Reign in Hell: Satan's Role in Milton's Paradise Lost
These two quotes are from Ulysses and Satan, respectively, in the poems “Ulysses” by Tennyson and Paradise Lost by Milton. Although “Ulysses” was written almost two hundred years after Milton, it is interesting to point out the similarities between the two speeches, and how this adds to the debate as to whether Satan is portrayed as a classical epic hero. Having written Paradise Lostin a time when poets firstly rediscovered and afterwards paid homage to Ancient Greek and Latin texts, Milton uses several epic poem tropes which were most famously used by Homer and Virgil. Its story draws heavily on the Bible, particularly on the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation, and focuses on Satan, and Adam and Eve. Milton uses these biblical sources to write an epic tale, which deals with two central themes: good and evil, and free will. Satan appears to be the hero of Paradise Lost due to Milton choosing to write an epic poem in the style of Homer and Virgil, and places him in the center of the narrative, which is similar to the role of Achilles in the Iliad, or that of Aeneas in the Aeneid. This choice is not accidental, as Paradise Lost aims to turn the notion of the righteous hero on its head, and conveys the idea that good and evil are subjective, and the judgement of the two should be made on the grounds of knowledge and free will.
The structure and formal elements of Paradise Lost show clearly that Milton is trying to emulate the Ancient Greek and Latin poets, and the portrayal of Satan is deliberate. Milton evokes his muse in the first lines of the poem, in this case the Holy Spirit and not one of the nine Muses of Greek mythology, in the fashion of Homer, and divides Paradise Lost in twelve books (in the 1674 edition), in the fashion of Virgil’s Aeneid. Although there are several definitions regarding what a hero is, Satan’s hero persona is very similar to those of classic Greek epics. He is a charismatic leader, ambitious and determined to his cause. William McCollom mentions a basic characteristic of the classical hero, by saying: “Though superior to the average man, the hero is ‘not eminently good and just,’ and his downfall is caused by a tragic flaw-a significant fault or error” (McCollom 52-3). His flaw is his rebellion against God. Another reason why Satan appears to be the hero of the poem is the fact that he and his followers receive the most careful and detailed descriptions, as opposed to God. As Rigter notes, “[…] it cannot but strike us that Milton, when talking of the Heavenly Host, compares it to birds flying; […] but that he does not give us a clear picture of the host itself. When he is talking of Satan’s army, however, we get a much more splendid and heroic picture of the sweeping movement of this army, the details of the crew’s armour adding much to the vividness, and when Satan comes into view, we get the impression that Milton could not depict any of his protagonists in a more heroic, powerful and awe-inspiring way” (Rigter 311). In this way, Milton has Satan in Paradise Lost take on the role of the protagonist, or the hero, that Aeneas plays in the Aeneid, but turns the concept on its head by using a character that is universally seen as purely evil, when a hero is expected to be good.
This portrayal of Satan puts into question the proposition that good and evil are absolutes, and also tries to break the traditional image of the classical tragic hero. As good and evil is the most essential theme in Paradise Lost, the idea that they are subjective ideas, and that their perception depends on one’s point of view, is all the more important. When Satan and his followers fall from Heaven, he is hopeful in his quest, and he tries to motivate his companions, when he says:
Here, the notions of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, are twisted and reversed when looking at them from Satan’s perspective. He was condemned to eternity in Hell by God, but he turns that to his advantage, being relentless in his quest and overcoming this obstacle. Of course, from the reader’s perspective, his actions are still evil and, not showing repentment, he is further condemning himself and rejecting every chance of forgiveness by God. This perspective, however, is not objective. The reader’s perception of good and evil is shaped by the words of the Bible, and the word of God, and has grown from a biased point of view. Since this is not an original story, Milton does not change the plot and in the end God prevails, diminishing Satan’s role as a hero. It can be argued, however, than Milton’s intention was not to change the event of the story, but rather only to tell it under a different light.
The theme of free will is also important in Paradise Lost, in that it raises questions about God’s justness, the nature of human beings, and how good and evil are portrayed both in the Bible and in Paradise Lost itself. In Harold Skulsky’s “Milton and the Death of Man: Humanism on Trial in Paradise Lost”, Milton plays the role of God’s advocate, and in the trial, as Joad Raymond points out, “There are two related charges. The first is that God is unjust and that the Fall is predetermined; the second, that God is culpable of professional incompetence because his creation needs to be recreated or repaired. If God’s justice is explained through an account of the free will of those he punishes, he is rendered unloving, and thus an imperfect creator; […] free will is defended, but at the cost of love; if free will is flawless, then creation is impugned” (Raymond 934). If Adam and Eve were created pure by God, he would not need to test their obedience by placing the tree of knowledge in Eden. After Eve wakes up from her dream, Adam tells her: “[…] nor can I like This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear; Yet evil whence? in thee can harbour none, Created pure” (Milton 5.97-100). They are warned by God that if they eat from that tree they will die, and they are later told by Satan that if they eat from the tree they will not die, but they will equal to God. At this point they have to choose whom to believe, and either God already knows they are going to defy him because he is all-knowing, or he is has not created pure beings. In both cases, their free will is of paramount importance as one of the basic human qualities. Benjamin Myers argues that “According to Paradise Lost, then, God has elected all people to participate in the grace of salvation. But God has also predestined the freedom of all human beings, leaving them free to accept or to reject their own election. In continuity with Arminian theology, Paradise Lost thus depicts the free will of human beings as ultimately the deciding factor in salvation” (Myers 79). Therefore, human beings are not pure, as Adam suggests, and not only do they have free will, they are highly corruptible.
In essence, Paradise Lost retells the story of Satan and Adam and Eve focusing on Satan as the main character, in order to raise questions about the subjectivity of good and evil, and power of humans to choose freely. The poem ultimately adds to the Bible by making these themes accessible through a new perspective. Therefore, not only do the readers have the chance to view these events from a different point of view, mainly that of Satan, but they also can choose for themselves if good and evil are absolutes or not, and who is to blame for the Fall of Adam and Eve.