You’ll realise that this is my first post on this blog: I’m not going to subject you to the ‘welcome to my new blog’ routine. Rather, let’s get down to brass tacs.
I think I’m right in saying that Paradise Lost is read mostly by students of English. This is a shame, because it is a fantastic poem, though the main reason for the low readership is its length and difficulty. I’m not going to lie to you and say that it gets easier as you read or that it will blow your pants off – all I can say is that it’s wonderful and the more you read, the more you get used to it being hard.
If you’re looking for transcendence or a religious experience, you’ve got the wrong work. Paradise Lost is a theological story but its true subject is humanity (as, I would argue, it is for most works of theology).
I can’t honestly review the whole poem, I’m not sure, even, that this would be useful. Instead I will focus on a scene that I think is most illustrative and important, I hope that you appreciate it as I do.
Spoilers: I will talk in depth about the fall of man, but you already know what happens, so I shouldn’t be spoiling much. Besides, this work is not like Saw or Fight Club: we all know how it ends when we start reading, we read because of Milton’s way of telling us what we already know.
Adam: The First Beta-Male?
You might be familiar with this term. I hate it, but it’s very illustrative in this context. For those who don’t know, most people who describe a man as being a beta-male or a beta mean that he gains the attention of women by doing as they say and being nice (while an alpha does his own thing and attracts women that way).
The inimitable Davis Aurini describes in his YouTube video how, in the Bible, Adam is the weaker character. Eve is tricked by the serpent, while Adam just goes along with Eve, without being fooled or cajoled – Adam is the prefect example of a man doing something just because a women does it.
Milton’s Adam is a different character altogether. Here he is, deliberating how to act when he discovers that Eve has been tricked into eating the fruit:—
The sacred fruit forbidden! Some cursed fraud
Of enemy hath beguiled thee, yet unknown,
And me with thee hath ruined; for with thee
Certain my resolution is to die:
How can I live without thee! how forego
Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn!
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart: no, no!
Book 9; 904-913
For Adam, a fate together with Eve in sin and death is better than to live without her. Admittedly, this is beautiful. My friend Joel, who will have edited this post by the time you read it, summarised this moment as Eve meaning more to Adam than The Garden of Eden.
This is how men ought to behave. But, imagine: You’re without sin, Eve has sinned, and no one but God (and maybe Satan) is watching. Why not say to hell with Eve mk. I, hand her over to God, then get Eve mk. II at the cost of one rib and carry on?
I hope, if I ever find myself in such a situation, that I would have the strength to act as Milton’s Adam did.
The closest real example that I can find is the ‘bio-robots’ of Chernobyl. The explosion at Chernobyl threw a huge amount of highly radioactive material onto the roof of the plant – initially, the authorities used robots to recover the material and bury them to reduce their harmful effects.
However, the robots couldn’t stand the radiation and broke down. So they sent people to the roof, usually soldiers, dressed in lead costumes that they had to construct themselves. They nicknamed these people ‘bio-robots‘. The radiation levels were so high that they could only work shifts of around 30 seconds at a time.
Many died, suffering from acute radiation poisoning and cancer. They weren’t committing suicide for some perverted nationalism or religion, but fighting for the health of the people around them.
The Adam of the Bible is nothing like this:—
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Genesis 3:6, (King James)
It would be impossible to find in that semi-colon all the love that Adam shows in Paradise Lost. Here, he doesn’t take any tricking, he just goes along with Eve. If you’ve ever seen a man or anyone do something stupid or terrible, purely because of a love interest: here is the archetype.
Milton’s alteration is heroic, in itself, but, in the context of the Bible, seems to be a revision in favour of Team Man. I often feel as though Milton could not stand for Adam to come across as such a chump – in doing so, he lost the truth of the narrative.
Those raving preachers who castigate women as a sex because Eve committed the first sin haven’t read this verse in any detail. Eve took convincing; Adam showed no fortitude, or agency, whatsoever. But, both the preachers and Milton have it wrong: they would rather hold the Bible up to a distorting mirror and find Eve to be the prime sinner than understand how much it tells us about the frailty of men.
Clearly the fall of man in the Bible and in Paradise Lost are not the same story. Paradise Lost is a great work because, moreover, in his retelling of the human story, Milton demonstrates how we flinch from our nature .
Almost inadvertently, it could be said, Paradise Lost acts as the superior of two poles between which we exist: the Bible depicts what we are when we don’t try, Paradise Lost shows us what we can be.
I’m amused, reading over the text above, by how much I am emphasising the ethical the gulf between the Biblical and Miltonian Adam, when it exists only in mind: they act in exactly the same way. Remember, however, that the person who does the right thing for the wrong reason has no claim on ethics.
I recommend Paradise Lost to you completely. It has much more wisdom, curiosity and chaos inside than I can hope to summarise here. It has stayed with me more than most of the works that I’ve read, I hope it will for you, too.