More Paradise Lost in one month. Yesterday and today, I reached Book 6, Line 679.
Abdiel returns to celestial applause. The heavenly armies are massing, led by Michael and Gabriel. They march off in mid-air, so as to have an untroubled passage, and soon the two armies are face-to-face. Abdiel scolds Satan for his folly. He says that God “at one blow/ Unaided could have finished thee, and whelmed/ Thy legions under darkness” (L 140-42), and then, recalling the council meeting when only Abdiel took Satan on, says, “now learn too late/ How few sometimes may know, when thousands err” (L 147-48).
Satan echoes the Bible in his answer in L 166-69 (Hebrews 1: 13f – “To which of the angels said he at any time, ‘Sit on my right hand?...Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to ministering for them who shall be heirs of salvation?”):
I see that most through sloth had rather serve,
Ministering spirits, trained up in feast and song;
Such hast thou armed, the minstrelsy of heaven,
Servility with freedom to contend
But Abdiel has an answer all ready for that one. Satan has come out with this allegation before, that the angels are servile, “trained up,” and have so abdicated their notional freedom, but Abdiel comes at the question slant (L 178-83):
This is servitude,
To serve the unwise, or him who hath rebelled
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthralled;
Yet leudly dar'st our ministering upbraid.
Reign thou in hell thy kingdom, let me serve
In heaven God ever blessed
This also echoes, ironically, back to Satan’s speech in Book 1, line 263 – “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Abdiel swings his sword and rips through Satan’s crest. Satan backtracks. The battle begins. It goes on for a while and seems, to begin with, quite equal. In the middle of the chaos, Satan spots Michael and runs over to have a chat with him. The battle isn’t much detailed. It’s as though Milton deliberately decided to stand at a distance. One critic says that Milton felt war to be an unsuitable subject for epic poetry and only includes these battles because they are necessary for the plot. A modern-day battle-scene would have blood spattered all over the page, but with Milton, you get lines like this (L 211-17):
dire was the noise
Of conflict; over head the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew,
And flying vaulted either host with fire.
Sounder fiery cope together rushed
Both battles main, with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage
It’s as though the camera eye is always panning out. Even when Michael is swinging his sword about, it’s “squadrons at once” (L 250) that are “felled,” not much close up. So a lot left to the imagination. When Milton mentions a few battles between individual later on, he says he leaves out most of the details.
Michael tells Satan that he’s brought evil into existence and he should go back to hell immediately, or worse will happen to him. Satan is scornful and says he will win the fight, but Michael wounds him on the arm. It’s here we learn the first major disadvantage that Satan will have to cope with. The heavenly angels are impervious to pain, but Satan’s armies, through sin, have opened themselves to suffering. Their wounds heal after a short time, but they suffer pain until healing takes place. Satan’s followers step in to help him recover, but the episode is a bitter blow to his pride. The heavenly forces begin to take a decisive advantage and Satan’s troops have to retreat. While the demons can’t die, the pain they suffer is decisive.
Night falls and the demons come together. Their morale is at rock bottom. Satan tries to rally them by saying that God had sent forces he hoped would defeat them, but he hasn’t managed it – if they can hold on for one day, they can do it again, he argues (the argument is dodgy, as God hasn’t yet played an active part in the battle – he’s left it to his angels). Satan says they are healing, they’ve proved invulnerable despite the new pain, and perhaps the invention of “weapons more violent” (L 439) could swing things their way.
Nisroc speaks. He says they can’t go on fighting the impassive and invulnerable while feeling pain themselves. It’s hopeless. He then turns his irony, by implication, on Satan himself (L 464-68):
He who therefore can invent
With what more forcible we may offend
Our yet unwounded enemies, or arm
Our selves with like defence, to me deserves
No less than for deliverance what we owe.
He’s saying that anyone who can come up with the force to defeat their enemies will have their allegiance (i.e. not necessarily Satan). Satan remains calm. He says he already has the invention in raw materials below the soil of heaven – gunpowder! They begin looking beneath the ground and find the materials they need to make gunpowder. A little later, the heavenly armies see them coming and are pleased about it. As the cherub, Zophiel puts it (L 538-39):
Arm, warriors, arm for fight, the foe at hand,
Whom fled we thought, will save us long pursuit
But the demons divide heir flanks, and through the middle come their guns. When they fire them, the heavenly angels are thrown back in large numbers. There’s almost a comedy element to this, although I’m not sure it’s intentional (L 592-94):
That whom they hit, none on their feet might stand,
Though standing else as rocks, but down they fell
By thousands, angel on archangel rolled;
Milton does say shortly afterwards that their undignified collapsing both rendered them “more despised” (L 602) and gave “to their foes a laughter.” (L 603). So maybe comedy/farce is right enough. The heavenly forces are anything but amused. They solve their temporary problem by picking up entire mountains and hills and throwing them at the demons. They weren’t expecting that! The demons are in big trouble again. God isn’t to keen to have much more of heaven torn to pieces and decides it’s getting near time for his Son to finish things off.