THE CHARACTERS OF PARADISE LOST
The Creation of the world
BY EILY-MEG MACQUEEN
Milton's presentation of God in Paradise Lost has sparked one of the most controversial and long-running literary debates. The debate has achieved this status because readers and critics find it difficult to view God as just a character in a fictional poem. The debate surrounding Milton's presentation of God is wrapped up in our knowledge and speculation about his religious beliefs and is also affected by the beliefs of critics themselves.
It is an extremely tricky business to attempt to represent God in literature. Caution over this difficulty perhaps explains God's absence from the first two books of Paradise Lost and the conventional descriptions when he does appear. He is 'the almighty Father' (III.56) and 'the great creator' (III.167), and his actions are cast in a traditional, impressive and positive light, for example, 'Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance filled | All heaven' (III.135). In the whole of Paradise Lost, a surprisingly low number of lines are dedicated to God. He does not communicate directly with Adam and Eve, instead sending the Son or angelic messengers to speak to them. Yet his decision to send Raphael in Book V and Michael in Book XI confirms the idea of a God who is involved with, and cares about, his creation, and his forgiveness of Abdiel in Book VI and acceptance of Adam and Eve's prayers in Book XI also reveals a forgiving side.
Yet, Milton's presentation of God is not always so cautious. He does not allow his God to remain a vacuous cliché, but rather, has him speak independently. George Miller acknowledges the risk involved in this when he says, 'Milton made a bold decision in allowing God to speak in Paradise Lost. No matter what God said or how he said it, someone was likely to object to the representation.' And so they have. Some complain that when God does speak, starting in Book III, his speech is dull and unpoetic. This is perhaps because God's absence in the first two books allows another character to steal the limelight; Satan. Satan's speeches are so lively and persuasive that we are tempted to predominantly associate a poetic and grand style of speech with him. Yet, if we look at God's first words, he also uses the rhetorical features present in Satan's speech. For example, the asyndeton (listing without conjunctions) and use of synonyms seen in Satan's question, 'Is this the region, this the soil, the clime...' (I.242), are present in God's description of the adversary:
whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt can hold. (III.81)
The problem with having God speak in Paradise Lost is that speech is the best indicator of a character's opinions and personality. For example, several critics, including A.D. Nuttall, complain that when God first speaks, his words, 'Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage | Transports our adversary' (III.80), are cruelly punning at the expense of the fallen angels, using the etymological source of movement in 'transports' to mock the devils' physical attempt to climb into heaven. However, what is clear about the effect of God's sporadic but influential appearances in the poem is that they are controversial; we are all invited to make up our own minds about the role and character of God in Paradise Lost.
George Miller, 'Stylistic Rhetoric and the Language of God in Paradise Lost', Language and Style 8 (1975), 111-26 (111).
A.D. Nuttall, Overheard by God (London, 1980).