In his book The Satanic Epic Neil Forsyth says that people are guilty of “knowing their Milton better than their Bible,” (Forsyth 66). Nowhere is this truer than in Milton’s characterization of the angels. Milton’s expansion of the angels, particularly Raphael, is intriguing because other than the Creation story that Milton has Raphael relate, the expansion of the character of angels is the one subject that Milton makes up entirely out of whole cloth. There are not enough references in the Bible for Milton to pull his sources from there, so he simply creates an elaborate fiction and history involving the angels. It is this fiction that most readers are familiar with. The specific changes Milton makes to the concept of angels and the archangel Raphael in particular are detailed; Milton’s angels are described as being much closer to humans than the Bible suggests, that humans can potentially become like angels. Angels have free will, as man does. He also creates, in Raphael a personable character who establishes a relationship with Adam. Milton also sets Raphael up as a “Divine instructor” as Adam calls him (V, 546), a model for behavior and the “tactful narrator” as Rosenblatt points out.
The archangel Raphael appears only in the Book of Tobit. He acts as a guide and advisor, although in disguise for most of that time. His purpose in the book is simple, and given to the reader: he “was sent to cure the two of them.” (Chapter 3, verse 17). He does this in very simple ways. He offers to help Tobit find the way to Media, disguised as his kinsman Azarias, advises Tobit to catch a fish and use the heart, liver and gall to cure someone overcome with demons, and advises Tobit on how he can manage to marry Sarah, who has already been married seven times to men who have all died due to a demon. Tobit follows Raphael’s advice, marries Sarah, and dispels the demon with the burning of the fish’s liver and heart. The demon flees to Upper Egypt where Raphael binds the demon hand and foot. Raphael then acts as a servant for Tobit for the majority of the next three chapters. It is only in Chapter 12 that Raphael reveals to Tobit and Sarah that when they prayed, it was he that brought their prayers to the attention of the Lord and then was sent both test and cure them.
Milton greatly expands the character of Raphael from the Biblical text. According to the Hebraic tradition, there are four archangels; Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael and they are accorded the four cardinal points of the world. Milton takes as the basis for Raphael the idea that he can both test and cure people. Raphael as Milton presents him does not test Adam per se, but he is responsible for giving Adam the information he needs in order to not fall. Raphael, with his dispensation of information in Books 5-8 acts as a counselor, advisor and teacher for Adam, covering topics that range from domestic life, the war in heaven, and creation.
In Book 5, God sends Raphael down to warn Adam because Satan is known to have escaped from Hell. God tells Raphael to inform Adam that:
Happiness in his power left free to will,
Left to his own free will, his will though free,
Yet mutable; whence warn him to beware
He swerve not too secure: tell him withal
His danger, and from whom, what enemy
Late fall’n himself from Heav’n is plotting now
The fall of others from like state of bliss”
Raphael goes down to the garden but instead of first fulfilling his job as assigned by God, he sits down to a domestic meal with Adam and Eve. This is in direct contradiction to the Book of Tobit where Raphael tells Tobit and Sarah that they only imagined him consuming food. The domestic scene in Paradise Lost helps to establish the relationship between humans and angels in a larger sense. Raphael expands on this later in Book 5 when he explains to Adam what life for the angels is like: “though what is Earth/Be but the shadow of Heav’n, and things therein/Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought?” (lines 574-576). This is only one example of Raphael drawing parallels between angels and humans, but it also brings up a question. Raphael ends the preceding lines with a question. This forces the reader to consider whether or not Raphael is completely secure in his role of “Divine instructor” and whether or not Raphael is telling us what he thinks or what is true according to God. Carver comes down on the side that what Raphael says is the true word of God as “an angel is not to be convinced by a logical demonstration, for he understands by direct intuition, without the use of symbols. As he has no bodily senses, he cannot be deluded by pleasant sights and sounds; nor would it be possible, as he has no imagination, to tempt him by drawing verbal pictures of the happiness to be attained by consenting to the course proposed.” (Carver 423). While Carver’s quotation refers to Satan in contrast to his audience, the same argument can be made for Raphael’s validity. He can be trusted because he cannot make anything up and he is the perfect model for Adam and Eve because he cannot be tempted by the offerings of Earth.
