The Paradise Lost is the epic poem written by the blind English poet John Milton. For many years, this piece of poetry had sparked countless of debates amongst literary scholars particularly concerning the character of Satan. One important aspect of studying Milton’s work is to analyze his clever ways of manipulating characters to challenge the notion of good and bad heroism. In his work, Milton’s Satan was an evil character; however, he also portrayed the devil to a heroic figure instead of God or Adam. In order to analyze the character of Satan, one must begin with a definition of a hero. Traditionally, heroes often possess amiable qualities such as kindness, bravery, nobility, intelligence, and obedience. By placing Satan in this category, it might be apt to say that although he [Satan] possesses bravery and intelligence; Satan will remain as a pseudo-hero. This means that he can either pass or fail as a hero. In his book, Milton portrayed Satan as a fallen hero with no positive attributes and apathetic behavior.
“All is not lost; the unconquerable will. And study of revenge, immortal hate. And courage never to submit or yield: and what else not to be overcome?” (Milton 1:106-109).
The first book introduces Satan to the reader as a courageous deity with strong will and capable of hatred whilst harboring deep resentment towards God. Perhaps, one of the reasons that some scholars view Satan’s character as a hero of the poem was mainly due to Milton’s treatment of God’s character as well. The God in the Paradise Lost is cold and seldom communicates with his creations; He is cold and tyrannical just like Zeus of the Greek mythology. For the poet and scholar Percy Bysshe Shelley, he views Satan as a magnificent character who is disdainful, patient yet cunning (Shelley, 30). Furthermore, scholars also compared Satan to Prometheus, the Greek god who opposed Zeus and gave mankind the fire (cited in Preface to Prometheus Unbound, 1820; qtd. from The Satanic and Byronic Hero, 2). In Satan’s case, he was the evil version of Prometheus; he tempted Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Instead of fire, Satan’s gift to the humans was the power of knowledge to deduce what is right or wrong; to be able to think rationally. Although this might appear as blasphemy, but the way Milton portrayed God is that he [Milton] made Him appear cruel and unjust. By doing so, Satan had granted them knowledge forever; but the price to pay is to be expelled from paradise for eternity. Despite a former angel, he became the leader of the fallen angels and they attempted to oust God to what he [Satan] calls the ‘tyranny of Heaven’ (Milton I. 124). In some ways, Milton portrayed Heaven as a tyranny because the power to rule the whole kingdom was concentrated on the hands of one deity; and this deity acts out of His own will to make His creations bend to His commands simply because they owe Him their lives. Throughout the course of the epic, Satan was the main actor who carried out his own will and executed his evil machinations to spread his wickedness. According to the Aristotelian views, heroes have different motives. In Paradise Lost, Satan was the hero because he is the main character who does mostly the actions. He is the chief character who spins out the rest of the story. Without Satan, the story of Paradise Lost would not have been complete. It was also implied that Satan was a being with a complex and rational character. Take a look at the passage below:
“Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n? What matter where, if I be still the same, And what I should be, all but less then he Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least we shall be free; th' [sic] Almighty hath not built” (Milton I. 255-259).
In this passage, Milton portrayed Satan as a rational being and a capable leader because he challenged the traditional beliefs of his time. Told from Satan’s point of view, Milton invokes a question not only to the characters in the book but also for the readers as well. Is it possible to make hell a heaven? For Satan, it is possible because he has his own free will. He does not want to remain as a servant of God anymore. He wants to be his own master when he stated that: it is ‘better to reign in Hell than in Heaven” (Milton I. 263). Furthermore, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Satan as a ‘magnificent character’ because:
“Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments” (Shelley, 13).
Even the scholar John Dennis had stated his praise for the Paradise Lost as an eccentric poem ever produced by the mind of man (qtd. from Steadman, 256). Dennis’s argues that Milton made Satan as a hero because wanted to break the traditional philosophy of Aristotle that a hero should have amiable qualities. Dennis’ posits that he [Satan] is a hero because he “bests the best” (qtd. from Steadman, 256). Although Milton intended to present Satan as an ideal hero; he also showed that heroes can also have their own tragic flaw, in Satan’s case, his ambitions and amoral acts became his reason for defeat.
Milton’s attempts to portray Satan as the degraded hero; a hero created through ill desires and ambitions in order to satisfy their pursuits of glory. As exemplified by his constant machinations to drive out God away from his throne, instead of success he finds failure and in the end, he becomes the despised and abominable character and his punishment for disobedience is to remain in Hell for eternity. Therefore, Milton has set Satan as an example of what humans will be if they lived only for the sake of power and glory. If they constantly exercise free will without analyzing the results of their actions. Even the Son of God knew this, and he already predicted the downfall of evil and man because of the freewill given to them by His Father. Due to his portrayal of the devil as a hero, the English poet William Blake reiterated that Milton was a devil’s advocate cited in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790–93; qtd. from The Satanic and Byronic Hero, 1).
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost Book 1.” The John Milton Reading Room Dartmouth College. n.d. Web.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1891. Print.
Steadman, John. “The Idea of Satan as the Hero of Paradise Lost.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120.4 (1976): 253-294. Jstor. Web. 20 April 2015.
“The Satanic and Byronic Hero.” Norton.com College English, n.d., Web. 19 April 2015. PDF File.