Book VI continues Raphael's account of the war in Heaven and opens as Abdiel makes his way back to God from Satan's hosts in the North. The other angels welcome Abdiel and take him before God, who praises the loyal angel for standing for truth even though none stood with him. God then appoints Michael and Gabriel to lead the Heavenly forces against Satan's army. However, God limits the number of the Heavenly force and its power to equal that of Satan's hosts.
The battle lasts two days. On the first day, the angels easily beat the rebellious angels back; on the second day, under the assault of a cannon that the demons have built, the angels' victory is not so easy. In response to the cannon fire, the Heavenly hosts grab mountains, hills, and boulders and pelt the rebels, literally burying them and their cannon. The rebels dig out and begin to respond in kind, and the air is soon filled with the landscape. At this point, God, fearing for the physical safety of Heaven (he knows that Satan is no real threat to his power, but the rebels are literally uprooting the landscape), calls forth the Son, who attacks the rebels single-handedly in his chariot and easily herds them into a gap that opens into Hell. Afraid to go forward or back, the rebels are eventually forced through the gap into Hell.
Raphael concludes his narrative and tells Adam that Satan now envies Man's position and will try to tempt the two humans into disobedience. Raphael reminds Adam of the fate of the rebellious angels and warns him not to yield to temptation.
In Book VI, Milton presents his description of epic warfare. He follows many of the conventions of the great classic epics, such as the Iliad and the Aeneid, by giving graphic descriptions of battles and wounds, highlighting the boasting give and take in individual battles, and developing massive scenes of chaotic violence. However, Milton goes beyond his classical models and, in a sense, mocks the nature of the warfare he describes. The reasons that lie behind this sense of mockery in Book VI have been frequently discussed and disputed by critics and commentators. The general sense of those who see a kind of mocking humor in the battle scenes is that Milton was dealing with two difficulties. First, the combat in Heaven is between combatants who cannot be killed, and second, there is no doubt as to the outcome of the battle.
To begin with, in Book V, Raphael has told Adam that the description of the war must of necessity be metaphoric. That is, the human mind cannot grasp the real nature of war in Heaven, so Raphael must use a comparative, metaphoric technique to make the event understandable to Adam. From the start of Raphael's description then, the idea that immortal angels with God-like powers would need armor, swords, even a special cannon, is ludicrous. The angels, both loyal and rebellious, are so powerful that such weapons would be, at best, superfluous and, at worst, bothersome. So the entire nature of the warfare that Raphael lays out must be understood as only a means to allow Adam's human reason to gain some idea of what actually happened in Heaven.
An alternative view to the angels' use of weapons suggests that Milton was attempting to present all of the types of warfare known, from the swords and spears of Homeric legend, through medieval armor to the gunpowder and cannons of the Renaissance and Restoration. While this reason for the weapons may be valid, it has no bearing on the seriocomic tone of the warfare in general, a tone that results from Raphael's inability to accurately express Heavenly fighting.
In relating his warfare metaphor, Raphael, either wittingly or unwittingly, creates the feel of a mock-epic rather than true dramatic epic. The individual encounters have a cartoonish aspect about them. Abdiel, whose heroism in standing up to Satan receives deserved praise from God, first confronts Satan and knocks him backwards. Next, Michael splits him down the middle. In the Iliad, such a wound would be the end of the warrior. But, in Paradise Lost, Satan cannot be killed so the wound, like wounds in cartoons, heals. The reader sees Satan split open but knows he will be back. Moloch is similarly chased screaming from the field in ignominious fashion. Everywhere, demons are humiliated, while the angels, limited in numbers and power by God, hardly break ranks. Even if Milton's goal in this scene is not exactly comedy, it is to demonstrate through the one-sidedness of the fight that the rebels have no real power over God. Dramatic tension cannot be produced when the outcome is preordained.
The semi-serious tone of Book VI continues in the description of the second day of battle. Satan has foolishly convinced his troops to build a cannon to continue the fight. The foolishness comes from the notion that a different weapon will be more effective than the first ones. If angels cannot be killed by swords, neither can they be killed by a cannon. The futility of their plans is lost on Satan and his cohorts. Some comedy does ensue when the demons fire their cannon because several rows of angels are bowled over by the cannonball. This result produces mockery and gloating by Satan and Belial. Their gloating, unlike the deep laughter of God at the rebels' presumption, however, is false optimism. Their gloating is simply prelude to the angels' response, which is a barrage of boulders, hills, and mountains that literally bury the rebels and their cannon, another cartoon-like image. This image is followed by another of the same sort as the rebels dig their way out and begin to lob parts of the landscape back at the angels. This depiction of the hills and mountains flying through the air and landing on unsuspecting angels and devils with no effect is hardly the typical picture of epic warfare.
Finally, even the ultimate assault by the Son in his chariot produces a humorous image. The Son comes forth with no assistance and literally rolls over the rebels. He then herds them like "a Herd / of Goats" (856-57) down a gap toward Hell. The rebels retreat, first from the Son, then back from Hell, unwilling to confront God or place, neither here nor there. Finally, powerless to resist God, they are cast into the burning lake of Hell. The assumed power of their rebellion and fight has been nothing more than ridiculous illusion.
Throughout this battle, Milton's depiction of God's attitude has been one of easy amusement. God limits the number and power of the angel forces as if to give himself a handicap, but actually to emphasize that only his side has real power. When the rebels have small successes, God laughs. When the great geographic fight occurs, God is concerned only with the destruction of the landscape and the chaos that is being wrought. Even here, though, when God sends the Son in for the final assault, it is with limitations on the Son's power. That God will win this battle is never in doubt. That the rebels are without power against God is the lesson he teaches through the ease with which he wins the battle. The power of the rebels and the angels is controlled by God, and the rebels were both hubristic and ludicrous to think they could overthrow their creator. The battle is not treated seriously by Milton because the rebels were in no way serious opposition to God.
Metaphorically, Raphael has made his point. Satan and his cohorts rebelled, but they were no real threat to God. The real threat of the rebels was in the chaos they caused, metaphorically displayed in the uprooting of the landscape on the second day. The affront to God was in the rebellion; that is, using free will in disobedience to God produces chaos. The serious act was the disobedience to God. The battle is Raphael's way of metaphorically representing the chaos produced by disobedience, but the main point Raphael makes is that the power in the act of disobedience is illusory. At any moment he wishes, God can stop the rebellion and punish the disobedience.
The rebels are ultimately guilty of self-delusion, a self-delusion that carries over into Hell. Even though they have just been completely humiliated in battle, the fallen angels still rally to Satan in Book I. They assume that they can still challenge God's authority and oppose him by attacking Man. Their ridiculously easy defeat in battle seems forgotten by most of the rebels.
One final interesting note on Book VI is Raphael's comment that he does not name many of the angels in the battle because fame on Earth is not important when one has fame in Heaven. Conversely, he names only a few of the devils because they do not deserve fame.
Champaign (2) a broad plain; flat, open country.
apostate (172) one who has abandoned his belief, faith, cause, or principles.
Cope (215) a large, capelike vestment worn by priests at certain ceremonies; anything that covers like a cope, as a vault or the sky.
imperious (287) overbearing, arrogant, domineering.
contemned (432) to treat or think of with contempt; scorn.
spume (479) to foam or froth.
vagaries (614) an odd, eccentric, or unexpected action.