“Go, Michael, of celestial armies prince
. . . lead forth to battle these my sons
Invincible . . .
Equal in number to that godless crew
Rebellious; them with fire and hostile arms
Fearless assault, and, to the brow of Heaven
Pursuing, drive them out . . .
John Milton, Paradise Lost, book vi
If the Orthosphere has a patron saint, it is surely the archangel Michael, for his image has always graced our banner and his sword has always inspired our words. It was by Saint Michael’s “gridding sword” that “Satan first knew pain,” and although our adversaries have been the merest flunkies of Hell, we hope our words have made them likewise smart.
By “gridding sword” Milton meant a piercing sword, for to grid once meant to cut or skewer with a weapon. As Milton tells it, Satan’s physical wound was not lasting, for “ethereal substance” is “not long divisible,” but the psychological effect of being grid was tremendous. That wound made Satan see that the Rebellion was going to be harder than he thought. He reeled,
“Gnashing for anguish, and despite, and shame,
To find himself not matchless and his pride
Humbled by such rebuke, so far beneath
His confidence to equal God in power.”
The moment “Satan first knew pain,” he knew he could not usurp God’s throne by frontal attack or main force. Michael’s gridding blow showed him that the rebel angels must henceforth fight as partisans, and that the War in Heaven must henceforth be fought as a guerilla war of ambush, intrigue and sabotage. After that stroke, the devils went underground and began to fight by what Milton called “devilish machination.”
The aim of devilish machination is to lead men and women astray, to draw them into error. The root of the word error is the Latin erronem, which literally means to stray from the path and wander lost in the wood. In fact, Milton used the word in this literal sense of wandering when he described the rivers of Paradise as flowing “with mazy error under pendent shades.” But in a theological context, error is synonymous with the wandering bewilderment of sin
Thus when St. Peter warns the faithful to beware of “being led away with the error of the wicked,” the danger is not simply one of intellectual miscalculation. The wicked are those who have wandered from the path, and those who consent to be led by those who have wandered from the path will soon find themselves lost, wandering, and very likely wicked, too. To be led into error is to be led into wandering, and this is the “devilish machination” with which the guerilla war of ambush, intrigue and sabotage is now fought. This is the war that began once Satan felt the humbling touch of Michael’s gridding sword.
The Orthosphere exists because we are all pilgrims, the hills are full of Satan’s partisans, and they have sabotaged our way. They have pulled down signs, taken out bridges, tumbled down landslides, and opened false detours that will lead us down into error. We of the Orthosphere try to map the most conspicuous hazards. Our map is not perfect, but it is better than following your nose
* * * * *
Here is something to add to our map. It is a great myth of man teetering on the brink of error, taken from Edmund Spencer’s epic Faerie Queen (1590). It begins with the Red Cross Knight and his lady, Una, riding out on a quest they have been set by Gloriana, queen of Faery land.
A thunderstorm breaks and the pair seek shelter in a wood, in which they become lost and wander with increasing bewilderment. They have abandoned their quest, deviated from their way, and entered into error. Indeed, when they come upon the entrance to a cave, Una exclaims:
“This is the wandering wood, this Error’s den,
A monster vile, whom God and man does hate.”
Wise and discerning words that the Red Cross knight would have done well to heed. But he is rash and certain that there is nothing that he should fear in the wandering wood, least of all some piddling Error.
“But, full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthful knight could not for ought be staid;
But forth into the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistering armor made
A little glooming light, much like a shade;
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half serpent horribly displayed,
But th’other half did woman’s shape retain,
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.”
Readers of C. S. Lewis’s Silver Chair will recognize this as the prototype of the Queen of Underworld, female in one aspect and serpent in another. Half of Error has a woman’s shape because a woman’s shape beguiles. Error is seductive and men are positively drawn towards Error
“And as she lay upon the dirty ground,
Her huge long tail her den all overspread,
Yet was in knots and many boughtes [bends] upwound,
Pointed with mortal sting. Of her there bred
A thousand young ones, which she daily fed,
Sucking upon her poison dugs; each one
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill-favored:
Soon as that uncouth [unfamiliar] light upon them shown,
Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone.”
Error is not only seductive, but also prolific, meaning that error leads on to error. And since error is nothing but another word for sin, we might say that sin is prolific, sin leading on to sin. But the image of mother Error taking her spawn into her mouth deepens this image of fecundity because it shows us that there is an original sin, a root of all evil, and that no one can vanquish the litter if they will not vanquish the dam. And that dam is not going down without a fight!
“Their dam upstart out of her den effraide [afraid]
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous tail
About her cursed head; whose folds displayed
Were stretched not forth at length without entrail [folds].
She looked about, and seeing one in mail,
Armed to point, sought back to turn again;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darkness to remain,
Where plain none might her see, nor she see any plain.”
Error coils herself like a snake prepared to strike because Error hates discovery and has a fierce will to survive. I am inclined to think that her female aspect shrinks to a mere vestige in the darkness of her den, but that, like Lewis’s Queen of Underworld, it cloaks her entirely when she roams abroad. But be that as it may, the lesson to be taken from these lines is the tenacity of error. It does not, as so many believe, simply retire in shame when it is brought to light. Error fights back!
