Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2780
Michael: leads God’s angels in battle in the war in Heaven
Zophiel: one of Michael’s angels who warns them of the approaching foe, Satan and his legions of angels
Nisroch: one of Satan’s angels who becomes discouraged with the war
Raphael continues his account of Satan’s rebellion and the subsequent war in Heaven. Abdiel has flown all night long after leaving Satan and his legions of angels in the North. He arrives in the morning, expecting to warn God’s loyal angels of Satan’s impending uprising but, to his surprise, finds them in preparation for war. They welcome his return and lead him to the “sacred hill” where God speaks to him from a golden cloud. He commends Abdiel for overcoming Satan’s multitudes in the cause of truth, though they have accused him of being perverse. To bear their reproach was far worse than to endure their violence, God says.
God then commands Michael, prince of the celestial armies, and Gabriel, next in rank, to lead their “armed saints” in battle against Satan’s “Godless crew.” He instructs them to drive the enemy out of Heaven and into their place of punishment, the fiery gulf of Chaos. Among clouds, smoke, and flames, symbols of God’s wrath, the ethereal trumpet signals the troops who march forward with a unified purpose. They cross over hills, valleys, and streams and finally see the horizon of the “fiery region” of Satan and his legions in the North. Determined to take over the Mount of God by surprise attack, the powers of Satan are seen advancing toward Michael’s troops.
Though it seems incongruous for angel to war against angel, the poet says, the shout of battle is in the air. In the midst of the rush of combat, sits Satan, a parody of the true God on a “gorgeous throne.” From his high seat on a “sun-bright chariot,” he alights on the ground and advances toward his enemy with “haughty strides.” He comes face to face with Abdiel who cannot tolerate Satan’s arrogance. Abdiel is surprised to see that the imposter still resembles his former resplendent self. Abdiel calls him a fool for attempting to fight against the omnipotent God who could, with one sweep of the hand, destroy him and submerge his legions of angels into darkness.
Satan accuses Abdiel of arriving before the others so that he can be the first to fight him and, thereby, gain his own personal reward in battle. Denying the omnipotence of God, Satan reminds Abdiel that he and the rest of God’s angels prefer sluggish servility to freedom. Abdiel sternly replies that to serve God, who excels “them whom he governs,” follows the order of Nature and is, therefore, free. True servitude is to serve an unwise leader who has rebelled against a natural superior. This is true of those who now serve Satan. Abdiel tells Satan that he is not free because he has become a slave to his own image. Challenging Satan to reign in Hell where he will be in chains, Abdiel says that he prefers to serve in Heaven. Abdiel gives Satan a swift blow on his crest, knocking him back and bringing him to his knees. Satan’s legions are stunned. Michael calls for the sound of the trumpet, and the war in Heaven begins. Millions of angels fight as the clashing of spears on armors and the thunderous wheels of the chariots add to the din of battle. The angels, who have the strength to exercise their powers over the elements, fight with “indistinguishable rage.” To keep them from destroying Heaven altogether, God steps in to limit their powers.
Throughout the first day of battle, Satan has not met his equal until he encounters Michael who conquers whole squadrons with the sweep of his sword. In an effort to stop him, Satan hastily approaches Michael. Hoping for a truce, Michael stops fighting. He tells Satan that Heaven will not tolerate his rebellion that manifests itself in violence and war. He and his “wicked crew” will be driven out of Heaven “to the place of evil, Hell.” Satan challenges Michael’s “airy threats” stating that Michael cannot back them up with deeds. The two come face to face, fighting with such “godlike power” that the rest of the angels stop their combat and step back in expectant horror. These leaders wave their fiery swords in the air and make horrid circles. Michael’s sword is so sharp that it completely shears Satan’s right side. For the first time, Satan feels pain, but his body is made of “ethereal substance,” and it quickly heals. “Nectarous humor” flows from his wound, however, leaving stains on his armor. His angels come from all sides to carry him back to his chariot. His confidence has been shaken, and his pride has been hurt, but his body soon heals because spirits cannot die. They can, the poet says, mend themselves and assume the color, shape, or size that they like best.
Meanwhile, the war continues and Gabriel wounds Moloch who runs away in pain. Thousands of Satan’s angels are wounded that day, but not all of God’s heroes will be named, the poet says, for angels in Heaven do not seek the praise of men.
