In most instances, Satan is deemed to be the very embodimentof evil and villainy; the opposing force to all things ethical. Yet it has beenwell documented, especially by critics of the romantic era, that in Milton’s ParadiseLost this is not the case, as Satan possesses numerous heroic qualities,drawing comparisons to heroic classical figures.
His profound will and couragein defying God could make him appear to be the hero of the poem. However, I ammore aligned with the view of Fish1, that this is simply amisreading of the text; we only deem Satan the hero when we are taken in by hisexuberant portrayal in books I and II of the poem. In reality, he does notpossess the fundamental qualities of heroism such as benevolence andtemperance. This is strongly supported by his malevolent actions in book IV andV, whereby he corrupts Adam and Eve; saying that he “only finds ease” in “destroying”2, which naturallycontradicts the notion of a protagonist. Whilst Satan does present someadmirable qualities, such as courage, all of his actions are underlined withmalevolence and self-interest. Furthermore, I do not agree with labelling Satanas a tragic hero, as whilst he does reach a tragic conclusion of being harshlypunished, this is entirely deserved, as his intent never has any element of goodabout it. Though some draw comparisons of tragic heroism between Satan andMacbeth, I believe that it is unreasonable to suggest that Satan is worthy ofthis, as he even makes the innocent in the poem suffer, such as Adam and Eve. Firstly, book IV serves to show that Satan cannot bedescribed to be the hero of Paradise Lost, as his destructive actionsonly serve to wreak pain and havoc.
This naturally juxtaposes notions ofclassical literary heroism, such as grace and serenity. The fact that Satan directlychallenges God, the embodiment of benevolence, and attempts to devastate “thehappier Eden”3 clearlyshows that he cannot be defined as the hero of the epic poem, as he is directlytrying to disturb harmony; attempting to subvert paradise into a twistedhell-like state. Satan convincing Eve to “greedily engorge without restraint”4, and eat the forbiddenfruit demonstrates his conniving and spiteful character, and how he wishes to harmthe innocent, and even those who have not wronged him. This perfectly illustrates why Satan cannot be thehero, as his actions are merely selfish acts of hatred and vengeance, to tryand strip innocence from the world and thwart an idyllic creation. Hiscorruption of Eden is no rational or heroic response to being condemned by God;it is simply a jealous act of “mischievous revenge”5 directed towards Adam,”the new favourite Of Heaven”6. Classic literary heroesare not associated with acts of self-interest and spite. Whilst it could besuggested that Satan is actually courageously fighting against a tyrannous dictatorin God, corrupting Eden proves his actions are born out of jealousy, and notpride, as he seems naturally inclined to subdue Adam, even despite the factAdam has never wronged Satan.
C.S Lewis also points out the absurdity thatsurrounds labelling Satan a hero, arguing that admiring Satan is “To admire Satan is to give one’s vote for aworld of misery and a world of lies and propaganda”7. This demonstrates how allof Satan’s messages are just attempts to try and inspire hatred towards God. Inpractice Satan’s entire philosophy is supported by hatred and vengeance. Yet itcould be argued that Satan still is heroic, as he is waging war against asupposed harsh and power hungry tyrant in God. However, I believe that the very fact that Satan tries to wage war withhis omnipotent maker, the embodiment of morality, illustrates that he is not ahero as only a fool would fight such a grand being. Satan’s foolish attempt towar that he is destined to lose dispels the notion that he is a wise andtrustworthy leader.
However,it could be said that many aspects of Satan align with some aspects of literaryheroism; these attributes are prominent in the early stages of the poem. Thefact that Satan says he and his exiles “hath emptied heaven”8 suggests that he possessesheroic attributes of heroic leadership and inspiring courage. The “emptying” ofheaven implies Satan could be a hero, as he has outdone the omnipotent God inthis instance, as he is able to easily convince a hoard of God’s creations tofollow him in battle.
