Archive for the 'religion' Category

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

James Blish: A Case of Conscience

July 15, 2017

51pvowfQhAL._AC_US218_ (1)Occasionally a senior moment – or too many books – leads me to buy a book I already have in my library. Something recently prompted me to read this, so it duly went onto my list of books to look for. But a nagging thought sent me to my database, and, lo and behold, I already had a copy, last read over thirty years ago…

It’s an interesting novel from almost sixty years ago. Contact has been made, and humans have visited, intelligent life on another planet. As always, the scientific details of how FTL flight works have to be vaguely explained, the reader has to be blinded with science; what our world is like in the year 2049 has to be guessed at, and the longer that elapses since the novel was written, the more outlandish it seems: humans still recording messages and data on tape?

The moral dilemma at the centre of the novel is faced by a Jesuit priest, who is a biologist and one of the first four humans to visit the planet Lithia with a remit from the UN to recommend what the nature of human interaction with the inhabitants should be. Unfortunately, the technologically advanced Lithians are incapable of anti-social acts and behaviour; they are good because it is logical and natural to them to behave thus. And they have no religion or concept of God. From our Jesuit’s perspective therefore, they must be a creation of the evil one (because it removes the necessity of God from the picture) – Satan – to test the human race; by making such a judgement he falls into the Manichaean heresy, allowing creative power to the forces of evil, and must face the consequences of this. His recommendation, that the planet be quarantined forever from contact with humans, seems logical to us nowadays, but he is out-manoeuvred by those who would exploit its resources, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

All sorts of complex issues are raised in this novel, including that of whether the hero’s moral judgements are inevitably flawed because limited by his own earthly perspective. Sadly, I feel Blish loses focus in the later parts of the novel, where a Lithian is raised on Earth and causes chaos and mayhem through the contradictions between his Lithian heritage and its interaction with flawed (fallen?) humanity: it’s harder to see what the writer intends us to focus on, unless it is the complexity of any interaction with an alien species. Where are the possible points of contact and understanding? For me, the theological strand was the only really interesting one, the moral, cultural and social questions being rather more run-of-the-mill.

Well worth a read: I’m not aware of much good quality, thought-provoking SF from the fifties, but this one certainly woke me up.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

Emmanuel Carrère: The Kingdom

June 27, 2017

41NhBTMsvIL._AC_US218_512fu00TIRL._AC_US218_Searching for an illustration for this post, I was surprised and pleased to discover that this book, which I read in French, has just been published in the UK.

It’s quite an astonishing book, and one that perhaps may not appeal to very many. It’s by one of France’s best-known and most popular contemporary novelists – who I hadn’t heard of until I came across a review of this book – and yet it’s not a novel; it’s quite hard to assign it to a single genre, as it’s part spiritual journal, part religious and biblical history and part a novelist’s imagination of what might have happened two thousand years or so ago…

The writer cannot decide whether to go on an organised tour of places in the life of St Paul, on which he has reserved a place: this leads into the first section of the book which is an account of his own spiritual journey, one that led him to spend three years of his life as a convinced practising Catholic, believing in and accepting the tenets of the church, and during which he embarks on various spiritual exercises, including a detailed journal on his reading of John’s gospel. We share in how his godmother encourages his growing faith, the religious practices he adopts as part of his new-found faith, and then we see the gradual emergence of doubts and fears, which eventually lead to his drifting away from that faith, and putting all his notebooks away for a number of years, indeed to what seems a deliberate hiding of three years that he felt somehow ashamed of.

Carrère is not an atheist or an agnostic, but what I suppose I must call a seeker after truth, a label with which as a Quaker I can identify. He accepts that something of great moment and significance happened in those years of what is now the first century CE: a man called Jesus did exist, travelled around Palestine preaching, and was executed by the Roman authorities for some reason. And then there are the stories which grew up around the man, which Carrère finds harder to accept or understand, because neither he nor we can know the truth, which has been so obscured, over time, both accidentally and deliberately, in so many ways and at so many different levels. What kind of man was Jesus: a political or spiritual leader? and why was he executed? who brought about that execution, Romans or Jews? how did the work of various groups of his followers end up as today’s church? how did the rivalry between the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians play out? what was the role of Paul in all this? who wrote the accounts in the gospels, the Acts? who wrote the various letters to the early churches?

