Epic LOLs in Milton’s Paradise Lost

I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  (I know I made that sound like a page from the “ring the doorbell and run away” book of revenge, but believe me, Beezelbub’s speech advocating the plan is truly hair-raising.)  To see how best to put the plan into action, Satan goes out into the cosmos to scout around a bit.  After he leaves hell with much pomp and fanfare, we’re left with this scene:

Thence more at ease thir minds and somwhat rais’d

By false presumptuous hope, the ranged powers

Disband, and wandring, each his several way

Pursues, as inclination or sad choice

Leads him perplext, where he may likeliest find [ 525 ]

Truce to his restless thoughts, and entertain

The irksom hours, till his great Chief return.

So before the text follows Satan on his quest, Milton shows us the congregation of the damned, left standing there awkwardly, realizing they need to do something to while away the hours until the boss gets back.  “So, uh…any of you dudes got a Frisbee or a hacky sack or something?”  The next few pages detail the (as always, testosterone-riddled) diversions of the bored demons, including some who start writing magnificent songs about current events.

Don’t let my focus on the funnies fool you—I love Paradise Lost so far.  It’s one of those “How did I make it this far in life without ever reading this awesome book?” books.

A slew of famous lines have crossed my eyes already.  Book 1 has the signature “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” line.  Book 2 mentions “his dark materials,” which named Philip Pullman’s infamous trilogy (starring Nicole Kidman in the film).

The first quote above also refers to God’s “red right hand.”  Seeing that line immediately reminded me of the 90’s cult alternative hit “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave.  I hadn’t thought about it in years, but a quick check on Wikipedia confirms that the song is indeed inspired by Paradise Lost.

Say what you will about organized religion, but here’s a fact: without Christianity, we wouldn’t have John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and without Paradise Lost, we wouldn’t have Nick Cave’s song, “Red Right Hand,” and who would want to live in a world like that?

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3 comments on “Epic LOLs in Milton’s Paradise Lost

  1. I discovered this site http://gutenberg.org/ a few years ago, and I downloaded John Milton’s bicentennial celebration edition in PDF, as well as the plain old text files. I’ve always enjoyed Milton from a different perspective, but now that you underlined it, you’re so right about how this might be invented as satire.

    I just think it would have made Milton even much more unlikely, to go so dramatically against what were societal norms. Paradise Lost is exceptionally clear-sighted for his time to begin with. But it could be that setting your story among the infernal host you buy yourself license to make them look ridiculous or whatever. Perhaps Milton got the last laugh?

  2. I always enjoy your literary commentary.
    The music video freaked me out though. I’ll have flash backs to this all day.

  3. This is great stuff–Book 3 is just as piously inspiring as Book 2 is demonically warped. Milton had a solid grasp on the nature of the atonement.

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