Milton at the Olympics

On Friday night, when everyone in the known universe was watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony, I was reading Milton. I have since caught up on the festivities, and am delighted to see that Milton got a mention in the BBC coverage, as the original English user of the word ‘Pandemonium’, which featured in the Industrial Revolution sequence. Pandemonium is the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost, the biblical epic which tells the story of the fall of Satan from Heaven. The excellent online edition of Paradise Lost at Dartmouth College identifies Pandemonium as ‘Literally, “all the demons.”  Milton coins the name for the assembly hall of devils whose erection is recounted at the end of book 1.’ This huge structure, designed by the fallen angel Mulciber, is meant to rival the ‘Chrystal battlements’ of Heaven (one of many examples in Paradise Lost of how Satan models himself on his supposed enemy, God, but cannot reach the heights of glory to which he aspires).

Milton’s description gives a good idea of the size of the structure, and its atmosphere, teeming with devils:

A solemn Councel forthwith to be held
At Pandæmonium, the high Capital
Of Satan and his Peers: thir summons call’d
From every Band and squared Regiment
By place or choice the worthiest; they anon
With hunderds and with thousands trooping came
Attended: all access was throng’d, the Gates
And Porches wide, but chief the spacious Hall
(Though like a cover’d field, where Champions bold
Wont ride inarm’d, and at the Soldans chair
Defi’d the best of Paynim chivalry
To mortal combat or carreer with Lance)
Thick swarm’d, both on the ground and in the air,
Brusht with the hiss of russling wings. (Book 1, lines 755-768)

The atmosphere of this description is electric, indicating industry but also fear and threat. Milton later describes Pandemonium as a ‘straw-built Cittadel’, suggesting that it is a flimsy structure which could easily collapse. Moreover, I read Milton’s description of Pandemonium as reminiscent of his description of Chaos – the turmoil of nothingness which preceded the creation of the world. So Danny Boyle’s imagery of the Industrial Revolution draws on some very negative imagery – easily toppled, ultimately self-defeated, somewhat deluded, and threatening. Milton makes it clear that there is nothing in Hell to be admired, and that we should approach it with caution:

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane. And here let those
Who boast in mortal things, and wond’ring tell
Of Babel, and the works of Memphian kngs
Learn how thir greatest Monuments of Fame,
And Strength and Art are easily out-done
By Spirits reprobate, and in an hour
What in an age they with incessant toyle
And hands innumerable scarce perform. (lines 690-699)

So Pandemonium is a warning (not unlike Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, or Ruskin’s comments in The Stones of Venice) that we should not be too proud of the things we build, since they are temporary in the eyes of God. Of course, the complicating factor in all this is that, for all his proselytising, Milton makes his self-deluded Satan, with his brilliant rhetoric, a not unlikeable character. I wonder how much research of this concept of Pandemonium went into the production of the opening ceremony? With the hubbub of industry, the chimneys, smoke and labourers, it seemed indeed like a vision of hell – but, I imagine, the point was to show what good came out of the Industrial Revolution, and how much we today owe to that period of time. The ‘dark Satanic mills’ of which Blake writes were well-represented, but I think the positive aspects of Boyle’s show seem to fall flat when one looks more closely at Milton.

Should you, somehow, inexplicably, have missed it, you can see the Pandemonium section here. Also, can I draw your attention to two other interesting blog posts I’ve come across: This one is about the Industrial Revolution section of the opening ceremony and its ‘curveball’ approach; and this one is about the copyright issues of the children’s literature section – very thought-provoking.

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3 thoughts on “Milton at the Olympics

  1. It seems the “Pandemonium” sequence of the Opening Ceremony was inspired by a book, Humphrey Jennings’s ‘Pandæmonium: Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers’ given to Danny Boyle by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the Opening Ceremony’s writer. There’s an interesting (and euphoric as he wrote it the morning after the ceremony!) piece by him in the Guardian about his role: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/29/frank-cottrell-boyce-olympics-opening-ceremony?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038

  2. That’s really interesting, thank you – I shall have to look for a copy of it!

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