Satan came to the Naval Academy Wednesday.
It was not a religious service at the academy, although the midshipmen bowing their heads over their books in the Zimmerman Bandstand may have looked like a prayer circle.
It was an all-day immersive reading of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
The reading, which ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., was the idea of Professor Thomas Ward, who leads a capstone English class. Instead of writing a traditional paper, first-class midshipmen spent a semester analyzing the epic poem leading up to the reading, Ward said.
The final project was the all-day reading with each midshipman taking on one book to lead and reimagine. There were confetti poppers in place of cannons, apples to eat when Adam or Eve took a bite from the forbidden fruit, candles to give a sense of the hellscape.
One of the midshipmen wore a long white wig and fake long, white beard with a halo.
“It’s always interesting to see how the kind of chaos of the reading unfolds as it happens,” Ward said. “People miss their cue or someone has to jump in and read for someone else. So you have all these voices joining together, and it’s the big communal experience.”
This is the third time that Ward has done an all-day reading of Milton at the academy, he said.
He first experienced an all-day reading as a freshman at Davidson College. Then he did it again as a senior.
Now, as the one teaching it, Ward said he enjoyed watching his students grapple with the text and their interpretations, which continued even as they read it.
For example, he brought apples for each of the students to eat when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. But whether they decided to take the first bite when Eve did or when Adam did would be decided in the moment.
Ward also provided the confetti poppers to act as cannons and then Skittles for the rainbow after the flood.
With the reading all day, there were outside factors that changed the atmosphere, Ward said.
They had to temporarily pause the reading when the flag was raised, which was ironically the moment in the epic poem when Satanic hosts were opening their flags, Ward said.
“So it was this really weird, spooky moment where they raised the American flag,” he said. “So there’s this interesting way in which the conditions of the performance provide us this commentary on the poem.”
Midshipman 1st Class Brady Lorenz was in charge of the first book, which mostly covered the introduction to the narrative, he said.
Book one covers Satan’s introduction and the creation of the fallen angels’ home, also known as Pandemonium.
Lorenz used candles as his prop for the reading. A certain line triggered the lighting of the candles. Lorenz started with his, then lit his neighbor’s, who in turn lit their neighbors. They then used the candles to light ones in the middle of the bandstand.
That set the Hellscape, Lorenz said.
Milton’s epic poem is a heavy tome, but reading it aloud made it easier to understand, Lorenz said.
“It was such an experience,” he said.
As the class discussed the text, two camps broke out: one that saw Satan as the villain and one that saw him as a tragic antihero.
Lorenz said he is firmly in the Satan as a villain camp, but the other side did have some strong arguments.
“It was interesting to see that line of reasoning come through it,” he said.
Midshipman 1st Class Alanna Baker saw Satan as a tragic antihero, she said.
She was in charge of the second book, which covers the devils holding a war council to decide how they should respond to being banished from Heaven. It also follows Satan’s journey to Earth.
Baker was taken by the theme of rebellion in the second book, and keeping with her belief of Satan as the antihero, she reimagined the war council as a meeting of the country’s founding fathers. Satan, she said, was George Washington.
Satan was fighting against an unjust ruler, Baker said, citing the passage that says it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
“I think I’m one of the few people in the class reading him as a hero,” Baker said.