A couple weeks ago, I took a one-week summer course at Regent College. It was on Paradise Lost. I had read this epic once in high school and another time in undergrad, and now I got to read it a third time from one of the top Milton scholars in the world—Dennis Danielson, who wrote this parallel prose edition that goes page-by-page alongside the original 1667 edition.
If you’ve always wanted to read this classic (and why wouldn’t you? It’s only “the story of all things” as Northrop Frye says!) but you’re intimidated by the language, I’d highly suggest picking up Danielson’s book so you can read it much easier while still getting a feel for the original language.
Since it was a crash course, we could only cover the highlights although I think all of us in class felt we could have used several more weeks. There’s so much to unpack, and so much that came alive for me, as is often the case for me with fiction. Here I offer some of my own “crash course” takeaways for those interested. (All references are from the parallel prose edition.)
I was struck by how much boldness it takes to write your own version of events in the Bible: the war in heaven, Satan’s fall, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the fall of Adam and Eve. John Milton worked off of what we’re told in the Bible, but he had to exercise a lot of creative license to extend a story that only covers the first few chapters of Genesis into a 12-book epic. (Indeed, his invocations to the muse often tread the line of humility and arrogance). Notice I mentioned not just one Fall, but plural Falls. Three falls actually happen in Paradise Lost: the fall of Satan, the fall of Eve, and the fall of Adam at all separate points in time.
Dennis said one of Milton’s tasks that align with his overarching goal of giving us a theodicy (“a justification of the ways of God to men”), is to increase the narrative plausibility of Genesis 3, which gives us the bare bones of the fall of Adam and Eve (the “what”) but not really the “how” or the “why.” So Milton seeks to provide this. And I think he does a pretty convincing job. For instance, when Satan in the guise of a serpent finds Eve alone to tempt, why was she not with Adam? Well, Milton narrates a “separation scene” as it’s called, based on their differing ideas of how to garden Paradise. Eve proposes the novel idea of dividing the labour so they can get more done. They had previously always worked together and Adam wanted to continue this way. The conversation starts off pleasantly enough, but then Adam grows cautious of Eve wanting to leave, and Eve grows offended at Adam’s protection of her, and before you know it, there is the seed of quarrel planted in their interaction and finally Adam commands her twice to go on then. So they separate, and that’s how Satan finds Eve alone.
This separation scene was the most heartbreaking for me to read, I think because I knew what this decision was going to lead to. I found myself inwardly shouting at the characters, “No, don’t do that!” or “Don’t listen to him!” We spent the most time discussing this separation in class—if this was actually the beginning of Eve’s fall (as some scholars believe), which got into the larger, stickier question of how do you know when a sin actually begins? In the case of adultery, as was brought up, does the sin first take place in the mind before it’s acted out in the body?
I think a lot of people resonated with this scene because it felt so human. One student said something like, “I think what’s going on in this scene is simply marital miscommunication and misinterpretation. It’s a problem of language. Adam and Eve both read each other wrong, emotions get involved, and egos get injured. It reminds me of arguments I have with my husband.”
There are some pretty funny lines as well. Take Eve’s comment to her husband after they both eat the fruit from the forbidden tree and Adam blames her for her desire to wander: “Was I never to have left your side? I might as well have stayed one of your ribs, with no life of my own!”
Milton tells us a lot by his use of language, or his character’s use of language. For instance, Eve from the Latin “Eva” actually means “life” or “breath.” But after the fall, Adam puns on her name and says, “O Eve, it was an evil hour when you gave ear to that false snake” even though “Eve” and “evil” have no etymological connection. Before the Fall, Adam was tasked with naming all the creatures and God praises him for his ability to attribute the right name to the right thing—implying that language resembles reality (realism vs. nominalism). But after the Fall, this alignment breaks down. There is a fall in Adam and Eve’s language (possibly a 4th fall?), punctuated by the ferocious blame game they play.
As you can tell, it was the relationship between Adam and Eve that most fascinated me, although the conflict within Satan at the beginning of the book is interesting too, especially from a psychological perspective. Satan comes across so human as well with the self-doubt he has about his mission—doubt that turns to manipulation.
According to Satan, Adam and Eve are created to replace the fallen angels heaven lost when Satan and his renegade army opposed God and were banished to hell. This explains Satan’s justification for punishing Adam and Eve, whose innocence he is initially aware of but whose happiness he can’t bear to see. He eventually convinces himself that they are worthy objects for his revenge. His anger at the Creator unleashes on his creation instead. The phrase “zero-sum game” came up a lot in reference to Satan. If he can’t have Paradise, Adam and Eve aren’t going to have it either. If he can’t have happiness, no way in hell they’re going to have it. He lives in a black and white world. Adam and Eve lose their colourful one, walking out of Eden hand in hand “with slow and wandering steps.” For those of us who have said goodbye to a beloved place we called home for even a short amount of time, there is much empathy in these last lines. Much emotion balanced somewhere between the bitter and the sweet. Much like my feelings at the end of this course.