Rosenblatt discusses the multiple roles of Raphael: that of a divine interpreter, a model of perfection and as a tactful narrator. The role of divine interpreter can be seen in the explanation Raphael gives on the order of the universe in Book 5. Raphael’s job is to advice Adam and Eve, and to inform them. In his role to Adam and Eve, Raphael also works as a “Divine Interpreter” (132). It is his job to not only advise and warn them, but to also make creation and the explanation of the universe understandable to human minds. In Book 7 Raphael also tells Adam that knowledge must be tempered: “knowledge within bounds” (line 120). Raphael must also find a way to explain the universe in a way that Adam can understand: “The angel, though he does not himself make use of phantasmata, or mental imagery, knows that the human mind is incapable of reasoning in any other way.” (Carver 424). He then goes on to tell an expanded version of the creation story.
The final role, of tactful narrator can best be seen in Raphael’s telling of creation. Tactful is a wonderful adjective, although it perhaps refers more to Milton than his creation. It is an arrogant undertaking to assume that the creation story must be improved upon. Milton must walk a fine line, and he accomplishes this by framing Raphael’s story of creation with the actual Biblical text. Milton has Raphael’s creation story rooted in Genesis 1, and accounts for the differences in the creation story by having Adam relate his story that is rooted in Genesis 2. However, as Rosenblatt suggests, there are several interesting additions between Raphael’s narrative and that given in the Bible. This extension of the creation story is meant to fulfill the function of giving Adam and Eve enough knowledge to make an informed decision- to fall or not. Raphael implies that the angels were created before the heaven and earth and before the creation of light (Rosenblatt 157). The Bible gives no reference to the creation of angels; instead the assumption is usually that they were created at the same time. Again, Milton takes the Biblical source, or the absence therein, and expands the description. The reader constantly has to ask him/herself whether or not Raphael’s words can be completely trusted. Adam seems to trust him when he explains creation and what angels are like in regards to eating and sex, but Raphael’s accounts vary greatly from the Biblical knowledge. Indeed, a larger part of Raphael’s job seems to be to engage in a sort of midrashic discussion with Adam.
The reader learns, through Raphael story that he is extremely knowledgeable of the events of creation. He is able, in detail to describe to Adam what occurred and when. In Books 6 and 7, perhaps more than anywhere else, the role of Raphael as “Divine instructor” can be seen clearly. Adam could not have received the information about the war in heaven or creation from anywhere else. However, Raphael’s extensive knowledge of these subjects stands in contrast to Raphael’s apparent knowledge of Adam’s own creation since Raphael says he “that day was absent, as befell,/Bound on a voyage uncouth and obscure,/Far on excursion toward the gates of Hell” (VIII, lines 229-231). Raphael warns Adam that while curiosity is not a sin, Adam should be careful in what he seeks knowledge of: “heav’n is for thee too high/To know what passes there; be lowly wise:/Think only what concerns thee and thy being” (VIII, lines 172-174). The role of divine interpreter and tactful narrator becomes fused in this instance.
As part of his role as advisor and mouthpiece for God, Raphael explains to Adam Satan’s rebellion in Book 6. The explanation is meant to make clear to Adam what the consequences are if he and Eve are not obedient and the rewards if they are. Satan and the other rebellious angels are cast down into Hell for their transgression, whereas the angels who fought on the side of God, the Son and Heaven celebrate with a “jubilee”. Raphael tells Adam that he must:
By what is past, to thee I have revealed
What might have else to human race been hid;
The discord which befell, and war in Heav’n
Among th’ angelic powers, and the deep fall
Of those too high aspiring, who rebelled
Raphael hopes that by telling in detail the story of the war in heaven, that Adam will realize not only the consequences of disobedience but that he will also take seriously the threat that Satan poses: “With Satan, he who envies now thy state,/Who now is plotting how he may seduce/Thee also from obedience,” (lines 900-902). Thus Raphael again fuses the roles of divine interpreter and tactful narrator.
