There’s a line that I come across, in many a positive book review, describing how easy the book was to read. There’s a few different things this can mean, but usually it refers to simple, contemporary prose and excellent pacing. And I want to make clear from the onset here that I have nothing against easy reads. In fact, I’ve praised books for being easy reads myself several times. This quality doesn’t have to imply anything except itself – a book that is easy to read can still be deep, and affecting, and philosophical.
All that said, I want today to talk about books that are not easy to read. Books that are, in fact, the opposite. A book that is challenging, maybe even difficult to read. There are many such books that could fall under this category, usually considered classics or even academics, but as you’ve likely guessed, the one I am talking about today is ‘Paradise Lost.’
When I first heard various elements of ‘Paradise Lost’ as a child, I remember it changed the way I saw Christianity, not just a boring religion, but a mythology, just like that of the Greeks or Egyptians, so it’s really interesting to have actually read the book in full now.
And to reiterate, I found this a challenge to read, for a number of reasons. But I also enjoyed it more than I thought possible. It didn’t become my favourite book, or anything, but I did find some real value in its twelve books, and so I want to talk about that. This isn’t going to be one of my usual essays, because I don’t have as full an understanding of this book like I normally do before writing a blog post about a story. So instead, this is going to be more like a combination of a book commentary, and one of my discussion essays. I have some thoughts on daemons and angels, and I have some thoughts on challenging literature, and its value to us.
So, shall we begin?
Book I: A Boastful Ability to Memorise
Let me make one thing clear straight away – I have a truly dreadful memory. Like, I once forgot my own name, my memory is that bad. So it’s impressive to me just how many things Milton put into this book.
That is one of the main ways this book is difficult to read, the presence of long, drawn out similes and lists of names and items. It’s something you’ll be confronted with immediately.
Book I begins with Satan’s perspective, which is surprising for a story written in such devoutly Christian times, as he finds himself in the newly created pit of Hell with all of his fellow daemons, shortly after trying, and failing, to overthrow God in Heaven.
The story here is simultaneously about the daemons all finding themselves in Hell, and also agreeing to, effectively, try and defeat Heaven again. But this takes up a surprisingly small amount of this chapter’s word count.
Rather, what we spend most of Book I doing, is reading through a big list (think of the biggest thing you can, and this list is still larger) of daemons, nations, historical events and the ways in which they connect with one another in ancient history – or, from this book’s perspective, the distant future, I suppose.
It’s certainly a choice. It probably wouldn’t fly in today’s literature market. And it almost certainly leads to the vast majority of modern readers putting the book straight back down again.
Yet, strangely enough, I actually really like this chapter? Despite how difficult it is to get through this vast list of names and deeds, it’s also fascinating. It’s like a deep dive into the farthest reaches of fantasy worldbuilding, except it’s all here at once.
These are interesting references though, to mythology of various origins, as well as history and geography and culture. Some of the descriptions are up there with the best of fantasy and horror, providing the likes of Lovecraft with some real competition in terms of ancient celestial beings, but importantly giving us their personalities too, and also demonstrating (pun not intended) the teachings of both God and the Christianity of the time by featuring daemons such as Egyptian Gods or random spirits from other ancient civilisations.
You remember at this point that much of daemonology is based on what Christians don’t like. Some of it is valid enough, like the child murderer Moloch. But some of these daemons are literally just the deities of other religions. And in a strange and twisted way, it’s inspiring that these abandoned and exiled spirits have bonded together. Even if they are stuck in Hell.
Book II: Ye Godes ande Thy Poetrie
Another confession – I’m not really into poetry. I respect it sure enough. As an art form it holds immense creative value and that’s inherently impressive and compelling enough for me. But I’ve never really understood how to read a poem, and I’ve not really ever had much enjoyment from doing so.
But what really strikes me with ‘Paradise Lost,’ as much as anything, is how rare it is to tell a fantasy story (because that’s what this is) using poetry. Of course, at the time this wasn’t the case. ‘Beowulf,’ the writing of Homer (not the Simpson), ‘The Divine Comedy,’ all these classic tales and mythologies are considered poems, and not because they rhyme. Milton, in fact, despises rhyming, if his preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ is anything to go by.
