John Milton’s Satan
People argue about who the hero is of Paradise Lost: Satan, Adam or Christ, the Son? Since Milton’s overall theme stated in the opening lines of Book I is to relate ‘Man’s first disobedience’ and to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, I think Adam must be regarded as the main hero. John M. Steadman supports this view in an essay on Paradise Lost. “It is Adam’s action which constitutes the argument of the epic.” Steadman continues that “the Son and Satan embody heroic archetypes and that, through the interplay of the infernal and celestial strategies, Milton represents Satan’s plot against man and Christ’s resolution to save him as heroic enterprises. Christ and Satan are therefore epic machines.” (Steadman, 268-272).
Although Satan may be an epic machine, he is best portrayed as the tragic anti-hero of Paradise Lost or, at the very least, a main character who possesses the stature and attributes which enable him to achieve tragic status. In the Greek tradition, the essential components of tragedy are admiration, fear and pity for the ‘hero’, who has to display a tragic weakness or flaw in his character, which will lead to his downfall. It might be argued that the flaws in Satan’s character are such that we should feel no admiration, fear or pity for him, yet he can be seen to inspire these emotions. Satan’s tragic flaws are pointed out in Book I, they are envy, pride, and ambition towards self-glorification.
Satan’s pride, in particular, is stressed throughout Paradise Lost. In accordance with epic convention, Satan is frequently qualified by Milton’s use of the word ‘proud’. Virgil used the same device in his epic the Aeneid, in which the name of Aeneas rarely appears without being preceded by ‘pius’. The most striking visual example of Satan’s main weaknesses appears in Book IV (89-90) during Raphael’s narrative to Adam regarding the battles in Heaven, Raphael refers to Satan as ‘the proud/Aspirer’. ‘Proud’ at the end of one line and ‘Aspirer’ at the beginning of the next gives equal emphasis and impact to Satan’s pride and ambition and it is implied that, in Satan, the two characters are inseparable and of equal importance. Milton, in fact, defended his use of blank verse as a suitable vehicle for epic poetry, as opposed to the frequently favored heroic couplet.
How then, does Satan inspire the feelings of admiration, fear and pity necessary to a tragic figure? Milton was, undoubtedly, conscious that he was in danger of portraying Satan as too much of a heroic figure and made efforts to belittle him through the use of unflattering imagery, and by highlighting his less complimentary characteristics. Nonetheless, our emotions are still fired.
Our first encounter with Satan and his rebel hosts occurs in Book I when they are recovering from the shock of having been expelled from heaven by the Son after three days of fighting the angels of God. Despite the defeat he has suffered, Satan gains our admiration by displaying resilience in quickly coming to terms with the change in his circumstances, in remustering his forces and organizing the building of his palace, Pandemonium. At the same time he demonstrates his determination not to be defeated and shows true qualities of leadership, persuasively arguing that there is still hope for battle and victory. Satan is convincing in his first speech to Beelzebub, his chief partner in crime, as he declares:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. (I. 105-111)
The language here is particularly powerful and the lines are extremely weighted, underlining Satan’s resolution. He similarly instills renewed resolve in his followers to challenge God and hope of regaining their former state, claiming that they are now better placed to contend because there is not fear of division in their own ranks (II.11-42). He then gives his supporters the opportunity to speak their minds as to whether to engage in open warfare or in guile to achieve their end, although ultimately they agree the course of action he has pre-planned – that is, to introduce evil on Earth.
In Satan’s speech at the beginning of Book I, Milton emphasizes Satan’s self-glorification. Satan has no dread of being challenged in hell because he sees himself in the most dangerous position and the one to be most severely reprimanded by God.
Satan is daring, which is best demonstrated when the resolve to send someone to investigate Earth has been taken and Satan offers to undertake the task. Milton diminishes Satan’s courage by points out that Satan stands forward with bravado and purely to gain personal glory for any success he might win. Yet, Satan does not volunteer immediately but is only undertaking what his followers are afraid to attempt
Milton’s suggestion is, however, supported by Satan’s speech itself, in which he states that he will go to Earth alone and defies any of his followers to accompany him in case they detract any of the hoped for acclaim from him.
Satan’s courage and daring is restored during Milton’s description of Satan’s journey through Chaos to Earth – in fact, the poet dedicates over 400 lines to it (II.629-1055) – and Satan’s exaggerated claims to his peers of the danger and difficulty of his enterprise when he returns to Hell in Book X after the seduction of Adam and Eve are not without some justification (X.460-80).
In Book IV (917-23) when the angels guarding Paradise confront Satan, Gabriel also belittles Satan by accusing him of being less valiant than his peers and less able to endure the pain of hell. There appears to be some inconsistency during this confrontation between Satan and the angels towards the end of Book IV. Having become even more steadfast in his determination to seduce Adam and Eve against God’s will and now directing his hatred against man also as a result of his envy of their happy state (IV.502-35), it seems inconsistent that the next time he speaks, he is so sensitive to the taunts uttered by Zephon, Ithuriel and Gabriel. Although Satan’s scorn for the angels is still apparent, he stands ‘abashed’ and provides Gabriel with the means by which to insult him (IV.888-90):
Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell,
Though thither doomed?
It is important that we believe in the Satan as portrayed in Books I and II: Milton’s argument depends upon that belief. Satan must be seen as being of sufficient stature to attempt God’s overthrow. If Satan is considered too weak, he can pose no threat to God or to Man and there would be no reason for Milton to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. So while making allowances for
Satan’s arrogance in the opening Books of Paradise Lost, he does give the impression that he is ruling hell and it is not expedient to deliberate to what extent it is possible for Satan to succeed in his quest to corrupt God’s good works with evil.
