Never do they appear so ridiculous, not even as a timorous flock, as when they are caught isolated between the before and the behind.

 

This is to be understood metaphorically, as the climax of their physical humiliation. It does not last, any more than their later mass metamorphosis into serpents, with which this is parallel. But it is a punishment, on the material level, for the material nature of their sin. If they regain their form in hell, that is because they regain free will.


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