The Satanic Epic takes as its starting-point William Blake's aphorism
that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and
God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils and Hell, is because he was a
true poet and of the Devils party without knowing it". In doing so, it
joins a long tradition of explorations of what is perhaps the central problem
of Paradise Lost, the question of how to regard Satan and all he represents.
To some extent, the debate has some of the adversarial flavour of a sporting
contest, including (to pick a few twentieth-century highlights) C. S. Lewis's
defence of God in A Preface to 'Paradise Lost', and William Empson's
attack on Lewis in Milton's God, a book far more sympathetic to Satan.
In turn, Stanley Fish has offered, in effect, a new version of Lewis' orthodoxy,
in which the essential rightness of God and wrongness of Satan is paradigmatic.
To continue this sequence, one might say broadly that in The Satanic Epic
Neil Forsyth goes in to bat for the Devil.
For Forsyth, Paradise Lost is a "Satanic epic" in that
many of its most important concerns - for instance, paradise, loss, love,
politics, and interiority - are in most cases represented to the reader mediated
through Satan's consciousness. Furthermore, since Satan's character in the
poem is largely constructed from the materials of epic, Satan in effect seeps
into the very genre of the poem, and is central to the experience of reading
it. The Satanic Epic sets Milton's poem within the longer theological
and cultural history of the "combat myth", that is, narratives which
explain the world in terms of warring deities, a subject studied in a previous
book by Forsyth. Such a perspective brings out strongly the Manichean overtones
of Milton's world-view, in which good is only conceivable in relation to evil.
Chapter One, "A Brief History of Satan", starts this project off,
using texts from Greek and Latin classical literature, from the traditions
of Judaism, and from both the canonical and the apocryphal literature of early
Christianity. They form in turn a platform for learned, briskly written close
readings of many sections of the poem, readings which interrogate current
critical orthodoxy about Milton's presentation of the War in Heaven, of Hell,
and of the Problem of Evil.
Part of Forsyth's technique throughout what is, in effect, an extended
selective commentary on Paradise Lost is to read the poem in the light
of material which Milton could not have known directly, such as the Dead Sea
Scrolls. For the task at hand, the value of these texts is that they contain
fuller statements of heterodoxies which survive in very attenuated forms in
passages of the canonical Bible, such as the stories that Satan's fall was
precipitated by the creation of Man (181-3), or that Satan actually seduced
and impregnated Eve (259-63). Milton, argues Forsyth, is attuned to these
"buried stories" in the Scripture he studied so closely, and is
able to make these buried narratives active again. One should probably raise
an eyebrow at this technique, but Forsyth uses it so judiciously, with such
supporting evidence from other ancient and early modern texts, and to such
interesting effect, that it provides a startling new angle on the poem. It
must be added that the material in the book is actually more diverse than
such a summary suggests, covering all parts of the poem and including a twenty-page
discussion of Milton's use of Homer in his description of Eve attended by
the Graces: but the figure to which it keeps returning is Satan.
Who will want to read this book? "Interested but nonexpert" (ix)
Milton admirers looking for a book to take on holiday will not be disappointed,
since it is hugely thought-provoking, generously illustrated with quotation,
wittily written, and a pleasure to read. Undergraduates and other Milton scholars
will find the argument a bracing antidote to Surprised by Sin, and will grapple
with its implications - notably, Forsyth's brilliant suggestion that the narrative
voice itself of Paradise Lost is dramatized and unreliable. Forsyth's
erudite and nuanced discussions of particular passages of the poem look set
to alter the terms of future scholarly debate about them.
This review has left until last one of the earliest and most interesting
arguments to arise from Forsyth's book, namely his reappraisal of Paradise
Lost, 3.129-34, where God discusses why he will condemn Satan and the
fallen angels but show mercy to Man:
The first sort by their own suggestion fell,
Self-tempted, self-deprav'd: Man falls deceiv'd
By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none: in Mercy and Justice both,
Through Heav'n and Earth, so shall my glorie excel,
But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine.
Logical problems abound here, notably the question of how those angels
who were corrupted by Satan could be said to be "self-deprav'd",
and Forsyth discusses various orthodox rationalisations of the problem.
But Forsyth's own reading stresses another aspect of the passage, the extent
to which Satan thus acts as an enabling agent for the forgiveness of the
human race: "Like his great opponent in the poem, the Son, he is, in
an important sense, sacrificed for the good of mankind" (17). Such
a line of argument would open the way for a splendidly blasphemous interpretation
of the poem in which Satan is a Christlike but unwitting redeemer in a universe
where discord and division is ultimately a creative force. Forsyth refuses
fully to commit to this possibility, arguing that the poem flirts with but
finally draws back from such a radical world-view. Nonetheless, in a time
when texts as diverse as The Matrix and the Northern Lights
trilogy are looking to appropriate the theological arguments in which Paradise
Lost participates, it is particularly worthwhile to engage again with
the intellectual and narrative complexities of these aspects of this master-poem.
Forsyth is to be congratulated on this book, an excellent and controversial
contribution to an ongoing debate.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.