Friday, October 19, 2007

The Fall of the Angels from Genesis B

The Old English Genesis is a verse adaptation of many stories relevant to Christians from the first book of the Bible. Historically it was attributed to the poet Caedmon, but there is no scholarly basis for this assertion. What we do know about the poem's authorship is that it was almost certainly composed by two separate poets. It seems the middle portion of the poem was lost and another poem, translated from Old Saxon, with the same basic content was inserted in its place. Thus, we get Genesis A and Genesis B.

Genesis B is the more famous section of the poem. It tells the story of the fall of the angels and Satan's plot to destroy God's handy-work, man. Literary rumor actually places Milton, who knew the man who once owned the manuscript, under the influence of the poem. Certainly the portrayals of a tragic Satan, and even the reader response of sympathy are shared. In the passage translated below, Satan, having just been cast out of heaven, laments the loss of his position of power and his lord. Particularly in the original Old English, tears come to the reader's eyes in the face of Satan misery and loneliness.

Yet, despite the sympathetic portrayal of Satan, the text is still a dark reflection on the sin of pride, both Satan's and, given the humanity of this literary portrayal, of man. He cannot determine what he has done to offend God, even as he presumes to plot revenge against him. His great sin, the one for which he was thrust into hell, is actually one of the most unique elements of the poem. There is no epic battle against God, as in Milton: here, Satan is guilty of refusing to obey God. Like man, Satan is cast into hell not necessarily for actively choosing to rebel, but for passively sheltering a disobedient heart that eventually became so corrupted he can no longer remain in God's heaven.

Satan's real point of contention is the loss of the heavenly kingdom to man. He continually refers to the heavenly kingdom as his by right. (Not under the modern notion of 'natural rights,' but the much older idea of 'birth right' or 'property right.') He thinks God owes him something. He deeply resents man for claiming his right. The more lost he gets in his depression, the larger his desire for revenge grows. His goal is to deprive man from spending eternity in heaven. It is a mission of revenge, not of conquest.

Contained in all of Satan's schemings, though, is a glimpse of the real impotence of evil. Satan's actions are constrained by his captivity. Most interestingly, though, the poem calls attention to the fact that evil cannot create. Satan wants, like God, to shape man into his image and he wants to do this by destroying man's will. Here is a very theologically complex detail to add to the story of the fall of man. Free will is what makes man human. It is what allows man to choose between good and evil and, ultimately, to choose God. Satan wants to make man like himself, a slave to his desires and unable to choose to serve God. That is what sin really is... slavery to the animal side of man's nature. By destroying man's free will, Satan will make man fall out of favor with God and forfeit the heavenly kingdom.

Of course, the most important element of the excerpt requires a certain amount of dramatic irony. We know what happens in the end. Satan succeeds in his plan to have one of his minions trick Adam and Eve. He achieves the mean but falls short of the end. Man doesn't fall out of favor with God. God continues to love man, even sending his only Son to die for man's sake, so that man can claim his birthright in heaven.

Genesis B
Suggested Age-Range: Confirmation-aged, adult
Look for: the dangers of pride, original sin--a will the doesn't conform with God's, the nature of evil, God's mercy
Be Wary of: a sympathetic portrayal of evil
Availability: Full translation available at Project Gutenberg. Excerpt available from Literary Catechist.

Click here to read Literary Catechist's translation of Genesis B.

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