Paradise Lost is John Milton’s epic poem about man’s relationship with the divine. The poem is divided into 12 smaller books. In the work, Satan is a main character. In the most common interpretation of the poem, Satan is considered to be an antagonist. However, this position is to take the position without a full examination of the story. Upon closer examination, one might begin to see that Satan is not the antagonist of the story, but instead, the protagonist. This essay will support the thesis that the character Satan in Paradise Lost is the hero of the story, rather than the villain.
The case that Satan is a hero is one of focus on Satan, rather than on God, Adam, and Eve (Wallace). Wallace claims that placing Satan at the center of the poem and that this point of view, in following the traditional form of an epic poem, makes him the hero. This argument is based on the idea that Milton’s form and position of the characters support that Satan is the hero of the poem. There are two different views on Satan’s position in the story as evidence that he is the hero. The question is whether literary form is an argument that Satan was the hero of the story by default position, or if Milton was breaking tradition and violating the form of the epic poem by making the antagonist the main character and focus of the story.
The initial argument by Satan to justify his rebellion is that he is “Self-begot, self-raised” (Milton, 5:860). This argument is one of autonomy and the right of self-determination. In this statement, Satan is both denying his God’s authority over him and he is proclaiming his own rights and authority. Satan’s argument was based on equity as the center of the epic conflict (Steadman, 253). Milton portrays the defiance of Satan as a political battle against a tyrant (Murphy).
William Blake disagrees with the analysis, pointing to what are considered transgressions in Milton himself. William Blake claims that Milton was an ungodly man, which is why he wrote Satan as the hero of the story (Blake, 1433). Not only does Milton present Satan as heroic, he points out the less desirable characteristics of God. He presents God as an angry and vengeful. “From his displeasure; in whose look serene, When angry most he seem’d and most severe,” (Milton 10 1095-1096). He then questions whether heaven is the better place, or if they can be the same “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven./What matter where, if I still be the same,” (Milton 1: 254-256). The question is one of motive. The determining issue in this case is whether Satan is asking simply to find answers or as a challenge. At first it would seem that he is simply questioning, but his actions when the battel ensues support that he had power hungry intentions.
When Satan calls his band of angel to voice their opinions on way, he is using the principle of equity and allowing them to have a voice, which is something that he feels that he has been denied by God. “By what best way…Whether of open war or covert guile,/We now debate; who can advise, may speak,” (Milton, 2: 40-42).
Milton paints God as the destroyer by punishing man for disobedience and denying them what he felt was the right to knowledge. “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit, Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,” (Milton 1: 1-26). Satan then questions how man can be so deserving of punishment and why they are denied the right to knowledge if they are created from God and God is light. “Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born, Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam, May I express thee unblam’d? since God is Light, (Milton 3:1-3). Satan further questions the equity of God. “Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d; For contemplation hee and valor form’d, For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace, Hee for God only, shee for God in him.” (Milton 4: 295-299).
Satan further goes on to paint God as unforgiving. “What better can we do, than to place
Repairing where he judg’d us, prostrate fall, Before him reverent, and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tear,” (Milton, 10: 1086-1090). Milton paints God as the antagonist in doing so. Satan becomes bitter when he realizes his circumstances. In true epic hero form, he exposes his vulnerable side and his weakness, thus demonstrating the heroic flaw. He rationalizes, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” (Milton, l:263). He has accepted his fate and the mission that he feels that he has been given. This is resignation on the part of Satan.
At first, Satan confides in his followers, giving them a say in the decision, but when they express different opinions, then Satan decides to carry out the plan without them. His principle of equity only went until they disagree with him. Of their decision, Satan says, “Towards him they bend/With awful reverence prone; and…/Extol him equal to the highest in heaven” (Milton, 2:477-479). Satan demonstrates the ability to engage in heroic insight.
On using further insight, he “torments inwardly,” (Milton, 4: 88). He also asks himself if his decisions are correct. He says, “Is there no place/Left for repentance, none for pardon left?” (Milton, 4:9-80). He decides there is not. It is then that he decides to defile God’s creation, but there are two ways to look at this. Satan’s first provocation to go on this mission was based on the principle of equity. His original fight was one of equality. It would be argued that he was not defiling God’s creation, but giving it the gift of equity, freewill, and choice.
When Eve eats the forbidden fruit, Milton seems to change his position on these actions, taking the more traditional approach to Eve’s actions as sin. He say, “Greedily she engorged without restraint, And knew not eating death,” (Milton, 8: 791-792). Satan used lies, flattery, and deception to convince Eve to eat the fruit. These are not heroic traits, but those of an antagonist. If Satan is viewed as one who saved man from ignorance, then it is a heroic trait, but his means of doing so are questionable. The question that Milton poses in this reversal in his portrayal of Satan as a hero on a journey to free himself and the world from repression, is whether the means justify the ends. In the end, Satan uses some very unheroic means to achieve what has been portrayed up to his point as a heroic mission.
Epic heroes often have flaws that make them appear to be human. They often must overcome these flaws, or in many cases, they must overcome their heroic challenge despite these flaws. Milton presents Satan as a hero on a mission to save himself and the rest of the world from oppression by a vengeful, angry, controlling God. Like most heroes, in the end, he loses the support of those who once agreed with him and must go the journey alone. In the end, he achieves his success, but does so by resorting to means that are not the typical bravery of the hero.
This reversal in the end is the main argument that Milton is portraying the antagonist of the story as the hero. However, when one considers the beginning motives of Satan, it appears that Milton has indeed placed Satan as the hero of the story. Even the heroes of epics have flaws. Satan’s means to accomplish his goals can be seen as simply his heroic flaws. When taken as a whole, Satan is cast as the hero in every other way. Milton’s treatment of Satan goes against basic societal beliefs of the time. Milton presented the idea that there were two sides to the story. His argument would not have been as strong, had he placed Satan in the traditional role of the antagonist. Milton’s intent was to force his readers to consider a different viewpoint.
- Blake, William. “ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature: The Major Authors, Volume B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 1430-1441.
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Project Gutenberg. 1667 (2011, March 2). Web. 24 February 2016.
- Murphy, Christopher. “Construction and Rhetoric: A Study of Satan in Paradise Lost.”
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3. 2012. Web. 24 February 2016.
- Steadman, John. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 120, No. 4,
Symposium on John Milton (Aug. 13, 1976), pp. 253-294
- Wallace, Matt. “A Devil of a Problem: Satan as Hero in Paradise Lost.” 2008 December 8. Web. 24 February 2016.