The Golden Compass
- by Ian Johnston -
I would suggest that the first large jolt in this poem comes at the opening of Book 3 when we first encounter God. We are going to be discussing His first speeches in detail in seminar, so I won't go into specifics here. But it is very difficult to avoid the sense, as we read God's speeches carefully, that we are dealing with a harsh egotist whose major interest seems an inadequate defence of His own actions and grim delight in the pain He can now inflict. I find it almost impossible not to agree with Shelley and Blake, that of the two chief characters I meet in this poem early on, Satan is far more admirable than the tyrannical and querulous egoist God.
It's fair to ask, as Milton himself does in the invocation to Book 3, whether it is possible to portray God as a character in a fiction and not invite criticism from some quarter. After all, any portrayal of God in a human form, with an appearance and a speaking voice, is going to invite a response. That is quite true, and that is probably the reason why the ancient Israelites prohibited any depiction of God and made even his name unpronounceable. They insisted that God is an eternally powerful mystery and must be accepted as such. For the same reason, Dante gives no direct description of the Almighty, focusing instead on the narrator's reaction to approaching the presence of God. Both of these methods convey the might and majesty of God without inviting us to judge Him.
But Milton chooses to make God a character in the poetic drama. And as soon as he does that, he invites the readers to bring their powers of judgment to bear on the character he is presenting. As Empson observes (in a key critical principle), every character is on trial in a civilized narrative. So if the character of God becomes a problem in Paradise Lost, that happens because Milton treats him in a certain way, first, by making him a character, and, second, by presenting him the way he does.
And what is the issue here? Well, briefly put, the major problem, no where more prominent that at the opening of Book 3, is God's tone. He sounds like an irascible, peevish, irrational tyrant, filled with a self-defensiveness that, in a surprising way, makes some of the conclusions the rebel angels had reached about him in the previous books sound at times quite accurate. All of a sudden their desire for rebellion, the possibility that God lured them into rebellion so that He can punish them to satisfy His desire to punish, and their decision to support Satan in his desire to tempt Adam and Eve make a lot more sense. If this is a vision of divine mercy and justice, the figure seems badly flawed.
This problem gets emphasized by the narrative incident in which God calls for a volunteer to suffer crucifixion and death on behalf of mankind, so as to make their redemption possible. Milton presents this matter as high drama: God outlines (with some pleasure, it seems) the pain and sacrifice involved, so that one wonders why He has to resort to such torture in order to demonstrate mercy for human beings. The angels are so horror struck that no volunteer steps forward. This may be designed to make the Son's putting himself forward all the more extraordinary, but, if so, the gesture is dearly bought, because it forces us to match the embarrassing lack of courage and love of the angels against what we have just witnessed, the courage and resolution of the rebel angels.
Again the question here is not necessarily the problems with orthodox Christian doctrine, but with Milton's presentation of them. He wants to look at the story in detail as a dramatic enactment which will make God's justice justifiable. But in giving us the story in this way he raises all sorts of questions that make that justification all the more puzzling. If we don't have trouble with the logic of the crucifixion and the redemption of humanity before we read the poem, it is difficult to avoid them as we work our way through this rendition.
Author: Ian Johnston
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