Paradise Lost

By John Milton

Characters, Part I


Milton's God has been especially controversial; the presentation of the deity is never doubtful (as a Puritan, why would Milton do so?). Despite the radical polarities of their beliefs, the angels, humans and devils all believe in God, he is very real, and his existence is never questionable.

Milton asserts in Book I (ll. 24-6) that he will attempt a theodicy in Paradise Lost. The declared purpose is to justify the ways, or justice, of God to Milton's contemporaries. Milton seeks to explain the workings of divine will and the existence of evil in the world.

Milton's God exemplifies eternal providence. He foresees - cf. Latin pro (before) videre (to see) - and provides everything:

"for what can scape the eye

Of God all-seeing, or deceive his heart

Omniscient, who in all things wise and just"


Milton had little concern with metaphysical speculation of the Scholastic philosophers. But in justifying God's ways Milton was forced into theology, and hence, he could not refrain from making controversial assertions about God.

Foreknowledge of events did not mean that God caused them. Man, like angels, was made capable of falling from grace - God knew that he would fall but did not make him fall. Free Will allowed the freedom to follow or ignore God's calling, for both angels and mankind. Thus, foreknowledge does not equate with predestination. Milton did not adhere to the Calvinist concept of predestination, but allowed for the working of Free Will (though God foreknew the outcome, nonetheless). Man's pre- and postlapsarian liberty depended upon following the God-given power of reason, which must govern his will. Raphael echoes Milton's own thought when he advises Adam that no man should relinquish his God-given freedom to any other man, rather he should preserve his liberty to serve God. For Milton this held for both the spiritual and the worldly (especially pertinent in the sphere of political forms).

When Abdiel returned to Heaven after his encounter with Satan, God characterised the fallen angels as those who "refuse | Right reason for their law." Justifying his own ways, God declares in Book III that both acts of reason and acts of will are forms of choice. In heaven there are no illusions or disguises, it is a realm where false appearance is derided, yet the overall reality is overwhelming. Milton sought to disclose the mystery of heaven with rational lucidity. God is presented within the fountain of spiritual light, an attempt at a logical explanation of the workings of divine justice. The representation of perfection, of the heavenly domain and its deity, presented the ultimate challenge to the artist of Milton's time. To some extent Milton's depiction is lacking. The artistic dilemma Milton faced was overwhelming: how to present the omnipotent, immutable, immortal and infinite God in heaven, supreme perfection. Both Milton's presentation of heaven and his characterisation of God have undergone critical attack.

Aesthetic difficulties are encountered when Milton's God appears as a character confronting the evil of Satan. Though God the Father wins the theological debate in Book III, it is to the detriment of His image of majesty, grandeur and mercy. Furthermore, though His arguments follow when interpreted along Milton's own theological outlook, further interpretation leads to divine paradoxes or contradictions of faith. Criticisms of the anger Milton's God shows have overlooked the attempt of the poet to combine the wrathful Father of the Old Testament with the merciful of the New Testament.


"Th' infernal Serpent, hee it was, whose guile

Stirr'd up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd

The Mother of Mankind; what time his Pride

Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host

Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring

To set himself in Glory above his Peers,

He trusted to have equall'd the most High."


Passion for revenge moved Satan, pride led to his fall, and ambition caused him to assert himself above his fellow Angels and seek equality with God.

The one word that could summarize Milton's characterization of Satan is ambivalence. This is apt for the master of deceit and lies. Milton's Satan is consistently ambiguous, full of uncertainty, metamorphosing into various forms in pursuing his conspiracy of evil. There is very little in the Bible about Satan; in his tract, Christian Doctrine, Milton managed to gather it all into just a few sentences.

For Milton, evil is derived from Satan. This is perhaps drawn from his Puritan outlook, something that confined evil to a particular source so that it could be contained or suppressed. In a literary context this forges a sharp contrast with the 'Shakespearean' approach - that is, one that perceives evil as a collective part of human experience itself.

William Blake declared that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing". Burns called Satan "my favourite hero". Hazlitt wrote "the daring ambition and fierce passions of Satan. . . the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem", while Baudelaire considered "the most perfect type of manly beauty is Satan - as Milton saw him." Such assumptions that Milton, as a propagandist and apologist for the Republic and the Parliamentarian cause, must have sympathized with the rebels in Paradise Lost, and that Satan is the 'hero' and represents 'liberty', are far too simplistic. To understand this apparent paradox, one must consider Milton's underlying purpose for Paradise Lost.

