John Milton’s literary work Paradise Lost has been widely researched by critics and scholars who provide different interpretations of the poem in general and the principal characters in particular. However, the figure of Satan attracts particular attention of the researchers due to the most unusual and ambiguous portrayal that contradicts any orthodox concepts of the Devil.
Some critics discuss Satan from classical perspectives, while other critics maintain the idea of Satan as a non-traditional character. Taking these contradictory viewpoints into consideration, the aim of this essay is to discuss whether Satan can be regarded as a classical heroic figure or just one of the fictitious characters of the poem. As Paradise Lost belongs to the genre of epic poetry, it is usually compared with such famous classical epic poems as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as Vergil’s Aeneid. Creating unusual heroic figures, Homer and Vergil present Greeks’ and Romans’ understanding of heroism through such characters as Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas. These heroic epic characters have been further utilised by many writers, especially in Renaissance period. According to Lefkowitz (1981), “Whether we are aware of it or not, our perception of reality continues to be defined by the ‘Greek experience’. The plots of myths recur even in contemporary writing, only with the names, dates, places changed” (p.41).
John Milton was also greatly influenced by The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid, but his vision of heroism and heroic characters differed from the traditional Greeks’ and Romans’ portrayals. Although the poet follows the traditions of classical epic by applying to classical conventions in Paradise Lost, he also utilises his own epic conventions. Through such a character as Satan, Milton reflects his unique artistic insight on a heroic figure that is closely connected with his religious beliefs and social events of his times. Milton’s Satan is one of the most controversial and prolific characters of epic genre. On the one hand, Satan reflects true heroism of a revolutionary, but, on the other hand, he reveals certain flaws that gradually destroy him.
The fact is that Milton supports both sides of the character; presenting Satan as a charming and a powerful creature, John Milton places him within the epic that inspires controversy and questioning as the reader makes an attempt to compare Satan with other classical heroic figures. In the Aeneid Vergil presents a hero that creates Rome and in The Odyssey Homer describes Odysseus’s trips in the Mediterranean, but in his epic poem Paradise Lost John Milton goes beyond these classical representations. Profoundly transforming epic conventions, the poet makes Satan attend the whole universe during his trip and be engaged in the struggle that influences the entire Creation, but not a city or an empire, as is just the case with Greek and Roman epic poems.
Classical epic literature presents a wide range of classical heroic figures, such as Anglo-Saxons’ Beowulf, Assyrians’ Gilgamesh, Germans’ Siegfried, and Vergil’s Aeneas, but the most famous classical hero is certainly Homer’s Achilles. Utilising some classical elements and ideas of heroism in his epic poem, Milton nevertheless provides a different portrayal of his principal character - Satan, although “in his poem he [Milton] followed the Iliad more closely than any other epic” (Mueller, 1980 p.214). As a result, Milton’s Satan can be both compared and opposed to Achilles. As Gerald J. Schiffhorst (1990) puts it, as “Milton’s personified characters and events stand for moral, religious, or political ideas, he was able to combine classical and Christian elements” (p.70). Drawing a parallel between Satan and Achilles, it is obvious that, despite the fact that Satan is not as virtuous as Achilles, he reveals many heroic features in his struggle against God.
Satan is an embodiment of freedom and justice, a creature that rises against any rules and dogmas that deprive him of the possibility to achieve higher position in Heaven. This falling angel, that considers himself as good as God, wants to be superior to God. Satan does not want to be a slave of a tyrant – God, but in his pursuit of justice he gradually becomes similar to God. However, Satan is not an antagonist, but a character that wants to destroy the dominance of one creature over other creatures. Thus, the poet goes beyond the traditional portrayal of a heroic figure. Contrary to Achilles, Satan possesses both positive and negative features, but for Milton any creature that struggles against despotism is a real hero. By presenting Satan as a hero, the poet implicitly reveals his dislike for traditional heroic characters.