In fact, the poetic form of this book is another of the main things that makes it so difficult to read, but it’s also what sets these classic works of fantasy apart from modern fantasy. There’s a certain artistry to their presentation, like these classic authors were forcing themselves to go above and beyond in terms of language, wordplay, rhythm. Modern fantasy can be written beautifully, and I’d argue that a lot of it is better than the classics, but I can’t deny the value of poetic presentation, and the kinds of writing that comes out of that decision.
As for what Book II uses this poetry to deliver, I’ll examine that a little more now.
Book III: No, I’m the Better Leader
Book II and III primarily concern Satan and God, respectively, speaking to their respective legion of adoring fans. And just like adoring fanbases today, these guys are never going to agree on anything. Nay, the only way forward is to go to war, and destroy thine enemies. How times haven’t changed.
But there are more concrete differences between these old fanbases. In Book II, the daemons hold a sort of council to discuss their next move, but all afeared, the daemons do not have the confidence to head out onto the world to do the deed. Seeing this, Satan decides to head out to meet Adam and Eve himself, and thus, avenge his people.
In quite the contrast of leadership, Book III confronts us with God and his angels for the first time. Here, God decides that humanity is hopeless and will inevitably succumb to Satan’s manipulations in the future. Having decided this, he has already chosen his punishment for both Satan and humanity to come in the future. Oh, and he will crucify his son too, for good measure.
Look, God is all loving and is always right, so I’m sure he has his reasons. And of course, Satan is pure evil and only wants to ruin everything, which means his charm and leadership can only be manipulation. But, erm, don’t you think Satan comes across as the better leader here?
To be fair, we’ll see a lot of depth from God, Jesus and the angels as the book progresses. But at this point, it is Satan who seems to be getting all the sympathy points, and who seems to have the more depth, the clearer motive.
I’m not going to tell you this is all that difficult to stomach. Today, religion is becoming less prominent of a force and most people aren’t scared of the devil. But at the time, the opposite was true, and I imagine it was very challenging to be confronted with a book that not only opens with the Dark Lord’s perspective, but dares to show him in a sympathetic light, and furthermore, that makes God himself look so cruel just a chapter later!
In writing an analysis on the value of challenging books, it’s important to consider that what we consider challenging to read today, and what would have been considered challenging back in the day, are not going to be the same. But they will be equally valuable.
It’s difficult to determine how much value readers of Milton at the time drew from the disparity between ‘Bible’ God/Satan and ‘Paradise Lost’ God/Satan. Some of them probably got the same kind of message we would today, while others were likely to be strongly opposed to it, but I imagine a lot saw this in the light I presented it in above – that ‘God has his reasons’ and ‘Satan is all manipulation.’ Perhaps they’re even right in that, to a certain extent. Either way, I can be sure that being confronted with such a versatile and deep deconstruction of these two major deities had the potential for value, for anyone who let it in.
As I said, Satan as the sympathetic character is not so difficult today (we’re more familiar with complex villains for one thing) but just like how complex language and poetic form are challenging for us, in contrast, this depiction of Satan would have been challenging and even controversial, back then.
The important thing is being willing to seriously confront challenging elements of a story. Stories have the ability to teach us things, and to help us grow, and provide value of so many different forms. But you have to meet the book in the middle. In other words, reading a book even if it looks and sounds intimidating. Yes, even if it uses scary words from four hundred years ago.
Book IV: Challenging Satan
In my essays, I like to discuss the idea that a book’s main character, either protagonist or antagonist, embodies in some way the greater conflicts and complexities of the story being told. In this way, do any of the characters in ‘Paradise Lost’ embody the concept of being challenged?
In Book IV, Satan arrives in Paradise. He is confronted with the beauty that God has bestowed onto humanity and he feels envy, even hatred, of pleasures he was not allowed to enjoy and partake. This makes sense as Satan is, of course, the father of sin, and Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
But rather than confronting this envy in a constructive way, he decides to manipulate Adam and Eve into betraying God – revenge.
We’re all familiar with this idea, but Milton does present it with added depth. Not for Adam and Eve, admittedly. Those guys are just kind of pathetic, and saccharine. But with Satan himself now being a perspective character, we’re provided some level of insight to his emotional state.
Milton didn’t need to go this far. He could have kept Satan as the being of pure evil he always has been before and since. But I’m glad he chose the more difficult option.
Because just as it’s important for us readers to engage with challenging stories, it’s equally important for the stories’ characters to be challenged in some way. That creates conflict, and that allows us to gain some emotional reaction to the events taking place on the page.
