Among many epic poems, few epic poems that stand out are the Odyssey, Epic of Gilgamesh and Ovid- Metamorphoses. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Sumerian times while the other two were written in the Greek era. In the English era, around the mid-seventeenth century, Paradise Lost is considered an epic poem about the creation and the fall of mankind written by John Milton. In this poem, evil is presented in a complex way. It is said that “Milton created in Satan one of the most engaging and complex characters of English literature” (Bloom 12). Evil is represented through the embodiment of Satan and as someone heroic, powerful, self-determined and someone greater than Adam and Eve. Evil is represented in a negative light as opposed to the traditional heroic image being that a hero is victorious and triumphant. However, although represented negatively, many authors see Satan as a hero because he achieves what he wants which is everything opposite from what God wants.
Before analyzing evil and how it’s represented, to understand Paradise Lost, one must have “an understanding of the politics of the English Civil War and particularly of Milton’s position in it” (Roberts 4). John Milton grew in the mid seventeenth-century, a time of social and cultural conflict, and religious. The political war and military conflict that was happening is now known as the English Civil War, which was between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. Among the many factors which caused this conflict, the main conflict was about “the ideological questions being raised about the nature of government and authority” (Roberts 1). It is important to note that during this time, the government was ruled by the Crown, which played a great role in running the nation’s affairs. However, the Crown and its ruling power fell when monarchy took control. As a result, monarchs believed their power and appointment as a monarch was divinely ruled by God. It was because of this belief, there were political and social conflict between the people. In 1649, Charles I, was executed for treason and for the next decade, there was no ruling monarch. Other events that were happening was the implementation of the commonwealth, and prominent people trying to rule by way of a republic system. Suffice to say that the republic failed and Charles II was declared King in 1660 during the restoration. In 1641, we see the life of John Milton as a political writer rise when he published Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England. As Gabriel Roberts suggests to us, most “of his political writing is towards Puritan reformation in the church, and the replacement of the monarchy with a free commonwealth” (2). John Milton opposed monarchy as being the sole source of power. It is important to note that John Milton’s “political views cannot be easily be separated either from his religious beliefs or from his poetry” (Roberts 2). Regarding kingship, monarchy and power, John Milton disagreed with it and believed a tyrannical ruler should obey divine order and keep order in the nation, rather to undermine it. In all of John Milton’s arguments, we see a blend of politics, theology and references to classical literature. Paradise Lost is the best epic poem in the mid seventeenth-century because it combines politics in an allegorical sense of style. In this poem, God is seen as the ruler and Satan as someone who wants to rally against the kingdom of God. As a result, this offers us insight into how John Milton felt during his time. John Milton probably had the want to rally against the Cromwellian government and to reform against the power of the Catholic Church. Regarding politics, religion and the wanting to revolt, Jamal Nafi states:
The people of the seventeenth century were encouraged to and inspired by the revolutionary writings of Milton, who was a Puritan poet, to seek freedom from the king and the Roman Catholic Church (22).
In this poem, this is Satan’s revolt against God, “a revolt which makes him appear as if he were a hero” (Nafi 22). John Milton is using his own experiences, feelings and thoughts about politics and translating it into a poem, using a biblical story. Gabriel Roberts states that “political parallels lead us towards a more allegorical interpretation of the poem as a whole” (3). In conclusion, to understand Paradise Lost, one must understand the political and historical context in which this poem was written. As suggested by the author, “the application of this knowledge to the text of Paradise Lost is perhaps the most effectively conducted through an appreciation of the interplay of ideas between Milton’s poetic and political writings” (Roberts 4).