However, John Milton presents some classical conventions in regard to his characters; for instance, similar to Achilles, Satan is a tragic hero that is cruelly punished for his revolt against God and Creation. Such combination of classical elements with Christian religious principles reveals Milton’s wish to create an epic hero that reflects the essence of his times. Throughout his life Milton took an active part in various religious and political revolts, observing how English government and the Anglican Church made attempts to utilise people for their own benefits. Milton opposed any oppression and supported the ideas of freedom and social equality, although from time to time he changed his views on politics and religion. The character of Satan demonstrates this controversy; at the beginning of the narration Satan is a rather virtuous creature, but further Milton slightly depreciates him, realising that he appears too good for a falling angel and being afraid that he will be identified with his principal character. In fact, many critics of the twentieth century tried to find valid data to prove that the figure of Satan presents Milton’s own vision on many religious issues.
However, the poet continues to stress on the fact that Satan’s struggle is connected with his wish for free will. As Satan explains, “And what I should be, all but less than he / Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least / We shall be free” (Milton, 1993 Book 1, 257-259). God forbids freedom of both angels and people, demanding strict obedience from everyone, including his own Son – the Christ, but Satan does not want to obey him and prefers to rebel. In this regard, unlike Achilles that is too ideal and improbable for a modern world, Satan is a more real figure, and his heroism is nearer to people than heroism of a fictitious Achilles. Satan struggles for freedom, while Achilles wants to revenge for his friend’s death. Therefore, John Milton distinguishes true heroism from classical heroism, as his Satan loses its pagan nature and, instead, acquires more realistic features that reflect the principles of Christianity.
On the other hand, certain epic similes provide Milton with an opportunity to strengthen the portrayal of Satan by demonstrating his classical characteristics and by contrasting Satan with Achilles. Heroism of Achilles is challenged by Milton, because this heroism is based on hero’s anger, although Michael Silk (2004) points out that Achilles reflects the ideals of Greek population (pp.80-87). Achilles’ heroism is fully controlled by Greek gods that easily manipulate such characters as Achilles; this is especially obvious from the following words of Achilles: “Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows” (Homer, 1951 24.525-526).
Drawing a parallel between Satan and Achilles, Milton intensifies Satan’s heroism by demonstrating the character’s ability to accept his failure with dignity and reject any predestined fortune. Satan is also more heroic than angels, because he is not afraid to struggle against God and for his freedom, while angels in Heaven appear to be fully controlled by God. Creating Hell, Satan proclaims: “Here we may reigh secure; and, in my choice, / To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 261-262). Throughout the poem this character seeks the way to oppose God’s despotism, but, unlike Achilles that receives fame after his victory in the Trojan War and after his death, Satan is cruelly punished for his actions and disobedience.
Despite the fact that such critics as Shawcross (1979) and Blessington (1979) do not support the view that Satan is a heroic figure, Milton constantly points at Satan’s heroism. Opposing God, Satan makes an attempt to find the truth; for this character, the truth is inseparable from freedom, thus he abandons the place created by God and, instead, establishes another world for fallen angels. In this regard, Satan’s failure is not as important as his attempts to change the system that does not allow him and other creatures to act independently. Satan longs for equality with God, but the Creator places himself above all living beings all over the universe and he does not make exceptions for archangels.
Milton preserves some classical characteristics of an epic hero in the figure of Satan, such as courage and power that Achilles possesses, but the poet also transforms these elements and provides Satan with additional features that he regards as heroic. As a result, Satan possesses not only the features of a classical hero, but he also has independence, intelligence and strength, the features that Milton values in his characters. These heroic features allow Satan to start a rebellion against the most powerful creature that gives birth to the universe. But at the same time these traits allow Satan to acquire the followers among other fallen angels; he acts like a revolutionist, whose speeches inspire other creatures to struggle for their rights, equality and freedom.
As Satan states when he and his fellows appear in Hell, “Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell, / Receive thy new possessor - one who brings / A mind not to be changed by place or time” (Milton, 1993 Book 251-253). Thus, Satan believes that a mind is crucial for any creature; if it is powerful enough, then he may get used to live in any place, even in such a horrid place as Hell. In comparison with his fellows, Satan’s spirit and mind allow him to better adjust to new conditions of living, but he realises the difference between Hell and Heaven; that’s why his further struggle is aimed at receiving an opportunity to return to Heaven. Satan hopes that somehow he will find an appropriate chance to destroy God’s superiority and occupy his place. Unfortunately, in addition to such positive features as courage and power, the character also possesses negative features that bring him to destruction and simultaneously put him into a position of a tragic epic hero.