In other words, I appreciate that while crafting something that has become a challenging read today, Milton also created something else – a challenging character for both today, and the time of publication.
Book V: They Deserved Deific Wrath, Alright
It was tough getting through Book V, and it was tough realising that I wasn’t going to enjoy this story as much as I thought I was. While the book was a challenge beforehand, but one I was getting a lot of value from, Book V was simply difficult.
Adam is having a conversation with Raphael, the angel, by now, and we start getting a lot of backstory for the book, but this is also our first real introduction to the two humans. I mentioned already that Adam and Eve were pathetic and saccharine – they may just be the only characters in this story who are one dimensional. On top of this chapter also being, basically, thirty pages of worshipping God, you can probably understand why this was the most difficult chapter to push through.
But I also wonder if this was, at least in part, the point. At the time it was probably taken for par the course – we worship God. But I wonder if, paired with everything else we learn of this book in today’s context, Milton had deeper plans.
Like, maybe the one dimensional nature of Adam and Eve was the point? Some greater argument about the sin of blind worship, the bad side of their ignorance. Of course, ignorance is the very thing Satan is going to take away from them, and this is portrayed – in part – as a bad thing. But I get the sense that Milton didn’t agree.
Maybe this was supposed to be just as challenging, like Milton was wrestling with his own issues concerning Christianity. You never know.
Book VI: Fight! Fight! Fight!
I really like it when a book surprises me. It’s one of the main things I want from a story – to be surprised. And there are a number of things I expected ‘Paradise Lost’ to do, as well as a bunch of things I thought it wouldn’t do. But I never in a million years could have expected for Book VI to have a goddamn anime sword fight between angels and daemons.
Milton was ahead of his time.
Another interesting element of this chapter is God and Jesus being capable of hate. I’m sure Christians will excuse this as being hateful towards the hateful, but to me, it’s a point of greater discussion and a point of greater depth for these typically one-note characters.
And it makes sense – God and Jesus would hate Satan and his fallen angels. Look at what they’ve done. Like at what they’re still trying to do.
I never expected to read about Jesus going to battle, surrounded by angel swordsmen. And certainly not from a book written in the 1600s.
Book VII: Hello Surrealism, My Old Friend
If I failed to expect a fantasy fight scene, I maybe should have expected the surrealist dream-fantasy that would follow. Okay, Milton has diverse tastes in fiction. And might also be a time traveller.
Surrealism is my favourite flavour of fantasy – drawing from dreamlogic and hallucinations, pairing things that don’t belong together to produce weird, creative elements of story and character. It’s simply the best.
It also didn’t exist until the aftermath of World War I, and so Milton couldn’t have possibly known about it. Can he? Anyway, here’s a chapter about cows burrowing out of the soil because God told them to exist.
Look, it’s still totally illogical as a tale of creation, but this version of Genesis adding surreal and dreamlike elements turns the tale into a sort of absurdist fantasy, and therefore, it’s a much better version of Genesis.
Cows! Burrowing out of the soil!
Book VIII: Adam, Awkwardness, and Angels
It’s been a good few chapters now of Adam chatting on with a winged ninja turtle, and the book has deviated quite a bit from Satan, which I initially thought was its whole deal. However, this chapter gives us some important insight as to why Satan has such a problem with God. We already knew some of this of course, both from Satan’s POV chapters, and from the anime sword fight. But here we get some more insight thanks to Raphael.
The refusal to provide knowledge, the dislike of equality, the general awkwardness – for instance God arguing against Adam about something he actually agreed with all along. These are the things God first makes known on creating Adam, and it makes him less likeable in the story, which, by extension, makes us side even more with Satan.
It brings me back to what I said about Adam and Eve being sort of pathetic, and saccharine. It might be just what God wanted them to be. And maybe the fact that I disliked their characters so much is telling? Maybe this is the reason Satan is against God as well, and Adam and Eve simply didn’t know that was an option yet.
Again, this might not be so challenging depending on who you are. But it’s proof of the way this book got me thinking more deeply about things I might otherwise have glossed over. And that also, is another point of value from reading a challenging book.
Book IX: The Snake Made Me Do It
You know this already, I’d imagine. But Eve ate a piece of fruit that God told her not to, because a snake started speaking which it hadn’t done before, so she ate the fruit, thus turning against God.
