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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

The Opening Drama

It is possible to argue, and some have argued, that the difficulties Milton is wrestling with are inherent in the story itself. For example, the logical difficulties of dealing with an all powerful single creator facing rebellious evil which He himself must have created establishes an narrative problem incapable of solution. This may well be true. But what's significant about this poem is that Milton's treatment of those difficulties makes them even greater than in the original story. In other words, rather than offering some resolution (however unsatisfactory) of the problems of God's justice, Milton's treatment exacerbates the problems.

By way of establishing this point, let us look all too briefly at the opening of the poem. In typical epic fashion, Paradise Lost begins by plunging the reader into the middle of the story. The rebel angels have been defeated and cast down from Heaven. We first encounter them gathering themselves together after the defeat and seeking to sort out what they are now going to be doing.

If we treat this narrative in the way we treat any other narrative, we start trying to evaluate characters' action and motives and to assess those against the various options they face. Immediately certain questions arise.

First, how much of God's omnipotence, authority, and creative power were the rebel angels aware of before their revolt? If they were under any doubts about these matters (and they genuinely appear to be), then why didn't God make such matters clear to them? And why does He get so vengeful when they do rebel?

Milton is facing a narrative problem here. In order to create the dramatic tension which will make the poem interesting, he has to present the devils as formidable opponents, real threats to cosmic moral order. If they knew of God's power in advance of the rebellion, then fighting God would be stupid. So Milton does not say that. On the other hand, if, in order to impress us with the intelligence, courage, and menace of Satan, Milton indicates, as he does, that Satan and his followers really doubted God's power and authority and thought they had a chance, this bolsters the characters of the rebels (at least they were not stupid) but leads us immediately to wonder about God's character.

Second, given that the rebel angels have made a great mistake in challenging God and have now recognized that, what are they supposed to do? They consider various options, including the possibility that if they behave themselves they will be forgiven eventually. Yet we are told that everything they say is inappropriate. Much of what the rebel angels say comes across as perfectly reasonable (especially the speech of Belial, which proposes that they not rock the boat any further and perhaps in time God will ease up his punishment); the only great mistake they make in this assembly is to underestimate the cruelty and irrationality of God. Once Satan determines that the best course of action is to tempt human beings, we are expressly told that he gets away with that plan only because God allows him to do so, and we are expressly told why God is allowing Satan room to move around: in order to heap more damnation upon himself. We might be able to reconcile God's allowing Satan to provoke the fall of humanity (which He is fully aware of all the time), but there is still a problem (as we shall see) with God's extremely angry response when what He knows will happen and has allowed to happen does, in fact, happen. In a similar way, we might echo the observation that a rebellion in which one third of the senior executives join in fighting the boss indicates some serious problems with the management.

The point is (to repeat what I mentioned a little earlier) by giving the reader such a close, extended, and dramatic look at the rebel angels discussing what has happened to them and the options they now have, Milton raises the problems latent in the story to the level of major issues which demand an immediate resolution.

One might argue that Milton cannot change the major details of the story which are firmly established in Christian doctrine. Thus, he does not have the freedom to manipulate the main outline of the story as, for example, Homer or Virgil could. That is true. But nevertheless in choosing to open the poem in the rebel parliament and to present us with a full debate over the options, Milton is making the major order of business some very thorny problems of the logic of the narrative (which in a different treatment might have been dealt with, as they are in Genesis, in a way that does not call attention to such difficulties).

Let me clarify this point somewhat: Paradise Lost makes the story of the creation and the fall a clash of particular characters; the dramatic emphasis in the presentation of the story is very pronounced. Now whether this characteristic is due to the influence of the epic models Milton is consciously imitating or not, we cannot help, as readers, dealing with these important Christian stories in terms of the conflict of particular characters. That is how Milton clearly chooses to present it. And with this dimension of the poem, as with others, we can surely say that Milton's treatment raises far more problems than it resolves.

In order to make this point more clear, I would like in the next few sections to consider some of the main characters in this epic and treat them as we would characters in any complex fiction, that is, seek to evaluate them.

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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia


Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama



Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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