Reviews: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” – Paradise Lost
Pablo Auladell (adapted from John Milton),
John Milton wrote – or more accurately dictated, as he was blind by this point – his epic poem Paradise Lost during the mid-1600s, the first edition appearing in 1667, influenced by the religious reformations of the era and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the nation-shaking, turbulent events of the Civil War also echo in the divisive rupture in the Heavenly host. In the more than three centuries since then, Paradise Lost has worked its way into various piece of popular culture, sometimes just a touch of influence, at other times, as here, more directly, and across those years it has attracted some heavyweight illustrators – William Blake and Gustave Doré to name but two. As with many, I imagine, I first encountered it in my school years and then returned to it years later. It is one of those stories which I find I appreciate more as time goes past, partly because as you get older and your read more books, watch more films or plays, you can detect influences from the work recurring and it encourages you to return to the source material once more.
Spanish creator Pablo Auladell first started this work back in 2010 at the behest of a poetry publisher, then another publisher asked him to do more chapters a few years later; as with Milton himself this was a project that gestated for quite a period before finally being completed, and I think that long period of considering Milton shows throughout this graphic adaptation (even when the work was interrupted and on hiatus I’m sure Auladell was still thinking about it at the back of his head, stories tend to do that to writers, until you get it all down on the page).
For this adaptation Auladell breaks the story into four Cantos: Satan, A Garden of Delights, First Memories of the World and The Flaming Sword. The First Canto focuses on Satan and his Fallen legions, freshly expelled from Heaven, still lying like a shipwrecked man just washed upon the shore, broken, exhausted. With the exception of a brief few pages showing Satan as Lucifer, still an angel, with his lover in the heavenly city, these panels are dark, brooding, muted grays and dark greens, the scenes resembling the aftermath of a great battle (which I suppose really is what this is), bodies strewn over a bleak landscape, lances and swords and broken banners littering the field. They have fallen into Bottomless Perdition, cursed for eternity by God, banished from His light, from all the rest of creation, damned, lonely, lost creatures, bereft of hope, banished forever from the light of God and Creation.
But Lucifer – now Satan – picks himself up slowly, grimly surveying his broken legions, lost in their woe in this dark realm. Auladell does a fine job of capturing his expression in those first moments in Hell, the shock, the horror dawning on Satan of where his hubris and rebellion has lead him and those who followed him. But then he gathers himself, the old pride and arrogance returns, and rather than bemoan his outcast state he rallies his supporters – their Creator has treated them most dreadfully and unjustly, even if he would hear their pleas for mercy and forgiveness they would not make such supplication. No, they want to even the score; Satan is aware of God’s latest creation, Man, and the Paradise created for Adam and Eve, the new apples of God’s eye (pun intended – sorry). If he cannot defeat the Heavenly host by force of arms then there are other ways to strike back at God. The plans to corrupt Man and cause him to fall as Lucifer fell are laid…
“Serpent, thou are accursed above all beasts of the field. Upon thy belly grovelling thou shalt go, and dust shalt eat all the days of thy life...”
We see Adam and then Eve in the Garden of Earthly Delights canto – again, dark, grim colours for Satan’s journey across the abyssmal realms between Hell and Creation, but for the most part colours become more important here, but soft colours, not too suddenly contrasting to the eye, pale blues, luscious greens of growing things, human, animal and plants all in perfect harmony and peace, death but a word whose meaning is not known. Paradise. Even Satan pauses in his flight to his goal, taken aback by the pure beauty of this perfect Creation. And then shifting shape he slithers his way in to start his plotting and planning as to how to corrupt humanity, to bring them as low as he and his rebel angels have fallen. Auladell captures some beautiful expressions here as well as luscious depictions of Paradise, the open expression of Adam, always curious, delighted in this new world, and especially in Eve, while he depicts Eve’s expressions wonderfully, from the first hints of her more questioning nature that will lead to the Fall, to that almost beatific expression that comes simply from being by the person you love.
The last two cantos portray the inevitable – this is a story we all know, even those who haven’t read the original Milton. We know what is coming, as surely as we know about how the tragedy of a historic event will unfold, and it makes the sort, warm, loving scenes in the Garden all the more bittersweet, knowing that it will end, that humanity will forever be cast out, the gates sealed and guarded by a great, flaming sword. Illness, suffering and mortality will enter the world and shall be the lot of every generation of human being for eternity. The actual expulsion homages some of the great, iconic works of Western religious art, such as Masaccio’s 15th century Expulsion From the Garden of Eden, the anguish virtually pouring out of the imagery.
How you chose to interpret this classic tale is, of course, down to the individual readers – some will take it as a straight religious parable of what happens when humans don’t obey the will of God, that we’re weak, sinful and have to follow His rules for our own good. Others see it as a metaphor for an almost childlike state of innocence, lost as we grow up and become more aware, more knowledgeable and have to make decisions of all sorts, weigh matters of morality and consequence. Others ask why a God who is supposedly all-loving would hold every generation to account for the actions of distant ancestors, for all eternity, or why he would deny humanity Knowledge and the ability to question and learn (what does he have to be afraid of??). You could fill an entire volume speculating about meanings within Paradise Lost, and indeed many far more suited to such analysis than I have done just that. I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that this is a story which invites thought and consideration, and which often refuses to settle simply on just one simple answer, because it is about human nature, and humans are complex creatures.
But that is the finest kind of story, the type which gets under your skin, lives inside your head – you’ll find yourself pondering points, they will come back to you again and again over the years and, as I said at the beginning, you will find hints of Paradise Lost’s influence permeating other stories you will read, and it will add to your perception and appreciation of those stories, and of the original poem. Auladell has done a remarkable job here, using the comics form to bring to life an important piece of world literature in a very accessible manner, with some luscious art – heaven resembling an ethereal version of an idealised Renaissance Italian city-state, the soft colours and peacefulness of the Garden, the expressions on the faces of Eve, Adam and Satan, the moral maze (even Satan isn’t just some villainous embodiment of pure evil, he has feelings, he has goodness, but his arrogance and anger unbalance him, and while he commits terrible acts he is in some ways a victim himself). It’s an absolutely beautiful, moving, thought-provoking adaptation for those of us already familiar with Milton, and for those who are not, what a wonderful way to delve into this classic work.