In Homer’s The Iliad Achilles also has some flaws, like anger and hatred towards enemies that result in Achilles’ death, although these negative emotions of a hero are consistent with Greek principles of heroism. Similar to Achilles, Satan experiences jealousy to God and exaggerated pride, as Silk (2004) claims, “Satan’s ‘revenge’ and ‘pride’ recall Homer’s Apollo and also his Achilles; he is ‘cast out from heaven” as Virgil’s Aeneas was from Troy” (p.98). However, these negative features of Satan do not depreciate this heroic figure, Milton himself calls him “the proud/Aspirer” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 89-90), reflecting Satan’s contradictory nature.
As an Aspirer, Satan becomes a leader for fallen angels, providing them not only with the possibility to oppose the Creator, but to openly reveal their views on the situation. Satan engages them in the talk in order to plan their further actions in the process of the struggle. In fact, Satan’s resolution is seen in many situations, but is especially vivid in his decision to personally seduce Adam and Eve. Satan’s heroism is also intensified by his deep inner suffering. Milton presents an inner world of Satan that does not conceal his feelings, and such truthful explanation of emotions and actions reveals his heroism, because not everyone is able to uncover his/her nature.
Thus, John Milton does not portray Satan as an ideal creature, but rather as a character with two selves – good and bad, and the poet implicitly puts major blame of Satan’s failure on God that fails to create appropriate conditions of living for Satan and other falling angels. In this regard, Satan’s attitude towards oppression of God is similar to Achilles’ attitude to his enemies; although Satan and Achilles pursue different goals, their emotions and actions are understandable. According to Danielson (1999), “the epic question and answer present Satan and hell in heroic terms, with reference to a range of epic passions, motives, and actions” (p.118).
In view of this heroic representation of Satan, such poets and writers as William Blake, Robert Burns, Percy Shelley and Charles Baudelaire appreciated Milton’s Satan, regarding him as a real hero of the poem. For these Romanticists, Satan embodied the ideas of freedom that were rejected in their own times. These poets pointed out that Satan’s resistance and strength revealed his attempts to oppose inequality and despotism. This point can hardly be considered disputable, as Satan really believes in his truth and in his struggle against God’s oppression, rejecting any passivity in such crucial issues as freedom and free will. Contrary to Achilles, who conforms to the virtues of Greek culture and pagan religious beliefs, Satan usually ignores the established rules, especially if he feels that they restrain his true nature.
Milton’s combination of classical similes in the characterisation of Satan with his own interpretation of heroism provides an opportunity to observe this character from different perspectives and angles. Comparing Satan with a pharaoh, a wolf and a thief, the poet stresses on the fact that these images of the character do not reflect his true essence. Sometimes Satan utilises one image, in other times he applies to a different image, but John Milton never reveals Satan’s whole portrayal. Unlike other classical epics that try to demonstrate certain historical events through their heroic figures, such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Milton in his Paradise Lost makes major stress on Satan, utilising classical epics to create a new epic poetry with more ambiguous characters. The comparison of Satan with a wolf reveals that Milton follows the classical representation of a wolf as an outsider:
“As when a prowling Wolf, / Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey… / Or as a Thief bent to unheard the cash of some rich Burgher… / So clomb this first grand Thief into God’s Fold” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 183-193). Such image of a wolf can be found in many classical epics, but Satan’s wolfishness is more associated with Vergil’s Aeneas. Portraying Aeneas as a hungry wolf (Vergil, 1971 2.355-358), the poet points at the fact that the hero applies to impromptu actions that are natural for Aeneas. When Milton draws a parallel between Satan and a wolf and then between Satan and a thief, he reveals that such features are natural for evil. A thief is compared to a wolf, and, as a wolf is not able to suppress his natural instincts, such as hunger, Satan is not able to eliminate his evil instincts.
In this regard, Satan is similar to Achilles who also fails to suppress his anger and his desire for revenge, even though he realises the consequences of such an action. In addition, like a wolf, Satan is also an outsider; he is expelled from the world, where he is brought up, and appears in an unfamiliar world. Another image of Satan is the image of Pharaoh that is presented in ancient literature as a demonical figure that threatens the existence of other living beings. Thus, John Milton presents different images of Satan, but these images are not Satan, they are the images of his behaviour, the images taken from classical epics.
