The Paradox of John Milton’s Book 5 Paradise Lost
Eve’s dream, created by Satan’s whispering in her ear as she sleeps, foreshadows her ultimate temptation and downfall. God’s decision to send Raphael to warn Adam about the dangers ahead also foreshadows their fall, although the fact that it does so is paradoxical. After all, the ostensible purpose of sending Raphael is to arm Adam and Eve with knowledge, so that they won’t fall from sheer ignorance. We might expect Raphael’s visit to give Adam and Eve a fighting chance, creating more suspense and doubt as to the outcome, but this is not the case. Every Christian reader already knows that Adam and Eve will fall, so instead of creating suspense, Raphael’s words of instruction only heighten our sense of the gravity of their sin and the tragedy of their disobedience.
There is a further paradox in the fact that even as Milton foreshadows the fall and makes it seem inevitable and predestined, he strives to prove that the fall was anything but inevitable. Paradise Lost insists that Adam and Eve had free will and were protected by adequate knowledge and understanding. In fact, Milton’s poem goes much further in this regard than the Bible, which does not include Raphael’s warning visit or God’s own assurance that Adam and Eve have free will. These parts of the story are Milton’s invention, and his insistence on humankind’s free will flew in the face of what most Puritans believed. Since we know the end of the story from the first line of the poem, this emphasis on free will does not generate an impression of greater possibility, but rather informs our understanding of what Adam and Eve’s sin means.
When Raphael begins to tell Adam about the war in Heaven, he first admits that explaining these events presents a challenge, because the spiritual beings involved are beyond human comprehension, and it may even be unlawful for him to tell of these things. Raphael here describes problems that Milton himself has to confront in Paradise Lost, including how to narrate religious mysteries in a form that will be understood, but also the problem of what authorizes Milton to explain these mysteries at all. Much of Paradise Lost is based on the Book of Genesis, but much of it is Milton’s invention. Moreover, Milton presents his epic not as a fiction based on Christian scripture, but as a divinely inspired Christian document. We may well wonder why Milton, a devout Christian, thought he could presume to explain such matters as the origins of Christ and Satan and the details of life in Paradise. Part of the answer probably is that Milton truly believes that his poem is divinely inspired, and that the Holy Spirit, as the source of all creativity, speaks through him. Another part of the answer may be that Milton does present Paradise Lost as a fiction that conveys truths not literally but allegorically. Thus, he adapts his subject matter to the conventional expectations of an epic poem, thereby using a literary form that his audience was already familiar with. The truth of his poem lies in its interpretation rather than in its plot.
One way in which Milton follows the conventions of epic poetry is by having Raphael narrate the long background story of the origin and course of the war in Heaven. The great Greek and Latin epics begin by situating their characters in the middle of the story and then turning backward to recount events that occurred before the story began. This style of narration, referred to as in medias res (Latin for “in the middle of things”), allows the epic poem to begin with engaging scenes and action to immediately engage our interest and attention. When the story is underway, the narrator can confidently return to fill in the gaps in our knowledge and give us further context about the story we are reading. Milton uses a similar tactic in Book V, throwing both Adam and us, the readers, in the middle of the story. We, like Adam, have heard only about Heaven’s side of the war in Heaven and about Adam and Eve’s early days. Raphael then informs us of the world’s creation and its structures and hierarchies.
Milton uses Raphael’s story to present another of his unorthodox religious views. Milton believed that the Son had an origin and was thus not eternal. This notion challenged traditional Christian belief, which holds that the Son (Jesus) is coeternal with the Father —although they relate as father and son, there was no “birth” or starting point for the divine relationship or for either of them. Since they are two parts of the same eternal God, they must both have existed for eternity. Milton rejects this idea with his assertion that there was a specific time when the Father begat the Son. Milton certainly did not deny the divinity of Jesus, but his challenging belief in Jesus’ separate origin reminds us that he was never afraid to distance himself from conventional religion, and that he trusted his own interpretations more than those of any institution.