John Milton’s Paradise Lost is, without argue, one of the triumphs of the Christian imagination. Taking the story of the War in Heaven and giving it detail, especially in Book VI, Milton also makes constant usage of classical and biblical imagery and references to bolster his lively and imaginative retelling. As Raphael tells the story of the War in Heaven to Adam, the images of chariots run replete throughout the story and is one of the recurring images of the discourse.
Chariots are one of the great images of war in the human psyche. A terrifying weapon, the chariot was the first great engine of war. As such, chariots are depicted throughout classical literature. After Achilles has slayed Hector, he drags—defiles—Hector’s body over the beaches of Troy in his chariot. Chariots are symbols of earthly power in Exodus as the Israelites are pursued by Pharaoh’s charioteers before being swallowed up by the Red Sea. In Greek mythology, as told by Ovid, Phaeton disobeys his father and takes control of the sun chariot to try and ascend into heaven to prove his divinity only to be struck down to save the earth from being destroyed from Phaeton’s pride. Pride cometh before the fall.
The name Phaeton means luminous, or shining, one in Greek. This is important because, unlike today, traditional Christianity—even its Protestant form as reflective by Milton or more recently by C.S. Lewis—believed that the pagan gods and pagan myths were garbled versions of the Christian story and pointed to the truth of the Christian theo-drama. Satan, whose name before the Fall was Lucifer, meaning shining one (“Morning Star”), has a direct connection to Phaeton in several ways which Milton is aware of and alludes to throughout his description of the War in Heaven. Both of their names mean luminous, but both bear a false luminosity. Both were prideful in what they attempted to do. Both, in what they attempted to do, were guilty of appropriating to themselves what only True Divinity could do. As such, both fell as a result of their prideful and wrongful attempted appropriation of what was not theirs.
In Milton’s imagination, there is a connection between the fall of Satan and the fall of Phaeton. That is, the story of Phaeton is the garbled and inaccurate story of the fall of Satan. As Raphael begins to tell the story of the War in Heaven to Adam, as part of his mission from God to inform Adam of his Adversary who will tempt Eve to bring about the fall of man, he describes Satan in the imagery of a prideful and disobedient apostate in a chariot. “High in the midst,” Raphael begins, “exalted as a god/Th’ Apostate in his sun-bright chariot sat/Idol of majesty divine, enclosed/With flaming Cherubim, and golden shields” (vi. 99-102). The first description of Satan in the War in Heaven is a direct allusion to Phaeton and his seizure of this father’s chariot, as an “idol of majesty divine.”
The image that Milton uses here, to the educated reader, prefigures the fall of Satan on two accounts. First from the obvious fact of Christian theology that Satan and the rebellious angels who followed him were expelled from Heaven. Second from the obvious allusion to Ovid’s story of Phaeton who, in the same in bid as an “idol of majesty divine,” was struck down by Zeus (the Supreme God) and fell to earth burned to a crisp.
As the War in Heaven is continued to be told, and as—on the second day of battle—Satan’s rebellious angels cause Michael and the Heavenly angels to retreat, God the Father instructs God the Son to take to the fight and, in doing so, receive all the glory, honor, and praise for defeating the perfidious and rebellious angels. The Son, of course, accepts his Father’s command. Milton deliberately interjects, at this moment, charioteer imagery in drawing from the Prophet Ezekiel and the Psalms:
The Chariot of Paternal Deity,
Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn,
Itself instinct with Spirit, but convoyed
By four Cherubic shapes…
He onward came, far off his coming shone,
And twenty thousand (I their number heard)
Chariots of God, half on each hand were seen:
He on the wings of the Cherub rode sublime
On the crystalline sky, in sapphire throned (vi.750-754, 768-772).
While drawing from Ezekiel of the chariot of paternal deity “flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel undrawn,” and the Psalms (Ps. 68 and 18 specifically) in describing the twenty thousand chariots of God and the Son who “on the wings of the Cherub rode sublime,” Milton contrasts two images of the chariot and Charioteer in describing the War in Heaven. Like with Phaeton in Ovid’s mythology, the image of Satan’s chariot is of divinity appropriated, an idol, a false deity, and one covered “sun-bright.” The True Chariot, however, radiates because it is driven on by the True Light of the world, the Son of God. Where Satan’s chariot, as with Phaeton’s appropriation of his father’s role in Ovid, smacks of apostasy and false majesty, Christ’s chariot exudes True Divinity in being carried by the wings of the Cherub and “in sapphire throned” indicating His Divine Royalty.
