Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epic poems in the English language. It tells the story of the Fall of Man, a tale of immense drama and excitement, of rebellion and treachery, of innocence pitted against corruption, in which God and Satan fight a bitter battle for control of mankind's destiny. The struggle rages across three worlds - heaven, hell, and earth - as Satan and his band of rebel angels plot their revenge against God. At the center of the conflict are Adam and Eve, who are motivated by all too human temptations but whose ultimate downfall is unyielding love.
Marked by Milton's characteristic erudition, Paradise Lost is a work epic both in scale and, notoriously, in ambition. For nearly 350 years, it has held generation upon generation of audiences in rapt attention, and its profound influence can be seen in almost every corner of Western culture.
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Having been enthralled by the myths of Vikings and of ancient Greece and Rome, I always suspected that Christianity had a bit more to offer than the limp moralising stories I encountered at school and through the Venerable Bede. Not only have I found this in Paradise Lost, which has now taken the place as my favourite piece of mythology, but I would say this is one of the greatest books I have ever read.
Almost everything is perfect. From the start, with Satan crashing headlong into hell, I was gripped. Milton takes what I always considered a bland and tedious subject matter, the fall of man, and turns it into a romping story with cataclysmic battles, horrific monsters and disarmingly human characters. I recognised myself in Adam and Eve, and indeed in Satan, who is portrayed as a complex but understandable evil. The writing is breathtaking and leaves me, an atheist, in the awkward position of finding it perfectly plausible that it was, as Milton claimed, divinely inspired. Every line is a treat. The scenes he spins are as clear and dazzling, or as dark and terrifying as the subject matter. And this is story with a purpose too. Milton tackles some of the deepest questions about what it is to be human with a clear and persuasive logic.
It angers me that a story as deeply affecting as this has to, according to the leaders of many religions, be taken not as allegory but as fact. It is clear that Christianity, or at least Milton’s interpretation of it, has a lot to offer. I found myself struck by the relevance of many of the themes. But do we really have to tie in rules that say we have to believe in holy ghosts and heavenly kingdoms? It seems like such a pointless waste.
Though this is not to say that I was comfortable with everything presented. Foremost, the role of women, weaker and subservient to men. I looked hard for some saving graces in the text, but while Eve has depth, ultimately I found the messages about women uncomfortably antiquated. Secondly, the chastisement of those seeking knowledge. It really does reek of the tools used by rulers to oppress their subjects and stifle curiosity. I take the point that there are limits to what we can and should explore, but without our thirst for knowledge we wouldn’t have made such leaps in medicine, and helped save the lives or alleviate the suffering for so many people. If human life is as precious as Christianity makes out, the angels should be singing Hallelujah at these advances in science, not ticking people off for daring to probe deeper.
I also inevitably got confused at Milton’s dense poetic verse from time to time, but this comes with the terrain and certainly shouldn’t put anybody off. It’s Shakespearean in style, with all the benefits and challenges that brings, but with the summaries, the “arguments”, at the start of each book, I never got bamboozled for too long. I must also confess now that I cheated a little in “reading” the audiobook, but epic verse like this was made to be read aloud, and Simon Vance’s narration is, as ever, flawless.
A staggering achievement in literature and one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered, even with my reservations about some of the messages embedded in the subject matter, I still consider this one of the greatest and most enjoyable books I have ever read.