The Golden Compass
- by Ian Johnston -
These opening questions we have raised above are enormously emphasized by the extraordinarily powerful depiction of Satan himself. The portrait of this character at the opening of Paradise Lost is justly famous as containing some of the most inspired epic writing in English (as the quotation from Shelley especially indicates). And what makes Satan so heroic is not the particular situation he is in or any facts about him: his magnificence comes from the inspired verse which Milton puts into his speeches. No one reading these speeches can miss their power and eloquence.
What though the field be lost?
It is no accident that when Winston Churchill was looking for something to rally the British people after the military disaster of Dunkirk, he used these lines on the radio. There is nothing in English literature to match the heroic determination, power, courage, and energy manifested here and throughout Satan's early speeches. And his followers are appropriately energized:
He spake, and, to confirm his words, out flew
What also seems clear (and I really want to stress this point, which I am going to make repeatedly) is that as soon as Satan begins to speak, the narrator of the poem seems to get alarmed at what the poem is doing. The narrator wants to control our response to Satan, to make sure that we don't respond to the magnificent poetry in a manner inappropriate to the willed intentions in the doctrine. This becomes a marked feature of the poem:
So spake th' apostate angel, though in pain,
Here we see an early example of what is to happen repeatedly in the poem: the narrator's attempt to interpret our response to a particular speech. The narrator wants us to take Satan's speech as a "vaunting" or "boasting" piece of hypocrisy; but that's not the way the speech reads. It's as if the narrator is worried here that the imaginative fiction (the magnificent character he is creating) is running away with the orthodox lines he wants the story to have. As I say, we are going to see this tension between the fictional characters and the narrator again and again in the poem.
Throughout much of the early part of the poem, as we watch Satan launch and carry out his plan to tempt Adam and Eve into sin, he retains this hold on the imagination of the reader: a powerful and complex character seeking to assert his identity against invincible odds, refusing to bow in submission to someone he perceives as a tyrant. Even though we may understand where he fits in the framework of the story, Milton's presentation of him makes it very difficult not to respond to him with some admiration and sympathy. Later in the poem, of course, the treatment of Satan changes. His independence as a heroic character is destroyed, and God turns him and his followers into snakes, an action which seems to violate the integrity of the fiction. It's not that that power to transform Satan is not understandable as falling within God's abilities; it's simply that the story arbitrarily takes away Satan's character with what amounts to a trick. One wonders why God didn't do that at the start.
Of course, we are dealing here in Books 1 and 2 with Satan, and his followers are the rebel angels. We may be impressed in many ways, but we are hearing only one side of the story at this early stage in the poem. And according to the story, Lucifer is a very impressive figure. So at this stage we must feel we are entering a fascinating drama: if Satan is so magnificent in his rebellious defeat, how much greater must God be in his divine victory.
Author: Ian Johnston
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