The very structure of Paradise Lost assists in creating the illusion of Satan’s power, since we first learn of the expulsion of Satan and his followers through the rebels themselves and it is not until much later when Raphael tells Adam of the wars in heaven in Books V and VI that we hear the ‘official’ version in which Satan emerges in a less favorable light.
Stanley Fish in his essay ‘The harassed reader in Paradise Lost’’ states that Satan possesses a form of heroism which is easy to admire because it is visible and flamboyant and that, on that basis, Satan’s attractiveness is only initial (Fish 189-90). B Rajan, on the other hand, writes: ‘the heroic qualities which Satan brings to his mission, the fortitude, the steadfast hate, the implacable resolution which is founded on despair are qualities not to be imitated or admired. They are defiled by the evil to which they are consecrated’ (Rajan 190). Nonetheless, it is often Satan’s despair, which comes through more potently than his evil intentions.
Satan’s bravado is most clearly evident in Books I and II when he is able to flaunt before his followers; by Book IV, his feeling of confidence and resolution shows signs of cracking, with Satan talking to himself he is revealing much about his inner torment and self-doubts. As his steadfastness wavers, some of his initial charisma also diminishes, as we become more aware of his ability to fall.
This argument is reinforced by Milton’s physical description of Satan. In Books I and II, when just skimmed over, Satan appears an impressive figure, ‘in bulk as huge/As whom the fables name of monstrous size’ (I.196-7), conspicuous amongst his followers because of his size and his lustre which, although faded, outshines that of his peers (I.589-604).
On closer examination, however, it emerges that, even in Book I, Milton has been careful to downgrade Satan. Milton states that Satan ‘stood like a tow’r’ and that his lustre was like the sun’s through mist. The first simile is bare and unqualified and, in essence, tells us nothing about Satan’s dimensions nor his stance: a tower may be any size and of too wide a variety of constructions for the simile to be of any significance. The reference to Satan’s reduced brightness is a symbol of his
fall from glory and failing strength and is mentioned by Ithuriel and Zephon in Book IV when while making fun of they suggest to Satan that his lack of lustre has made him almost unrecognisable.
Our fear and pity for Satan can be considered together since they stem from the same cause. On one level, Satan can be regarded as pitiful as much as pitiable. Although it is undoubtedly not Milton’s intention, it is almost possible to view Satan throughout in the light of sympathetic pity, especially if we accept that Satan cannot be something other than what he is no matter how much he wrestles with himself, and is therefore a victim of himself (IV.18, IX.473).
The temporary illusion in the opening Books that Satan’s revolt may not be entirely vain is soon dispelled when we encounter God in Book III and hear Raphael’s narrative to Adam in Books V and VI. It is important to remember that although Satan seems the active antagonist and believes that he is acting on his own authority, he is only able to do what God permits him to do. His battle is therefore doomed to failure before it begins and his attempts cannot but inspire fear that he will again be subjected to the wrath of God: ‘Of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue’ (IV.26), and pity for his circumstances. In the context of God’s omnipotence, Satan is dwarfed and his exploits futile, but his nature will not let him relent, even when he acknowledges that God is ‘matchless’.
Due to the structure of Paradise Lost and the fact that Satan is responsible for luring man into disobedience, we find ourselves following Satan’s movements. Our fear for him is pronounced as we accompany him on his lengthy voyage through Chaos and, while we share the torment of his talks given to himself on Earth, we already have the knowledge before hand that he will persevere with his purpose because God has foretold the fall of Adam and Eve in Book III and has already decreed that man may be redeemed by his Son, but that the fallen angels can’t be retrieved (III.129-32).
Milton employs a variety of animal images throughout Paradise Lost to depict facets of Satan’s character: most obviously, the serpent is a symbol of his evilness; as a predator, he is compared to a wolf or vulture; he is a ‘proud steed’; and an ironic symbol of death as he alights ‘like a cormorant’ on the Tree of Life in Paradise, and the image of him sitting ‘squat like a toad’ by the sleeping Eve, instilling corrupt thoughts into her dreams reveals the ugliness of his evil designs. Parallels with the insect world are used to describe Satan’s followers: as agents of destruction, they are likened to ‘a pitchy cloud/Of locusts’ as they amass at Satan’s command in Book I and, as
Despite the enormity of his flaws of character and Milton’s attempts to belittle him, I would argue that our admiration for Satan’s strength of resolve and powers of leadership, our fear for his inevitable fate, and our pity for his torment and the very nature of his circumstances are sufficient to render him deserving of tragic status. The fact that critics have often compared him with great tragic figures such as Prometheus, Faustus, Macbeth and Tamburlaine would seem to lend weight to this contention.
Concerning Adam and Satan, I would suggest that our fear for Adam is not as great as our fear for Satan. Satan’s doom is eternal and the more he perseveres with his plan of corruption, the more we worry about the nature of the retribution which will befall him. A reason why Adam is not so convincing as a tragic figure is Milton’s portrayal of the flaw in his character which leads to his fall, that is, that he ultimately places human love above his obedience to God. He takes the apple Eve offers him because, even though it’s against God’s command, he cannot bear to lose her. While Adam expressed concern about his love for Eve to Raphael, Milton does not give Adam’s flaw sufficient emphasis for it to attain tragic importance and it pales into insignificance against the pride and passion of Satan.
We may never know the true reasons for the way Milton portrayed God and Satan, why Satan seems the main hero above all other characters, but maybe William Blake has hit the nail on the head. He suggests that Milton’s style reveals his underlying allegiance with Satan, stating: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Hughes, Merritt Y. “Satan and the ‘Myth’ of the Tyrant.” Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age Presented to A.S.P. Woodhouse 1964. Ed. Millar MacLure and F.W. Watt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964. 125-48.