As Satan states, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. / What matter where, if I be still the same” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 254-256). Despite these classical conventions, the poet is unable to integrate classical heroism into his characters, because classical epics mainly divide its characters into winners and losers. Achilles belongs to winners, as he manages to take revenge over his enemy and receive a victory in the Trojan War, while Satan is both the winner and the loser. On the one hand, he is cruelly punished by God for his disobedience, but, on the other hand, he succeeds in seducing Adam and Eve and in struggling against the despotic power of the Creator.
Through such ambiguity of Satan the poet stresses on the necessity of social changes that will eliminate inequality. In his struggle Achilles adheres to cultural traditions and makes everything to preserve the world he lives in, but Satan rises against old ideals and God who is “our grand Foe, / Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy / Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 122-124). Thus, Satan wishes to destroy the world of God or at least to destroy God himself to become the principal ruler of Heaven.
Unlike Satan, Achilles realises the futility of the struggle against Greek gods, accepting his fate without fear or disobedience. Although Satan understands that his struggle may result in many negative consequences for him and other fallen angels, he nevertheless opposes God, because he wants to achieve freedom and justice. As he puts it, “I come no enemy, but to set free / From out this dark and dismal house of pain” (Milton, 1993 Book 2 822-823). Satan is presented as a strong creature with the abilities of a leader, but simultaneously this character reveals human features, which traditional Christian portrayals lack.
These features place this heroic figure close to people and simultaneously reveal Satan’s moral values. He is not an absolute evil, but rather a creature that has lost his faith in God. However, Satan is portrayed as a creature that is not able to accept reality in a rightful way and that tries to create a new world with the principles of freedom and equality, but this new existence is based on hatred and jealousy, as well as tyranny, that finally bring him to failure. As Satan states, “So farwell Hope, and with Hope farwel Fear, / Farwel Remorse: all Good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my Good” (Milton, 1993 Book 4, 109-111).
But, despite Satan’s inability to rightfully perceive the real world, Satan reflects such positive traits as intelligence and powerful emotions, as he challenges the existing norms: “What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will… / and courage never to submit or yield… / that glory never shall his wrath or might extort from me” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 105-111). But throughout the poem the character’s strength is substituted for despair and loneliness, revealing Satan’s vulnerability and his wish to return the usual flow of spirits. Demonstrating Satan’s despair, John Milton wants to stress on the fact that a creature with such emotions can not be fully wicked; instead, he is forced to act as an evil in his struggle against God.
Satan also feels loneliness; although he has fellows, he is a lonely figure that realises that he exceeds other fallen angels and that they will not be able to share his feelings and thoughts. Such individuals as Satan are always lonely and they are in constant search of something that will eliminate their loneliness. In the case of Satan, he applies to a rebel against God’s control and power. Satan does not understand that God manipulates him, being aware of every Satan’s step in his seduction of Eve. In this regard, Milton contrasts Satan with God, proving that Satan is more heroic than God, because he initiates an open struggle against God, while God turns to concealed actions and manipulation. God involves many creatures into his struggle with Satan, and in many situations God has secret motives that he does not uncover to angels.
Thus, the poet rejects many classical heroic elements taken from earlier epics, but those classical elements that he preserves reveal Milton’s irony, concerning the issue of heroism. According to Mueller (1980), Milton “did not… use epic conventions in the spirit of the faithful imitator, but he used them with the ironic consciousness of their conventionality” (p.247). Such an approach is explained by the fact that Milton realises the limitations of classical epic conventions and makes an attempt to overcome them by providing Satan with both classical heroic features and modern heroic features.
For instance, Milton describes Satan’s inner power through his immense physical appearance: “Forthwith upright he rears from off the pool / His mighty stature” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 221-222). This image of Satan is then strengthened by classical epic conventions that provide Milton with an opportunity to draw a parallel between Satan and classical heroic figures. In particular, John Milton portrays Satan with an ancient armour that allows Satan to be superior to other fallen angels, as the poet describes, “his ponderous shield / ethereal temper, massy, large and round. / Behind him cast; the broad circumference / Hung on his shoulders like the moon” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 284-287). However, after such a description the poet reveals that Satan utilises this shield only as a stick that helps him to walk, expressing his ironical attitude towards this classical simile that is constantly utilised in Homer’s narration in regard to his principal characters and their armours.
