The nature of the Tree of Knowledge is difficult to define. Just like the nature of God, the nature of the tree is complicated and not easy to understand. The symbolism of the tree changes with each character in Paradise Lost. One way of looking at the Tree of Knowledge is to see it as a tool for God to judge all the characters in John Milton’s epic poem.
To God, the nature of the Tree of Knowledge is an unyielding symbol of obedience to His will. God directly tells Adam and Eve not to touch the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge because of a resulting death. The tree serves as a test of the pairs freewill “I made him just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (l. 97 Book III). God gave humankind the ability to make his or her own choice. The tree also serves to expose more of Satan’s deception “By some false guile pervertÃ¢Â?Â¦For Man will heark’n to his glozing lie, And easily transgress the sole Command, Sole pledge of his obedience” (l. 193, Book III). God’s statement also proves that He is aware that freewill will cause a problem “when Will Reason (Reason also is choice), Useless and vain, of freedom both depoil’d” (l.107, Book III).
The discrepancy in God’s statements is that God knew that the fall was going to happen before it did, but he let it happen. God uses the Tree of Knowledge in Eden as a test of Mankind’s unique gift of free will. The actions of many of the characters in Paradise Lost are directly connected with the confusion over the true nature of the tree. Satan argues that humans have a right to all knowledge and the race is being reduced to ignorance because of God’s prohibition. The reader is equally challenged by the function of the tree. A reader may ask, “If God is all-powerful then why did he let Adam and Eve taste the fruit in the first place?” The Tree of Knowledge is, in fact, not just a material thing; rather an abstract symbolic expression of God’s justice and rationale. The true nature of the Tree of Knowledge is just as difficult to define as the nature of God. God uses the tree as a testing ground for human reason. The beginning of the fall did not begin when Adam was asking questions Raphael. The real test of human reason starts when Adam takes the shape of a serpent and speaks lies to Eve.
The complex rationale of God is a crack in the understanding of God that Adam, Eve, and Satan fall through using their reason. In Book III, God discusses Man’s fall with the Son and says “Man falls deciev’d, By th’ other first: Man therefor shall find grace, The other none” (l.132). This line indicates that in the end He will give mankind a second chance after the fall. The questioning aspect of God’s nature in this early part of the poem is that God already new about the fall before it happened and even sent an army of Angles to protect the gates of Eden. God did not intervene however, because Mankind had many warnings about the foe that was seeking them out.
Satan plays out the many questions about God’s ways. The fallen angel uses the prohibition of knowledge in the temptation of Adam and Eve. Satan’s uses the complex and indefinable ways of God as a weapon against Him in the temptation of the parents. One of the complex ways of God is giving Mankind free will and giving them a prohibition. The truth is that God always encouraged the cultivation of reason in the lives of Adam and Eve. God tests Adam right after he was created by allowing him to reason the need of a mate, Eve “Intended thee, for trial only brought, To see how thou couldst judge of fit and meet” (l. 445, Book VIII). God gave Mankind the ability of reason and choice and knew about the fall. Satan, Adam, and Eve are not aware of the whole of God’s plan. Even Raphael does not understand everything about God. The poem makes the case that the mind of God is incomprehensible and, if that is true, God had everything all planned out. Even before the fall he knew the Son would die for man’s sins. This suggests that the Tree of Knowledge was merely a small part of a large plan, which can not be determined by any of the characters. The prohibition was merely a means to an end; a way for God to judge his creations based on their actions and sins. God does not prohibit knowledge; he prohibits sinful acts. The only characters who speak as though they have accepted the fact that they can not understand the mind of God chooses obedience to Him is the epic narrator and Raphael.
