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Propitious Guests: Paradise Lost and Epic Hospitality

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 209-227 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0012

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From the rape of Helen—that archetypal breach of the laws of hospitality—to Adam and Eve’s reception of the “heavenly stranger” Raphael in Paradise Lost, epic is centrally concerned with both the negative and positive forms of what the Greeks called xenia, the guest/host relationship. Ironically, however, the very ubiquity of such scenes, which form the constant background to the encounters of men, women, gods, and monsters for three millennia from Homer to Milton, has led to a critical neglect of hospitality as such in studies of Renaissance epic. Nowhere is this scholarly lacuna more striking than in the literature on Milton, who places at the very center of his epic a hospitality scene, the lineaments of which, I claim, form part of a series of similar scenes stretching back to Homer. Milton carefully selected one from among a welter of different kinds of hospitality scenes from the epic tradition, and it is precisely this selective use that I believe is crucial to understanding the reception of Raphael in the central books of the poem, and to understanding a central issue in Milton studies—the nature of the poet’s engagement with classical sources in the creation of his Christian epic.

I argue that in book 5, Milton’s principal (but by no means only) debt is to what I will call the theoxenic pastoral hospitality scene, which formed a small but significant part of a larger complex of hospitality scenes in the Odyssey and the Aeneid and their Renaissance descendants. A theoxeny is a “story in which a god or hero … accepts the hospitality of the humble”—the kernel of the scene is the heartfelt reception of a resplendent guest by an unassuming and pious host in a rustic setting, and its classical epic exemplars are Odysseus and Eumaeus in Homer and Aeneas and Evander in Virgil. My claim is not just that Milton imitated individual elements of this kind of scene from these particular epic precursors, but that he deliberately chose it from among many other kinds of hospitality scenes in order to fashion the paradoxical “lowliness majestic” (8.42) of his epic—yet also very human—protagonists.

Milton’s revaluation of the epic tradition was thus partly carried out by carefully choosing one component of that tradition and making it the centerpiece of his own contribution to the genre. In effect, Milton recognized the ways in which the theoxenic pastoral hospitality scene already created a series of moments within that tradition that offered epic alternatives to the martial “wrath” and celestial “ire” (9.14, 18) of heroes and gods. Thus, though critics point to Satan as embodying and perverting traits associated with Achilles, Turnus, Aeneas, and Odysseus, and thus in some sense being the bearer of the “traditional epic subject,” Raphael, Adam, and Eve are no less epic when following in the footsteps of Eumaeus and Evander—nor is Eden less epic for containing elements of the Homeric swineherd’s pigsties or the rustic proto-Rome Pallanteum in which these hosts receive Odysseus and Aeneas respectively.

Homer’s Pig Palace

Xenia is omnipresent in the Odyssey, serving many structural and thematic functions in the narrative. Most broadly, the reception of the xenos (which significantly can be translated as “guest,” “friend,” or “stranger”) is a litmus test of civility or humanity, a function exemplified in the questions Odysseus repeats three times at key junctures in the Odyssey when he has washed up on a foreign shore: “What are they here—violent, savage, lawless? / or friendly to strangers [philoxeinoi], god-fearing men?” In some sense the entire poem is a series of encounters that respond to these questions, the first coming at the beginning of book 1, when Athena disguises herself—“she looked for all the world like a stranger [xeinô]” (1.122)—and on approaching the palace gates finds “the swaggering suitors” and, tellingly apart from them, Telemachus, who is “mortified / that a guest [xeinon] might still be standing at the doors” (1.140–41). He immediately addresses her hospitably: “Greetings, stranger [xeine]! / Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome” (1.144–45). The contrast between the inhospitable suitors and the hospitable...

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