As with his characterisation of God, there has been a great deal of critical debate about Milton's Satan. Some critics have presented Satan as the 'hero' of Paradise Lost, emphasizing his classical virtues. However it is these vary martial virtues that Milton seeks to disprove. Therein lies the answer to the critics' 'problem' of Milton's Satan. Criticism concerned with Satan as 'hero' or 'antihero' has missed the point; Milton is quite clear that Satan has fallen because of his pride and ambition. Furthermore, the Free Will that operates throughout Paradise Lost allowed Satan to decide his own fate. At the beginning of Book IV we are given the opportunity to access the 'true' Satan. There we learn of Satan's own undoing and inherent evil. The archfiend deliberates over his fallen status, considers that he has caused his own fall, realises God's grace remains open to him, but resolves that he is too ambitious: "Evil be thou my good" (IV.110).

Satan's passions, gestures, conduct and disguises make him the archetype of the very tyranny he claims to despise: that is, irrational and self-aggrandizing, developed to exploit absolute authority without regard for natural or divine laws. Satan sits far within his palace with a select council, "In close recess and secret conclave" (795). The Satan of Paradise Lost is the embodiment of the corruption of monarchy that Milton derided in his political tracts of the 1650s.

Adam & Eve

It was one of Milton's finest literary masterstrokes to withhold his account of Adam and Eve until we accompany Satan into the Garden. The idyllic bliss is at first overshadowed by the evil of its destroyer. Milton skillfully built up their Fall; he preserves the picture of their innocence, while building up awareness of the latent weaknesses. The first manifestation is in Eve's first speech; Satan plays on the human desire for knowledge beyond the constraints of the species' wisdom, stirring Eve's ambition to be a goddess among the gods. In Book VIII Adam questions the cosmos, but recognises the futility of speculating things beyond humankind's capabilities, though delivers a eulogy of Eve that is idolatrous. Adam and Eve begin as superhuman figures in the poem, but their sins reduce them to mere humans.


There are several key points to Milton's account of the characteristics of angels, both 'good' and 'bad', in Paradise Lost. The first two, i.e. that they are numerous and enigmatic, are of less interest than the third. Milton puts his attention to stressing the physicality of the angels: that they are governed by physical laws relating to their materiality. They have weight, can exert force, sleep, excrete, and have sexual intercourse; the fallen angels feel pain and lose some of their sexual capacities.

The angels typically travel either by flying or walking; they never just seem to appear. Raphael journeys to Eden "with steady wing… then with quick fan" (V.268-9), though walks the remaining part of his journey. In flight he appears to metamorphose into a bird-like being: he enters the wind-stream where "towering eagles" fly, and where "to all the fowls he seems | A phoenix" (V.270-2). Satan both walks and flies. The first encounter with the fallen angel in Book I, Satan walks to the shore. He moves from hell to earth is by flight - "his sail-broad vans | He spreads for flight" (II.927-8). At other times they move using their physicality. Uriel travels to warn the guards of Eden on a sunbeam

"Thither came Uriel, gliding through the even

On a sun beam, swift as a shooting star

In autumn thwarts the night"


"Uriel to his charge returned on that bright beam, whose point now raised

Bore him slope downward to the sun now fallen

Beneath the Azores"


However, Milton's angels are able to metamorphose. Satan assumes a variety of animal forms that allow him to spy on Adam and Eve in Eden.

"he alights among the sportful herd

Of those four-footed kinds, himself now one,

Now other, as their shape served best his end."