The epic narrator supports God’s rationale and point of view through the whole poem. The narrator blames Adam and Eve for the fall “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit, Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste, Brought Death into the World” (l. 1, Book I). The nature of the Tree of Knowledge was seen as a tool to gauge Mankind’s faith and obedience to God. The narrator is not ignorant of the allure of the fruit in Book VIII “Fixt on the Fruit she gaz’d, which to behold, Might tempt alone,” but the narrator blames Man for the fall, not God for letting the fall happen (l. 735). The function of the tree in the narrator’s perspective is a way to justify God’s ways and justice. The narrator serves as a guide for the reader throughout the poem, always hinting and reminding that it was mankind’s fault for the loss of Eden “May I express thee unblam’d? since God is Light” (l. 3, Book III). Raphael is a prime example of a character that whole heartily believes in God’s authority and judgment. Raphael’s perception of the Tree of Knowledge is the least complex one out of all the characters in Paradise Lost. He knows the tree is off limits and to him that is an absolute truth. Raphael, unlike Satan, realizes that the prohibition is not a hindrance but a submission to the will of God “Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all, Him whom to love is to obey, and keep, His great command” (l. 633, Book VIII). Raphael is not ignorant because he has submitted to God’s will, rather he advocates intellectualism, thinking, and asking questions “To ask or search I blame thee not, for Heav’n, Is as the Book of God before thee set” (l. 66, Book VIII).
Submission to God is not an act of ignorance and oppression and Raphael reminds Adam that knowledge is God. Raphael is the only character in the book who ever explains that there is some knowledge that is incomprehensible to the human mind “If it presume, might err in things too high, And no advantage gain” (l.121, Book VIII). Adam is told that there is some knowledge that would be over his head but Adam forgets this when confronted with the temptation. Raphael’s explanation about some knowledge as being incomprehensible is forgotten when Satan tells Eve a prohibition of knowledge is wrong Satan is the character who perverts the meaning of the tree. The nature of the Tree of Knowledge to Satan is another example of God’s oppression. Satan argues to Eve that the tree is God’s way of keeping humankind in ignorance “Why but to keep ye low and ignorant, His worshipper” (l. 703, Book IX). Satan sees the tree as the symbol of a merciless hand forcing down onto the inhabitant of Eden. The function of the tree to Satan is a way to tempt Eve by making her use human reason to corrupt God’s will. The influence of Satan can be seen when Eve states in Book VIII “But of this Tree we may not tast nor touchÃ¢Â?Â¦Law to ourselves, our Reason is our Law” (l. 652). Satan is just trying to get revenge on God by causing the parents to fall. In the end God hands out his judgment on Satan and his crew during Satan’s triumphal return to Hell and are all turned into serpents doomed to replay the scene over and having the fruit turn to ash.
At the beginning of the poem, in Book IV Adam shows his simple understanding of the Tree of Knowledge “Ã¢Â?Â¦not to taste that only Tree of Knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life, Se near grows Death to Life, Whate’er Death is” (l. 423). The touching of the tree was death, a simple but unknown punishment. Adam describes his understanding of the tree in the same book “Then let us not think hard, One easy prohibition, who enjoy, Free leave so large to all things else, and choice Unlimited of manifold delights” shows Adams pure understanding of the tree (l. 432). To both Adam and Eve, the nature of the tree was a prohibition, but Adam states in his speech that nothing is limited to them. The nature of the Tree of Knowledge change when they are tempted. At line 752 in Book IX Eve uses her reason to say “Of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil: Forbid us then to tasteÃ¢Â?Â¦what forbids he but to know, Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?” Eve’s obedience to God wavers and she starts to believe what the serpent tells her. Human reason starts to justify what the serpent tells them “How dies the Serpent? Hee hath eat’n and live, And know, and speaks, and reason and discerns, Irrational till then (l. 764, Book IX). Eve starting using her human reason to question God. Adam’s reasoning starts to question God in Book IX when he says, “yet so, Perhaps thou shalt not Die” (l. 928). He then shows his arrogance in the same book “Though threat’ning, will in earnest so destroy, Us his prime Creatures” (l. 939). The thing Adam did not know was that God can and will destroy his creation if they disobey.
The disobedience of tasting the fruit proves to God that Mankind fails. God made his judgment in Book X when he says “On his bad Errand, Man should be seduc’t, And flatter’d out of all, believing lies Against his Maker” (l.43) The Tree of Knowledge served as a test of Mankind and they failed.
The Tree of Knowledge was not an oppression of Mankind, rather a test of faith. Both Adam and Eve fell on behalf of their own free will using the reason God gave them. In the end, the Tree of Knowledge was used and interpreted in a different way by all of the characters in Paradise Lost.