To Reign in Hell

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 6

My reading habits began growing up around seventh or eighth grade. I switched from kids’ books and YA (it wasn’t quite the juggernaut that it is today, but it existed) to mainly grown-up books. I didn’t always understand them. In fact, there were always things I didn’t understand, but I read and re-read until I did. Or, at least, until I thought I did. Some of them stuck in my head better than others.

One particular book - arcane, steeped in Judeo-Christian mythology, and puns I knew were horribly funny if I could just figure out all the right references - Steven Brust's To Reign In Hell implanted itself in my consciousness in ways I still haven't fully grasped.

A re-working of Paradise Lost, itself a hell of a book (sorry, not sorry), that I had read parts of in my literature classes, To Reign in Hell tells the story of Lucifer's revolt against God and Heaven resulting in his fall and banishment. It takes its title from Paradise Lost, from the line, "better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven."

I didn't really get what that meant. I mean, I knew the words and I understood their intent, but I was 13. I didn't have much notion of what freedom meant, much less what it would mean to claim in it in the face of opposition, even, or maybe especially, when the opposition to my own freedom was literally paradise. I just knew that it sounded badass. And, by claiming it as a motto, I was badass.

Recently, a friend of mine used the line “better to reign in Hell, I guess” in reference to the political news of the day. Without going into details, a prominent politician had made comments to the effect that more effective environmental policies were not needed. In the ensuing discussion, another friend declared that <politician> would be ruler of Hell on Earth, prompting the first friend.

And thus, these musings...

To begin, what does “serve” mean? gives the following list of synonyms and related words:

deliver, distribute, give, handle, hit, play, present, provide, arrange, assist, deal, nurse, oblige, provision, succor, attend to, be of assistance, be of use, care for, dish up, do for, minister to, set out, wait on, work for.

That’s a pretty expansive list, but it’s clear in reading the original (Paradise Lost) that Lucifer does not want to be attendant on God. He would rather rule a wasteland of despair and pain than wait on his creator.

And, as true as my friend’s assertion that a post-environmental catastrophe Earth might look like Hell may be, for most of us, Hell is a set of circumstances rather than a literal place.

So what might it look like were I to apply that rubric to the modern world?

What would it mean to be absolute ruler of the worst circumstances you can imagine while knowing that you could be in the best place possible at the price of your independence?

Is Kim Jong Un reigning in Hell? Is Putin? Is Trump? Maybe the person who stays in a crappy job where they have control and power rather than find a better job full of uncertainty and both good and bad possibilities is reigning in their own, personal hell.

Maybe we should reframe the verb “to serve.” How does the image change if we do not imagine ourselves as some kind of waiter. What if we take it to mean "to work in the public service," like police and firefighters and city officials? Or, to abstract it even further, should we take serve to mean to help or aid? Some of these outcomes might not be so bad; perhaps a life of aiding others in Paradise is not as onerous as being a waiter at the pearly gates.

In both Paradise Lost and To Reign in Hell, Lucifer ends up alone. He has other fallen angels with him, but he cannot trust them. Once exposed to rebellion, they seek to claim Hell as their own; they rebel against him as he rebelled against God. By contrast, those angels who did not fall are referred to as being part of a host - they are in harmony and fellowship, they act as one mind, one body.

Would that be so bad?

Perhaps part of growing up, the difference between being 13 and forty-three, is knowing that I would be a shitty king. Seriously, you don't want to put me in charge. I'm petty, vindictive, and I can hold grudges for decades. Maybe, at the end of all things, the only place I would be fit to rule would be a hell-scape.

Maybe it's just that as I've reached middle-age and the collective desire to have me around has lessened, I've become more willing to join the herd. I've switched from Groucho's "I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as one of its members," to trying to stay up late enough to join the party.

As for Heaven and Hell, well, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett put it best:

“Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.”

Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. As a young teen, the defiance inherent in the phrase spoke to me. These days, well, to reign in Hell would be a pointless endeavor and to serve in heaven would be a compromise at best. Better instead to be true to oneself but to have limited ambitions, something that doesn't inspire a bunch of fallen angels to array themselves against you.

“To Reign in Hell”


“To reign in Hell,” is from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Here at least we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.


From Word Origins: The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z:

reign (pg. 419)

Reign goes back via Old French

reignier to Latin /r/ē/gn/ā/re/ ‘be king, rule’, a derivative of /r/ē/gnum/ ‘kingship’ (source of English interregnum). This was closely related to /r/ē/x/ ‘king’ (source of English regal, royal, etc), and also to regere ‘rule’ (source of English rector, regent, etc).


hell (pg. 268)

Etymologically, hell is a ‘hidden place’.

It goes back ultimately to Indo-European kel- ‘cover, hide’ , which was contributed an extraordinary number of words to English, including apocalypse, cell, cellar, conceal, helmet, hull ‘pod’, occult, and possibly colour and holster. Its Germanic descendant was khel-, khal-, whose derivatives included khallō and khaljō. The first became modern English hall, the second modern English hell – so both hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places’, although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth. Related Germanic forms include German hölle, Dutch hel, and Swedish helvete (in which vete means ‘punishment’).

Notable Events of the Year 1667

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Angels Through the Ages

Angels, like any other archetype, have been worked and re-worked by the machines of pop-culture for centuries. Paradise Lost is an early example, but it is not the only example by far. Here are a few of my favorite examples of Angels in pop culture.

The Divine Comedy - A lot of the language we use to describe various pop-culture angels comes from Dante, specifically part 3 of his masterwork, wherein Beatrice takes Dante to Paradise and introduces him to all the choirs of angels.

Dogma - As a film, Dogma is not without its flaws. However, its central message that religious beliefs are meant to be questioned and not, ahem, dogmatically followed is one that never gets old.

Lucifer - First introduced as a supporting character in The Sandman (comic), Lucifer becomes more and more intriguing as he deals with humans in his adopted home of L.A. The comic is better than the t.v. show, but not by much.

Good Omens - This story by Neil Gaiman and the late (much, much missed) Terry Pratchett is the go-to for anyone who wishes to write about angels, devils, and the end of the world as a comedy.

The Prophecy - Look, this movie and its sequels are not great filmmaking, but they feature Christopher Walken as the angel Gabriel and Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer, so what more could you want?

The Remy Chandler Mysteries - Remy Chandler renounced Heaven and chose to live on Earth. To pass the time, he becomes a detective. The stories only get weirder and more fun from there.

Angel - Ok, Angel is not actually an angel, he’s a vampire. But this spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer holds up so well I couldn’t pass up a chance to mention it.

Next Time: This too shall pass. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.