The saints, by contrast, stand invulnerable and impenetrable, appearing sinless and obedient to God. They are not weary from battle nor are they in pain. Night falls, and a truce is declared as Michael and his troops set up camp with guards watching the fires. Satan’s crew does not sleep but is called to council to discuss their strategies for the next day of battle. Satan suggests that the remedy for their failures might be more violent weapons. Nisroch speaks up, complaining that the sides have been unequal since Michael’s angels cannot feel the pain that Satan’s army can. He endorses Satan’s idea of more forcible weapons, calling for someone who can invent them. With assurance, Satan replies that they have already been invented. He describes them as “hollow engines long and round” or, in other words, cannons that are “thick-rammed” with a “touch of fire” or gunpowder. Encouraged by their hopeful prospects, Satan’s angels go straight to work, digging up the “celestial soil” to mine the natural elements for their engines and ammunition.
In the morning, Michael’s victorious angels look around for the enemy. Zophiel is the first to see them and calls out a warning. In readiness, they meet Satan’s squadrons who carefully hide their “devilish enginry.” When the two sides finally confront each other, Satan tricks his enemies into believing they have come in peace. He orders his angels to step aside to reveal the “deep-throated engines.” The cannon is then fired and thousands of Michael’s angels are knocked down. Satan and Belial jeer derisively at their enemies’ plight, but Michael’s angels soon respond by discarding their weapons and picking up entire hills to throw at Satan’s cannons. They bury the cannons under the “weight of mountains,” and then attack Satan’s troops, burying whole legions of angels who moan in pain.
Looking down from his “sanctuary of Heaven,” God decides to intervene by sending the Son to drive Satan and his followers out of Heaven and into the “utter deep.” The war has lasted for two days and no solution has been found, God says. Since both sides were created equal, the battle will go on perpetually unless it is stopped.
The Son, honored by God’s request, agrees to end the war in Heaven. On the third day, he leaves his seat at God’s right hand to mount the heavenly chariot that is escorted by four “cherubic shapes.” Victory rides at his right hand, surrounded with smoke and flames and is attended by 10,000 angels and 20,000 “chariots of God.”
When he sees the sign of “Messiah” overhead, Michael divides his army to make a path for the Son to pass through. The Son commands the “uprooted hills” to go back to their rightful places and they obey. Satan’s troops see the Son advancing as they rally their powers and harden their sensibilities. Vowing that they will either win the fight against God and Messiah or fall into ruin, they prepare for their final battle. The Son calls to Michael’s angels, telling them he will now fight the enemy alone. Changing his countenance to that of terror, the Son, full of wrath, rides his chariot among Satan’s troops and throws 10,000 thunders at them. In astonishment and fear, they drop their armor as they are driven to the wall of Heaven that opens wide and rolls inward, disclosing a “spacious gap” into the deep. To escape the Son’s wrath, they throw themselves into the “bottomless pit” where they fall for nine days. “Disburdened Heaven” rejoices over the victory of Messiah whose triumph is celebrated as he returns to his Father’s throne.
Raphael ends his account by warning Adam that Satan is now plotting to seduce the earthly pair into disobedience to God. He tells him not to listen to Satan’s temptations and to warn Eve to do the same. He hopes that Adam has learned, “by terrible example,” the consequence of disobedience to God.
In the opening of Book VI, Abdiel appears before God after his long flight from the North. He has stood alone against Satan’s evil angels and remained faithful to God. God commends him with “Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought/ The better fight.” These words are an allusion to the parable of the talents. “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). God’s approval is reward enough for Abdiel.
The account of the war in Heaven is essential to a fuller understanding of Books I and II where our sympathies often tend to lean to the side of Satan and his followers. Raphael’s description of the war in Book VI clarifies Satan’s evil nature and further delineates Milton’s purpose in the epic which is to “justify the ways of God to men” (P. L., I, 26).
In his exchange with Abdiel, Satan gives lip service to his own cause of liberty, but his actions prove him false and proud. He is an opportunist who wishes to usurp the power and position of God, and his jealousy of the Son is caused by his own self interests. In the war, “servility with freedom” will contend, Satan says. He pictures himself on the side of freedom, but Abdiel sees through his façade when he perceptively exposes Satan’s deceit. “Thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled.” Though he wishes to be free of servitude, ironically, he does not believe in equality. In an earlier speech to his followers, he has already affirmed this belief. “If not equal all, yet free,/ Equally free; for orders and degrees/ Jar not with liberty” (P. L., V, 791–93). Abdiel forecasts Satan’s eventual doom. “Reign thou in Hell thy kingdom, let me serve/ In Heaven.” Abdiel’s prediction comes true, and when Satan arrives in Hell, he has not changed, still believing it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (P. L., I, 272).
