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John Milton published the first edition of Paradise Lost in 1667. This epic poem introduces a series of supernatural themes. It is the retelling of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s first sin. The basis of the text is Christian theology; specifically, Protestant Christian Theology. What is unique, even controversial, about Milton’s method of proselytizing the Christian message, is not so much the use of the epic poem structure per se, (which is traditionally reserved for classic and pagan subject matter), but that he introduces the archenemy of God as a sympathetic character.
This is a repugnant concept for Milton’s Christian audience. In fact, John Dryden (the first literary critic to comment on Paradise Lost) in 1697 criticized the poem for having the villain take center stage and defeat the hero (p. 214). However, it will be argued instead that Milton’s use of this technique is to highlight the cunningness of Satan and our own willingness to accept the tale as probable. This sentiment is echoed by Stanley Fish who claimed that the poem tempts the reader in the same way that Satan tempted Adam and Eve.
In the remainder of this essay, Books II and III will be examined to note the ways Milton compares and contrasts, God, Satan, Heaven and Hell to amplify his subversive technique of casting Satan as the tragic hero of Paradise Lost. In Book II of Paradise Lost, Satan is introduced to the reader as a rationale character that is capable of questioning God’s authority and judgment. For example, the debate in Hell is one of the great set pieces of Paradise Lost. In this scene, Satan’s appeal is in his use of classic political rhetoric: he states that both his and that of his fallen Angel’s rebelliousness and pride, are justified:
“…with what eyes could we Stand in his presence humble, and receive Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne With warbled hyms, and to his Godhead sing Forced hallelujahs, while he lordly sits” Milton constructs this profane polemic by utilizing the heroic epic genre to introduce Satan in a countercultural way. He not only disturbs literary conventions but religious conventions too. Such a representation of a heroic Satan as a tragic Prometheus figure challenges the discourse of traditional Judeo-Christian notions of injustice and subordination.
However, Milton lived during the dawn of the Renaissance; a time when science began to question religious dogmas. Satan, therefore, is all the more impressive to the skeptical Seventeenth Century audience, because he too, like the new Renaissance man, uses logic and rationalism to argue against accepted ideas and the status quo. In this way, Milton’ Paradise Lost can be viewed as highly controversial in the way he subverts the literary conventions and religious dogma by transposing a pagan literary technique on Christian revelation. But these techniques are not meant to subvert Christianity.
Likewise, Milton is not attempting a ‘Dan Brown’ type revision of Christian theology. Instead, what Milton aims in achieving is to highlight Satan’s imperfect logic (even scholasticism) from God’s omnipotence. Thus, whilst Milton’s Satan is eloquent in speech, he is forever fallen. In contrast, Milton’s God remains highly mysterious and beyond logic; he also reigns triumphant and glorified in Heaven. In the opening of Book II, Satan’s rhetoric reaches a climax in The Council meeting held in Pandemonium (Hell). A debate is being held as to whether or not to attempt recovery of Heaven.
Instead, another proposal is accepted. That proposal is to seek revenge against God. And through this revenge, Milton establishes Satan as a forlorn figure, as Satan alone undertakes the voyage to find the prophesized world were he can enact his revenge as a tragic hero. Whilst on his travels, he encounters Sin and Death. They are his offspring and guard the gates of Hell. They also serve as a profane inversion of God’s Trinity: a technique Milton often uses to help facilitate the contrasting and comparing of God and Heaven with Satan and Hell.
Arguable, this strategy of parody and subversion is effective in showing the reader that despite all his oratory powers and intelligence, all that Satan is ultimately capable of performing is an imperfect imitation of God and his Kingdom. This comparison serves to accentuate Satan’s tragic status and also his futile pride. Another way Milton recasts Satan as a tragic hero, is through his depiction of Satan as a solitary character. For example, Milton notes that Satan “[e]xplores his solitary flight” (II. 647) alone to Eden.