MacCallum states that Raphael and Michael both serve similar functions in that they “both teach that love arises out of obedience to God, and that in this process the son plays a crucial role in producing unity. Both present the trial of obedience within the context of conflict, loss, and triumph, in which the creative and destructive powers of God are made manifest, and both stress the free response of the individual will as the source of growth.” (MacCallum 203). Raphael demonstrates this when he explains obedience to Adam against the backdrop of Satan’s rebellion.
Raphael also offers himself as a “model of perfection, advising that Adam can alter his own nature from human to angelic simply by obedience.” (Rosenblatt 148). This is in keeping with the Book of Tobit in that Raphael is sent to heal Tobit and Sarah. In many ways, Raphael being sent down to instruct Adam and Eve and serve as a model to them is a way to heal or save them. The information he offers them can lead to their salvation. They simply choose to make a different choice, and hence fall. As Rosenblatt so clearly states, Raphael is supposed to be a model for what they can achieve if they try and are obedient, a model that they ultimately fail to live up to (Rosenblatt 149). Rosenblatt goes on to state that Raphael is a “Hebraic angel who begins his conversation with an implicit rejection of typology, asserting instead the interchange of matter and spirit.” (Rosenblatt 37). The purpose of this is to suggest that only through obedience to God, and recognition of their own human failings, will Adam and Eve know God. However, he goes on to argue that “Raphael’s purpose- and the law’s- is to prepare, admonish, and forewarn those who cannot be helped because they are doomed.” (Rosenblatt 67). This is a very different picture than Milton seems to want the reader to have of Raphael. Milton has God send Raphael to help and advise, but according to Rosenblatt, Adam and Eve cannot be helped because they are already doomed to fall. This contradicts Milton’s presentation of free will. Adam and Eve cannot be “doomed to fall” because that implies that the fall is predestined, when Milton has Raphael stress free will.
Raphael’s story of the war in heaven in Book 6 is the perfect lead in to the narration he gives in Book 7 because it works with the idea of the story as knowledge. Raphael instructs Adam on God’s story of creation. The idea of divine interpreter can be seen both in Raphael’s explanation of the order of the universe and the story of creation he tells to Adam. MacCallum supports Rosenblatt’s idea of divine interpreter when he says that “Raphael and Michael communicate God’s instructions to man, accommodating heavenly truth to human powers.” (MacCallum 7). It can also been seen in Raphael’s conversation with Adam about how humans, if they remain obedient can eventually become like angels. “God, we are told, who once formed angels into men, “has promised that He will one day form men into angels.”” (Carver 419). Men will trade their bodies for a more ethereal presence. This possibility of spiritual evolution is essential to understanding not only the relationship Milton is setting up between angels and humans but also where man fits within the universe.
Adam’s own story of creation actually comes after Raphael’s explanation of the universe in Book 8. Adam asks, and Raphael, couching his explanation in the terms that God is amused by humans’ “quaint opinions” (line 78), explains how the universe is actually ordered. While this seems to be a departure from Raphael’s role as “Divine instructor”, it does recall the sense of relationship that Raphael sets up in Book 5 with the domestic scene with Adam and Eve and the implication of mishradic conversation. It is also followed by their exchange after Adam’s story of creation when Adam praises the enjoyment of conversing with Raphael. This is important because it presents a completely original view of angels, and Raphael in particular as personable creatures that man can easily relate to.