Carrère reads widely as he explores all of these questions and imagines various possibilities about those early years, the participants in the events, and where there are various possible alternatives he explores them as a novelist might, not seeking to confuse or waylay his readers, as he always makes clear when he is drifting into the realms of what if…

It’s quite difficult to write coherently about such a complex book that ranges so widely and speculates in such an interesting way: if the early history of Christianity interests you, or if the idea of life as a spiritual quest speaks to you, then I recommend it highly. It obviously makes one think quite deeply about the notion of faith, which Carrère had, or thought he had, briefly; it’s something I think I had once, too, but now find myself in a similar situation to the author, of being a seeker of something, but I’m not quite sure of what…

Ibn Tufayl: L’Éveillé

May 3, 2017

In some ways this is an astonishing little book: an Arab writer in the twelfth century prefigures Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It’s a little more complicated than that, however.

We are told the story of a child who grows up from birth entirely alone on an island; either he was spontaneously generated, or else washed up onshore having been set adrift by his mother after his birth (echoes of Moses in the bullrushes here), and is initially fed by a gazelle (!). He grows up and learns about his environment, how to feed himself, how to hunt and shelter himself. Alone, he has all the time in the world to think, to reflect, to contemplate and to figure things out. And he works out the differences between animal, vegetable and mineral, experiments to find out where life resides in living creatures, and eventually comes to reflecting on cause and effect, which leads him to the prime mover and the idea of God.

Having attained enlightenment, towards the end of the story he meets another human being, a man who moves to his island to become a hermit. The two of them return to the main island to offer their message of enlightenment to everyone and are rejected, and so decide to return to their peaceful isolation and contemplation.

It’s obviously fiction, and with a didactic purpose: man as a rational creature should be able to deduce the idea of a creator and offer due veneration. It’s a tale of a man alone on an island, and apparently Defoe had read an English translation which appeared towards the end of the seventeenth century, so about thirty years before Robinson Crusoe was published. It doesn’t really read like a novel, though: obviously it comes from a completely different literary tradition which does not need to be judged against or compared with western standards, and anyway was written some six centuries before the novel developed in the west. If anything it reminded me of tales like Rasselas or Candide, which aren’t really novels either; they are fiction as in made-up, but the message the author wishes to communicate to the reader is far more foregrounded than any other aspect such as plot or character. We are on the way to the novel, but not there yet, by any means.

I found it an interesting read, though over-philosophical in places, and it was another reminder of the wealth of learning, knowledge and speculation that developed in the Arab world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

April 5, 2017

I’ve read the books at least three times, and listened to the unabridged recording in the car twice, and I’m even more impressed by Pullman’s achievement: the Dark Materials trilogy is a masterpiece. And as I approached the end this time, I was determined to try and work out why I think it’s so brilliant. Partly, he’s an absolute master of the English language, which he uses beautifully: you really notice this aspect of his writing when you listen to the audiobooks.

At times it’s quite easy to think: kids’ books. And I’m sure I’d have been stunned to read something like this at the age of ten or eleven, say. But I was in my forties when I first met them, introduced to them by my daughter who probably was about ten or eleven at the time. I had flu: I hoovered them up and remember dispatching someone to a bookshop to re-purchase the second volume, which had gone astray somehow…

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of parallel worlds, and the possibilities of moving between them. And there are lots in His Dark Materials; the story only focuses on three or four, moving between them quite frequently.

The link between Pullman’s novels and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I also love, is evident, and acknowledged by Pullman. We see good facing evil, innocence and experience side by side, the desire to move from the former to the latter state and then the impossibility of going back; there are links with mythology: what happens in the land of the dead? Can one ever return from it?

Pullman introduces fascinating new ideas: daemons, for instance: everyone in Lyra’s world has one, an externalisation of part of their personality (or soul?) in the form of a living creature which is visible to all, and accompanies them everywhere. Humans and daemons are inseparable. And in our world, we don’t have them. But what if we did? Here we shade into what science fiction does so well: the ‘what if?’: make your reader think… What happens – or could happen – after you die? There’s the land of the dead, there’s the Christian heaven, or there’s the idea that one becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, a different kind of eternity from the psalm-singing and God-praising one.

