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49. Gathering at Pandemonium, Third Essay
The Little Word "Or"; Miscellaneous Thoughts in Paradise Lost I.751-98
Lines 751-98 complete Book I. We really don't need a detailed narration of the action of these lines to understand it. It is pretty clear. The Fallen Angels throng to Pandemonium, the capital of Hell. While there, and a signal being given (is this signal like the bell ringing in the Catholic service of communion, when the bread "becomes" the body of Christ?), the throng is transformed into tiny swarming creatures. Still they press together on the patio of their new building. But deep within the building sit the Cherubs and Seraphs who actually will make decisions. These retain their normal size. The great conclave (a Catholic word--describing the meeting of the College of Cardinals to choose a Pope) is about to begin.
The Awful Gravity and Lightness of the Scene
The scene is swathed in dignity and comedy. The former is easy to see. Note Milton's emphasis on words of solemnity and order both at the beginning and end of the narrative. "By command/ Of sovran pow'r" (752-53) the heralds summon to assembly. But it is an "awful" (i.e., dreadful, terrible, awe-inspiring) ceremony. The summons is with a trumpet. The last lines, too, are dripping with dignity, as Cherubs and Seraphs, who have not lost their size, meet. They meet "far within," words suggestive of the "inner sanctum" or "Holy of Holies" of religious temples. Their sitting "In close recess and secret conclave" (795) drips with dignity. But they just don't sit on chairs; they are "A thousand Demi-gods on golden seats" (796).
Imagine the United Nations General Assembly; the US Congress; the meetings of heads of state around the world. They are nothing compared to the religious/political nobleness of the scene before us. To add to the honor of the occasion, there is silence, then a summons, and then the great conclave begins. Matters are not rushed. Formalities are observed. Everyone is seated. Then, there is a pause. In that most pregnant pause is the shared sense of important purpose. Eyes must have scanned the gathering, picking out all the worthies that were gathered there. But great meetings don't just begin with a "call to order." They begin with a summons. The summons describes the time, place, and nature of the meeting. They are all gathered properly; they are in their chairs. Due order in all of its particularities has been observed. The silence is over and the great conclave can begin.
Amid this description of honorable activities are occasional comedic notes, notes that probe, though not enough to destabilize, the dignity of the scene. We imagine the crush of the "straitened" multitude of demons (776). Space is constricted; there must have been pushing and shoving. They can't really see what is going on. Disorder and chaos threatens to break out in Hell. Gustav Doré has depicted this scene artistically, and in his painting we have a throng of winged creatures, mostly on horse, with a luminescent glow that yields enough light to show the chaotic situation.
Quiet order wars with frothing chaos.
Then, there is the transformation of these lesser Angels into tiny creatures. Milton likens the transformed creatures to Pygmies. When he referred to Pygmies earlier (though not by name--575), he did so with humor, calling them the "small infantry." Now, by mentioning them explicitly in a simile (780), he no doubt expects the reader to return to that earlier humorous simile. And, to add to the humor, he relates that these tiny spirits now were free to be "at large" (790) in the hall of that "infernal Court." It is like saying that the departure of Herve Villechaize from the set of Fantasy Island in 1983 created a huge hole in the show.
The Little Word "Or"
The most impressive feature of these 48 lines, however, are the similes and near-similes used to describe features of the gathering. The assembly reminds Milton of a medieval tournament or joust; it calls to mind bees gathering; it reminds him of faery elves dancing in their sprightly way. All of these scenes are derived from literature, while the setting Milton describes, of thronging multitudes and a solemn assembly, probably comes from Milton's own experience in English politics in the 1640s-50s. But nothing here is taken from theology, except perhaps the one or two oblique references to Catholic practice (the conclave; the signal being given) in his day. The images come from his medieval romance reading or from his classical studies.
It would be a rather pedestrian exercise to quote Homer or Virgil and show how Milton borrowed but developed the simile of the bees. What impresses me most, upon reading and re-reading the section, though, is the function of the word "or" in prolonging his similes. As I have previously argued, the similes function as a sort of "escape" for Milton, to allow him to leave the fetid and scorching world of Hell, in this instance, and take us to other realities. Similes can either have a continuing one-to-one correspondence with the action described or they can simply be generally suggested by the action. In any case, they function to give the reader a "mental break" by taking us on a journey to nature or other parts of the world.
But sometimes when we take a break from our reading or work, we simply don't want to return to work after the allotted time for a break. We seek excuses to prolong the break, making an extra trip to the bathroom or water cooler, checking our email box, which was empty five minutes ago, doing a quick Internet search on our favorite actor, food, sports team or equity position. What Milton does, through the use of the word "or" in his similes in this section is to help us prolong the escape from Hell. It gives us a chance to turn onto a smaller street from the major arterial which exited the freeway. Let's illustrate this.
The First Near Simile (763-66)
The Rebel Angels pressed tightly together; as Milton says, "all access was throng'd" (761). He also notes that the "spacious Hall" of Hell was "like a cover'd field." This reminded him of unspecified scenes from romance literature where knightly heroes gathered for their jousting tournaments. Perhaps he is conflating various accounts in his mind, of Christian knights jousting against each other in medieval tournaments and of a Christian knight fighting against a pagan (infidel) knight before the watchful eye of a Muslim authority (the Sultan). In any case, he just can't let well enough alone, and he has to take us to the jousting field to witness these combats. But he then adds the line, "To mortal combat or career with Lance" (766). A "career" is a "course" and here it means the first "course" or activity with the spear. The fact that he lists two alternatives, combat a la outrance (to the death) or combat to break the lance (non mortal), takes us on a further mental trip. We imagine the fight to the death, but we also imagine the trial of skill. We are taken away from the reading to our world. In the current day's parlance, we might "escape" to the world of Westerns, where noble, and ignoble, gunslingers challenge each other, shoot at each other, fall from second-floor balustrades, dust off their equipment, and look around in triumph.