Storytelling and the Devil: Dr. Anthony Cane


In this deeply profound and thought-provoking talk, Dr Cane, Dean of Portsmouth Cathedral, considered the different representations of the Devil and The Doctrine of The Fall contained in Paradise Lost (Milton), Perelandra (C.S. Lewis) and the trilogy of novels entitled His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman). In the second half of this talk, Dr Cane considered William Blake’s claim that Milton was “of the devil’s camp without knowing it” and related the work of Lewis and Pullman to this idea.

Firstly, Dr Cane explained that Milton saw Paradise Lost as illustrating The Fall in three main ways: (a) illustrating the concept of Original Sin, through Adam and Eve (b) demonstrating the expulsion of the rebel angels, led by Lucifer and (c) an allegory of the fallen social state of England in the Mid-Seventeenth Century, following the failure of the English Revolution. The latter was characterised, in Milton’s view, by the iniquity of private property ownership, social inequality and the machinery of a coercive state.

According to Milton’s Puritanical perspective, the British public had been given the opportunity to attain liberty, through the Commonwealth and they had rejected that opportunity by restoring the monarchy. In his epic narrative poem, Lucifer, as fraudster and arch tempter, is depicted variously as a frog and a serpent, whispering in Eve’s ear in Book 9, and thus bringing about the downfall of Man (and Woman!) kind.

For a mid-twentieth century take on the central Christian concept of knowledge of good and evil, Dr Cane turned to C.S. Lewis. However, it was not to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, as might be expected, but to Lewis’ Science Fiction novel Perelandra (1947). In this fantasy world, Random, a philologist, receives a command to visit the planet of Perelandra (Venus) in order to counter the attempts of a scientist (Weston) who has been possessed by the Devil.  By depicting the avoidance of a second Fall, Lewis  illustrates the orthodox Christian themes of personal choice (free-will) and personal destiny (predestination).

Satan also takes the form of a scientist (Dr Mary Malone) in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials (1995 – 2000). In three novels (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), Pullman depicts the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a series of parallel universes (a “multiverse”). These three novels function, in part, as a retelling, even an inversion, of Paradise Lost, with Pullman commending humanity for what Milton saw as its most tragic failing: original sin.

Dr Cane’s talk ended by considering whether  Milton was sympathetic to Lucifer’s situation, as suggested by William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). Here, C.S. Lewis and Pullman disagreed, providing diametrically opposed views of Milton’s representation of the Fall, Lewis believing that Milton would be horrified by the notion that poets and dramatists often struggle to represent virtue as dramatically effective.  Dr Cane suggested that this debate demonstrated different aspects of an extremely complex poem.

Many questions followed, at the end of this fascinating and truly inspirational talk.

Roger Philip Jones

September 2022