Paradise Lost is one of Those Books. The books that influence pretty much everything that came after. The books that shaped L-space for ever. The books that you are supposed to read at least once in your life. The books without which a degree in English literature would be considered incomplete.
With good reason, it turns out. Paradise Lost is an epic poem in twelve books – probably one of the longest poems in English – telling the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, including the Fall of Satan from Heaven. And it’s dramatic stuff, full of fire and brimstone and everlasting curses.
First and foremost, it’s a poem that demands to be read aloud. I read entire books aloud to myself, because you have to. It’s much easier to grasp the meaning of the lines read aloud, and besides, it’s about God and Satan and angels and demons making rousing speeches and clashing in dreadful war: how could you not read it aloud? The poetry, though it doesn’t rhyme, has a brilliant and largely indescribable grandeur to it, a grandeur that makes it an utter joy to read.
Perhaps surprisingly, the real star of Paradise Lost is Satan. His reasons for rebellion are utterly understandable and well-developed. He has whole speeches in which he considers repentance. He is so powerful – powerful enough to stand against the armies of God, and almost win – yet he is utterly wretched. He is, in short, sympathetic. It is all too easy to imagine doing the same thing in his place, and perhaps that’s the point. But, truly, the God of Paradise Lost is not one I want to believe in. The tree he forbids to Adam and Eve is that of knowledge. Specifically, knowledge. Who would not rebel against a God who sees fit to keep his followers in the dark?
And this leads me on to the final thing I liked about Paradise Lost: the fact that it is a story that makes me want to re-read other stories that draw on it, stories like Frankenstein, which draws much from Satan’s experience, and like The Amber Spyglass, which I feel like I would actually understand now if I could remember any of it. This poem is like a key; reading it is like reading an earlier book in a series that you skipped, and seeing the later books come suddenly into new focus. For that reason alone, if not for all the other awesome things, Paradise Lost is, really and truly, a poem worth reading. For everyone.