This could draw comparisons with classic epic heroes suchas Achilles, as it shows Satan can be an inspiring warrior. This is furtheredby Satan saying “who can believe that they shall fail to re-ascend andrepossess their native seat”9, as it implies a level of prideand faith in his army, suggesting that he is an inspiring idol of defiance. Also,his faith that they will “re-ascend and repossess” heaven, even after defeat,strengthens this idea that could be a courageous and valiant leader. It iscertainly an admirable and somewhat heroic feat to still maintain faith aftercrushing defeat. This view of Satan being a proud hero is developed by PercyBysshe Shelly, arguing that “nothing”, not even God, “can exceed the energy andmagnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost”10. This quotation showsthat Satan’s heroic and “magnificent” qualities should make him the hero of thepoem, and certainly the most fascinating character in the text.
In particular,this description of Satan as “magnificent” suggests that he should be theprimary protagonist in the poem, and reinforces the notion that he is aninspiring leader.Moreoversaying that Milton’s Devil, as a moral being is “far superior to God” and”perseveres… in spite of adversity and torture”11 is indicative of how Godshould be perceived as the evil antagonist of Milton’s epic. It could be saidthat Satan becomes a hero in defying God’s “torture” and having the courage tocontest an omnipotent being. This could, in turn, make Satan’s malevolent exploitof corrupting Eden could actually be defendable, as he is heroically andjustifiably reacting to God’s punishments and his “foul descent”12 Addingto this, it could be argued that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost as hedraws likenesses to notions of heroism to characters in other literary genres. Whilstmost depictions of Satan naturally display him as an antagonist, Milton perhapsconceives him as a tragic hero, due to the fact that he wages a valiant yetunwinnable war with a God he deems to be tyrannous.
Satan could also belabelled as a tragic hero, as the Aristotelian definition13 argues that a tragic heroshould invoke a sense of pity from the audience. If we apply this concept toSatan, he could be depicted as a tragic hero, as both his failures in battleand severe punishments from God, show that he is somewhat helpless and subjectto loss. This is especially the case when he is degraded to being “amonstrous serpent on his belly prone”14, which illustrates godhas deformed him into a helpless and wholly unpleasant being. However, I do notagree with the notion that Satan is even a tragic hero, as Aristotle also notesthat a tragic hero must possess some virtuous qualities. This certainly is notthe case in regards to Satan, who seems to have no regards for any other beingbar himself throughout the text. Notwithstandingthis, it is worth noting that Satan does share some characteristics withexamples of tragic literary heroism in other texts. For example, there are samedistinct parallels with the tragic hero Macbeth. Both characters share someheroic characteristics, such as leadership and valour.
This is evidenced bytheir abilities to raise effective armies, even in the face of opposition.Additionally, they are both heroic in that strive to conquer, and it is perhapstheir flaws that allow them both to fall15. However, I feel it istheir flaws that prohibit them from becoming true literary heroes, especiallydue to the fact that they commit extreme examples of evil; in the case of Satanthis is corrupting Eden and in the case of Macbeth this is getting Banquokilled.
For me, this hunger for power is not truly heroic, as they both lack redeemingfeatures of grace and mercy. Notwithstandingthis, it could be argued that Satan relates the notion of heroism contained inthe epic classical figures such as Achilles. Forsyth16 in particular notes this,stating that Satan is a “variant of Achilles”, “who is slighted by hiscommander in chief” and courageously “refuses his orders”. This rejection ofthe all-powerful God combined with Satan’s ability to rally his army andimplore them to “hurl defiance towards the walls of heaven”17 naturally draws comparisonswith the heroic Achilles’ warrior-like qualities.
These actions could be deemedas admirable and heroic, as he is intent on serving justice to those who havewronged him. The warrior like comparison is furthered with his early physicaldescription. However I believe that this is an unfair comparison, as whilstAchilles is favoured by his respective Gods, Satan is rightfully condemned forhis actions of disobedience, and is not celebrated by any benevolent figures inthe text. This is largely due to the fact that his actions are only altruistic;he is only fulfilling his selfish desires of conquering God’s throne, andpettily attempting to destroy innocence and beauty in Eden.
