In Paradise Lost, Milton is adept at drawing from both Christian and pagan sources and integrating them in such a way that they reinforce one another (Abrams 1075). Of course it is a commonplace for critics to believe that Milton valued his Christian sources more highly than the pagan ones (Martindale 20); this is most likely due to the fact that he regarded the Christian sources as vessels of the truth. His classical allusions, on the other hand, served as references for things fallen or damned. Thus, as seen in the invocation to Book 7 ("Descend from heav’n Urania, by that name / If rightly thou art called" [7.1-2]) wherein Milton places his muse Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, in Heaven and distinguishes her as Christian, Milton works to integrate the Christian and pagan throughout Paradise Lost. Although a detailed account of the reasoning behind his form is beyond the scope of this essay, because "a strict Classicist might resent the intrusion of the Biblical models, [and] a strict ‘Puritan’ might equally resent the degradation of the Word of God to the status of a source of precedents for literary composition" (Lewis 5), perhaps Milton’s choice of form was a political as well as a stylistic one. On the other hand, the reason could be as simple as Milton himself states in the invocation to Book 1: "Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" (1.16). In this one line, Milton borrows directly from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, thus acknowledging the epic tradition, yet also challenging that very tradition by promising his readers greatness and originality (Abrams 1476).
Paradise Lost, however, is not the first epic to integrate both Christian and traditional epic conventions. The Beowulf poet followed this form as well, drawing on pagan epic tradition for kings, heroes, and monsters while drawing on new Christian beliefs to present these characters as noble, in possession of the natural knowledge of God, willing to battle his enemies on earth, and therefore capable of redemption. Thus, I agree with John D. Niles that "if this poem can be attributed to a Christian author composing not earlier than the first half of the tenth century…then there is little reason to read it as a survival from the heathen age that came to be marred by monkish interpolations" (137). Just as the Beowulf poet’s contemporary audience was thrown into a schizophrenic state by the pull of a pagan past against the new teachings of Christianity, the poet himself was put to task to successfully blend these religious ideologies in a complex yet effective plot that appealed to his audience precisely because they were attempting to reconcile their own beliefs.
Although Beowulf most likely began as such a pagan epic, it eventually was expanded to include Christian elements, whereas Paradise Lost is definitely a Christian tale that uses classical allusions to remain connected to the epic tradition. In both tales, pagan or classical allusions, in contrast to Christian allusions, are used in reference to that which is fallen or damned. Yet I must be careful not to imply that Milton was using the Beowulf manuscript as a source because the manuscript was not available in England until 1815; therefore, Milton could not have been aware of it during the writing of Paradise Lost. Yet remarkable parallels do exist between the two manuscripts—in particular, the corresponding hierarchical structure of king/hero/evil—because I believe the poets drew from similar sources, specifically the Bible and apocryphal texts, in an effort to illustrate the continuing presence of evil in this world since mankind’s Fall. In Paradise Lost, this king/hero/evil structure is represented by God, Christ, and Satan; in Beowulf, it is represented by Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the Satanic trinity of the three monsters.
Both God and Hrothgar are king figures who call on their heroes (Christ/Beowulf) to defeat the evil (Satan/Grendelkin and the dragon) that threatens to destroy the paradise each has created (Paradise/Heorot). At times, Milton’s God acts as an earthly king, who expects the loyalty and servitude of his subjects in return for gifts he bestows upon them. This is very similar to the pagan concept of the comitatus in Beowulf. Likewise, Hrothgar is an ideal wise and peaceful ruler like God; he does not directly participate in the violence of the world and gives freely to those who serve him. This parallel is strongest in each king’s desire to construct a safe haven for those under their protection.
God wishes to put the recent fall of the angels behind him and believes the construction of Paradise for his new creation, mankind, will do just that. Thus, "the King of Glory in his powerful Word / And Spirit com[es] to create new worlds" (7.207-09). Similarly, Hrothgar wants to build a paradise for those who "eagerly served him" (64a), and so, "It came to his mind / that he would command a royal building / […]which the sons of men should hear of forever" (67b-68, 70). Both kings expect that those who serve them will also serve these new creations. In addition, just as Milton’s heaven is a divine haven from fallen worlds, so is Hrothgar’s Heorot a similar haven in the same way that all such halls in the early Middle Ages were thought to be, according to the following account from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:
Just as God appears to run Paradise as a "kingdom" in which Adam and Eve are his subjects, along with the guardian angels, here Hrothgar can appear to be the divine ruler of his newly created haven, or heaven, on earth.