Milton has Raphael make an interesting commentary after his explanation of the universe, in that he warns Adam to beware of the difference between outward and inward beauty and the dangers that potentially exist in Eve’s outward beauty. This episode brings into doubt Raphael’s authority, as it can be read that Raphael misunderstands why Adam loves Eve. Whereas before, the reader questions whether or not Raphael truly speaks for God, here the reader can see that Raphael must misunderstand Adam, as there is nothing in Adam’s explanation of his love for Eve that would lead to the need for a warning. However, when taken in light of carver’s comment, there is no way Raphael can understand what Adam says as angels have no “bodily sense”. This episode serves as an interesting segway for Adam to ask Raphael the interesting question as to whether or not angels have sex. While Raphael doesn’t give an explicit answer, he does blush as he answers: “”Let it suffice thee that thou knw’st/Us happy, and without love no happiness.” (lines 620-621). Again Milton creates a similarity between man and angels.
When Raphael first appears to Adam and Eve, he appears to them in a corporeal body, as evidenced by Milton having him participate in their meal. According to Carver, having Raphael eat and exhale his nutrients is “repudiation of every conclusion deducible from “the common gloss,” and particularly of the conclusion elaborated by Duns Scotus.” (Carver 417). Milton chooses to accentuate the commonality that humans and angels have, rather than follow the Biblical lead with having angels as remote, terrifying figures. However, Raphael is never introduced to Adam and Eve, and they never know his name. It is as though Milton wishes his characterization of Raphael to stand in for all angels.
Milton creates angels that enjoy the same things that humans do: “that angels enjoy their meals “On flours reposed” (V. 634) and take their leisure in “blissful Bowrs” (XI. 77)”. (Knott 487). Raphael when he describes angelic food he “pictures an inviting natural world” (Knott 491). The banquet that he goes on to describe is elaborate, and yet has a lot in common with the domestic scene the reader witnesses between Raphael, Adam and Eve. The angels also sleep as humans do “enjoying a repose that we can only imagine as more complete than that of Adam and Eve in their Garden.” (Knott 491). Again, Milton stresses the similarities that exist between humans and angels. Just as Adam and Eve labor and then rest in their bower, so Milton stresses that his description of angels alternates “between images of service and of rest” (Knott 494). Knott states that while angels are described in Paradise Lost as soldiers and messengers the most satisfying job they have in heaven is their service to God and the Son. In this way, Milton again relates his angels to humans, as their greatest job is their obedience to God.
One major difference between the Biblical sources and Paradise Lost is the concept that the angels are subordinate to the Son. This is an issue that MacCallum addresses, in reference to Milton’s other writings: “Thus he speaks of the angels as being under Christ as their head, not their Redeemer (Works, XV, 101). Significantly, he rejects the Reformed view that the good angels retain their strength by the grace of God and are thus eager to participate in the mystery of man’s salvation.” (MacCallum 84). Milton changes this approach slightly in Paradise Lost; the majority of angels in Heaven are not heard from one way or another as to how they feel about the salvation of man. However, Milton does put Raphael in the unique position of being the mediator, the voice of God for Adam who warns and advises him. God specifically sends Raphael down to Earth to warn and advise Adam, so even if Raphael is not personally invested in man’s salvation, and the domestic scene at the beginning of Book 5 seems to belie this, God is.
When Milton chooses to greatly expand the Biblical text, it is a clue to the reader to pay close attention. In respect to the angels, Milton takes the greatest liberty next to his expansion of the creation story (which incidentally, he has an angel tell, thus acting in the role of Rosenblatt’s “tactful narrator”). Milton creates the modern image of an angel; relating to humans on a personal level, speaking the word of God and acting as a model for behavior. This personable characterization is the one most readers think of when they think of angels. In this way, the character of Raphael in Paradise Lost is responsible for the formation of the general public’s view of angels in general.
Carver, P.L. "The Angels in Paradise Lost." The Review of English Studies 16.64 (1940): 415-431.
Kerrigan, William, John Rumrich and Stephen M Fallon. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. New York: Modern Library Edition Random House, 2007.
Knott, John R. "Milton's Heaven." PMLA 85.3 (1970): 487-495.
MacCallum, Hugh. Milton and the Sons of God. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986.
Rosenblatt, Jason. Torah and Law in Paradise Lost. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Suggs, M Jack, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld and James R. Mueller, The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.