Alex's Reviews > Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost by John Milton
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's review
Mar 05, 14

bookshelves: 2010, best-villains, reading-through-history, top-100
Read from November 23 to December 07, 2010

There's all this debate over why Satan is so appealing in Paradise Lost. Did Milton screw up? Is he being cynical, or a double-secret atheist? And why is God such a dick?

But no one asks whether, say, Shakespeare screwed up in making Iago so much fun; they just give him credit for writing an awesome villain. And that's all Milton's doing. Satan is tempting for us because Satan is tempting for us. That's the point of Satan! If Milton didn't make him as appealing as possible, he'd be doing Satan a disservice. And Eve, for that matter.

Similarly, God's a dick because God's a dick. You've read the Old Testament. He's not exactly all flowers and hugs there either. Again, Milton's just being true to his characters, and writing a great story while he's at it.

There’s slightly more to it than that, yeah. For example: it's hinted a little that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of Heaven. But since there's no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning? Isn't that like saying "Don't touch these cookies while I'm gone" to a kid who didn't realize there were cookies until you pointed them out?

Here’s my advice to people considering reading Paradise Lost: read the first two books. It starts with a bang, and it’s pretty amazing for a while. It slows down a bit in books III - VII, so if you’re not totally sold in the first two books (I was), you can either quit altogether with a fair idea of what Milton sounds like, or skip to books IX and X. IX is the actual temptation and fall (especially fun if you’re a misogynist), and X is an astonishing sequence where Adam and Eve contemplate suicide:

"Why am I mocked with death, and lengthened out
To deathless pain? How gladly would I meet
Mortality my sentence...
his dreadful voice no more
Would thunder in my ears." (Adam, X.774 - 780)

“We’ve totally mucked this up, and our kids are gonna justifiably hate us because we got kicked out of Paradise, and maybe we should just quit while we’re behind.”

But really, the whole thing is worth it. Took me a while – it’s intense stuff, so I found that I had to read a book and then chew on it for a while to process it before moving to the next one – but it’s cool.

In book VIII, if you’re cosmologically minded, Milton lays out the whole universe. Like Giordano Bruno, he understands that our earth is a tiny speck in the universe, and he gets that all the stars are suns like ours, and therefore could have planets like ours around them. He also thinks they might be inhabited; our species might not be God's only experiment. Elsewhere, other Adams and Eves may have faced the same test of the Tree of Knowledge - and they might have passed it. Isn't that an amazing thought?

In books XI and XII, Michael tells Adam sortof all the rest of the stories in the Old Testament, which of course boil down to:

“So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign,
Under her own weight groaning.” (XII 537 – 539)

That’s your fault there, Adam. Nice work.

He rushes through them though, and it makes me wonder whether Milton had originally intended to retell the entire Old Testament but got bored or intimidated or something. That would’ve been remarkable. Certainly Paradise Lost is better literature than the Old Testament is, and significantly more coherent.

It's also better literature than almost everything else. Second-best poem by a blind guy ever.
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Aimeeeastwood (new)

Aimeeeastwood I was about to make a snarky comment about your nerdiness. but yes, that actually is really cool.

message 2: by El (new)

El Alright. You've convinced me to try reading this one again sometime soon.

Alex Dastardly plan: successful.

message 4: by El (new)

El How much experience do I need with the Bible to really dig Paradise Lost? I know you were/are reading that too.

Alex None, I think. Genesis is the most germane bit, since that's pretty much the story Milton's retelling; it helped me insasmuch as I knew Milton was being more or less true to the gist of it - like, I was able to make the point above that God is a dick in the OT as well as Milton - but now I've told you that, so you don't need to read it yourself unless you feel like it.

message 6: by El (new)

El Okay, I've actually read Genesis so I'm good. I started PL once before but life got in the way. Milton + crazy life = Mega-dick.

Alex And I think that relatively slow part in the middle has potential to throw people off.

message 8: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Old-school cosmology is nifty.

message 9: by Stacie (new)

Stacie You have convinced me to read the whole book - I only had to read certain books for my orals, so can't really count that as reading it...or can I?

message 10: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex It is, Cindy. Interesting seeing the many connections between Giordano Bruno's theories about the universe and Milton's; they more or less agree except Milton takes it a step further with this crazy Adam & Eve stuff.

Stacie, you get to count whatever you want, 'cause it's a book, not a thing to check off a list. I get irritated when I hear people bragging about, say, reading all of Chaucer. I did too, but I only remember like three of 'em, so how am I any cooler than someone who just read those three and didn't waste the rest of their time? You should read exactly as much of Milton as you're entertained by.

message 11: by Stacie (new)

Stacie Well, I may just give it a go at some point. I liked what I read before...I think it was books IX and X, and always said I was going to read the rest, but it just got buried under all the new, shinier books. But, your review really has convinced me to read it.

I like your theory about it being a book, but I like checking things off lists too! :)

message 12: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Well, yeah. Me too. But I respect myself less for it!

message 13: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Alex, i totally see how you would be the best thing that ever happened to High School English and why you want to be a teacher. you'd be great. except i don't think you would get to call God a dick in class. that would be the downside to teaching.

message 14: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Yeah, and you can't go home in the middle of the afternoon to smoke dope.

My brother once made fun of Senators (the government type, not the sports type) in a physics class he was teaching. Turns out one of his students was the daughter of a senator. He got into big trouble.

message 15: by Marieke (new)

Marieke What a crybaby! Alex, do you want to deal with crybabies and not make fun of senators?

message 16: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Cindy, is everyone in your family in the really hard sciences field??

message 17: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Ha! Nope, me and my brother are. Dad is in Econ. One cousin works for NASA in a non-technical job. Rest of the family - cousins, aunts, etc are 'other.' Yes, I'm putting engineering in 'other.' Because I'm mean.

(BTW, the Senators are some sort of sweaty sports team right??)

message 18: by Marieke (new)

Marieke The ottawa senators are currently a sweaty hockey team but once upon a time DC had a baseball team by that name.

message 19: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Aw, that's nice of you to say, Marieke. Thanks.

I do think there's a legitimate question about whether I could refrain from doing something like calling God a dick in class. My self-editing skills are sub par.

message 20: by Marieke (new)

Marieke we can attach a 7-second delay device to your mouth...

message 21: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex To be safe, we might have to make it a two-day delay. It sometimes takes me a while to figure out why everyone's staring at me in shock.

message 22: by Marieke (new)

Marieke Haha or you just get parents to sign forms acknowledging that you might say things that seem inappropriate but will get their kids really excited to read and learn.

Or you can do online lectures that you can edit.

message 23: by Fil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Fil Love that you referenced Bruno to your review. He was a genius!

message 24: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yeah, Bruno is my homeboy.

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