By: Sai Diwan
The tenacity of the conjunction of Good and Evil has lured many writers to explore this tie. The many implications of this conflict ensure the novelty of each representation, though the genesis of each is the same idea. Homer uses the exacerbated form of conflict, war as the setting for his The Iliad, and John Milton makes it explicit through the clash between God and Satan. This essential similarity between the two epics provides ground for comparison. Being the narrative of a legend that survived the initial years through oral tradition before being documented, The Iliad is classified as a Primary epic. Having borrowed from The Iliad in the construction of its central action, Paradise Lost earns the status of a Secondary epic. However, the experience of the modern reader proves that Paradise Lost does not merely reiterate the ideas of The Iliad, but also strengthens them. The borrowed ideas inject a new meaning in the source; The Iliad and Paradise Lost function as symbionts.
In Paradise Lost, the beauty of the representation of the theme of Good and Evil lies in the intricate interweaving of the two concepts. God, in all his glory is not only the pinnacle of good, but also the source of evil. ‘A univerfe of death! which God by curfe/ Created evil; for evil only good (Milton 47) The creation of evil is manifested by the transformation of Lucifer into Satan with God having hurled him and his followers out of Heaven. To complete this action, God creates Hell. Therefore, although God is not directly responsible for evil, he lays down the breeding ground for it. The purpose of the existence of Evil then, is to act as a contender to facilitate the triumph of Good.
Although the setting for it is war, the deliberate omission of the outcome of the Trojan War ensures that neither the Achaeans nor the Trojans are categorized as good or evil in The Iliad. The combat of these ideas is intrinsic to the characters. The otherwise noble and valorous heroes are marred by the evil of pride. Achilles’ wrath stems from the resentment of his prize, Briseis being snatched away. It is this wrath that brings about his prophesied downfall. Agamemnon is blinded by his pride in being ‘lord of the far-flung kingdoms’ and therefore refuses to reconcile with Achilles for long. The gravity of this implicit evil is well brought out in Paradise Lost. Milton uses the cardinal sin of pride to prevent the interpretation of Satan as the epic hero. The Dictionnaire de l’Académie defines the epic hero as “a man who on some occasion betrays the marks of a great pride or of a remarkable nobility” However, it is the recurrent use of the adjective ‘obdurate’ to describe Satan’s pride that robs the quality of its dignity, and places it under the Greek negative interpretation, ‘Hybris.’ Classical mythology promotes the belief that ‘Hybris’ is the most deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins, and is the sin most frequently punished by the Gods.
Satan embodies all the other characteristics of an epic hero that have been exemplified by archetypes such as Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector and Patroclus. Homer makes use of epic similes to accentuate their qualities of being larger than life, valorous, defiant, and possessing an unconquerable will. While describing the battle between Ajax and Hector, he compares Hector to a ‘huge oak’ that is felled by a mighty blow. ‘As a huge oak goes down/ At a stroke from Father Zeus….-so in a flash/ For all his fighting power, Hector plunged in the dust’ (Homer 510)
Homer thus skillfully eulogizes both warriors by illustrating Hector’s strength, and by representing Ajax’s fighting skills through Zeus’ might. Milton too applies the ‘Homeric simile’ to deliver the physical grandiose of Satan. ‘His pond’rous fhield/ Ethereal temper,./..Hung on his fhoulders like the moon…to defcry new lands’ (Milton 11) However, the progress of the epic displays a gradual moral and physical degeneration of Satan that and is rooted in pride. Eve too is the prey of Pride. Both characters seek to defy the order of the Great Chain of Being and are consumed by a narcissistic, elevated sense of the self.
It is Eve who brings about the Fall of Man by tasting the Forbidden Fruit. Milton condemns Eve, and therefore womankind for her obstinacy, vanity and ignorance, and for luring Adam into Sin. Homer moulds Helen into a similar role in The Iliad. By eloping with Paris, she incites vengeance in Menelaus and therefore becomes the cause of the Trojan War. Eve’s analogous situation underlines a definite misogynist tradition in epic writers. However, Homer’s redemption lies in the multiplicity of characters in the epic that allows him to provide a different perspective. The Goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and Achilles’ mother Thetis are presented as strong, indomitable characters that manipulate Zeus in order to bolster their respective patronized groups or individuals. ‘So Hera trumpeted, / lashing the nerve and fighting-fury in each man/ as Athena, her eyes blazing, made for Diomedes.’ (Homer 970)
While Eve is regarded as a mere companion for her male counterpart, Hera is able to maneuver and influence hers. Homer attributes a book to her resolve in the war: Hera Outflanks Zeus. Thus Gods have been human attributes in The Iliad. Zeus’ libido, Aphrodite’s gullibility, Hera’s mischievousness add a comic element, and shatter the image of the unimaginably opulent Heaven. They seem to be governed by the same basic drives as humans. It is striking how grave issues of life and death in the sub-lunary region depend upon the outcomes of petty feuds in the supposed celestial sphere of harmony.