Ithuriel and Zephon find Satan

"Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve;

Assaying by his devilish art to reach

The organs of her fancy, and with them forge

Illusions as he list…"


At the touch of Ithuriel's spear Satan resumes his true form, "no falsehood can endure | Touch of celestial temper, but returns | Of force to its own likeness" (IV.811-13). The loss of control over metamorphic capabilities is one of the consequences of angelic fall. God changes the devils in to serpents as punishment for their disobedience. Milton tells of this on Satan's triumphant return to hell

"A while he stood, expecting

Their universal shout and high applause

To fill his ear, when contrary he hears

On all sides, from innumerable tongues

A dismal universal hiss, the sound

Of public scorn; he wondered, but not long

Had leisure, wondering at himself now more;

His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,

His arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining

Each other, till supplanted down he fell

A monstrous serpent on his belly prone,

Reluctant, but in vain, a greater power

Now ruled him, punished him in the shape he sinned,

According to his doom."


The Politics of Paradise Lost

As discussed above, Milton had been politically active during the years 1649-60: serving the Republic and Protectorate, writing tracts in defending the Regicide and the sanctity of the Republic. With the return of Charles II to England in 1660 the government reverted to monarchy, the very constitutional form Milton was so vehemently opposed to. A reading of The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Commonwealth reveals the extent of Milton's disdain for monarchical forms of government. In short Milton was an ardent republican and it is unfeasible that he would remain silent under a Stuart monarchy. During the 1640s and 1650s Milton produced tracts immersed in political theory; many of the theories regarding governmental forms are incorporated into Paradise Lost. Why Milton would do this in a Christian epic can only be explained by his continued interest in the political developments of England. References to Milton's blindness in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes invoke a symbolic gesture; by discussing his blindness, explicitly or otherwise, Milton is stating that he maintains the beliefs he held during the Republic. The discussion of his blindness in the Second Defense of the English People outlines that Milton lost his sight writing for the Republic; he chose the reception of the inner light of God over the ability to see. In Puritan terms, this was Milton's 'calling' or 'vocation' at a key moment in the history of the republican cause. His choice to follow God's path has brought him greater inner spirituality.

However, it is important to remember that Milton's life was in danger at the Restoration and throughout the 1660s. Because of the difficulties Milton faced in writing anything that could be construed as critical of the Stuart monarchy or celebrating the Republic, political themes in Paradise Lost are veiled. The length of Paradise Lost (in part, but not entirely) and the subtle allusions through which Milton makes his political comments were a safeguard the author deployed to protect himself from the censors. Milton's vast knowledge of the Bible and classical sources allowed him scope to draw very subtle allusions, parallels and analogies to events and issues of his own times in Paradise Lost.

Allusions to the North and the English Civil War

Satan raises his standard in the north (V.685-93). In August 1642 Charles I raised the royal standard at Nottingham, marking the formal entry into conflict with Parliament (though in reality, for various reasons, it was increasingly becoming unavoidable from the beginning of that year). In a sonnet to General Fairfax, Milton spoke of 'the false North'. It was from the 'North' that the Scottish Covenanters came to meddle in English affairs in 1648 and '51; and further, from whence the architect of the Restoration, General Monck, originated. In Paradise Regained Satan emerged out of the north and west for the final temptation (IV.448-9).

During the war in heaven, about a third of the angels follow Satan (Milton's figure is higher than the traditional one tenth), perhaps significant given that Charles I could rely on around the same number of MPs for the Royalist cause. The angels loyal to God show sentiments similar to that of the Parliamentarians during 1642; for the angels, as for the Parliamentarians,

"strange… it seemed

at first, that angel should with angel war

…who wont to meet

so oft in festivals of joy and love




"Brutish that contest foul,

When reason hath to deal with force."


The first battle of the war, like Edgehill, is inconclusive. The military stalemate and possibility of social chaos that ensues is all too familiar for the historian of the Civil War:

"War wearied hath performed what war can do,

And to disordered rage let loose the reins,

With mountains as with weapons armed, which makes

Wild work in heaven, and dangerous to the main."


The Son intervenes with the same devastation for Satan's forces as Cromwell, Fairfax and the New Model Army brought to the Royalist hopes. Milton's account of a protracted struggle in heaven was unusual; most commentators spoke of an abrupt fall of Satan, and earlier even Milton in De Doctrina says they "separated after a fairly even fight". Furthermore, Revelation 12:7-8, which Milton cites, does not validate this picture.

In his account of the war in Heaven, Raphael ponders,

"What if earth

Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein

Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?"


This point is reiterated by the heavenly choir ("this new-made world, another heaven", V.617) and Satan ("O earth, how like to heaven", IX.99).