To some extent, such a withdrawal from classical conventions reveals the attempts of Satan to be closer to his fellows; he does not want to separate himself from the fallen angels, instead, he shares pain and despair with them and constantly tries to improve their positions. He can understand their feelings as nobody can, because he exists together with them. In this context, Satan is similar to such classical heroic figures as Titan, Achilles, Beowulf, the heroes that oppose Greek gods, although the poet does not draw a parallel between Satan and these characters.
Satan’s ability to inspire respect in his fellows puts him into a superior position to the majority of classical heroes. When Satan proclaims, “Princes, Potentates, / Warriors, the flow’r of heav’n, once yours, now lost… / Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 315-330), he resembles such famous commanders as Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Hannibal who managed to guide others. Satan’s strong spirit helps the character to overcome difficulties in his struggle against God, and it is this spirit that allows Satan to preserve hope for a victory till the tragic end, unlike other fallen angels that constantly reveal their doubts as to the necessity of their rebel.
Satan realises that he opposes the strongest creature in the whole universe - God, but he feels that he can not be passive, because if he refuses to initiate a struggle, then no one will be able to stop God’s suppression of willpower and control. When Satan overcomes Chaos and comes to Eden to seduce Adam and Eve, to some extent, he pursues his own motives, but, above all, he initiates this dangerous and unpleasant trip to complete their mutual decision, the decision that will either save them or destroy. As Bryson (2004) states, “Satan more closely resembles a character from Greek drama or Homeric epic than one from the Bible” (p.80).
Although Satan is aware of the dangers and the consequences of his action, they do not prevent the character from fulfilling his goal. In this regard, he resembles Homer’s Odysseus who is engaged in travelling throughout the epic narration. In addition, similar to Achilles, who appears in the role of a defender, Satan defends the fallen angels, as well as his own principles of freedom and equality. As Satan opposes the existing rules, he is regarded as an evil, but it is God that inspires this evil in Satan and that regards him as an evil. But Satan challenges the justice of such opinion, at the same time challenging the concepts of “good’ and “evil”.
Therefore, Satan more resembles a modern romantic villain that destroys social morality and maintains the ideas of freedom, although Satan still reflects some features of a classical heroic figure. Satan reveals his different images throughout the poem, but he also reveals his inner suffering. Despite the fact that he applies to evil in his search of truth and freedom, he continues his struggle even as he understands its futility. But, above all, he does not conceal the truth about himself, claiming: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am hell” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 73-75).
Satan as a heroic figure appears, as the narration progresses; John Milton gradually demonstrates Satan’s positive and negative sides, comparing him with classical heroes and simultaneously moving him away from them. Homer’s Achilles as ‘the Man Breaker’ is portrayed as a hero from the very beginning, and Achilles’ heroism is intensified as he manages to destroy his enemy and preserve his honour. On the contrary, Milton constantly challenges Satan’s heroism by uncovering contradictory features of this character, but he nevertheless continues to regard him as a hero. Homer’s Achilles is usually criticised for his enormous anger and quarrels with his fellows.
For instance, as a result of his tensions with Agamemnon, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclos is killed by Hector. Although Achilles further revenges Hector, even Greek gods warns Achilles that he oversteps the permissible limits. At the beginning of the epic poem Achilles’ anger and desire for avenge are not so immense, but, as the narration progresses, his rage is greatly intensified, and Achilles is even ready to destroy his principles to satisfy his personal goals and punish Hector for depriving him of his best friend. Achilles is not able to forgive Hector, although he agrees to give Hector’s body to his father, so that he will be able to bury his son. Such action definitely reveals Achilles’ generosity and the ability to understand the feelings of other people. Although Achilles hopes to live till old age, he soon learns about his early death and eternal fame, if he takes part in the Trojan War and helps his people to receive a victory.
