Revising Milton book proposal chapter synopsis
Introduction: Revising Milton
Blake’s famous quote about people knowing their Milton better than their Bible is overused and overquoted in many ways. Despite this fact, few scholarly works look at WHY this is the case. What is it about Milton’s story that makes it the one people choose to revise and reimagine? Why has Milton’s narrative replaced and supplanted traditional religious narratives? Does Milton’s narrative constitute secular religious mythology? If so, what is the significance of this? What is it about Milton’s characterization of Satan that has made it the characterization of the popular imagination? Why has popular culture embraced the concept of a war in heaven? What do the revisions and re imaginings of Milton’s mythology tell us about the historical and cultural moments of these popular culture productions? I argue that part of the reason that Milton’s work has become the basis for these works is because of Milton’s use of folkloric elements and tropes in his narrative. Further, Milton’s work itself can be seen as new folklore. Many folklorists, including Jack Zipes argue that if something is popular it cannot be folklore. However, I argue against this as many popular culture items have become folklore themselves. I argue that the intertextuality of today’s popular culture creates folklore out of popular culture. Further examining Zipes’ definition that the purpose of these tales was for “people to express the manner in which they perceived and perceive nature and their social order and their wish to satisfy their needs and wants” we can specifically look at aspects of popular culture where a groups needs, wants, and fears are addressed.
The modern day horror film as a reflection of American cultures’ fears and cultural wants has been a focus of recent scholarship, most notably in Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, Horror Film and Psychoanalysis, and Men, Women and Chainsaws. Scholars have also focused on the reimaginings, or revisions of fairy tales and folklore in popular culture. However, there has not been an examination of the legacy of Milton’s work on popular culture, and the work that the forwarding of Milton’s ideas and characters is accomplishing. This work will examine how Milton’s folklore has been revised and reimagined, what these revisions and reimaginings reveal about the historical and cultural moment they were produced in, and what fears, wants, and needs are expressed in these productions.
Chapter 1: Milton’s Satan as Horror Movie Icon
If you were to ask a group of people what their vision of Satan was, they would probably describe one of the following figures: a cartoonish, red skinned horned devil with a forked tail or a well dressed, charming man whose manner and appearance is deceiving. The first portrayal can be traced to the folkloric image of the devil and demons while the second’s predecessor is Milton’s characterization in Paradise Lost. According to Dutheil and Stirling in their introduction to After Satan: Essays in Honour of Neil Forsyth “the post-Paradise Lost Devil in literature” seems to disappear, or “slink into the background, or be relegated to the margins” (4). I would argue that while this may be true of literature, it is patently untrue in film. In “Popularizing Pandemonium: Milton and the Horror Film,” Brown quotes James B. Twitchell’s statement that “modern monsters have Milton’s Satan as their great progenitor” (85) but this ignores the presence of Satan himself in film. Satan, his underlings, proxies, and son, in the form of the Anti-Christ, are alive and well and seen throughout modern film, especially the last forty years. Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist and its sequels (1973, 1977, 1990, 2004, 2005), The Omen (1976, 2006) Prince of Darkness (1987), Spawn (1997), The Devil’s Advocate (1997), End of Days (1999) and Devil (2010) are only the most prominent films to feature Satan in one form or another. There’s a longer list if you include films that either feature lesser devils or have a humorous bent such as Bedazzled (both the 1967 and 2000 versions), Damn Yankees (1958), South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), Little Nicky (2000) and Heaven Can Wait (1943, based on the play Birthday by Leslie Bush-Fekete and not to be confused with the 1978 version with Warren Beatty which is actually a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on a play titled Heaven Can Wait). Each of these films keeps the character and idea of Satan alive and in the popular mind. More importantly, they continue to forward Milton’s folkloric characterization of Satan. This chapter will examine what the use of this characterization reveals about cultural fears, needs, and wants as well as how these characterizations are reflections of specific historical and cultural moments.
Chapter 2: War in Heaven
Movie such as Prophecy, Legion and Constantine as well television shows such as Supernatural, and the soon to be released Dominion and Constantine, have at their heart the concept that there was a war in heaven, that continues to this day. In the Prophecy movies, Milton’s conception of the hierarchy of heaven and hell, as well as the war in heaven over man’s role is the center of the plot. In Supernatural seasons four through nine have a war in heaven and the rebellion of angels against God and man as the center of their storyline. The soon to be released Dominion on the SYFY network also focuses on a war in heaven. This war is a complete fiction of Milton as is much of the lore of angels and the hierarchies of heaven and hell. What is it about the idea of a war in heaven, of angels that despise mankind, and the absence of God as intervener that appeals to the popular imagination? Why has Milton’s description and hierarchy been adopted as lore or mythology? This chapter examines the issues of power and hierarchy that Milton explored in Paradise Lost and then examines the historical and cultural context of each of these movies and television shows through this lens.
Chapter 3: Lucifer and Death
Milton’s characterization of Satan became the modern ideal- he was a fallen angel, a tempter, a seducer, who reigned over a parliament in hell. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost, Satan was an abject lesson in the dangers of tyranny and an allegory for Charles I and the Interregnum in England. While Milton’s Satan is often (mis)read as a hero, it is the work he is doing in Paradise Lost that is of interest to me. As Milton’s mythology is forwarded through popular culture, it is important to look at the work these revisions and reimaginigs are doing.
1984 saw President Ronald Reagan seeking a second term as U.S president, the discovery of the AIDS virus, an extreme famine in Ethopia, and crack cocaine making its first appearance. So perhaps it is not surprising that in July of 1984 Alan Moore in Swamp Thing Vol. 2 #27 would envision hell. While Moore’s view was more Dante than Milton, it was not long before Milton’s narrative was inserted into other comics. Swamp Thing #37-50 (June 1985-July 1986) saw the introduction of John Constantine, and whose battle against the First of the Fallen (a Lucifer character who first appears in Hellblazer #42 1991) would come to be central to that title’s plot, and the appearance of Lucifer in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #4 (April 1989) who went on to have his own series in 1999. Over these fifteen plus years these characterizations are interlaced as there were numerous crossovers between titles, specifically Hellblazer and Sandman. So what are we to make of these Miltonic characterizations of Lucifer? What is the significance of the hierarchy of hell having prominence? What is it about this time period that would lead to such a focus on hell, and Lucifer? This chapter will focus on the revision of Milton’s mythology in the Hellblazer and Sandman comics, specifically the characters of First of the Fallen and Lucifer, as well as the political allegories for the actions of these characters.
The impact of Milton’s Paradise Lost has often been viewed through a literary lens. While his impact on popular culture has been received some notice, his use of folkloric figures, and his creation of new mythology has been largely neglected. An interdisciplinary approach to his work, combining folklore, literary studies, and popular culture not only allows us to place his work in context, but also opens up these fields, and other works in a new way. Examining the ways in which Milton’s mythology, his folklore has been revised and reimagined allows us not only to take a fresh look at Paradise Lost but also provides a new approach to popular culture studies.