Books V and VI find Raphael relating recent celestial history to Adam as part of a mission from the Father. He tells Adam of the war in Heaven between the rebellious and loyal angels, effectively bringing us, by the end of Book VI, up to the starting point of the poem in Book I: Satan’s fall, with his cohort, from Heaven into Hell.
In a departure from my usual practice, I’m going to let Milton himself give you the synopsis of these two books (Yes, he’s considerate enough to provide a synopsis for each book before the verse starts. Isn’t he great?). Also, I’m writing this late at night, so things may get, shall we say, irreverent?
Morning approacht, Eve relates to Adam her troublesome dream; he likes it not, yet comforts her: They come forth to their day labours: Their Morning Hymn at the Door of their Bower. God to render Man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience, of his free estate, of his enemy near at hand; who he is, and why his enemy, and whatever else may avail Adam to know. Raphael comes down to Paradise, his appearance describ’d, his coming discern’d by Adam afar off sitting at the door of his Bower; he goes out to meet him, brings him to his lodge, entertains him with the choycest fruits of Paradise got together by Eve; their discourse at Table: Raphael performs his message, minds Adam of his state and of his enemy; relates at Adams request who that enemy is, and how he came to be so, beginning from his first revolt in Heaven, and the occasion thereof; how he drew his Legions after him to the parts of the North, and there incited them to rebel with him, perswading all but only Abdiel a Seraph, who in Argument diswades and opposes him, then forsakes him.
Raphael continues to relate how Michael and Gabriel were sent forth to battle against Satan and his Angels. The first Fight describ’d: Satan and his Powers retire under Night: He calls a Councel, invents devilish Engines, which in the second day’s Fight put Michael and his Angels to some disorder; But, they at length pulling up Mountains overwhelm’d both the force and Machines of Satan: Yet the Tumult not so ending, God on the third day sends Messiah his Son, for whom he had reserv’d the glory of that Victory: He in the Power of his Father coming to the place, and causing all his Legions to stand still on either side, with his Chariot and Thunder driving into the midst of his Enemies, pursues them unable to resist towards the wall of Heaven; which opening, they leap down with horrur and confusion into the place of punishment prepar’d for them in the Deep: Messiah returns with triumph to his Father.
Neat, huh? I’ve cleaned up a bit of the spelling. (These “Arguments,” as Milton called them, aren’t pulled from Gordon Teskey’s edition of the poem, since I thought it might be nice to give you delightful readers a better taste of seventeenth-century phrasing.)
As you can tell, Books V and VI are heavy on action (hence today’s post title. Which was a joke. I hope.) Book V features a particularly Miltonic moment, however: a lone voice raised against wrong action, in the form of Abdiel’s resistance to Satan’s call for rebellion and war.
On the surface, Satan’s initial raillery against the Father’s elevation of the Son might seem appealing to a republican (small-r) revolutionary like Milton: Satan objects to being asked to prostrate himself to a new master (especially one whose power seems to derive from nepotism) who promises to hand down new laws that must be obeyed.
However, Milton (via Abdiel) neatly refutes Satan by revealing his error — the assumption that the Son and the angels are equals:
Canst thou with impious obloquy condemn
The just decree of God pronounced and sworn
That to his only Son by right endued
With regal scepter every soul in Heav’n
Shall bend the knee and in that honor due
Confess him rightful King? Unjust thou say’st,
Flatly unjust, to bind with laws the free
And equal over equals to let reign,
One over all with unsucceeded pow’r.
Shalt thou give law to God, shalt thou dispute
With Him the points of liberty who made
Thee what thou art and formed the pow’rs of Heav’n
Such as He pleased and circumscribed their being? (5.813-25)
Scorned by Satan and Satan’s fellows, Abdiel remains steadfast, and in one of the poem’s best images, he walks fearlessly away from the rebellious to join the righteous:
So spake the seraph Abdiel faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he
Among innumerable false. Unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.
Nor number nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed
Long way through hostile scorn which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On those proud tow’rs to swift destruction doomed. (8.597-907)
A powerful passage, isn’t it? And particularly poignant, given Milton’s own part in the failed (though initially righteous, in his eyes) English revolution. Like Abdiel, “his loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal.”
I won’t quote lengthy passages from Book VI, but it’s one of the most entertaining books of the poem, in which Raphael describes to Adam (Eve being noticeably absent, having fulfilled her womanly serving duties *grumble grumble feminist grumble*) the progress of the war. On the first day, Michael leads the loyal angels against Satan and his followers. Angels on both sides are injured, but only the rebel angels feel pain (and we also learn that they’ve lost the ability to feel pleasure). Angelic bodies heal themselves, it turns out. Michael faces Satan in single combat, and Satan, to his dismay, is bested and forced to retreat.
During the night, the rebel angels invent cannon (often regarded as devilish in the Renaissance) and surprise the heavenly hosts, who respond by hurling mountains at their foes. The imagery here is so fantastic — it just cries out for Guillermo del Toro. (Michael Bay, in the unlikely event you’re reading this blog: STAY AWAY FROM MILTON.) Plus Satan engages in some tricky non-diplomacy and witty banter with his pals, so now I’m envisioning a del Toro/ Aaron Sorkin collaboration . . . But I digress.
On the third day, the Father decides that enough is enough. Michael’s done excellent work at QB, but it’s time to bring out the Son, who says, basically, “Hold up. I got this.” The loyal angels line up and watch as the Son, with thunder blaring and chariot blazing, charges the rebel angels alone and so terrifies them that they throw themselves out of Heaven (h/t to obliging self-opening, self-healing heavenly wall) and into a nine-day fall to Hell. That’s what George Lucas would call aggressive negotiation. (Now that I’ve quoted possibly the worst screenplay of all time, I’m done with movies now, I promise.)
But it’s not all fun and demon defeat in Book VI. The point of Raphael’s tale is to warn Adam, lest he think about disobeying God:
Let it profit thee t’have heard
By terrible example the reward
Of disobedience! Firm they might have stood,
Yet fell. Remember, and fear to transgress! (6.909-12)
Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle Son. Wait. Where have I heard that before?
Really done now.
Coming up on February 10: Books VII and VII — Adam’s Edenic education continues.
A programming note: Today features a rare double post here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses, so you might like to scroll down or click over to today’s earlier post, a review of Melissa Pritchard’s fascinating novel Palmerino.