However, Achilles hesitates, because he does not want to die. As the character claims in The Odyssey, “O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him, and not much to live on, than be a king over the perished dead” (Homer, 1967 11.488-92). Achilles makes constant attempts to avoid the struggle, but he fails to resist the pressure from the side of both his fellows and Greek gods. He prefers fame and dignity to a prolonged life, but such attitude was supported by many people in Greece. Despite the fact that Satan fails in his struggle against God, he is a hero who preserves his dignity and pride even after the failure.
Satan does not want to die or lose, but when he fails, he accepts his defeat in a noble way. Satan does not suppress his emotions, and, in this regard, he is similar to Achilles, but is contrary to Odysseus who reveals the ability to restrain his anger in the majority of situations. This can be explained by the fact that throughout the epic poem Odysseus conceals his true identity and exposes it only in crucial moments, for instance, when he arrives to his home after many years of wandering and finds out that his wife is going to marry another man. As Odysseus is not able to allow this marriage, he decides to conceal his true identity and then emerges on a scene, killing all Penelope’s admirers. The character acts in a similar way when he meets his son and thinks that it is inappropriate time to uncover the truth to him.
Contrary to Odysseus, Milton’s Satan is engaged in the open struggle against God, but he also conceals his identity when he makes an attempt to seduce Eve. Satan’s transformation into a serpent allows him to succeed in his plan, as Serpent is “suttlest Beats of all the Field” (Milton, 1993 Book 9 84-86). However, he does not know that in revenge God will decide to transform him into a serpent for ever. Similar to Odysseus, Satan prefers to utilise slyness instead force in this particular affair, hoping to deceive Eve and utilise her lack of intellect for his own goal. Simultaneously, he understands that the Son will try to prevent him, thus he acquires an image that will help him to deceive the Son as well. Vergil’s Aeneas reflects a hero that is different from some Greek heroic figures, because the poet creates a pious character who struggles for the future of his people.
Satan also struggles for better future of the fallen angels and for the whole universe, although he pursues his own goals as well. But perhaps true heroism is inseparable from personal goals, and struggling for his own benefits, a hero struggles for the whole world – for the world, but not with the world. Satan wants freedom for himself and for the fallen angels; he is an individualist who does not wait for someone to perform his goals, while Homer’s Achilles avoids the struggle until the death of his friend Hector. Although Achilles knows that his participation in the battle may bring a victory, he hesitates, being aware of his fate. Unlike Achilles, Satan opposes God, realising that the consequences of his rebellion may be destructive for him. Milton’s character not only struggles against oppression and despotism of God, but he also resembles Prometheus that uncovers the truth to people.
Introducing the figure of Satan before the figure of the Son, Milton provides a detailed portrayal of Satan in more than forty lines, while the portrayal of the Son is fulfilled in only a couple of lines. This difference reflects the poet’s wish to stress the importance of the character of Satan for the narration. Milton starts his portrayal with classical epic similes to demonstrate physical power of Satan who emerges from the fire lake. As a result, such description of enormous power reveals Milton’s attempts to draw a parallel between Satan and some classical heroes.
However, the poet does not utilise any epic similes in regard to the Son or God, claiming that they can not be compared with anybody. Such approach depreciates the figures of the Father and the Son and, instead, accentuates an important role of Satan in the occurred events. Contrary to traditional representations of Satan, Milton presents this character as a creature that can be compared with classical epic heroes, but he utilises his epic similes only to accentuate heroism of Satan. Milton’s similes in regard to Satan greatly resemble Homer’s similes: “As whom the Fables of monstrous size, / Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove, / Briareous or Typhon, whom the Den / By ancient tarsus held, or that Sea-beast / Leviathan… / So stretch out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 196-209).
These classical epic similes in portrayal of Satan show that John Milton tries to interpret the figure of Satan by contrasting wicked and good, traditions and non-traditions. Milton compares Satan with such epic creatures as Typhon, Leviathan, Titans and Briaereous, revealing ambiguity of the character and at the same time demonstrating his difference from classical heroic figures. Satan possesses the features of Achilles, Typhon, Leviathan and other creatures, but he remains an individual that demonstrates his willpower and strength in his struggle against God. But in this opposition to despotism, Satan fails to recognise his own despotic role; he does not understand that he acts similar to God among his fellows. However, John Milton implicitly demonstrates that it is not a fault of Satan, he is used to live in the world that is governed by the principles of tyranny, and he does not know another way to find the truth and achieve freedom.