Another of the king's chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: ‘The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. (ch. 13)
These king figures must eventually call upon a hero to defeat the evil that threatens to disrupt their new worlds. When God discerns that Satan will attempt the destruction of mankind, He asks of his heavenly host, "Which of ye will be mortal to redeem / Man’s mortal crime, and just th’ unjust to save, / Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?" (3.214-16). Christ steps forward, declaring, "Behold me then, me for him, life for life / I offer" (3.236-37). As Christ elaborates on his decision, Milton assigns to him the language and motivation of the classical epic hero:
The heroes of each epic must battle similar evils. Satan is most closely paralleled by Grendel, the first of the Satanic trinity Beowulf encounters. While Grendel evokes folkloric origins, the poem most definitely alludes to the Christian concept of evil, Satan. Likewise, Satan is described by Milton through the use of classical allusion and elevated language. Both demons are motivated by their hatred of the king figures’ new worlds: "[…]and the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me" (Milton 9.118-20); "Then the great monster in the outer darkness / suffered fierce pain, for each new day / he heard happy laughter loud in the hall" (Beowulf 86-88). These demons seek release from their jealously and rage in destruction. Thus, they act, similarly shrouded by mist and darkness: "In with the river sunk, and with it rose / Satan involved in rising mist, then sought / Where to lie hid" (Milton 9.74-76); "Like a black mist low creeping, he held on / His midnight search" (Milton 9.180-81); "Then up from the marsh, under misty cliffs, / Grendel came walking; he bore God’s wrath. / The evil thief planned to trap some human, / one of man’s kind, in the towering hall" (Beowulf 710-13).
Their evil lairs share a similarity as well: both are removed from the society of kings and heroes. Grant McColley notes that this belief was not commonplace but rather unique to both Paradise Lost and the apocryphal Book of Enoch (33), and the fact that the Beowulf poet also held this belief is yet another indication that both poets must have drawn from the same sources. Following his fall, Satan realizes that he is in a "dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible" (1.61-63). Fire is mixed with water, he later learns, as he moves out towards Chaos and travels "along the banks / Of four infernal rivers that disgorge / Into the burning lake their baleful streams" (2.574-76). This same combination of elements is seen in Beowulf as well:
Once these demons emerge from their hellish liars and threaten the stability of the righteous kingdoms, the heroes must act. Again, Christ uses the language of the epic hero in gearing up for his initial battle with Satan:
While Christ has only one Satan to battle at different times, Beowulf encounters three different versions of evil. In his second encounter, he must fight Grendel’s mother who avenges her son’s death by reclaiming his arm (Beowulf’s trophy) and killing one of Hrothgrar’s men. He must go after her, to the hellish palace she shared with her son for a hundred winters. At first, Beowulf is knocked down by her, but soon he summons his heroic strength and then
In this episode and in his final encounter with evil, Beowulf employs a weapon, and so his final two encounters are bloody. These battles allude more strongly to pagan rather than Christian practices, and I believe this is due to the fact that, ultimately, Beowulf is a fallen mortal and cannot be the true hero that Christ has become. This is what Milton reveals in Paradise Lost about Christ’s heroism in contrast to the classical epic model.
angrily raised the shearer of life-threads,
swung hard on her throat, broke through the spine,
halved the doomed body; she toppled to the ground:
the sword was blood-wet, the man rejoiced. (1565-69)
Following his triumph over Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is given a hero’s welcome by his king; this episode closely parallels Christ’s return to heaven following his initial triumph over Satan:
With jubilee advanced; and as they went,
Shaded with branching palm, each order bright
Sung triumph, and him sung victorious King…
Worthiest to reign: he celebrated rode
Triumphant through mid-heav’n, into the courts
And temple of his mighty Father throned
On high: who into glory him received,
Where now he sits at the right hand of bliss. (Milton 6.884-86, 888-92)
Again, although Milton was unaware of the Beowulf manuscript, these striking parallels exist and show each poet—Milton of course coming from a predominantly Christian angle versus the Beowulf poet’s pagan one—working Christian heroism into the epic tradition, and I believe these parallels stem from the poets’ use of similar sources to illustrate evil’s continuing presence in the fallen world. This lineage of evil is nowhere better supported than through the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which as noted earlier, both poets surely knew. Although Milton considered the canonical Bible to be the true Scripture, Virginia Mollenkott believed that the apocrypha, for Milton, provided him with the necessary narrative details to fill in the blanks of the Bible (43).
Based on Enoch, it is believed by some critics that Grendel and his mother are the progeny of Cain; the Beowulf poet obviously believed this as well for he says that
In addition, pagan myths note that the gods were attacked by giants, who were half human and half monster. The revolt of Typhon, one of the giants, is made analogous by Christian mythographers to Satan’s revolt in heaven (Elledge 14). Milton alludes to Typhon (1.197-201) and to the "Giants of mighty bone" (11.642). He continues to elaborate upon this idea about the descendants of Cain:
Samuel Johnson observes in Paradise Lost that the "vulgar inhabitants of Pandemonium, being incorporeal spirits, are at large, though without number, in a limited space; yet in the battle, when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armor hurt them […] The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war of heaven fills it with incongruity" (489). Likewise, David Sandner contends that critics have discovered in Beowulf a number of meanings for the dragon: "‘evil in nature,’ ‘the violence at the center of Germanic society that makes inevitable its destruction,’ part of ‘the great temporal tragedy of man’s life on earth,’ part of "a Christian allegory,’ ‘an embodiment of the apocalypse,’ ‘the replacement of the old heroic superego by a Christian one’ […] the dragon’s symbolic meaning, in sum, is ambiguous" (163-64). This, I believe, may be due mostly to the last meaning noted: both poets are attempting to integrate Christian heroism into the traditional epic to satisfy the varied tastes of their wide-ranging audiences. Thus, a certain amount of incongruity and ambiguity are to be expected.
