Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 16 & 17

More Paradise Lost in one month. Over the weekend, I got to the end of Book 6, at Line 912.

God the Father has decided it’s time to finish off the rebel angels and so tells the Son that his moment of glory has arrived. Jesus boards his chariot with Victory by his side and his bow and quiver “with three-bolted thunder stored” (L 764). The demons see him coming, but like Pharaoh when asked to set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, “they hardened more” (L 791) on seeing his glory. No one else helps Jesus against the rebels. The victory will be his alone and Milton makes plain that it’s the rebels’ own doing that has brought about their doom. Jesus is a wrathful figure, and these are not the kind of images likely to feature in many contemporary sermons (L 835-43):

Among them he arrived; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent
Before him, such as in their souls infixed
Plagues; they astonished all resistance lost,
All courage; down their idle weapons dropped;
O'er shields and helms, and helmed heads he rode
Of thrones and mighty seraphim prostrate,
That wished the mountains now might be again
Thrown on them as a shelter from his ire.

And it’s all effortless. This is the real shocker: that contrast between the two-day battle between the loyal and rebel angels which the good angels were winning but with a great deal of effort and with nothing decisive. The Son hardly breaks sweat (L 853-55):

Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked
His thunder in mid volley, for he meant
Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven:

The descriptions in this entire section are as vivid and dramatic as any page-turner blockbuster. The Son appears to sweep the rebels towards the chasm opening up beyond the borders of heaven. They can’t resist (L 862-866):

the monstrous sight
Strook them with horror backward, but far worse
Urged them behind; headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of heaven, eternal wrath
Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.

Definitely, read all of this bit! The anguish and desperation is powerfully conveyed. The rebels fall for nine days through chaos before “hell at last/ Yawning received them whole, and on them closed” (L 874-75); the sheer force of it! – the yawn like an animal receiving its dinner without the slightest effort on its part, the food received whole almost like a snake, the mouth closing into darkness.

The Son returns to heaven to a palm branch waving crowd, which made me think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but which may have its roots here more in the apocalyptic literature of Revelation 7: 9, where a white-robed crowd stand before the throne in heaven, palm branches (signs of victory) in their hands, singing triumphant songs.

1 comment:

Andrew Philip said...

This thunders business is quite Greek, really. I can't think off hand of anywhere in the Bible where God is associated with thunder. In fact, Elijah's experience on Horeb contradicts that notion. However, if I remember rightly, one of the epithets of Zeus in The Iliad is "the Thunderer", which is one of the things the demons call God.