How and why is Milton's Paradise Lost an example of a myth?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Myth" is defined differently by non-academics and academics and in various ways by various scholars. There is a core meaning to "myths" that may not be present in every definition but that correctly describes the essence of "myth." A myth is an overelaborated story about early or pre- history of a people that has deeper significance than the surface plot, which may express religious or supernatural understanding and beliefs that are of collective importance to the culture, and that have the credibility of truth amongst the people holding the myth. The simplest and most straightforward definition is in Oxford Dictionaries online:

myth: a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. (Oxford Dictionaries)

Milton's Paradise Lost is not an example of a myth in that it is indisputably a creation of literary fiction with a solitary author whereas a myth is held to be true, not fiction, and has not had a solitary author [whether an oral (spoken) or an orthographic (written) author] or ... has had a solitary author (e.g., presumably Homer) who represents his writings as true history, not as fiction.

Yet, on the other hand, Paradise Lost is an example of some significant characteristics of a myth even within its context of fiction. Paradise Lost has or is or includes:

  • a story explaining what is culturally accepted as a pre-historic phenomenon. (Oxford Dictionaries)
  • supernatural beings and events. (Oxford Dictionaries)
  • an overelaborated account of what is held in Christianity to be an actual event. (Wikipedia)
  • allegory or personification of historical or natural events or phenomenon. (Wikipedia)
  • a story describing an original reality that governs human life through supernatural and/or religious forces that provide humans with rituals, morals and motives for actions that accord with the myth(s). (Veronica Ions, The World's Mythology)
  • a story with secondary meaning about that which is of collective, as opposed to individualistic, importance to members of the group or culture. (Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual)

Paradise Lost depicts the prehistoric culturally accepted supernatural phenomenon of Lucifer's rebellion and fall from God's grace. Lucifer's legion of supernatural beings, fallen angels now demons, are agents in supernatural activity after first landing in inhospitable Hell as objects of failed prior supernatural activity. Milton's story is an overelaboration of one of the founding religious tenets of Christianity. Events and characters may be both or either allegorical and personified. Paradise Lost describes a perceived original supernatural reality that governs human lives and moral choices and motives. It is a story with a deeper secondary story of collective importance to the culture (this may no longer be as apparent as it was in Milton's own day when Christianity ruled right along with the Western world's princes).

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,