Pullman’s characters are vividly created, sustained and developed: if we ever feel he has strayed into the world of science-fiction, he certainly doesn’t do the archetypal cardboard characters of that genre. We come to know and like and feel for his characters, even quite minor ones, or very alien ones: their fates matter to us. And his imagination runs wild: armoured bears, gallivespian spies, the mulefa with their wheels. But these creatures aren’t wildly unbelievable, they have convincing personalities and feelings and they interact with the story’s heroes.

I would have to like Pullman anyway, because he’s a writer who loves ideas, and you know I crave stories which get my brain working. Friendship and loyalty are important to his characters, and he shows us the strength and value of these traits over and over again; we see many examples of individual resilience too, and reflection on the importance of doing what is right, and learning to discern what this may be. And, of course, Pullman shows us love, the love that gradually develops between Will and Lyra as they pursue their fates across the worlds. This time, I was struck by how subtly and slowly and carefully he prepares us for its flowering as the book draws to its close. Theirs is a second, happier Fall, a movement from innocence to experience that we can only welcome, a love that redeems the universe rather than requiring a redeemer to undo it… and inevitably, the tragedy of eternal separation is woven in there too: who can fail to be moved by the ending of their story. And yes, I know a certain amount of suspending disbelief is necessary for their love to have meaning – just as in Romeo and Juliet…

I know I’ll read and listen to the books again; I’m really looking forward to The Book of Dust in the autumn, hoping that Pullman will sustain what he started.

Geza Vermes: Christian Beginnings

April 3, 2017

Geza Vermes was one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism, and the early history of Christianity; I’d planned to read this book for a long time. I have always been fascinated by how the Church got from the time of Jesus’ death to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Vermes analyses and explains in detail here. I learned an awful lot.

For starters, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the sixth century BCE: previously it had been a monolatry, ie only worshipping their god. Judaism is shown as a religion of one race or people, based on deeds and observances, whereas Christianity quite rapidly became a cosmopolitan religion of believing. Vermes shows us that the gospels portray Jesus as a charismatic prophet and healer, conventional in his Jewish beliefs and practices, but preaching that the end was near.

Vermes very carefully unpicks, and evidences, from the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles of Paul and others, the nature, development and practices of the early church; differences and distinctions emerged very early on. At first, everyone expected the imminent second coming of Christ, which never occurred; the early church gradually worked out how to respond to this. The first structures were devised by Paul, and again, Vermes is able to show in practical terms the gradual, deliberate and necessary development of church organisation and ritual. He has an enormous grasp of detail, and from his research and evidence we get a clear and careful unpicking of the early years of the church, and we can see how much was gradually added and superimposed, as well as just plain changed by the church as it moved away from its Jewish cradle to the Roman and Greek world outside; most notably in the gradual process of turning Jesus from man to god and then to the Son of God.

Quite rapidly – by the middle of the second century – the church became embroiled in fantastical complications and contradictions, inventing dogma tentatively at first as it began to assert Jesus’ divinity, and working its way towards defining the Trinity. Anti-Jewish aspects gradually begin to emerge, too, as did the idea of heresy, and excluding those who disagreed with you. Vermes ends his exploration with the Council of Nicaea in 325, convened by the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and was increasingly frustrated by the doctrinal disagreements that divided it…

What was an eye-opener for me was how so many aspects of Christianity that are nowadays accepted and believed as if they have always been, were in fact gradually devised and invented over several centuries, in other words are nothing to do with the person who was Jesus of Nazareth, but are about politics and power-games as an increasingly large and powerful organisation manoeuvred for its place in the world. And I was angered by the human arrogance, presumption or sheer stupidity – whichever you will – of human beings trying to define God, his nature and intentions. If there is a God, s/he is way beyond such pettiness and silliness. On the other hand, as Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote, human beings have invented God in their own image. Obviously.

The book was fascinating; I learned a lot, as I noted earlier, and it hasn’t changed my beliefs one jot: Jesus remains a preacher, philosopher and prophet who had an important message – just as others did – and who has had a huge impact in so many different ways on our part of the world.

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

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