Last night I finished John Milton's Paradise Lost and for me it is the greatest story ever told. Note that it's not my favourite book, that place is taken by something much more modern (and the topic for a future post). I'm sure that while many people will have heard of Paradise Lost, they won't have read it. Or will have tried and given up pretty quickly. It's easy to understand why, by today's standards it is a difficult read. Although I prefer the original text I have discovered a prose edition that provides an excellent translation of the original.
I'm not a scholar so I don't intend to provide an in depth analysis, but there are a few key points that make this the greatest story ever told. The first is scale, the story is epic in every sense of the word. It deals with the start of all things, a war in Heaven, the creation of the universe and the fall of man and promise of our redemption.
Let me state right here that I am not a religious person. I was brought up in a Catholic household, but have since become ambivalent about religion. Paradise Lost is very much a religious text, but that doesn't mean it has no relevance for non-believers. In fact in some respects I think it contains more relevance for the non-believer. Why so?
Milton provides an elegant understanding of the glory of God and his creations in a way that might not be felt by the reader, but certainly in a way that can be understood from the text. He also brings God, Christ and the other eminent entities into our understanding by making the characters we can relate to.
Probably not Milton's intention, but a side effect of this is to create the ultimate anti-hero. Lucifer, or Satan as he he becomes known after his fall. After all his place has been usurped by the anointed Christ he rebels. He rebels against the ultimate authority and I think most of us can find some sympathy with that. He also demonstrates many human qualities, admittedly some are less admirable like jealousy, envy and deception. However he does also present qualities like loyalty, courage and determination. A character more complex than his title as the Prince of Evil would suggest.
Another interesting aspect is the paradoxes it raises. They all represent the sacrifice that faith requires. For example why did God require than humanity has free will and that we must be tested in our devotion by temptation? On the face of it this is clear support for the illogical nature of faith. But on the other side of the coin it represents the foundations for faith. That you accept your part in the mystery. Milton makes great efforts and succeeds in portraying the majesty of this belief, something I can respect even if I do not share it.
Finally the book at its core is a love story. Not in the sense of romance, but something more noble. It starts with a love triangle between God, Christ and Lucifer and ends with the triangle between Adam, Eve and God. It is our capacity to love that allows us to join the hosts of Heaven.
The book in many ways is a product of its time. This is most apparent in the writing, to our modern eyes it can seem incomprehensible. It can be learned, but that takes time. A few years ago I discovered the Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition which makes reading and understanding this great work a pleasure rather than a chore. The original work is shown on the left with the prose for the same passage on the right, allowing you to easily switch between the two.
I recommend this to anyone who is interested in this great work.