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The Modern Message of Ancient Texts

Updated on September 13, 2014

Primitive Language

We are currently aware of some aspects of the ancient world solely because of the stories and language passed down to us over thousands of years. Ancient civilizations constructed their world around them as they began to structure their own language.

The language in ancient storytelling emphasizes the fact that there were words the narrator didn't know. Because of this, a majority of the language became symbolic.

Another issue with ancient texts is that a majority of it relies on one source of information- mainly a spiritual or religious one.

In the end, constructing an identity through language allowed the characters to construct their own viewpoints. Although language itself in ancient texts may be considered a failure, the stories are symbolic of attitudes and behaviors common to society today.

A leading supporter of Charles I’s execution was Paradise Lost author John Milton.  In addition to being an author, Milton was involved with politics and was an advisor to Oliver Cromwell when the Puritans overthrew the Church of England.
A leading supporter of Charles I’s execution was Paradise Lost author John Milton. In addition to being an author, Milton was involved with politics and was an advisor to Oliver Cromwell when the Puritans overthrew the Church of England. | Source

Tales of Morality

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem regarding the origins of mankind as seen through the perspective of the Old Testament.

Satan’s characteristics are revealed in the poem during the author’s depiction of why Satan has been banished to hell, his remorse for failure, and his behavior towards others.

Satan’s disproportionately big role in the epic is a reflection of how prevalent evil is in our society.


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Falling From Grace

The character of Satan in Paradise Lost initially attempts to elicit empathy from the reader in the opening book. His attempt to create a world separate from God is the reason he is banished to hell.

The most prevalent characteristic of Satan is his pride.

After his failed attempts to overthrow God, he still believes, and tries to convince others, that he and his army should make another attempt to do battle with God.

His followers are far less confident in this idea than he is, but Satan is consumed with hatred and revenge on God and the angels who have punished him. His stubbornness is reflected in the passage, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (Milton 1838).

Satan, who has convinced himself that he is a dignified entity, has an inability to properly understand why God has done this to him, as well as, how to exact revenge.


Sad Reflection

As the epic progresses, however, Satan soon realizes the severity of his actions and reflects on the fact that there is no way for him to rectify what he has done.

In lines 32 through 113 in Book Four, the true nature of Satan is revealed in a self-reflexive speech on his depression. One of many regrets he has is that “…had his [God’s] powerful destiny ordained me some inferior angel, I had stood then happy” (Milton 1889).

One aspect of his bitterness towards God is that there was a time when Satan was one of God’s most important and beloved disciples. However, Satan was not satisfied with this lofty responsibility and his “ambition threw me down” (Milton 1888) to the wretched condition he is currently in.

What makes his despair so prevalent is that there will never be a chance for “true reconcilement” (Milton 1889) with God because of the fact that the utopian existence that reigned before his actions has been forever changed.

Satan must rely on vengeance because he knows his relationship with God is finished.


Unlovable

After reading Paradise Lost, my opinion of Satan is that he is an entity consumed with hate, revenge, and deception. He behaves callously to everyone he has ever encountered. One moment he is plotting revenge on God and provoking his minions to prepare for battle; the next moment he admits his defeat in a sad, pathetic way.

His encounter with Eve reveals that Satan can be a malicious, deceitful and childish entity who will stop at nothing to invoke chaos.

For example, after Eve wins an argument with Adam, she is alone in the garden. Satan notices her and begins his plan to persuade her to eat the fruit.

His pathetic immaturity is revealed when he sees her and is overcome with puppy love at her beauty, which distracts him from executing his plan.

The most troubling aspect of Satan is that there is no peace with him or with his actions. Even though Satan is an atheist, there are plenty of non-believers who live in peace with others and do not disrupt the process of nature.

After reading the poem, my beliefs regarding Satan left me disturbed. The polarized style of writing in Paradise Lost presents a clear example of what evil consists of and has made me far more aware of what to look for in people and situations.

If the character of Satan in Paradise Lost never understood the meaning of his life, how could he ever understand his purpose in the afterlife?

In addition to this, it appears Satan also lives a life without emotions and is prevented from feeling anything because he fails to understand who he is.

Everything he answers to is answered in the negative and he provides no direct resolution to anything.

This is the reality of his own personal hell. He carries on his absurdity to a fundamental end, which would be characterized today as a form of madness. He is also suspicious, distrustful and superstitious throughout the story which also makes him appear stupid.




Satan is depicted as a childish entity overcome with pathetic immaturity in Milton's "Paradise Lost".
Satan is depicted as a childish entity overcome with pathetic immaturity in Milton's "Paradise Lost". | Source

A Story of Redemption

Another compelling component of ancient storytelling is the density of much of its verse. Stories from this era relied on dense yet simple language to convey powerful messages.

