Paradise Lost, widely regarded as John Milton’s magnum opus, retells the biblical story of the fall of man, the temptation of Adam and Eve followed by their subsequent banishment from the garden of Eden. This would lead the potential reader to believe that the story was a battle between good and evil with God or Adam representing the hero and Satan representing the villain however, this is not the case and the true hero of Paradise Lost is still up for interpretation.
Historically, several critics and writers such Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake believed that Satan was the hero of the story however more modern critics, such as Barbara Lewalski, believe otherwise, ‘by measuring Satan against the heroic standards, we become conscious of the inadequacy and fragility of all the heroic virtues celebrated in literature, of the susceptibility of them all to demonic perversion’. In order to answer the question of whether or not Satan is the hero of this story, we must first determine what this story actually is as, whilst the poem is written as an epic, there are also aspects of other genres.
If we were to label the poem as a tragedy, either Adam or Satan have many qualities of the tragic hero, primarily their respective fatal flaws, Satan’s being his pride and Adam’s being his love for Eve. At some points, there are elements of lyrical poetry such as in the descriptions of paradise and according to an article by Gregory Ziegelmaier, the text can even be labelled as comedy, ‘The genuine comic spirit of Paradise Lost sees the incongruities of human life and character and divines their ultimate fulfilment in a universal harmony’.
However, for the moment, let us treat this text as an epic, albeit an unusual one.
However, before even examining Paradise Lost, we must first ask what was undoubtedly the main contemporary question of the work, can Satan ever be considered a hero? In Nathan Johnstone’s 2007 book he writes, ‘When the mind was vulnerable the Devil would introduce sinful thoughts and temptations, most commonly attempting to accentuate weakness by enticing men to abandon their observances.’ Although Satan is portrayed as the embodiment of temptation, this could be seen in two ways. From one perspective, Satan is the weight that drags men to hell, whilst men tried in vain to resist or on the other hand men commit sin on their own and without help and then blame an external force such as Satan. It is clear therefore that the renaissance idea of Satan was not a fixed concept and for many, Satan was far more of a personal figure or, as Johnstone puts it, ‘Temptation came to dominate the demonological understanding of the godly, but within the scheme there was scope for a wide fluidity of expression and an eclectic personal demonism’. This idea is the what the ambiguity of Satan’s heroism in Paradise Lost is built on, either Satan is the downtrodden revolutionary struggling against God’s oppressive regime or he is simply the villain, telling a story and drawing the audience into it.
Even from the very beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton encourages us to feel sympathy toward Satan. His first words in the poem, ‘If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d’, show how lost and confused Satan truly is after losing all of his friends and his home through his casting out of heaven even leading some critics, such as Jack Foley, believe that this is Satan’s true motivation for his actions throughout the text, ‘The primary trait of the Satanic character is not tragic heroism but simple confusion’. Another description Milton uses to incur sympathy for Satan is through his description of God’s punishment, ‘With hideous ruine and combustion down to bottomless perdition, there to dwell In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire’. Milton’s use of ‘hideous ruin’ emphasizes not only his fall from the contrasting ‘ethereal skie’ of the previous line but also the physical disfigurement of himself and his followers into demons. The term, ‘bottomless perdition’ again emphasizes not only the physical depth of hell but also how symbolically far he has fallen from his status as God’s brightest angel. The idea of a confused Satan that has lost everything he loves through a mistake that he made as opposed to the more traditional biblical Satan again emphasizes his ambiguity and the choice between the harder truth and the tempting lie, an idea touched upon by Milton in his introduction to the text, ‘Who first seduc’d them to that fowl revolt? Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was.’ The idea of sympathy towards the epic hero is one not solely confined to Paradise Lost, with the poem often compared to several other classical epics. Satan’s perhaps most famous line for example, ‘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 Heav’n’, is comparable to any of the hero-kings of the epic genre. However, Satan’s classical heroism is also called into question at times throughout the text when Milton uses allusion or comparison to correlate Satan to other classical figures such as Typhon, ‘in bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size, titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove, Briareos or Typhon’. This comparison is accurate not only due to their comparative sizes but also Typhon’s title, ‘the father of all monsters’ is comparable to Satan’s children in Paradise Lost, Death and Sin.
Following the comparison between Paradise Lost and the classical epic genre, Satan does share several similarities with classical heroes. The story begins in media res, a common literary technique first used by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, focusing on Satan. His size is soon described by Milton first as ‘in bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size’, followed by ‘deeming some island’. Milton’s increasing description shows his inability to quantify his eyes, thus raising him above the other characters. In Satan’s speech to his troops we see examples of not only his Shakespearean-like speech but also his resilience and intelligence, ‘Farewell, happy fields, where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail, infernal world’. Despite the confused Satan that we saw earlier, we can see here that Satan is embracing this new world, which we see further evidence of a few lines later, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’. Another similarity between Satan and several epic heroes is the consequences of hubris. Classically, hubris was viewed as a challenge to the authority of the gods and often preceded the downfall of the hero and the fall of Lucifer is one of the most famous instances of this or, as Northrop Frye puts it, ‘Satan cannot escape his pride and refuses to repudiate it, so repentance is impossible’ . An example can be found in Satan’s aim to regain the throne of heaven, ‘For who can yet believe, though after loss, that all these puissant legions whose exile hath emptied Heav’n shall fail to re-ascend, self-raised, and repossess their native seat?’