Addingto this, I feel that Stanley Fish18 effectively shows that itis only through deception and misjudgement that we are able to deem Satan asthe hero in Paradise Lost. Much like Adam and Eve, the reader mustensure not to “fall before the lures of Satanic rhetoric”, and misread hisenthralling speeches. For example, Whilst Milton describes Satan as a grand hero-esque physical “bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size”19, in reality he ispowerless and not of monstrous size in comparison to God, and this descriptionof a powerful being is simply a ruse. The ease in which God condemns him tohell also shows that in battle, he is not as valiant as he wishes to bepresented.
Furthermore, whilst books 1 and 2 describe God and his punishmentsas overly harsh, documenting him being locked “his Angels lying on the burningLake”, this is only because Satan wants us to believe God to be evil, as tovindicate his courageous struggle. In reality, it is God who preaches the morecommendable and heroic values of peace, whereas Satan inspires only acts ofhatred from his followers urging them to wreak havoc. For me, Satan would needto actually inspire some messages of positivity and heroism in order to bedeemed a true hero. Yet it could be argued that due to God’s omnipotence and omniscience,Satan’s fatal flaws are not his fault; they are only the result of God’sactions, which means he was set up to fail, which could draw connotations withthe notions of a tragic hero. Inreality, however, Satan’s degeneration throughout the poem shows that hebecomes the antagonist of the text; not the hero he wishes to present to thereader. I feel his deterioration into a miserable hate-filled being in book 9 and10 exhibit how he cannot be considered heroic. Satan saying that he wishes to “makeothers such as I”20, as in miserable, exhibitshow he is not the inspiring leader he wishes to be seen as earlier in the text,and simply becomes a hate-stricken villain.
This degeneration I feel dispelsnotions of his figure, as it makes him lose all familiarity with this notionthat he is of noble physical stature and “monstrous size”, and is now a far cryfrom his original state, illustrating that now he lacks both the physical andbenevolent aspect of a hero. He and his followers are now condemned to be “punishedin the shape they have sinned”, which in effects means that they have lost allphysical grandeur, and are forced to now reside on the bottom of the earth foreternity. Personally, I do not see how it is possible to deem Satan the hero ofthe poem at its conclusion, as we truly see him for what he is; that is a harshegoist, bent on destruction. Overall,Satan is not the hero, but rather the antagonist of the poem. In response tocritics that may point to his grand and regal nature in books I and II, and howhe was shown to be a courageous hero, we can see that in reality, all of hisactions were underpinned by hatred.
We are able to see what Satan truly is atthe end, the true villain of the piece only bringing pain to the innocent and renouncingall authority. I believe the comparison to Achilles is unfair, as whilst hedoes match up to some notions of heroism, such as courage and pride, he containsno empathy, and shows no remorse for his villainy. 1 StanleyEugene Fish Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. (HarvardUniversity Press, 1998) 2 ParadiseLost : Book 9, lines 129-30 – page numbers of subsequent references will beto Oxford World’s Classics, 2008) edition, and will be given in parentheses inmy text thus: (PL b.
x, l.x)3 PL b.4 l.5074 PL b.9 l.
791-45 PL b.2 l.1054-56 PL b.9 l.
175-1767 C.SLewis A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford University Press 1942), pg 1008 PLB.1 L.631-49 PLB.1 L 631-3410 ADefense of Poetry, 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley11 FromA Defense of Poetry, 182112 916313 CharlesH. Reeves, The Aristotelian Concept of The Tragic Hero, Vol. 73, No.
2 (1952),Published by 172-1881410 51415 PaulN. Siegel16The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth pg 3017 B.1 L.
66918Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. by Stanley Eugene FishVol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1969), pg 3819 119720 9128