It is a generally accepted view that Milton’s authority for the war in Heaven is Revelation 12. This source gave him the names of the opposing leaders. “And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon (Satan); and the dragon fought and his angels (12:7). It also gave him the reference to Satan’s fall. “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan . . . and his angels were cast out with him” (12:9). It is believed that the “third part of the stars of heaven” (12:4) refers to the size of Satan’s army that fell with him. There are also examples of metaphorical references to the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:11, 14, 16, 17), but the Bible gives little detailed information about the war in heaven. It is believed that Milton turned mostly to the epics of Homer and Virgil for skillful descriptions of warfare. The gods in Homer’s Iliad, for example, could have been his model for the legions of angels who wield larger-than-life weapons, resulting in unimaginable ruin. By patterning his battle scenes after those of the classical poets, Milton was fulfilling the standard of the true epic.
In the war in Heaven, shame and ridicule are far more disturbing to its victims than the actual violence of the war. God himself sets the tone for this attitude when he tells Abdiel that “Universal reproach” is “far worse to bear/ Than violence.” When Michael’s sword shears Satan’s right side, he is soon healed, but he continues to suffer from the shameful experience.
Gnashing for anguish and despite and shame
To find himself not matchless, and his pride
Humbled by such rebuke, so far beneath
His confidence to equal God in power.
Moloch too has “fled bellowing” when he is stabbed by Gabriel. The implication can be seen in the tone which is one of insult more than injury.
Even Michael’s angels become victims of derision when they are knocked down by the newly invented cannon balls of Satan’s troops. Until this point, they have been the victors in the strife, but now they are concerned about saving face.
What should they do? If on they rushed, repulse
Repeated, and indecent overthrow
Doubled, would render them yet more despised,
And to their foes a laughter.
It is obvious that fear does not even enter into the situation. Satan is quick to notice “their plight” and immediately capitalizes on his advantage over them. Addressing Belial, but making sure the enemy hears, Satan derides the proud victors for their hesitation to advance in the battle. Scoffing at them, he pretends to be puzzled about their retreat. Belial enters into Satan’s game, mocking his distraught enemies with a play on words. “The terms we sent were terms of weight,/ Of hard contents.”
The scene reaches the height of all absurdity, however, when, out of rage, Michael’s angels discard their weapons and begin to uproot mountains, throwing them at the cannons and burying them. The battle becomes a laughable farce as whole mountains meet other mountains in midair. Entire armies are buried, but they continue to fight underground. God finally decides to stop them. Even when the Son comes to drive them out of Heaven, Satan and his legions cannot suffer the shame of defeat. They decide to stand proudly against the Son and risk their fall, rather than subject themselves to ridicule.
Satan’s invention of the “hollow engines” that bore a “touch of fire” alludes to the use of cannons and gunpowder. The English Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was originated by Guy Fawkes in an effort to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was present. Gunpowder had long been considered an invention of the devil, and the idea was still prevalent in Milton’s day. For his description of gunpowder, he is indebted to the earlier Rennaisance poets. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, also sees it as a creation of the devil.
As when that diuelish yron Engin wrought
In deepest Hell, and framd by Furies skill,
With windy Nitre and quick Sulphur fraught,
And ramd with bullet round, ordained to kill.
(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I, 7,13)
Unlike Spenser, Milton attributed the origin of gunpowder to Heaven rather than Hell.
The war in Heaven is a struggle between good and evil and does not end until God intervenes. It is a “perpetual fight” that is “endless” with “no solution” until the Messiah comes to drive the evil ones out of Heaven. Helen Gardner compares “the expulsion of Satan and his followers from Heaven” to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement where Christ casts down his enemies on the day of judgement (Helen Gardner, “The Cosmic Theme,” 67). It is only then that good will overcome evil.
Raphael warns Adam about the “reward of disobedience” at the end of Book VI; this is why he has gone to such great lengths to describe the war in Heaven. In comparing “things in Heaven” to “things on Earth,” Adam has, by example, been forewarned about the temptations of Satan and the punishment for disobedience. For the first time, Adam is made aware that Satan is now “plotting how he may seduce/ Thee also from obedience.” He reminds Adam to caution Eve about Satan’s presence in Eden.
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