As the other demons obey Lucifer's call, Milton describes how these are false gods, who were once worshiped but now have been transformed into terrible beings -- such as Moloch, once worshiped as a god, now a devil who demands human sacrifice. This is the kind of transformation that Milton uses to tell his story: This is an archetypal story of how the lightness is made dark. His description of the diminishing of once-great and powerful (and beneficent) gods and their transmutation into their own opposites provides us with an epistemological microcosm of Milton's world. (Milton would no doubt argue that this is also a microcosm of God's world.)
One of the most important structural aspects of the poem is that as we move through it we shift our connection to the characters. The point of perspective does not shift, or not exactly, for we always hear the story through the narrator's voice. But as different characters take center-stage in the story, we feel our own sense of not quite allegiance but identification shift. Milton takes nearly one quarter of the epic to tell us the story of Satan and it feels impossible not to identify with him in some measure. And even although we know this story, even though we know who is good and who is evil and where this is all heading, as we hear Milton's description of Lucifer's strength and even his magnificence (for he is wondrous, if dark) we find ourselves sympathizing with Lucifer.
The story for the first several books is Lucifer's story, or it seems as if it might be (Forsyth 16). For Milton makes it clear the strength that Lucifer has gained in his fall and how naive Adam and Eve are. As we read through the first four books, as we read of Satan's stratagems and, we are made viscerally aware of the ways in which Eve and Adam will be dragged across the line into the world of darkness with Lucifer, of how they have been transformed. And of how much energy the original humans will need to turn themselves back to the life (Fish 71). As we read Milton's version of this well-known story we understand the choice that each of us has to turn to the darkness or the light.
The Garden of Eden: At Every Turn An Opposite
Once we arrive, in Book Four, in Eden and the creation of humanity, we are plunged almost violently into a world in which everything has its opposite. There is, of course, the opposition of male to female. This is another moment in the poem in which Milton asks us to contemplate the ways in which dualism and transformation are linked to each other. Adam and Eve are direct opposites: Male and female, first and not-first, original and derivation, master and servant. And yet they begin as the same being. This is one of the conundrums of creation -- how opposites can emerge out of each other. (Ironically, this version of creation is of course the opposite of what occurs in reality, in which a male being emerges from a woman.)
Reading Milton's tale of a twofold universe reminds one of how fundamentally misogynistic the story that he is relating is, and Milton's retelling of the fall from the garden is at least as poisoned against Eve as the original. For the fundamental opposition in the chapter of the expulsion from the garden is not that of male against female (although that is there) or even goodness (Adam) against evil (the snake, but also Eve as the snake's enabler), but that of life against death. And in this pairing, Adam is given to us on the side of life while Eve (and again the serpent) are representative of death. This symbolism is expressed in Milton's description of the two trees in the garden in which Adam reminds Eve of the obedience that they owe to God. (This passage limns some of the other important points of dualism in the poem -- Adam's obedience against Eve's disobedience and human control over the natural world within the garden against humanity's helplessness once the gates of the garden are closed against them.) Here Adam speaks:
That rais'd us from the dust and plac't us here-In all this happiness, who at his hand-Have nothing merited, nor can performe-Aught whereof hee hath need, hee who requires-From us no other service then to keep-This one, this easie charge, of all the Trees-In Paradise that bear delicious fruit-So various, not to taste that onely Tree-Of knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life, So neer grows Death to Life, what ere Death is, ?Som dreadful thing no doubt; for well thou knowst-God hath pronounc't it death to taste that Tree, The only sign of our obedience left-Among so many signes of power and rule
Book Four, lines 416-429
Adam will later acknowledge that their expulsion from Eden is something of a lucky fault, which is Milton's reminder to the reader that it is possible to turn from one pole to the other. This reconsideration on Adam's part of the meaning of humanity's mortality arises not from a contrasting of good and evil, for the pair outside of the garden are not evil but simply lost. So when Milton has Adam reflect that perhaps losing paradise was good for the two humans he is reminding us that Adam and Eve have returned to the side of God, who never, of course, abandoned them as they abandoned him.
One of the most fascinating symbols in Book Four -- and I think of the entire epic -- is that Satan, when he enters the garden and hides from Adam and Eve, disguises himself as a cormorant. I think that Milton chooses this disguise for Satan in part because cormorants are large, dark birds, and Milton wants to emphasize the fact that Satan is the same kind of massive, dark, and lurking presence that these birds embody. But I believe that Milton also chooses this particular avatar for Satan because cormorants are ambiguous creatures. Seabirds, they belong to both the water and the land, or the water and the sky. They posses in themselves their own duality, which for Milton makes them inherently suspect. In his world, things are either one thing or another and cormorants are neither fish nor fowl (nor good red herring, to complete the trope). Anything that contains both sides of a dualistic equation in such a perfect balance must be fundamentally untrustworthy (Kelly 135).
In a rather different vein, the snake is an ambiguous figure, although Milton may not have intended it to be so, for in his version (and this was generally true in his era) the snake is entirely, well, satanized. It is a symbol of evil, the instrument by which humans are turned to the darkness. But there are echoes within Christian tradition of the snake as a much more ambivalent figure. It is designated as one of the unclean animals in the Old Testament and is one of the plagues that God sends against an erring humanity.
But there is also the example of the brazen serpent that God requires Moses to make to cure those who were bitten by the snakes. Thus we are presented in the Old Testament with the image of snake as both killer (for it helps to force Adam and Eve from the garden and so into the perils of mortality) and as savior. (The bishop's crook is a derivation of the shape of this brazen serpent.)
In Arabic, the words for "snake," "life," and "teaching" are all related to the name of Eve -- the biblical version of the Goddess with her serpent form, who gave the food of enlightenment to the first many Of course, in the Bible both Eve and her serpent were much diabolized; but Gnostic sects of the early Christian era retained some of the older ideas about their collaboration concerning the fruit of knowledge. Some sects worshiped the snake as a benevolent Female Spiritual Principle, who taught Adam and Eve what they needed to know about God's duplicity... The Gnostics honored Eve and the serpent for providing the essential knowledge that made human beings human (Walker 527).
Milton seems to reject entirely this more beneficent version of the serpent, and it seems likely that his readers would have done so as well, given the orthodoxy of the time. But for us, as postmodern readers from the twenty-first century, we can perhaps better appreciate the complexity of the symbol of the snake (Herman 181).
One of the great questions in the reading of any important piece of literature (and, I suppose, of any trivial as well) is to what extent should we try to read and appreciate a work from the perspective of its author and his or her moment in history or from our own time…