Paradise Lost provides a corrective sketch of God. Milton declares the purpose of his epic being to ‘juftifie the ways of God to man.’ (Miton 4) He makes use of grandiloquent language, lofty structure and obfuscated syntax to support an endeavor as magnanimous as that. God of Paradise Lost is the only God. He is omnipotent, omnipresent and the creator of everything. Milton’s portrayal of God restores Him to His former awe inspiring stateliness and command. Thyfelf invifible/ Amidft the glorious brightnefs where Thou fit’ft,/ Throned inacceffible. (Milton 75)
Christ, the Son of God is described as the ‘effectual might’ of God. While in Genesis the world was created by God, BookVII depicts Christ dangling Earth from Heaven. One of the chief functions of the character of Christ in Paradise Lost is as the antagonist of Satan. Milton attempted at conveying the magnificence of Christ by stating the extent of Satan, and thus deriving the identity of Christ through the ‘Other’. In her book, A Reader’s Guide to Milton Majorie Hope Nicolson declares the necessity of a careful designing of the character of God to dissolve theological debates of the time. ‘It was essential that Milton emphasize the freedom of will, the fact that, although God foreknows He does not fore-ordain.’ (Nicolson 227)
This brings forth the paradoxical relationship of predestination and free will that has confounded readers of all times. ‘Fo will fall/ He and his faithlefs progeny…I made his juft and right,/ Sufficient to have ftood, though free to fall.’ (Milton 66). Therefore, in Book III God prophecies the Fall of Man that takes place in BookIX. God uses his power of prophecy such that he designs destiny with a loophole through which man can redeem himself, and choreographs the execution of free will such that man, the angels and Satan have the illusion of choice while following his strategy.
The Iliad too faces the dilemma of preordinance and free will. Although the Gods’ meddling in the Trojan War seems trivial, it is often divine intervention to ensure the preordained flow of things. In the quarrel in Book I Achilles abstains from killing Agamemnon because Athena reins him in by the hair and forbids it. Zeus himself is tempted to save his son, Sarpedon, however Hera reminds Him of the importance of the occurrence of the inevitable, and hinders his intervention.
Achilles fate has been sealed, and he bears knowledge of it. ‘For hard on the heels of Hector’s death your death/ must come at once-’ (Homer 470) By choosing to kill Hector, Achilles submits to his own fall. Yet, Hector must die for the death of Patroclus to be avenged. The illusion of choice is provided by Achilles’ undying love for Patroclus that would not have allowed him to act otherwise.
Thus expertise of the two epic writers lies in revolutionizing the application of the binary of central marginal. The epics appear to explore two great events that are generous subjects in themselves, and yet these form the marginal setting for the true Heroic Argument. The ‘rage of Peleus’ son Achilles’ and ‘the fall of man’ both of which seem to be the setbacks in the larger struggle, are in essence the very Subject of the epic, and thus succeed in capturing the central sphere of the plot.
To thus speak of a single action that ties together various characters, and yet glorifies its Hero, that interweaves numerous storylines and lends each a unique perspective, and that traverses boundaries of human existence would require divine assistance. So Homer and Milton invoke the Muse to guide them through their prolific endavour,
Sing heaven’ly Muse!
- Daiches, David. Milton. London: Hutchinson &Co., 1971.
- Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Verse. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London: Strand, 1733.
- Miller Dean A. The Epic Hero. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
- Mueller, Martin. Paradise Lost and The Iliad. Comparative Literature Studies, Vol 6, No 3: 292-316.
- Nicolson, Majorie H. A Reader’s Guide to Milton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.
- <http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/Eng200/milton.htm> 25/11/2013
Categories: Literary criticism