Why does Milton’s God seem selfish? Is Satan the hero of “Paradise Lost”? Why has the serpent come to represent evil?
Paradise Lost has always been difficult reading. It is packed with allusions to the Bible, classical mythology, and history—allusions that are, for the most part, lost on the twentieth-century reader.
In this latest addition to the Asimov “Guides,” the author comes to the reader’s aid. Relying on his vast store of knowledge, Asimov explains all the references to astronomy, alchemy, astrology. He tells the reader, in clear language, the origin and meaning of the gods, demons, names, and places that are mentioned in the poem; for instance: “‘Pandemonium,’ a word coined by Milton, means ’all demons’ and is an appropriate name for the capital of Hell.”
Dr. Asimov manages to find every allusion that could possibly cause confusion. By merely turning the page, confusion becomes clarity.
Paradise Lost is no longer unapproachable. With Isaac Asimov’s guiding hand, a whole new audience can discover Milton and enjoy Paradise Lost as few ever thought it could be.
This is the first really expensive book by Asimov I ever bought, shortly after its publication, and although I like it better than Asimov’s Annotated “Don Juan” (largely because I like Milton a tad better than Byron), I can’t say I particularly care for it. As with Asimov’s Annotated “Don Juan”, it’s not Asimov’s fault; in this case, it’s Milton. I frankly find his poetry overblown and his good guys excessively Homeric and bland. Give me Dante any day. (Of course, it doesn’t help that Asimov gleefully points out every instance when Milton describes angels as if they were fighting Homeric battles and says how silly it all is.)
Again, Asimov is not providing a literary analysis (although he can’t help himself here and there) so much as providing background material the average reader may lack. As always, he does a good job, and his annotations are the only thing that really makes this book worthwhile for me.
One note: Doubleday didn’t exactly lose money on Asimov’s Annotated “Don Juan”, but with the expense of producing it and the high cost of the volume itself, it didn’t exactly do well, either. They learned their lesson here. They were willing to do the book, but it was unillustrated, unboxed, on cheaper paper, with a cheaper binding, and priced some 30% lower than Asimov’s Annotated “Don Juan”.
There is, however, a curious problem. Asimov includes the complete text of and annotations to both “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained.” The margins of each page indicate which poem (and book of the poem) one is in. Due, however, to strange oversight, in no sections of the book do the margins read “Paradise Regained”—it’s “Paradise Lost” throughout. (Perhaps Doubleday doesn’t corporately believe Paradise was regained?)