The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The questionable advantages of being evil

Posted on: August 18, 2007

In the second half of book IV Adam and Eve return to their pretty bower after a day of hard labour pruning Paradise, say a simple of prayer of “adoration pure/ which God likes best” (I bet He does) and ease unimpeded into bed to have some God-approved sex. And God-approved it certainly is as Milton takes the time to elaborate, no doubt aimed at the Poor Roman Catholics who get regular beat-downs in the book.

…into their inmost bower
Handed they went; and eased the putting off
These troublesome disguises which we wear,
Straight side by side were laid, nor turned I ween
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain
But our destroyer, foe to God and man?
Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source
Of human off spring, sole propriety,
In Paradise of all things common else.

The passage was a nice surprise, to see (marital) sex so positively described (even if it has to be for babies). He ends the stanza with a description of all the false, earthly pursuits of love to highlight the natural primitive purity of our ancestors “lulled by nightingales embracing slept”.

Here Love his golden shafts employs, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile
Of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared,
Mixed dance, or wanton masque, or midnight ball,
Or serenade, which the starved lover sings
To his proud, fair, best quitted with disdain.

(The description of the serenading champ reminded me of silly Vincento di Vivaldi. If only Radcliffe had him read Paradise Lost the reader and Ellena would have been spared.)

But their conjugal bliss was not to be left undisturbed. Satan had entered the grounds unannounced, first shape shifting into a bird and then a tiger in order to eavesdrop on their conversations and, perhaps, find a point of vulnerability which he could exploit. He did, learning about the Prohibition on the Tree of Knowledge, and so turns himself into a toad to whisper evil nothings into Eve’s sleeping ear. (Not depending on Christian knowledge of her role in the myth, this scene was preceded by comparisons of her to Pandora.) The all-knowing God did not leave his new creations defenceless: Gabriel was in charge of patrolling earth and, being warned by Uriel earlier of an escapee from Hell, sent his sentries out to search Paradise while the humans slept. I’m afraid, Satan fans, that from here on out our arrogant underdog endures one humiliation after another.

Two of the sentries, Ithuriel and Zephon, spy the fat toad by Eve’s ear and force him back to his original state by Ithuriel’s “spear/ Touched lightly; for no falsehood can endure/ Touch of celestial temer, but returns/ Of force to its own likeness”. Neither of the angels recognise the now “grisly King” and request his identification. As you can imagine, good ol’ Satan is immensely affronted by the fact that these low level footpads don’t know him, Lucifer the bad-ass morning star, and immediately puffs out his chest and lays it down.

Know ye not then, said Satan, filled with scorn,
Know ye not me? Ye knew me once no mate
For you, there sitting where ye durst not soar;
Not to know me argues yourselves unknown,
The lowest of your throng; or if ye know,
Why ask ye, and superfluous begin
Your message, like to end as much in vain?

How palpable is his incredulity? It reminds me of celebrities, sadly of the C list variety, who return to Hollywood expecting to be accosted at every turn, but are only acknowledged with a, “Excuse me, do you know what time the bus gets here?” Zephon certainly knows how to cut him down for he judiciously reminds him — still unaware of who he is, btw — that his looks aren’t what they used to be without the natural Heavenly beauty enhancement aids that he and Ithuriel still have.

Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminished brightness, to be known
As when thou stood’st in Heav’n upright and pure;
That glory then, when thou no more wast good
Departed from thee, and thou resemblest now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul.

He adds that they’ll let their superior deal with him. Milton amusingly observes that of all Satan’s reactions — how embarrassed he was to be spoken down to by such an obviously good being, how lovely he still looked, how awful that he wasn’t so hot any more — the last one was chief. Satan tries to regain lost ground by falling to his abilities, remarking that yes, he’d rather have a confrontation with their leader rather than minions. Don’t kid yourself, Zephon retorts, as your wickedness has weakened you as well. Satan, so “overcome with rage” couldn’t formulate a response to that but “went haughty on” like “a proud steed reined”.

That encounter will seem like a feeble skirmish compared to the word duel between him and their superior. Gabriel, at their arrival, recognises who Satan is and that he’s in a contentious mood. After hearing from the sentries how they accosted him, Gabriel asks Satan why he escaped. Satan tries to be too clever in interpreting this question, but it may have worked against a lesser adversary.

