I was first intrigued by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost when I heard it quoted in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed.” This is the episode where the crew of the Enterprise finds the genetically enhanced superman Khan Noonien Singh aboard a derelict spacecraft. Khan attempts to take over the Enterprise, but Captain Kirk defeats him and sentences him to exile on a remote planet. At this point Khan asks Kirk whether he’s familiar with Milton. After Khan is escorted out, Scotty asks Kirk to clarify. Kirk quotes a line from Satan near the beginning of the poem: ” Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” (Note the archaic use of “then” meaning “than”.)I became further intrigued by the poem later in life when I learned that it’s one of the classical depictions of the so-called “War in Heaven.” The War in Heaven is a non-Biblical event which apparently goes back to early Jewish tradition. It says that Satan and his demons were angels who rebelled against God and were cast out of Heaven. Because I was raised in the Evangelical Christian tradition and War in Heaven didn’t appear in the Bible, I knew little about it. There’s an excellent, detailed article about this topic at The Straight Dope.
The poem Paradise Lost is comprised of twelve “books.” At this point, I’ve read the first five. So far, what I’ve actually found most engaging is Milton’s use of language. Paradise Lost includes the first use of the word “Pandemonium.” Milton coins the word as the capital city of Hell. Paradise Lost also includes perhaps the first use of “space” referring to “that place beyond the Earth.”
Space may produce new Worlds; whereof so rife
There went a fame in Heav’n that he ere long
Intended to create, and therein plant
A generation, whom his choice regard
Should favour equal to the Sons of Heaven:
Another thing I find fascinating in Paradise Lost is the insight into John Milton’s Puritan beliefs. Of particular note, he makes it quite clear that Adam and Eve are intimate before they eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Although we tend to view the Puritans of the seventeenth century as possessing an almost prudish morality, the fact is they had no problem at all with romantic love.
What’s more, I thought it was interesting to see that Milton makes a point of incorporating gods from Greek and Egyptian mythology into the ranks of the angels and demons.
Paradise Lost starts in media res, with the expulsion of Satan and his demons from Heaven. At the end of Book 5, we’re just beginning Milton’s version of the story of the War in Heaven, so from my point of view, I’m just getting to the good part!
Finally, going back to Star Trek for a moment, when Scotty first asks about Milton and Paradise Lost, he prefaces his question with the line, “It’s a shame for a good Scotsman to admit it, but I’m not up on Milton.” For the life of me, the more I learn, the less that line makes sense. Milton was a patriotic Englishman with no particular love for the Scots. So I’m not certain why Scotty felt any particular devotion to Milton. Now, if Scotty were unfamiliar with the works of Robbie Burns, that would be a different story, laddie!