This isn’t the plot of an absurdist comedy, it’s one of the main teachings of Christianity. It’s also often touted as blatant sexism, which I would agree with in ordinary contexts.
But I think there’s a little more to it in ‘Paradise Lost’ as a result of all the extra legwork Milton put into the story. For instance, don’t you think it’s weird how quickly and easily Eve turned against God? And that Adam chose to join her even though he didn’t need to?
Well, I don’t anymore.
Because we’ve seen, thanks to Satan’s POV chapters, and Raphael’s narration of God’s early actions, that maybe people don’t want to follow God as a leader. And maybe they have valid reasons.
In other words, I don’t think the snake had anything to do with it. I get the impression that turning against God was inevitable in this story. Especially considering that God himself ‘foretold’ this would happen long before Satan ever stepped foot (or slithered, or turned into a mist or whatever) in the garden of Eden.
I don’t get the impression that Adam and Eve would have been Godfearing like they were before, all that long anyway. Fruit or no fruit.
It seems simultaneously like they were always going to make that decision, and also that they had no decision. Like it was fate.
Adam and Eve are ultimately just pathetic pawns in God and Satan’s battle. This makes them seem like deeper characters (well, maybe not characters, but deeper narrative devices) than they would be otherwise. It also goes some way to undermine our sympathy for Satan, seeing how he isn’t just curing us of ignorance. He’s using us as a tool to beat God.
That’s all we are to both of them – a bunch of tools.
Well, fair enough I suppose.
In any case, it’s fascinating to see this deconstruction of Adam and Eve. Not only their actions here, and their place in the greater narrative, but also their fights with each other, their lust, their self loathing. They become so much edgier and darker this chapter, both before and after eating the fruit, and it soils their prior saccharine, pathetic nature. Seeing all this almost makes it worth putting up with how dull they were in previous chapters.
Book X: Justify the Ways of God to Men
^ That is what Milton set out to do with this book, according to the description on the back of my copy. I don’t think he succeeded there, at least not in the way I understand ‘justify’ to mean.
In Book X, the transgression as it is described becomes known, and it is time for God to dish out his punishments. And to be honest, if at this point you did find God’s ways justified, this is the chapter to break that once and for all.
God becomes a real fascist now, all the way off the deep end, dishing out absurd, horrifying and excessively extreme punishments. There’s no gore, or anything like that. But the psychological torment such punishments must bring out are clear.
No one is happy in this chapter – not even Sin and Death are satisfied with their new occupation. Adam and Eve are forced out of the garden. Adam is to work in the soil, thorns cutting him all the while. Things are worse for Eve, who is now forced to serve under Adam and undergo agonising and sorrowful childbirth. Even the bloody snake has its legs ‘deleted’ out of existence, and all he did was get possessed for five minutes.
Milton describes the punishment of the snake as being “mysterious,” a common defence of God’s insane actions, but I think the reason he didn’t critique it further is merely so he didn’t offend the Christian reader of the time.
God also knows that Satan had a part in this transgression, but despite Satan and the daemons having already been punished through being exiled to Hell… well, apparently God doesn’t think that’s enough anymore.
The surrealism I love so much now comes back as surreal horror – the daemons all losing their ability to walk, speak and hold weapons, and turning to snakes, forced to pursue fruits that turn to ash in their mouths.
At the same time, Adam becomes incredibly misogynistic to the point that Eve believes this misogyny herself and falls to self loathing.
“Justify the ways of God to men.”
Nah, I don’t think so, mate. Rather, I think it reinforces how cruel and tyrannical we all know God can be. Of course, ‘justify’ has a number of possible meanings. It could mean to prove something as reasonable, right, or true. Maybe Milton was only arguing God’s actions to be true… and nothing more.
In any case, the fact that this book is making me think so deeply is testament to its value as a work of art. It includes a lot of the worst elements of Christianity… but I think you need to do that if you’re going to deconstruct such things and present them while saying, “Look how surreal and horrifying this is in simply a slightly different lens.”
It’s a further example of how challenging this book is not only to read, but to think about and analyse – which is probably why today’s essay is turning out so long!
