Essay on Myth of the Fortunate Fall in John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Myth of the Fortunate Fall in Paradise Lost From this descent / Celestial Virtues rising, will appear / More glorious . . . than from no fall. (ii. 14-16)1These are Satan’s words to the fallen angels in Paradise Lost. Satan claims that their fall from Heaven will seem like a “fortunate fall,” in that their new rise to power will actually be “more glorious” than if they had stayed in Heaven all the while. Can we, as fallen humans, possibly make Satan’s words our own, even if it is not our own work but God’s that causes our “rising”; or, if we do claim a “fortunate fall,” have we been beguiled by Satan to rejoice in our fallen state? While it is common among beguiled critics to claim that Paradise Lost presents the Fall as fortunate, in fact the Fall is much less fortunate than these critics presume.

Millicent Bell is among the beguiled, but he starts off with a vital point that is too easily forgotten. What does the narrative make explicit about the Fall? “The bare story makes no mystery of it. It was infinite disaster.”2 From the beginning of the epic we learn that the Fall “Brought death into the world, and all our woe” (i. 3). It “brought into this world a world of woe,/Sin and her shadow Death, and misery/Death’s harbinger” (ix. 11-13). We learn that Eve, after leaving Adam to go her own way in Eden (just before the Fall) “never from that hour in Paradise/Found’st either sweet repast, or sound repose” (ix. 406-07). Eve’s Fall is a great calamity for the world (ix. 782-84); so is Adam’s, completing the original sin (ix. 1003). The couple’s early reactions to their sin include disgust, shame, lust, and scorn for the earth (ix. 1010 ff.). The woe of Satan, too, is “perpetual” (ii. 861) and “eternal” (iv…

…s that Paradise is where she and Adam are together, so that an Eden without Adam would be no Paradise at all (xii. 615-17).

15. Bell (878-79) asserts that Milton could not have understood Raphael’s words about education and spiritual uplift without tying them to the harshness of error and suffering; though I disagree, Bell’s general point stands: as a fallen human the life of righteous suffering is the only good one that Milton could have had true sympathy for. On the other hand, in the context of the epic, Frank Kermode and Barbara Lewalski recognize that in Paradise Lost we yet know nothing of this inner paradise with which to compare it to Eden (we have only Michael’s word): “The paradise of Milton’s poem is the lost, the only true paradise, we confuse ourselves . . . if we believe otherwise” (Kermode, “Adam Unparadised,” Elledge 603-04; cf. Lewalski 270).