The most interesting character by far is Satan. He is nearly the protagonist, the first few books occurring from his perspective. Milton imbues him with a complexity and depth which is almost more human than Adam and Eve, and comes close to being sympathetic. This seems counter-intuitive coming from a devoted Christian, but the point is that Satan is supposed to be tempting, because otherwise he’d be easy to resist. However, it’s undoubtedly what led William Blake to describe Milton as ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’.
From a technical standpoint, the writing is of the highest quality, but it’s not an easy read. The language is very ornate and archaic, and makes many references to classical texts that wouldn’t be understood by the casual reader. The characters are often giving long monologues detailing Biblical history, or expounding on philosophical ideas, which are easy to skim over. However, it’s always clear what’s going on, and the story’s gripping even if you know it beforehand.
The copy I read included the famous illustrations by Gustave Doré. This series of 50 engravings was completed for an 1866 edition, and have become the defining images associated with the work. The epic scale of the pictures contrasts with the level of precision and detail that Doré imparts, making them as memorable as the text itself. Having a visualisation helped break up the longer sections and provided some variety to the dense walls of text.
It took me ten months to read Paradise Lost, but it was worth it. It’s one of those cases where the more work you put in, the more you get from it. I was supposed to read it at university, but I didn’t, and got a humiliating reprimand from my tutor when I fessed up in the seminar, so I’m glad to feel like I’ve made up for that. If you’re intellectually curious, or you’ve ever had an interest in reading on a level beyond entertainment, I’d recommend it. Over the course of four centuries, you’d be in good company.
Review by Charlie Alcock