In this regard, Satan’s controversial figure reveals both the character’s power and his tragedy. On the one hand, Satan demonstrates his power by opposing the Creator, but, on the other hand, his inner turmoil prevents him from defeating his principal enemy, although he manages to seduce Eve. From the very beginning Satan realises that he is cursed, similar to a tragic heroic figure; however, he also points at the fact that he is aware of the “terrour be in Love / And beautie” (Milton, 1993 Book 9 490-491). Such claims reveal Satan’s ambiguous nature, his passions and strength – the features that allow Milton to present Satan as a true hero.
Thus, through the character of Satan the poet demonstrates his views on people and politics, religion and the universe, good and evil. Satan’s words are full of truth, especially when he points out that “fear of change / Perplexes Monarchs” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 598-599). Milton presents Satan through interior and exterior perspectives: Satan’s interior world resembles humans’ inner selves, while his exterior image presents Satan as a splendid orator both in his monologues and in his talks with other creatures. In this regard, his figure appears to be so powerful that his presence is felt even in those parts of the narration when he is absent. Satan overwhelms other characters, and power always evokes envy and wish to revenge. God is not able to allow Satan to win in this struggle, because Satan is a threat to the Creation. I
Introducing Satan before other characters of the epic, Milton then reveals Satan’s interactions with God, the Son, the fallen angels, Eve and other creatures, pointing at the fact that it is Satan that defines the reactions of these characters. Satan is portrayed as a hero that opposes God, because it is the Creator who implicitly makes Satan turn to the path of evil, thus through the character of Satan, Milton makes an attempt “to justifie the wayes of God to men” (Milton, 1993 Book 1 26). Contrary to classical epics that present Greek gods superior to others, John Milton draws a parallel between Satan and God, proving that God may be similar to Satan, while the Devil may appear to be better than God.
As Schiffhorst (1990) puts it, “Milton defines heroism negatively by contrasting it with what it is not. The very fact that Satan is given some traditional heroic attributes reveals Milton’s dissatisfaction with the heroic tradition of the epic” (p.10). In other words, Satan is presented for what he is not – a devil that contributes to the failure of humankind, while God is presented as a figure that leads his own game and involves other creatures into his unlawful manipulations. Traditional Christian representations of God and Satan provide a completely contradictory interpretation of these creatures. Despite their power and uniqueness, such classical heroic figures as Achilles and Odysseus are not able to oppose Greek gods, while Satan manages not only to oppose God, but also create another world and inspire some angels to follow him in his struggle. In this regard, Milton provides Satan with the best epic similes, as if to contrast Satan with other characters and to reveal his strength.
For instance, in addition to different epic images of Satan, the poet compares Satan with the sun (Milton, 1993 Book 2 594-599) and with a vulture (Milton, 1993 Book 3 431-439), stressing on the fact that it is Satan that is the real hero of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Although Satan is in the search of revenge, he realises that “Revenge, at first though sweet, / Bitter ere long back on it self recoiles” (Milton, 1993 Book 9 171-171), but God is also vindictive, as the Son claims to God, “whom thou hat’st, I hate, and can put on / Thy terrors, as I put thy mildness on, / Image of thee in all things” (Milton, 1993 Book 6 734-736). Thus, all the characters of the epic poem express certain negative emotions from time to time, even God himself, although he condemns only Satan in jealousy, anger and hatred.
Contrary to Satan, Achilles does not realise the destructive power of anger and hatred, he maintains these negative emotions till the end. Satan’s heroism is also intensified by John Milton when he reveals that Satan’s seduction of Eve brings both punishment and salvation to humankind, while Satan is cruelly punished for his disobedience and struggle against God. Satan appears to sacrifice himself for people, similar to Homer’s Achilles. Though Achilles contributes to the successful outcome of the battle, he is destined to die. Although Satan provides people with knowledge and saves them, he destructs himself and other fallen angels.
But Satan’s heroism is obvious in every image; when the fallen angels hesitate to take part in a dangerous trip, it is Satan that saves the situation, realising that no one wishes to take this mission on oneself. Thus, comparing Satan with these angels, John Milton clearly demonstrates the greatness of Satan: “all sat mute, / Pondering the danger with deep thoughts… / till at last / Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais’d / Above his fellows, with Monarchal pride” (Milton, 1993 Book 2 420-429). These words reveal that Satan exceeds other fallen creatures of Hell that support Satan in his struggle against God, but who are unable to take the principal responsibility on themselves.
