Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Milton, John

(1608-1674) English poet and pamphleteer, government official during the Cromwell Protectorate and the single most influential English poet since William Shakespeare. His renown, in both English literature and genre fantasy, is based primarily on Paradise Lost (1667; rev 1674), a long verse account of the biblical Fall and consequent expulsion from Eden. Enormous in scope, the poem describes the entire Christian cosmology, dramatizes conversations between divine beings, and proposes famously to "justify the ways of God to men" – an ambition that JM, who spent his youth preparing to be a great poet, felt fully equal to do. The work's influence on English-language poetry, although enormous, is indirect. It served as the model for many epic poems in the century following its publication, of which John Keats's fragment "Hyperion" (1820) alone is remembered. JM's influence is more lastingly seen in the adoption of his "grand style", which, while unsuited for any further attempts at epic poetry, proved remarkably congenial to the mock-heroic: Absalom and Achitophel (1681) by John Dryden (1631-1700) is the first work to employ JM's elevated manner for purposes of satiric contrast; The Rape of the Lock (1714) and The Dunciad (1729) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) both contain explicit echoes of Paradise Lost.

The poem's influence upon modern fantasy is at least threefold. First is JM's characterization of Satan, who, finding it "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n", is conceived in terms of heroic defiance and with an imaginative complexity not previously seen in the centuries-old tradition of dramatizing devils in English literature. Satan is a figure not only of defiance but of selfconsciousness, and his portrayal as a reflecting figure capable of wondering about (then acting upon) his relationship to the cosmos is more compelling than any since Hamlet's. A great number of infernal and doomed figures in modern fantasy, from J R R Tolkien's Saruman to the satanic "Darkness" in Ridley Scott's Legend (1985), derive from Paradise Lost.

In addition, the remarkable plottiness of JM's poem – the revolt against Heaven is dramatized in great detail, with skirmishes and the employment of "devilish Engines" described – has exerted a great influence on Epic Fantasy. Tolkien certainly wrote The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) with JM's poem much upon his mind; some critics have speculated that the character of Sauron is kept off-stage in part as a response to the tendencies of then-current JM criticism, which regarded his Satan favourably. It is impossible for the modern reader to encounter Paradise Lost without being struck how some of its scenes read like modern fantasy. John Collier's Milton's "Paradise Lost": Screenplay for the Cinema of Mind (1973) dramatizes the poem in cinematic terms; were such a movie to be in fact produced, it would certainly be regarded as a fantasy.

JM's third influence upon fantasy lies in what must be called his ideology. Historians have demonstrated how the vicissitudes of JM's reputation between his death and 1940 were influenced by political feeling; and William Blake's famous declaration that Milton was "a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it" was, like Percy Bysshe Shelley's assertion that JM's Satan was morally superior to his God, an attempt to claim the force of JM's imaginative power for polemical purposes. In this century, both Charles Williams and C S Lewis attempted (in essays) to reclaim JM for Christian orthodoxy, while Tolkien took pains to avoid being impressed into the Devil's party. Whether JM's Satan is the "archangel ruined" of the Romantic imagination or the comic and egotistical failure that Lewis finds is an issue that every serious fantasy writer concerned with Good and Evil must ponder.

Lord Byron's "The Vision of Judgment" (1822) is explicitly set in the heaven of Paradise Lost, to satiric effect. JM's cosmology is a model in Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell (1984), and while the cosmos in James Blish's The Day After Judgment (1971) is Dante's, the speech that Satan gives at its climax is cast in Miltonic verse. Milton himself appears in Peter Ackroyd's alternate-history Milton in America (1996) and in Blake's visionary and highly eccentric Milton (circa 1815), which evokes him as a thoroughly Miltonic figure. JM is villainously portrayed in Robert Graves's Wife to Mr Milton (1944). [GF]

other works: Paradise Regained (1671); Samson Agonistes (1671); Comus (1637; > Masque).

John Milton


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.