In today’s society, evil is looked upon negatively and to be the opposite of what is good. However, imagine evil being displayed as something heroic, powerful, and courageous and proud, would that surprise you? John Milton does that with the character Satan. Much debate has been going on regarding classifying Satan as a hero or an epic hero. In brief, an epic hero must possess certain qualities which are: an epic hero must be born and must be a descendant of the gods – in this case, Satan is created by God. Second, an epic hero must have supernatural forces on their side, but must prove themselves on their own; third, an epic hero must undertake a long journey and must undergo a series of tests and last, they must possess an abundance of whatever virtues are more common in their era: courage and strength being the common ones. Regarding Satan’s physical description, “Satan is pretty high and mighty and huge” (Milton 209). Moreover, “his limbs are long and huge; his bulk is as huge…” (Nafi 22). Satan “has a mighty stature so that, when he rises, the flames on both sides of him are driven backward and roll in billows” (Nafi 23). From these quotes, we can infer and justly so, that Satan must be created to match his adversary – God. Aside from his physical description, another author states that Satan is seen “as a figure of power, awesome size, proud and courageous bearing, regal authority, and, above all, magnificent rhetoric…” (Lewalski xix). Satan is also equated among other epic heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus and Gilgamesh with the same epic hero traits such as “physical prowess”, “battle courage”, “anger”, “fortitude”, “determination”, “endurance” and “leadership” (Lewalski xix). It is because of all these traits, which I will examine more closely, that many readers today see Satan as an epic hero. Regarding an epic hero’s journey, the journey is most prominent in book two of Paradise Lost. Satan’s journey was to make mankind sin and disobey God. Knowing he couldn’t fight against the Heaven’s he thought to himself “We don’t have to try the impossible by invading Heaven. There may be an easier way… Heaven may be out of our reach, but this new world may be less defended. It may be easier to infiltrate. We can destroy that new world, or take it as our own.” (Milton 341-365). Satan’s journey along with the tests that came along, only to do it in revenge to God, is what makes Satan an epic hero in this epic poem. Satan’s heroic image comes from various aspects, the first one being, sense of self-determination. Self-determination can be anything that drives a hero to do something. In this poem, in book one, Satan has self-determination and wants to fight the heavens. We know this from what Beelzebub responds to Satan “you rallied the rebel angels together for war, with your leadership, against the tyrant of heaven” (Milton 129-131). In another quote, Satan tells Beelzebub “we can keep fighting forever, through battle or some more devious and sneaky way” (Milton 121). At last, we see Satan’s self-determination when he realizes that he cannot fight the heavens and responds to Beelzebub “but hear me out: we will never do good deeds again, we will instead do evil deeds and gain pleasure from doing that. We will do the opposite of what he wants and id heaven tries to turn our evil deeds into something good, we will work hard to find another way to turn them evil again” (Milton 158-165). It is Satan’s self-determination and persistence which are a few traits that can make us call him a hero. Aside from self-determination, other two traits are present that can justify for Satan’s heroic image. These traits are “the craving for dominion and the hunger for glory” (Steadman 254). In all epic poems, the Greek heroic ideals were honour, virtue or greatness, but more importantly, fame. Throughout this poem, Satan wanted glory and fame, something he had lost when God has sent him to hell. It is said in the poem that “Satan was able to convince them to support him in his quest to glorify himself above everyone and even to the extent of waging war against Heaven” [emphasis added] (Milton 39-40). By this quote, we can infer that Satan quest for victory was by achieving glory for himself, but all of this was predestined “and he was meant to fail” (Milton 44). Ultimately, Satan achieved glory and fame, but in a perverted way. Satan tells us “this is our world and I can do anything!” (Milton 251) or in another instance, Satan goes on saying “and for me, to be a ruler is a worthwhile ambition, even if it is Hell to rule. I’d rather be king in Hell than to be a slave in Heaven” (Milton 261-263). From this quote, it is important to note it is his pride speaking, and although he seems to enjoy ruling hell, the truth is he doesn’t. The following quote from the poem paints us the picture: “That snake’s blind pride got him kicked out of Heaven” [emphasis added] (Milton 36-37). We can come to this conclusion because what brought him to hell is the fact he had pride in heaven, he wanted to be above God and rule the heavens – something God did not allow. From another author’s point of view, “there remains one controlling motive: the unshakeable will to glory and dominion, even though the pursuit of glory may involve acts of infamy…” (Steadman 273). In other words, Satan wants to achieve glory and dominion, but for that to happen, he might as well become more and more evil and degenerate himself in pursuit of it. Other qualities that make Satan an epic hero is that Satan is a great communicator. As John Steadman states, “Satan is not only the first dramatic speaker in the poem; he is also a superb orator…” (Steadman 268). The first glimpses we see of Satan’s character is when Satan is to blame for the downfall of Adam and Eve in the following passage “It was that snake! He’s quite the trickster. He was driven by jealousy and revenge and went after our beloved Eve.” (Milton 34-26). In the first book, Satan is heroic in the sense that “successfully rallies his defeated troops, restores them to military discipline by putting them on parade, and oversees the foundation of a new kingdom and the construction of a new capital” (Steadman 269). In the second book, his plan is to overthrow mankind, and as a result, he is seen as a strategist. In conclusion, there are many traits, along with his physical description and his superb ability as an orator and communicator which make him an epic hero. His long journey towards the earth, with the desire to trick Adam and Eve in revenge for what God had done to him, is among the many unique traits which classify him as an epic hero as well.
Aside from his physical description and traits of an epic hero, we often think of a hero as someone triumphant and victorious however that is not always the case. In this epic poem, Satan is a hero, but “Milton followed a different plan and has given a tragic conclusion to a poem otherwise epic in its form” (Nafi 24). John Steadman gives us insight to John Milton’s true intentions regarding Satan by stating “perhaps the salient feature of Milton’s Satan is that he is not merely a pseudo-hero, praise-worthy only in the eyes of a fallen world and by the standards of a false and secular heroism, but a corrupted hero” [emphasis added] (255). This is contrary to our preconceived notion of how a typical hero must behave and act. In other words, “the Satanic image is not simply an illusion but a perversion of true heroism” [emphasis added] (Steadman 255). Many heroic qualities that Satan portrays such as contempt of danger, fortitude mind and body, anger, being bitter, hateful and revengeful are all morally neutral; however, as John Steadman states, “they can be, and often have been, exercised for both good and evil ends” (255). Satan knows who God is, he now goes to the contrary of goodness, love and mercy. Satan tells Beelzebub “we will do the opposite of what he wants… and if heaven tried to turn our evil deeds into something good, we will work hard to find another way to turn them evil again” (Milton 161-165). According to Hazlitt, Satan is “not the principle of malignity, or of the abstract love of evil – but of the abstract love of power, of pride, of self-will personified” (qtd. in Steadman 258). Satan is a deprived being and his depravity is shown to us because his fate is chosen and “his quest for victory was already decided, and he was meant to fail” (Milton 44). From what Satan has left, which is eternal torment and depravity from grace and goodness, its Satan’s self-determination and unique traits that allow him to go against all odds and still try to fight the Heavens in a perverse way.
