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?