I agree with Sandner that such ambiguity in character is what makes Grendel a frightening evil because he represents what any reader may suffer: "somehow [he is] both a monster and a man, and so claims our fear and hatred on the one side and our pity at his wretchedness on the other" (166). In addition, given the sometimes fantastical elements of epic convention, Grendel confronts Beowulf at "the limit of the human" and they "grasp hands across it in a combat which reveals them as uncanny doubles for one another […] Beowulf and Grendel stand face to face, mirror images of heroism and malice" (Sandner 169). In Paradise Lost, Satan and Christ may also be seen as opposing images.
While Northrup Frye, among others, contends that Christ is the true hero of Paradise Lost because he is the only true actor in the poem, creating a new world and later becoming mankind’s savior (521), Milton tends to blur the lines of epic convention, most likely due to his integration of Christian and classical elements (Steadman 167). For many, therefore, the true hero is clouded in ambiguity. As Frye notes, "What Satan himself manifests in Paradise Lost is the perverted quality of parody-heroism, of which the essential quality is destructiveness. Consequently it is to Satan and his followers that Milton assigns the conventional and Classical type of heroism" (Frye 521). By assigning the qualities of a traditional epic hero to Satan, Milton is associating defiance of God with the actions of an impenitent, tragic sinner, doomed to damnation. On the other hand, in serving God, Christ demonstrates true heroism, which Milton wished to celebrate in his revision of the epic tradition: "In Satan we have the antithesis of heroic action although he appropriates the language of that action […] [The Son] becomes the exemplary hero, or prototype hero, for all men. Rather than death wish, his drive is love and creation" (Shawcross 143).
Shawcross also subscribes to an idea first propounded by Stanley Fish: "The hero of Paradise Lost is thus not just an ordinary hero of literature, not a specific personage within the work, but rather every man who follows the path, who learns like Adam the sum of his wisdom. His action is personal, significant for him alone, not exemplary, although he may, of course, become a type of Christ figura for the mundane mind of man to follow" (Shawcross 146). Of course, the reader can become Christ, as Beowulf becomes Christ, only in a limited, postlapsarian way. This is why Christ remains the true hero, God the true king, and Satan the true evil. Thus, even though Beowulf predates Paradise Lost and Milton could not have known about Beowulf, these works are complements of one another—Beowulf, the pagan epic made Christian, and Paradise Lost, the Christian epic with classical ties. But are they within the epic tradition?
Although Harold Bloom believes that Milton defines a tertiary type of epic based on his original use of complex allusions to the classical epic tradition in order to revise that tradition (555), I believe Paradise Lost is more closely tied to Beowulf based on this hybridization of Christian heroism and traditional epic form, and these two works, therefore, constitute an epic category all their own.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York:
- Ed. Paul Halsall. Aug. 1998. Fordham University. 15 December 1999 <http://www.fordham.edu/
Bloom, Harold. "Milton and His Precursors." Elledge 555-68.
Charles, R. H., trans. The Book of Enoch. Oxford: Claredon, 1912
Chickering, Howell D., Jr. trans. Beowulf. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Elledge, Scott, ed. Paradise Lost. By John Milton. 1674. New York: Norton, 1993.
Fish, Stanley. "Discovery as Form in Paradise Lost." Elledge 526-36.
Frye, Northrop. "The Story of All Things." Elledge 509-26.
Ide, Richard S. "On the Uses of Elizabethan Drama: The Revaluation of Epic in Paradise Lost."
Milton Studies 17 (1983): 121-37.
Johnson, Samuel. "[Paradise Lost]." Elledge 482-92.
- Elledge 569-87.
Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.
Martindale, Charles. John Milton and the Transformation of Ancient Epic. London: Croom
- (1938): 21-39.
Milik, J. T., ed. The Books of Enoch. Oxford: Claredon, 1976.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Elledge 3-304.
Patrick, J. Max, and Roger H. Sundell, eds. Milton and the Art of Sacred Song. Madison: U of
Wisconsin P, 1979.
Sandner, David. "The Uncanny in Beowulf." Exploration 40.2 (1999): 162-70.
Shawcross, John T. "The Hero of Paradise Lost One More Time." Patrick and Sundell 137-47.
Steadman, John M. Milton’s Biblical and Classical Imagery. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1984.