In the case of The Story of Caedmon, a low-class, illiterate man finds solace in a dream that inspires him to relay spiritual messages.

The language in the story is simple. But the message, devoted to spiritual themes such as grace and the dangers of hell, is sincere and profound.

Flowery language found in today’s fiction is rarely found in medieval British prose. However, this does not diminish the inspiring message that The Story of Caedmon relates.

The simplicity of language is prevalent in the author’s writing during his discussion of faith, poetry and love.


The Original Anglo-Saxon text from "The Story of Caedmon".
The Original Anglo-Saxon text from "The Story of Caedmon". | Source

The Ancient Origins of Storytelling

At the time the story was recited, God was seen as an artist. Because of this, the inspiration for creativity is derived from a Divine being, or faith.

This is what made Caedmon’s poetry so powerful. He held an advantage over other poets at the time because he was not taught poetry “by men” (Bede 25) but rather received a “gift through heavenly grace” (Bede 25).

After his dream, his mind and thoughts were no longer cluttered with ambiguity regarding life on this planet and the afterlife.

The simplicity of the story’s language is related to the fact that it is an example of oral poetry. Simplicity, rather than complexity, lends itself to oral poetry.


From Having Nothing to Having Everything

The story’s protagonist, Caedmon, lived the majority of his life as a secular herdsman in a monastery. The text reveals that Caedmon had been associated with music when attending “feasts” (Bede 25) but “got up in the meal and went home” (Bede 25) when hearing the music.

Caedmon was resentful that he could not sing or play music at these “secular estates” (Bede 25) because he didn’t know how. However, after his dream, he was able to write religious poetry through what he referred to as “Heavenly Grace” (Bede 25).

Evidence of this divine awakening is documented shortly after his dream, when he declares, “Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” (Bede 25).

Although the text is quite primitive in this story, there is a notion of a distinct upper class, which the narrator cannot relate to. However, the narrator is the only one with an altruistic motive to gain a better understanding of himself.

The protagonist seems to be striving for simple verse with maximum clarity. Shortly after his poetry talent was discovered, he was admitted to the church and disassociated himself with secular life and music.

Although his poetry wasn’t musical, or performed with other musicians, he was able to translate the meter of his verse into Christian themes.


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Grace for Caedmon

Caedmon’s love for God changes his life. After the monastery discovers his miraculous spiritual talents, he is given his monastic vows and is taught biblical creation history and the origin of human race, according to what Christians believe.

Caedmon worked effortlessly to help convert people from the “love of sin” (Bede 27) into a meaningful existence within the church. The revelation in his dream is so profound, Caedmon becomes ashamed of his former life and his association with “vain and idle songs” (Bede 25).

Faith, poetry and love are united in the form of a miracle in this story.

There is no rational explanation given as to how the protagonist was granted such skill in poetry. Detailed accounts of what transpired do not exist. The most interesting aspect of the story is how simple the language is and how miracles do not need a rational explanation.

The only truthful fact of the story is that miracles do exist, as evidenced by Caedmon’s newly found talent.

I believe the simplicity of the language in the story is a result of the intuitive calm and peace that is associated with spirituality. Once one is consumed with spirituality, there really isn’t an urge to detail such true and powerful feelings. Clarity, while reciting poetry about God, should be imperative.


A shrine still stands today in England honoring the legacy of Caedmon.
A shrine still stands today in England honoring the legacy of Caedmon. | Source
The concept of evil has lead to an unending discussion in our world to this day.
The concept of evil has lead to an unending discussion in our world to this day. | Source

Conclusion

Both "Paradise Lost" and "The Story of Caedmon" contribute to the unending discussion of evil- or evil as a concept. Therein lies the fascination with such ancient texts- the concepts both stories explored.

Mystical, divine events are both personified in these stories through Satan in Paradise Lost and Caedmon in The Story of Caedmon; both are examples of extreme opposites as well.

The simplicity of the language is appropriate for Caedmon because ultimately he becomes a pure, simple person living a simple, yet divine existence at the end of the story.

Satan, on the other hand, is a complicated study of a weak and powerless entity who will never be able to evade what he has done. Watching him in action throughout the story, gives the reader critical insight to what the concept of evil personifies.

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Works Cited

1.) Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume B: The Sixteenth Century And The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. VII Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams, 2006. 1830-2055.


2.) The Venerable Bede. “From An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (The Story of Caedmon)”. Norton The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A: The Middle Ages. Ed. VII Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams, 2006. 24-27.


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