Satan: Hero or Villain?
When picturing a heroic act, one would usually envision a feat that involves doing something courageous; such as rescuing a damsel in distress or single-handedly slaying an enemy army - Satan: Hero or Villain? introduction. The common element that links together the typical pagan epic heroes are these type of impressive public actions (5). In Paradise Lost, Milton depicted Satan as an almost praise-worthy figure. Milton’s Satan bears many of the qualities similar to the classic Greek hero: he is strong, courageous, and charismatic (4). In Paradise Lost, Milton’s character of Satan depicts the role of a hero in a non-conforming way.
It is fascinating that Milton chose to begin his epic with the introduction of Satan, a figure who has been world-renowned for the prevalent representation of evil throughout history. Traditionally in an epic poem, the first character to be introduced to the reader would be the heroic figure. This is a bold move on Milton’s part because he is daring enough to break away from the traditional structure of an epic poem without knowing what his audiences’ response will be. Due to the fact that Satan is the only character knowledgeable of the early events in the poem, he is by default proclaimed the heroic figure of Paradise Lost.
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The opening scenes of Paradise Lost unveil Hell as a fiery and horrifying place that reflects the corrupted souls of Satan and his devils. Here Satan gives a brief synopsis of the story of how Adam and Eve fell, along with destruction of Earth as it was once known. Satan pronounces that Adam and Eve were quick to disobey their Creator by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. He feels all credit is due to him for transforming into the cunning serpent and seducing God’s newest creation, Adam and Eve. He then explains that this was only revenge upon the tyrant God for casting him and his rebel angels out of Heaven. Satan is blatantly boasting about the chaos that he and his devils have brought upon the universe with no remorse. In his soliloquy, it is exemplified that Satan feels he has reached a higher pedestal because of his grandiose accomplishment.
Say first, for heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep tract of hell, say first what cause
Moved our grand parents in that happy state,
Favored of Heav’n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, who guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from heav’n, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers…
After God banishes the rebel angels to Hell, Satan proclaims that they can create a new and more equal society in Hell, where all will have freedom. When in actuality, Satan intends to simply create a perverted replication of the hierarchy that exists in Heaven. Although Satan was not strong enough to reign in Heaven, he is powerful enough to be the ruler in Hell. Because he felt he was the second angel in command to God, and later leader of the rebel angel army, Satan has the ability to achieve what he attempted to in Heaven, yet only in Hell.
Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
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.
In this passage, it seems as though Satan knows that Hell isn’t ever going to be as magnificent as Heaven, but as long as he’s in charge he feels it has the prospect to be transformed into a place where beauty can exist. Satan’s followers agree that with some work Hell could something great. From this cause, Satan and the other devils form their own hierarchy. However, despite their efforts they are still ranked lowest in the over all hierarchy of the universe.
When Satan is seen in action, he is habitually lying and misleading. He is often cowardice, not confronting God, whom he has an altercation with. But instead relying on guile and trickery to manipulate and hurt anything in his power. Satan knows the limits of his power therefore he preys upon the weak. He is the most self-loathing and miserable creature to ever transcend through the universe, and he knows this.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heav’n.
To which is why Satan is filled with nothing but hate toward anything beautiful, and has vowed to set forth ruining all that he can. Because Satan will never be able to directly harm God, he avenges through God’s creation: Adam and Eve. In essence, he feels that since he cannot escape his miserable existence that he should enlarge his empire in Hell. These distinct qualities make Satan almost unworthy of being labeled the classic epic hero. From beginning to end, Satan’s qualities dwindle from the courageous anti-hero to an angry, envious, and desperate creature.
Thus while he spake, each passion dimmed his face
Thrice changed with pale, ire, envy and despair,
Which marred his borrowed visage, and betrayed
Him counterfeit, if any eye beheld.
For heav’nly minds from such distempers foul
Are ever clear.
It is when Satan enters the Garden of Eden that the angel Uriel is able to recognize Satan as a cherub in disguise. Uriel is certain that the cherub is a trespasser because the cherub’s mind is filled with animosity, when the minds of angels are always at peace. Satan’s inner-torment becomes more vivid when he sees Adam and Eve for the first time.
O hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanced
Creatures of other mold, earth-born perhaps,
Not spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love…
Irritated by the happiness and splendor of their lives, because it deeply contrasts his own, Satan plots against the two.
Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to hell am thrust…
Here is where Satan feels that he could almost love these new creatures of God. He is so astonished by their innocence, that he covertly admires them.
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged.
And should I at your harmless innocence
Melt, as I do, yet public reason just,
By conquering this new world, compels me now
To do what else though damned I should abhor.
(1. IV: 386-392)
For these reasons, Satan goes on to tell that his actions are not meant to hurt Adam and Eve, but to hurt God. Satan is indirectly telling Adam and Eve that he is not to blame for wronging them, but that God is at fault for wronging Satan. The irony of this situation is that Satan has brought himself to the state where he cannot enjoy the delights of Eden. He chose to take on the role of the destroyer of life and bliss.
Throughout the course of the poem, Satan’s form and nature noticeably changed. He begins as an archangel, then is demoted to lesser angel, from angel to bird, a lion and a tiger, to finally a “homely frog”. These animal forms that Satan has assumed, symbolize the actual degradation that is taking place in both Satan’s physical appearance and moral character (6, 37). In fact, when asked to reveal himself when posing as a frog, Satan has metamorphosed so greatly that he is hardly recognizable.
It has been said by many literary critics that Milton was of the “Devil’s party” without even knowing it. This idea carried belief because Milton penetrates much more into the character of Satan than he does God. Milton has molded Satan into such a fascinating character because he is far more complex than the character of God. In essence, Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity and torture (3).
Despite the fact that Satan is evil, Milton has embodied him with certain characteristics that as a reader, one cannot help but like, or even admire. While reading this epic poem, one cannot help but to find themselves all-but rooting for Satan to prevail over God. Satan represents power without morality. His soliloquies invoke something inside each and every person. Satan’s speeches are so powerful and persuasive that he has the ability to make God look as though he a tyrannical ruler, and himself as an innocent victim of God’s persecutions. Satan then, is in a sense an illustration of freedom without boundaries. He was thrown out of Heaven, but who cares! Who wants to live under the rule of God anyway?
We may admire Satan as a hero, if we cut him out of context and view him as part of ourselves. Satan’s tragedy is the “romantic” one of rebelling against society (2. 34-35). Satan is rebelling against God for his own sake. He feels wronged by God, and revenge is what he seeks. For one to recognize Satan as an epic hero, we must feel that his cause to revolt against God was just. It is also essential to recognize the justice Satan did for man by seducing Adam and Eve. Instead of living a life of ignorant bliss, human beings gained the knowledge of the power of good and evil. For these reasons, Satan does fit the mold of the classic epic hero.