Which when the valiant elf perceived, he leapt
As lion fierce upon the flying prey,
And with his trenchant blade her boldly kept
From turning back, and forced her to stay:
Therewith enraged she loudly gan to bray,
And turning fierce her speckled tail advanced,
Threatening her angry sting, him to dismay;
Who naught aghast, his mighty hand enhaunst [lifted]:
The stroke down from her head unto her shoulder glanced.
As the “angry sting” of Error is located at the end opposite to her feminine charms, I think we may take it as representing the punitive powers that Error so often commands. As we see in our own day, those who throw light on ugly errors must expect to be “dismayed” by the “angry sting” of unemployment, or even physical assault. We can only hope that men in that plight will follow the example of the Red Cross Knight (and St. Michael) and land a mighty blow with their gridding sword.
Much daunted with that dint her sense was dazed;
Yet kindling rage herself she gathered round,
And all at once her beastly body raised
With double forces high above the ground
Tho [then], wrapping up her wreathed stern around,
Leapt fierce upon his shield, and her huge train [tail]
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stir he strove in vain.
God help the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train [snare]
Here we learn that those who do battle with Error must not hold back or pull their punches, for a glancing blow merely enrages the beast. Until the Red Cross Knight struck that glancing blow, Error might have been content to cow him with roars and menacing jabs of her deadly tail. But because he was neither dismayed or daunted, she has now resolved to kill him. As I said before, error is tenacious and filled with a fierce will to live. It does not vanish before daylight, or run up the white flag after the first volley of an attack.
“His lady, sad to see his sore constraint,
Cried out, ‘Now, now, sir knight, shew what ye be;
Add faith unto your force, and be not faint;
Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee.’
That when he heard, in great perplexity,
His gall did grate for grief and high disdain;
And, knitting all his force, got one hand free,
Wherewith he gripped her gorge with so great pain,
That soon to lose her wicked bands did her constrain.”
No man can fight Error with his own strength alone, and those who do will soon enough be crushed in her coils. To prevail, he must augment his strength with love and faith. In the case of the Red Knight, he is fortified by his love for Una, who will certainly be Error’s next victim if he fails; but the general principle is that those who love nothing cannot hate Error enough. It is a curious thing, but a man is more readily reconciled to his own destruction than to the destruction of that which he loves. And then there is the faith that God, the gods, or fate is on his side. You cannot defeat Error unless you believe that the Order of Being hates Error just as much as you do.
Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A flood of poison horrible and black,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunk of vilely, that it forced him slack
His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
Her filthy parbreake [spew, vomit] all the place defiled has.
When seduction, threats and persecution fail, Error resorts to “vomit.” Her vomit is defamation, obloquy and abuse. It issues in a flood of libelous books and papers, in an army of stupid and slandering “frogs and toads.” Error’s vomit is what we nowadays call a “smear campaign,” and the victim of a smear campaign will often, like the Red Cross Knight, grow weak with nausea. [I have cut out several lines here.]
Thus ill bested [situated], and fearful more of shame
Than of the certain peril he stood in,
Half furious unto his foe he came,
Resolved in mind all suddenly to win,
Or soon to lose, before he once would lin [quit];
And stroke at her with more than manly force,
That from her body, full of filthy sin,
He raft [severed] her hateful head without remorse:
A stream of coal-black blood forth gushed from her course [corpse]
It is Error’s gross offenses against his personal honor that bring the Red Cross Knight to at last resolve to kill the beastly snake or die trying. Like anyone who takes on an error, it is only after he has fought it (and therefore bears its welts and stripes) that he understands just how monstrous and hateful the error really is. If you do not believe me, I suggest that you call out a lie. It may look nasty enough from a distance, but that will not be half so nasty as it will look after you poke it with a stick.
“Her scattered brood, soon as their parent dear
They saw so rudely falling to the ground,
Groaning full deadly all with troublous fear
Gathered themselves about her body round,
Weening [expecting] their wonted entrance to have found
At her wide moth; but being there withstood,
They flocked all about her bleeding wound,
And sucked up their dying mother’s blood;
Making her death their life, and eke [also] her hurt their good.”
The minions of Error have no love for Error, only for the benefits they derive from her. They have what we call an instrumental view of truth, accepting any “truth” that pays their bills and fills their rice bowls. When Error is mighty, they are happy to sleep in her mouth. When she has fallen, they are happy to batten on her corpse for one last meal.
That detestable sight him much amazed,
To see th’ unkindly imps, of heaven accursed,
Devour their dam; on whom while so he gazed,
Having all satisfied their bloody thirst,
Their bellies swoll’n he saw with fullness burst
And bowels gushing forth: well worthy end
Of such, as drunk her life, the which them nursed!
Now needeth him no longer labor spend,
His foes have slain themselves, with whom he should content.
As I said, you cannot vanquish the litter if you will not vanquish the dam. But if you cut the head off of a Big Lie, the little lies will perish on their own.