In contrast, God is supported by his Son in Book III. For example, God sees Satan flying towards this world and foretells the success of his evil mission to tempt man. God explains his purpose of grace and mercy toward man, but mandates that justice must be met nonetheless. His Son, who sits at his right hand, freely offers to sacrifice himself for man’s salvation. This causes the angels to celebrate in songs of praise. In contrast, this imagery accentuates the tragic and solitary nature of Satan’s banishment.
A status further highlighted when he passes by the stairs of heaven on his way to earth: “The stairs were then let down, whether to dare The Fiend by easy ascent, or aggravate His sad exclusion from the doors of bliss” (III. 523 -525). In this way, Milton portrays God as some kind of celestial joker, dangling the stairs of heaven to Satan. This concept is of course an antithesis to the traditional precepts of God as merciful and benevolent. However, this scene does help Milton to engineer a sympathetic response from the reader towards Satan.
And thus, Milton’s recasting of Satan as the tragic epic hero is complete. Another way Milton casts Satan as the tragic hero of Paradise Lost is through contrasting the depiction of Hell with Heaven. So, whilst Satan sits “[h]igh on a throne of Royal State… exalted… ”(II. 1-5), Satan’s throne is made of “Barbaric pearl” (II. 4). God, however, sits on a heavenly throne in Heaven: A place that is immersed with precious stones (like diamonds) and light. Even Heaven’s pearly gates (“liquid pearl” III.
519) are contrasted to the pearls of Hell (“Barbaric pearl” II. 4). Nothing in Hell can ultimately compete with God’s creation. Milton continues to compare and contrast God and Satan in Book III. For example, in Book III, the infernal trinity, that is, Satan, Sin and Death are introduced as a perversion of God’s original Trinity. In this way, Milton parallels Book II and Book III of Paradise Lost to show no only that Satan’s dominion is an inversion and parody of Heaven, but more importantly, that imitation is the apex of Satan’s intelligence.
So, not only is Hell unlike Heaven as it has flames, ice, whirlwinds, and volcanoes. Hell is deathlike and desolate like a “Desert Soile” (II. 270)). In contrast, Heaven is a “living Sapphire” (II. 1050). Moreover, Milton’s grotesque depiction of Hell as a place of death is reiterated by the paradoxical phrase, “life dies, death lives” (II. 624). Hell, therefore, is a place of contradiction, even moral confusion. Heaven in contrast is adorned with precious stones and metal of diamond and gold. It is a place of rejoicing and a place of light, “…since God is light” (III.
3-5). Through harnessing literary devices (which had been traditionally reserved for ‘virtuous’ pagan characters and by sagacious philosophers of ancient Greece), Milton ingeniously highlights the limitations of Satan and indeed humanity itself to understand God. Thus, the invocation in Book I, that is, ‘to justify the ways of God to Man’, is indeed Milton’s “inside joke”: For it is not Milton’s role to justify God to humanity, but rather it is the reader’s responsibility to overcome ‘temptation’ and see Satan as the villain described in the Bible.
Thus, apart from creating a poem of dramatic appeal, it appears that Milton’s introduction of Satan as a hero in the epic poem format was an attempt to accentuate Satan’s irreparably fallen state (as indeed our own human folly in being susceptible to following humanist rationalism at the expense of Christian theology). In Paradise Lost, Satan is a tragic hero forever lost in spite of his attempts to overthrow God’s creation. According to Milton, Satan’s transgression is to think himself equal to God. And it is this transgression that makes his rhetoric ultimately hollow.
References 1. Dryden, John. “Virgil and the Aeneid. ” Dramatic Essays. Ed. William Henry Hudson. London: E. P. Dutton, 1921. 2. Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. New York: Harvard University Press, 2001. 3. Fish, Stanley. Surprised By Sin. London: St. Martin’s Press, 1967. 4. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eight Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006 5. Milton, John. Paradise Lost: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Tesky. London: W. W. Norton, 2004.