Satan’s heroic image has been the most debated and controversial topic of John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. While most of the evidence and interpretation points to a heroic image of Satan because of what he achieves, which is the downfall of mankind, through the temptation of Eve, many believe Satan is not a hero in this epic poem. The first reason being is that although he is a hero, Satan becomes more degenerate, which makes Satan lose his heroic title. Many see Satan “as ridiculous throughout the poem; his apparent heroism is, in their eyes, a facet of the illusion and inaccuracy of hell. Others regard him as an originally heroic figure who gradually degenerates either through his own voluntary commitment to evil or through the conscious malice of the poet himself or the poet’s God” [emphasis added] (Steadman 261). In response to this, Helen Gardner concludes that though Satan was “in no sense the hero of the epic as a whole, he remained nonetheless a figure of heroic magnitude and heroic energy” (qtd. in Steadman 262). Why you may ask, what makes Satan, so heroic? It is because Satan achieves everything in the opposite of what God wants of mankind, specifically, Adam and Eve. According to Empson, “Satan’s thought and actions were not as a rule ridiculous in themselves; they were logical in the context of his limited and uncertain knowledge concerning the nature and powers of his divine enemy” (qtd. in Steadman 264). Given the circumstances, Satan was living in, Satan is still a hero because all of his actions and plans were logical, knowing what God wanted, he planned the opposite of it. Another passage given by Empson gives us a clear picture of why Satan is deemed a hero, despite those who go against that notion or idea:
Satan’s revolt against an omnipotent creator was not per se absurd; for in the devil’s own eyes the divine adversary was not almighty. Satan doubted not only that God has created the angels, but that He could in fact create anything. From the very beginning of the poem the devil sincerely believes that he has disproved God’s omnipotence. Not until he questions Uriel about the creation of the world, does Satan realize that he is not self-generated and that he is opposing an all-powerful adversary (264-265).
The view that Satan is a hero, but a degenerate one is correct. We remember that his fate has been predestined by God and he was meant to fail. There are many views to take regarding Satan’s heroic image. First view, the devil is consistently evil and absurd. Second, the devil is progressively evil and is tragic. Third, the character of Satan is fixed and does not change throughout the poem, it is the perspective which the poet offers which makes us seem he changes and at last, the view that “the devil does change; and his alteration is consistently for the worse, a progressive degeneration” (Steadman 290). It is safe to conclude as John Milton would want us to understand his poem that John Milton created Satan as an “aspiring Lucifer, infernal king, and subtle serpent” (Steadman 290). The most fundamental importance is that one thing never changes throughout the poem and that is “Satan does in fact degenerate and he is also, in the end, deliberately degraded. He degenerates moreover, because he is denied the grace to be regenerated. Having fallen once, the fallen angel must continue to fall” (Steadman 290-291). Therefore, Satan is still a hero, or we can conclude that he does start off as a hero in book one and two, but as he progresses throughout the poem, he degenerates, and his final destination ends up in humiliation, bitterness and hatred towards God. Satan ultimately did achieve his plans, and that was to make Adam and Eve disobey God. As a result, sin and death have entered the world – something God never intended to happen. As much as Satan believed he won or was victorious in his plans, we see that no matter what, Satan still loses because of Jesus, God’s Son.
In the final analysis, Satan does fit the traditional definition of an epic hero. He is created by God, has supernatural forces, but still must prove himself, takes a long, perilous journey on earth so that he can deceive mankind and although he possesses no positive virtues, he does possess everything opposite of evil, which he makes it useful against God and his creation. Furthermore, Satan holds the typical epic hero traits such as having a huge physical stature, he is involved in human affairs, he is brave, strong, generous, loyal, prudent, temperate, and has a dose of humanity in him. All these traits qualify him to be an epic hero. Considering all of this and the very fact, he is always persistent to fight God, knowing he is omnipotent, fighting against all odds, Satan is an epic hero.
Bloom, Harold. John Milton’s Paradise Lost. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Print.
Nafi’, Jamal Subhi Ismail. “Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion of Heroism.” International Journal of Literature and Arts IJLA 3.3 (2015): 22. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“Paradise Lost in Modern English.” Paradise Lost in Modern English. N.p., 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Roberts, Gabriel. “MILTON’S POLITICAL CONTEXT.” Milton’s Political Context. N.p., 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Steadman, John M. “The Idea of Satan as the Hero of “Paradise Lost”” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120.4, Symposium on John Milton (1976): 253-94. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.