Gabriel, thou hads’t in Heav’n th’ esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question asked
Puts me in doubt. Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomed? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,
And boldly venture to whatever place
Farthest from pain, where thou might’st hope to change
Torment with ease, and soonest recompense
Dole with delight, which in this place I sought;
To thee no reason; who knows’t only good,
But evil has not tried

Note how he can’t resist portraying his evil turn as a virtue, evidence of a more complete experience which results in a more expansive view that wise ol’ Gabriel couldn’t hope to attain, stuck in his goody goody path. But Gabriel more than rises up to that rhetorical challenge and gets him where it hurts.

The warlike angel moved,
Disdainfully half smiling thus replied.
O loss of one in Heav’n to judge of wise,
Since Satan fell, whom folly overthrew,
And now returns him from his prison ‘scaped,
Gravely in doubt whether to hold them wise
Or not, who ask what boldness brought him hither
Unlicensed from his bounds in Hell prescribed;
So wise he judges it to fly from pain
However, and to ‘scape his punishment.

He effectively turns it back on Satan, calling into question who’s the real dumbo here: the one who wonders why a “wise” person would deserved punishment escaped it or the one who wasn’t wise enough to see that his rebellion would get him kicked out of heaven and now, stuck with his lot, escapes from a sentence that the supposed foolish ones in Heaven avoided? He goes on to point out that the pain Satan experienced in Hell is negligible to what he risked by escape. That is topped with this finey aimed finish:

But wherefore thou alone? Wherefore with thee
Came not all Hell broke loose? Is pain to them
Less pain, less to be fled, or though than they
Less hardy to endure? Courageous chief,
The first in flight from pain, hadst thou alleged
To thy deserted host this cause of flight,
Thou surely hadst not come sole fugitive.

Buuurn. Satan should have seen that one coming. Unable to withstand such slander he reveals, in part, his true purpose in entering Eden ie to spy, but dissembles by saying that he’s simply looking for a new abode; but it is no surprise that Gabriel couldn’t figure this out either, being so inexperienced. Indeed, he claims, Gabriel knows he is no coward for he fought valiantly under his leadership, that he was “thy fiercest”, which is a curious bit of information because who on earth were they fighting before the Fall? Satan did not make it sound like a battle drill, and even so, there would have been no evil in the world for which they would need preparation. (I’m in book VI now and my question has not been answered.)

Gabriel hits back as fiercely, and now takes on the role of a military superior, given the opening, expressing disappointment in his soldier. Which is it, he asks Satan, fleeing pain or house hunting? And how dare he recall military accomplishments when he’d disgraced himself by abandoning obedience, discipline and “[a]llegiance to th’ acknowledged Power Supreme”? Never mind the fact that, despite his self-styled status of liberator, in the old days he was one of the finest grovellers at God’s throne. I find Gabriel’s protestations far more sympathetic and convincing than God’s. As you read of his complaints you find yourself nodding along, seeing his side of things, and shaking your head at Satan and all the grief he caused Gabriel, who only wanted what was best of him. At the end of book V the Seraph Abdiel also takes God’s part in an argument with Satan and I found his righteous anger just as admirable and winning. (The key here, Milton, is not to let God/Jesus talk, or have the two supporters given them oratory lessons.)

Gabriel warns Satan to return to Hell voluntarily or Gabriel will put him there, and it won’t be pretty. Pushed to the limit Satan goes for his weakest spot, God of course, and compares his obedience to little else but base servitude.

Then when I am thy captive talk of chains,
Proud limitary Cherub, but ere then
Far heavier load thyself expect to feel
From my prevailing arm, though Heaven’s King
Ride on thy wings, and thou with thy compeers,
Used to the yoke, draw’st his triumphing wheels
In progress through the road of Heav’n star-paved.

Damn. Now he’s gone and done it. Gabriel’s angels start to circle him, their weapons out and ready, and Satan pulls on “all his might dilated” and takes on a terrible frame: “His statured reached the sky, and on his crest/ Sat horror plumed”. You’re at the edge of your seat expecting the worst (which would be the best, in one sense, because I bet Milton wrote the best action scenes) when God, at his party crasher best, puts a halt to it all. We don’t see him, of course, but Gabriel notes in the sky God’s golden Scales. In each weight are two “sequels…of parting and of fight;/ The latter quick up flew”, and Satan’s fate, therefore, was to part if he knew what was good for him. So he did “[m]urmuring, and with him fled the shades of night”.

I’m pleased that there’s now someone on God’s side I can cheer for.

1 Response to "The questionable advantages of being evil"

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