Christianity and Greek Epic Tradition as Devices for Milton's Object in Paradise Lost
The widely known story of the Genesis account in the Bible of the creation and fall of humankind does not make for a very interesting story. Almost anyone familiar with Western tradition can provide at least this basic outline: God makes angels, the best angel wants to be God, the angel gets kicked out of Heaven into Hell, goes to the garden of Eden, persuades Eve to eat an apple, and down plunges humanity. So why, then, did Milton choose to use this particular piece of Biblical narrative, first, above his original intention of an Arthurian tale, and second, above any other account in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments?
Milton answers these questions both simply and enigmatically in the beginning of the poem: "What in me is dark/ Illumine, what is low raise and support;/ That to the heighth of this great Argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men" (Milton 47). The question that humanity begs an answer for, above all, is the reason for the rampant evil in the world. Many people over the last several centuries, and many Christians even, cannot reconcile the existence of unchecked evil alongside a loving, merciful God. Milton would heartily agree that characteristics of God can be found in any situation in the Bible (and so he did draw from these in other works), but within Milton's enlightened seventeenth-century society, the scientific process itself dictated that to discover the meaning of any process, one had to go back to the catalytic moment. In order to answer the most theologically difficult question this side of B.C., Milton had no choice but to go back to the beginning and see, with what mortal reasoning can conceive, the necessity of what God allowed.
The next question that is begged involves the use of poetry: only the lofty language of the epic poem can contain the absurdity of such unimaginable events as war in Heaven or Paradise and still be an aesthetically worthy literary work. In combining traditional Greek epic poetic form with known Christian history and Protestant beliefs, Milton artfully accomplished his object in the justification of characteristically infinite Divine ways to the finite reasoning of mortal man.
Foremost, Paradise Lost is an epic poem after the traditional Greek epic form. Taking that further, Encyclopædia Britannica claims that Paradise Lost "is generally regarded as the greatest epic poem in the English language" ("Milton"). Here, I will examine just a sampling of characteristics that an epic comprises, and the way in which Milton fulfills this quality. To begin with, while Milton was greatly influenced by (and probably knew by heart) Homer's works, he used Virgil's The Aeneid as his primary epic model for Paradise Lost. Milton devotes the first two books to Satan and his languishing legions as we come to know them individually as heathen gods. Similarly, Virgil...