Christ, the Son of God, enters the battle to fight and defeat Satan and his rebellious legions. “So spake the Son, and into terror changed/His count’nance too severe to behold/And full of wrath bent on his enemies…The steadfast Empyrean shook throughout/All but the throne itself of God” (vi.824-827/833-834). As Christ’s wrath is unleashed unto the rebellious angels, Milton also alludes to Hesiod’s Theogony, where Zeus left his palace to battle Typhoeus, and to Isaiah 13:12, again intersplicing and linking the pagan stories with biblical revelation.
The intervention of the Son against Satan turns the tide and He drives the rebel angels to their doom, “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n; eternal wrath/Burnt after them to the bottomless pit./Hell heard th’ unsufferable noise, Hell saw/Heav’n ruining from Heav’n and would have fled/Affrighted” (vi. 864-869). In the contest of the two chariots, Milton shows us which Charioteer is worthy of riding the Chariot of Divinity. Moreover, we see in the images of the two Charioteers one who attempts to ascend in prideful disobedience and another who rides forth in undertaking the Will of God. The conclusion of the clashing of the chariots follows:
Nine days they fell; confounded Chaos roared,
And felt tenfold confusion in their fall
Through his wide anarchy, so huge a rout
Encumbered him with ruin: Hell at last
Yawning received them whole, and on them closed,
Hell their fit habitation fraught with fire
Unquenchable, the house of woe and pain…
Sole Victor from th’ expulsion of his foes
Messiah his triumphal chariot turned:
To meet him all his saints, who silent stood
Eye witness of his might acts,
With jubilee advanced (vi. 871-884).
Where Phaeton was unable to return his father’s chariot because he was struck down, so too is Satan struck down from his chariot by the intervention of God (the Son). Christ, however, unlike Phaeton/Satan, returns the chariot to His Father. And where Phaeton/Satan had hoped to win the praises of mortals to ascend to his divinity by deed, failed, Christ, in success, turned to return the chariot to the thunderous jubilation of the angelic host who recognized their King.
Milton’s imagination reigned supreme in his depiction of the War in Heaven. Indeed, earlier in his epic poem, Milton speaks of the importance of the imagination and its relationship to the Godhead (cf. vi. 300). The weaving together of the Greek myths with the Christian revelation is also an incredible work of Milton’s imaginative prowess. While not unique, as this was common practice in Christian literature and apologia, the uniqueness and ingenuity of Milton emerges in the manner of his interweaving the classical and biblical traditions together. Since these stories are told to Adam, the father of humanity, prior to his fall (prior to his corruption of knowledge), Milton ties the eventual pagan stories to being what Raphael had communicated to Adam before they became corrupted post-fall taking on lives of their own.
Adam’s knowledge, also, is not yet fully formed, but he displays his inquisitiveness as part of what it means to be human. In Christian anthropology, part of being made in the image of God means to be inquisitive, to desire knowledge, and to be rational. Raphael recounts not only the story of the War in Heaven to Adam, but also the story of Creation (Book VII). In doing so, and in intermixing the images of Greek mythology in Raphael’s discourses to Adam—all of this prior to the Fall of Man and the confusion of language after the destruction of the Tower of Babel—Milton also gives a nod to the oral tradition. That is, Adam was telling these stories to his children, and they to theirs, as the generations of man multiplied. But having fallen from Paradise, and with the confusion of knowledge and language a consequence of the Fall, the stories told by Raphael to Adam and then from Adam to his descendants became corrupted leading to the garbling of the Christian revelation in the pagan mythological traditions; all of which show signs of the Christian story which is Milton’s point by interweaving and “redeeming” the pagan myths in his own story.
As it relates to Milton’s triumph of the use of the image of the chariot and charioteer in Book VI of Paradise Lost, there can be no doubting that he ties Phaeton and Satan (Lucifer) together. In prideful disobedience Satan attempts to become a god in his war on Heaven but is struck down by the True Charioteer (the Son of God). In this interweaving of the Greek and biblical accounts, and in the grander imaginative scope of Milton’s work, Milton also alludes to the ancient Christian tradition (begun by St. Paul in the first book of his Epistle to the Romans), that all the pagan stories retain faint glimpses of the Christian truth despite having been corrupted over time.
In this respect, Milton redeems the pagan stories of tragedy and fall with chariots. Instead, Milton points to the redemption of the image of the chariot and charioteer with the One whom jubilees sound eternal. Amid chaos and despair, Milton also points the reader to how one reaches the Father: Pious submission to His will rather than the prideful arrogance of self-ascendency.
 See Hesiod, Theogony, 842-843.
 See St. Augustine, City of God, xiv.4.