There's all this debate over why Satan is so appealing in Paradise Lost. Did Milton screw up? Is he being cynical, or a double-secret atheist? And why is God such a dick?
No one ever asks that about Iago, though, to whom I think Milton's Satan owes a debt. No one asks whether Shakespeare screwed up in making Iago so much fun; they just give him credit for, y'know, writing an awesome villain. And that's all Milton's doing. Satan is tempting for us because Satan is tempting for us.
That's the point of Satan! If Milton didn't make him as appealing as possible, he'd be doing Satan a disservice. And Eve, for that matter.
Similarly, God's a dick because God's a dick. You've read the Old Testament. He's not exactly all flowers and hugs there either. Again, Milton's just being true to his characters, and writing a great story while he's at it.
There’s slightly more to it than that, yeah. For example: it's hinted, albeit obtusely, that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of Heaven. But since there's no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning? Isn't that like saying "Don't touch these cookies while I'm gone" to a kid who didn't realize there were cookies until you pointed them out? I get why people spend their entire careers arguing over this thing.
Here’s my advice to people considering reading Paradise Lost: read the first two books. It starts with a bang, and it’s pretty amazing for a while. It slows down a bit in books III - VII, so if you’re not totally sold in the first two books (I was), you can either quit altogether with a fair idea of what Milton sounds like, or skip to books IX and X. IX is the actual temptation and fall (especially fun if you’re a misogynist), and X is an astonishing sequence where Adam and Eve contemplate suicide:
"Why am I mocked with death, and lengthened out
To deathless pain? How gladly would I meet
Mortality my sentence...
his dreadful voice no more
Would thunder in my ears." (Adam, X.774 - 780)
“We’ve totally mucked this up, and our kids are gonna justifiably hate us because we got kicked out of Paradise, and maybe we should just quit while we’re behind.”
But really, the whole thing is worth it. Took me a while – it’s intense stuff, so I found that I had to read a book and then chew on it for a while to process it before moving to the next one – but it’s cool.
In book VIII, if you’re cosmologically minded, Milton lays out the whole universe. Like Giordano Bruno, he understands that our earth is a tiny speck in the universe, and he gets that all the stars are suns like ours, and therefore could have planets like ours around them. He also thinks they might be inhabited; our species might not be God's only experiment. Elsewhere, other Adams and Eves may have faced the same test of the Tree of Knowledge - and they might have passed it. Isn't that an amazing thought?
In books XI and XII, Michael tells Adam sortof all the rest of the stories in the Old Testament, which of course boil down to:
“So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign,
Under her own weight groaning.” (XII 537 – 539)
That’s your fault there, Adam. Nice work.
He rushes through them though, and it makes me wonder whether Milton had originally intended to retell the entire Old Testament but got bored or intimidated or something. That would’ve been remarkable. Certainly Paradise Lost is better literature than the Old Testament is, and significantly more coherent.
It’s also better literature than almost everything else. It’s pretty awesome. Probably the second-best poem by a blind guy ever. I give it two thumbs up.