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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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LINES 418-584. SERPENTS IN HELL

At the beginning of this book the guardian angels returned to Heaven sad and ashamed that Satan had tricked them and entered Paradise. In contrast, when Satan arrives in Hell, he remains invisible while he takes his seat on his throne, and then he is suddenly revealed in what he thinks is glory but Milton despises as "false glitter." Satan is so sure that his victory has restored him to his former state that he calls the assembled fallen angels by that great rolling title, "Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers."

His speech is a long boast about his accomplishments and how easy it was to seduce the new creation. He has done it all with an apple! God is so disproportionately angered that for one little apple he has given up his beloved man and his new World to Sin and Death. They're looking after the place until we can all get up there to rule over man. Satan doesn't think much of God's punishment:



His seed, when is not set, shall bruise my head: A world who would not purchase with a bruise?

Satan himself can hardly be more surprised than we are at what happens next. All the devils in Pandemonium, including Satan, become serpents. Enjoy Milton's wonderful details as he describes an angel becoming a serpent, his face narrowing, his arms and legs becoming part of his body. Finally he falls on his belly. Read the whole passage aloud to hear the hissing that comes from all those "s" sounds. The catalog of classical serpents adds horror by association.

After the fallen angels become serpents, they climb a tree to get fruit and it turns to bitter ashes in their mouths. Milton tells us that the devils must assume the shape of snakes for a certain time each year to humble their pride. He refers to snake cults in classical Greek myth, suggesting that they arose through the connection of Satan and serpent.

NOTE: THE EQUATION OF SNAKES WITH DEVILS It is difficult for us to sympathize with the stigmatizing of one creature, the snake. We think of snakes as members of the reptile family with distinct and fascinating adaptations to survival in divergent habitats. But treating animals as being morally neutral is very modern. (It hasn't completely taken over yet; cockroaches are not regarded with detachment, even by sophisticated people, when they share their kitchens!) Snakes, serpents, worms, and dragons (a not quite mythical variety of snakelike lizard) have had moral and magical significance for almost all the world's religions. Milton's extreme antipathy stems more from the snake's association with other religions than from any feelings about the biological animal. Snakes represent the practices of religions that seduce weak people away from the true religion.

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