February 16, 2015
A Tradition of Epic Proportions In order to fully appreciate the genre of “epic” with which Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained have been labeled, one must first look at the great epic poets of centuries past and consider how much each of their works shaped and was shaped by epic tradition, for each of these poets’ works would act as a precedent and point of reference for the poems that would follow as the times changed. Epic tradition has endured a long journey, growing and evolving over the centuries, beginning with Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey, the cornerstones on which later epics would be shaped. Homer is widely considered to be the first epic poet, having a lasting impact on Western canon that has touched most of the classic works that scholars so closely study. From him, the torch passed to Virgil, then to Ovid, Statius, Dante, Petrarch, and at last to Milton. The term “epic” itself is not so much a genre as it is a tradition that was crafted and titled by the poets. This tradition is a colorful one, boasting the common features of war councils, epic battles, deities, muses, allegorical characters, prophesies, and the supernatural. These all act as “family traits.” “The series of poems that leads from Homer to Milton operates through propagated family resemblances rather than in obedience to more abstract laws. Catalogs, epic similes, bleeding trees, heavenly councils, and so forth are family traits, like birthmarks. Obviously, not every poem—or person—has them all, but they are always present in sufficient number, and in a significant enough constellation, to make the poet’s intentions clear” (Webber 6). In this way, the great epics are linked together in a tradition quite literally as old as the written word. Each mimics some structures of its predecessors. “Almost everyone agrees that Paradise Lost is an epic whose closest structural affinities are to Virgil’s Aeneid…We now recognize as well how many major elements derive from other epics and epic-like poems. From Homer’s Iliad: a tragic epic subject—here, the death and woe resulting from an act of disobedience; a hero (Satan) motivated like Achilles by a sense of injured merit; and the battle scenes in heaven. From the Odyssey: Satan’s wiles and craft and Satan’s Odysseus-like adventures on the perilous seas (of Chaos) and in new lands…And from Ovid’s Metomorphoses: the pervasiveness of change and transformation—diabolic and divine—in the Miltonic universe” (Lewalski 113). Satan is a morose modern reflection of many epic heroes, but his fall most closely mirrors the folly of Odysseus who, when boasting of his victory in the Trojan war, took all credit, not acknowledging the gods. This arrogance caused Poseidon to make Odysseus’ way difficult, not allowing him to return home until he finally concedes to the power of the gods. Satan, too, in his arrogance believed himself to deserve a worthier status than that of God’s servant, and he led a rebellion against God directly. This action is more extreme than Odysseus’ grievance, and so was the punishment. Though Satan is reunited with his wife and son early on in the story, he can never regain his homeland, becoming instead the very embodiment of hell. In observing such similarities of form and pattern, one sees the epic tradition not only being passed down from poet to poet, but also evolving to fit the culture of the time in which it is written.
Milton lived in the latter part of the Renaissance era, a time known for enlightenment and the flourishing of art and science. It became possible for every man to read the Bible for himself. People were starting to broaden their minds and think differently. The culture was changing yet again, and Milton did not want this time to run out without being used properly. If ever there was an era for a great Christian epic, it was then. Milton set out to “redefine classical heroism in Christian terms” (Lewalski