“Let mee serve”: Abdiel in Practice

In Raphael’s account of the War in Heaven (Books V and VI), we meet the angel Abdiel. For a character about whom we have previously heard nothing, Abdiel certainly seems important here, and I would like to investigate his significance.

When we first meet him in Book V, Abdiel is one of the “third part of Heav’n’s Host” (V.710) tricked into following Satan. However, as soon as he realizes Satan’s intent to rebel against God, he stands up and opposes the idea, before hastening back to warn God and the faithful angels. Then, as the battle is about to begin, he and Satan spar verbally, until Abdiel delivers a “noble stroke” with his sword (VI.189), which sends Satan reeling backwards. At this stroke, the archangel Michael “bid[s] sound/ Th’ Arch-Angel trumpet” (VI.202-203) and the battle commences.

While Michael commands the trumpet that ceremonially commences the war, Abdiel’s swordstroke has already commenced it on a practical level. His actions here seem almost more important than Michael’s—what sets this ordinary angel apart from a powerful archangel like Michael?

One unique aspect of Abdiel is his experience on both God’s and Satan’s sides. While he clearly never had any conscious intent of opposing God, he nevertheless did spend a brief stint of time in Satan’s camp. Michael and all of the other angels in Heaven have either never left God’s side, or else have fully aligned themselves with Satan, which places Abdiel in a curious middle ground.

However, this middle ground gives him a certain strength which no other angel possesses. Any of the faithful angels could, and doubtlessly would, defy Satan and profess obedience to God, as Abdiel does just before striking the blow: “Reign thou in Hell thy Kingdom, let mee serve/ In Heav’n God ever blest, and his Divine/ Behests obey” (VI.183-185). But coming from Abdiel, who has actually experienced—and rejected—the option to serve someone else and disobey God, the words are more than mere talk. His faith has been tested and proved not just in theory, but also in serious practice.

Milton actually addresses the role that exposure to evil plays in the development of virtue in Areopagitica: “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian” (Areopagitica 728). This passage, in both theme and imagery, evokes the image of Abdiel in the moments leading up to the War in Heaven. However, Milton refers specifically to humans in the post-Fall world here; can the sentiment possibly extend to the angels in Paradise Lost? Might Abdiel’s exposure to and rejection of vice in Satan’s camp have contributed, in a way, to the development of his strength? If so, what complications arise when, in order to attain the greatest awareness and knowledge, even an angel must countenance vice?


Annemarie Lisko