Book XI: Biblical Horrors
I’ve been talking about the fantasy elements of ‘Paradise Lost,’ the way it brings in elements you don’t expect, subgenres being brought in and taken out again, but I only briefly went into the horror of the book. There is a lot of that to go around – with many aspects being disturbing or even outright creepy, such as the angels and their appearance.
One of the things that makes Christianity itself so challenging to believe in today, is the old testament, and the horrors that can be found there.
It’s well known at this point that angels used to be perceived as frightening, with surreal, uncanny appearances that would make people freeze in terror. They’re not just people with bird wings. Milton wrestles with both of these depictions by providing a surreal horror depiction of cherubim – you know the one, four wings, four heads, way too many eyeballs – but intelligently, he has them take on a human form when they appear to Adam and Eve. That’s great fantasy writing.
The reason the angels are once again appearing to Adam and Eve in Book XI is because God is sending Michael (not me, I assure you) to show Adam the future, allow him to know what death is in its many forms, of disease, of war, of the coming flood.
This is the real bad side of knowledge, the supposed element God was protecting them from. Knowledge not only of good but of evil. And while Adam and Eve might reason that it is better to know evil so it can be avoided… here now is the reality of knowing evil. A horrific bout of foresight, with an overwhelming number of names given to cities and diseases, wars and many, many deaths, a vast list to rival even that first list we spoke about. It’s a “careful what you wish for” sort of deal showing us the dark side of knowledge before paradise is taken away from them.
Cleverly, it also provides a further tyrannical representation of God’s demands, of his teachings combining the good and just, with something darker and more terrible – for instance that those who do not eat and drink to excess will have peaceful deaths… unless they are atheist, and then they shall be drowned in a global flood.
I’ve spent a lot of time knocking the characters in this story, but I want to reiterate that these are excellent characters, or at the very least excellent narrative devices, in the case of Adam and Eve and some of the angels and daemons… they’re just also really cruel.
Book XII: This is the End
In the end, paradise has been lost for a great many reasons.
Satan lost paradise when he was kicked out of Heaven and banished to Hell.
Adam and Eve lost paradise at their own minor transgression, when they too were exiled.
God also lost paradise in a way. Losing both a number of his angels, and humanity. Having peace, fall to war.
This book doesn’t have an ending, not really. Nothing is tied up. There’s no resolution. No final argument being made. It’s a deeply unsatisfying final chapter, all told.
But I imagine the characters feel the same way, so maybe that too is a powerful choice for this specific story? I don’t know. As I said, I don’t feel like I have as full an understanding of ‘Paradise Lost’ as I usually do when covering a book on this blog.
What I do know, is that it was a challenging read that I’m glad I pushed through, as I found a lot of value in it which, hopefully, I’ve at least partly passed onto you. Maybe I’ve even convinced you to try reading this one yourself. If you do, I recommend pacing yourself. Take it slowly. Try and digest it all.
‘Paradise Lost’ is a tough read. But it’s a valuable read. And it can provoke a lot of discussion, a lot of thought, if you let it.
There’s a lot more I could say about ‘Paradise Lost,’ such as its exploration of evil and what it means, or its multi-layered analysis of Hell, and what that means, or an even greater discussion on angels and daemons, and God and Satan.
Ultimately though, this essay isn’t just about ‘Paradise Lost.’ It’s about stories that challenge the reader, which can be done in multitude different ways. Ultimately, I think all good stories are challenging. Some more than others? Maybe. But if we can write challenging characters, in challenging narratives, exploring challenging themes, I think the value in that is somewhat obvious.
Oh damn! I didn’t manage to work a list of three into this essay. Well, I guess it’s also obvious then, what that’s going to be. To finish off, here are three important values of reading challenging stories:
It can force you to engage with ideas and presentation styles you wouldn't ordinarily take on board, thus gleaming new insight towards both literature and storytelling in general.
It can encourage deep thought, both about the story in question, and possibly about some more broad idea or subject, which can in turn lead to deep discussions with other readers.
By challenging yourself with a story, it can encourage a reader to challenge themselves outside of the story as well, through thinking about or looking into different aspects of the world, whether it's through story or something else.
Perhaps it isn’t just reading challenging books, though. We’ve already discussed the way characters can be challenged within the context of the story. Maybe writing challenging stories can also have immense value. I certainly think that is true. In any case, I recommend challenging yourself using fiction, whether it’s reading or writing. Then you can tell me what value you got out of it, and we can have another discussion about that…