As Paradise Lost is not a typical epic and shares characters of many other genres, it is important to examine Satan from a non-epic perspective and one of the main literary styles used by critics to identify the text is tragedy. Satan certainly fits the role of the tragic hero and in a 2011 paper, it was argued that, ‘Satan deserves the tragic hero status. He has not only the stature of a tragic hero, but also his attributes. In the Greek tradition, the tragic hero was supposed to stir up admiration, fear and pity and had to display a tragic weakness or flaw in his character which was to lead to his downfall. Satan may be said to inspire these emotions.’ It then goes on to compare him with characters such as Prometheus, Faustus and Macbeth. Similarly, to these characters but unlike the traditional classical heroes, the qualities that magnify Satan are his fatal flaws; pride, envy and ambition. However, most heroes, even if it ends in their death, overcome their tragic flaws but Satan seems unable to even recognize his own, ‘O had his powerful destiny ordained me some inferior angel, I had stood then happy; no unbounded hope had raised ambition’. Here, Satan is saying that it was his status in heaven that caused his fall and if he were made a lesser angel, he would not have been so prideful. However, whilst Satan never takes responsibility throughout the text, the idea of blaming an all-powerful, all-knowing god for creating him in a certain way is not entirely unreasonable.
If we are to offer a counterargument to Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, we must ask who is? From a divine perspective, the obvious answer to this question is God however, even with a seemingly perfect figure there are problems. On the one hand, God is not perfect. He is compared by William Empson to Joseph Stalin on the grounds that they share, ‘the same patience under an appearance of roughness, the same fleshes of joviality, the same thorough unscrupulousness, the same real bad temper’ . However, on the other hand, he is perfect, he is a celestial being looking in from an external perspective, alluded to by Raphael in Book 8, ‘Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all. Him whom to love is to obey, and keep his great command’. Raphael’s admission that loving God is the same as obeying him not only shows how impersonal he is but further displays that his flaw is his perfection. God also has no conflict during the story nor any struggles or problems to overcome, making the more likely candidate for the hero of the story Adam. Unlike God, Adam’s position in the story is a strange one. He is an important character to the story but not for any of his actions, in fact he is far more often acted on than acts on his own. He is a flawed character, his hamartia being his love for Eve which eventually causes his ruin. He also has to go on an emotional journey ending with a final test which, although he and Eve fail, he does end the story hopeful with his vision on the future and the coming of the Messiah. Unlike Satan his intentions are mainly good and not driven by pride or envy nor does he seek to challenge the basic laws of the universe, whilst similarly to Satan, Milton encourages us to feel sympathy for him. From a more modern perspective, it could be argued The Son is the true hero of Paradise Lost as, whilst he is not defined by his unfathomable size of warrior qualities, he does offer himself to die, ‘I offer, on me let thine angel fall” and “on me let Death wreck all his rage”, showing far more courage than Satan ever shows throughout the text.
Thus, in conclusion, there are several reasons to suggest that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost however, in my opinion, he is not. Whilst Milton’s choice to focus almost entirely on Satan throughout the first 2 books of the text help the reader to see the situation from his perspective as well as drawing sympathy for him, we see later that this is just Satan’s way of just tempting us to his side as many of his claims are either exaggerated or lies, shown in the fourth book of the text, ‘Whereof he soon aware, each perturbation smoothed with outward calme, artificer of fraud’. Milton also sums up Satan’s true nature in Book 1, comparing him with a metaphoric symbol of deceit in the island mistaken by the sailor, ‘Him haply slumb’ring on the Norway foam the pilot of some small night-foundered skiff, deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell, with fix?d anchor in his scaly rind moors by his side, under the lee’. We also learn that, despite Satan’s arrogant claims of equality with god and his sincere belief that he could overcome him, God sees all he does and allows Satan and his comrades to act freely as part of his plan,’ so bent he seems on desperate revenge that shall redound upon his own rebellious head’. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Milton’s grand use of metaphor and opulent language displays Satan as far more heroic than he actually is and encourages the reader, even after the introduction of the other characters, to keep interest and feel sympathy for Satan. However, throughout the poem, we see a devolution of Satan’s heroism where his motives decline from a noble sense of retaking what was taken from him to a selfish greed and desire to be loved which, in the end, drives all of his actions in the poem. Based on this, in my opinion, there is no hero of Paradise Lost and the poem is merely a way of Milton, a puritan, expressing his religious beliefs in the consequences of defying god as well as the importance of loving him but also his human beliefs of an imperfect world.