While Satan’s monarchal pride allows John Milton to compare this character with some political leaders, like Cromwell or Charles I, his fallen fellows symbolise those English politicians who do not suppress any ambitions. However, despite their refusal to act, God punishes these fallen angels in the similar way as he punishes Satan – he transforms all of them into serpents, depriving them of the possibility to return to Heaven.
Like Achilles, Satan is destined to be punished, and this particular fact transforms him into a tragic hero that evokes sympathy and understanding, as the narration progresses. Although at first Satan blames God in his failure, he gradually realises that he also should blame himself in his inability to obey God’s rules. And Satan starts to experience despair, as he realises that he destroys not only himself, but other fallen angels as well. Such self-condemnation makes Satan more humane and reveals that Satan is able to admit his own mistakes and his defeat: “O sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams / That bring to my remembrance from what state / I fell, how glorious once about thy sphere; / Till pride and worse ambition threw me down” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 38-41).
Despite his hate to God, Satan is also able to experience love towards the Creator and accept God’s justice. Satan constantly thinks about his struggle, and his self-doubts reveal good sides of his personality. As Satan claims in regard to God, “He deserved no such return / From me, whom he created what I was / Be then his love accursed, since love or hate, / To me alike, it deals eternal woe” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 43-36). It is difficult to judge such a tragic hero, but Milton demonstrates that God nevertheless condemns Satan and other fallen angels for their rebel; therefore God’s punishment points at the inability of God to forgive those creatures that oppose him.
According to classical epics, Greek gods also punish the heroes, if they act contrary to their wishes. Although Achilles is semi-divine, he is fully controlled by gods that do not allow him to go beyond their expectations. In Paradise Lost God provides Satan with many noble features that are gradually exposed during Satan’s struggle. Though Satan does not want to be controlled by God, his moral values continue to haunt him until he fails. In fact, Satan fails two times. At the beginning of the narration when he opposes God and creates Hell, Satan is presented as a noble creature that fails because of his desire to achieve freedom and power.
When Satan fails for the second time, that is, when he seduces Eve and is punished by God, his failure reveals that Satan’s struggle is an illusion. Satan wrongly considers that Eve’s seduction will allow him to become more powerful than God; instead, this action destroys him. In his attempt to revenge God, Satan utilises inappropriate means and follows illusory principles of justice, although Satan sincerely believes in these principles. In Hell Satan is regarded as a hero by his fellows, but, as he abandons Hell, he loses and reveals his negative sides. Despite the fact that Satan does not physically die, like Achilles, he is spiritually dead.
Thus, Satan appears to resist God and the world he creates, but he is not able to create a better world. His complex inner conflicts reveal that this character will finally ruin himself. Although Satan manages to convince other fallen angels in their rights to rebel and in their victory, he is not really sure that the outcome of the struggle will be successful. He fails to convince his inner self in the possibility of a victory, and perhaps that’s why he loses. Satan takes responsibility on himself, but he is not able to prevent the negative consequences of his disobedience. This character endures immense inner suffering, but continues to defend his principles and ideas.
Throughout the narration Satan reveals some humane features, for instance, in the process of Eve’s seductions. According to Hamilton (1944), “Satan’s heroic qualities are enhanced by this strain of something approaching tenderness in his character… His courage and will-power are not the expression of a nature irrevocably hardened or incapable of gentle emotion” (p.25). Satan is presented by Milton as an unusual individual who, following his desires and wrong hopes, tries to overcome the restrictions that God assigns to him. In this regard, Satan differs from such classical heroic figures as Achilles, because Achilles only defends his people and takes revenge, but he does not make an attempt to go beyond the restrictions established by Greek gods. Satan is a heroic figure because of his ability to rise against the existing norms, although the ways of his struggle are definitely wrong. For Milton, such ability is really crucial, even though it results in the destruction of an individual.
Satan manages to destroy his past, trying to create his own reality and change his own personality. This is more important for the poet than Satan’s further failure, rejection, alienation and hopelessness. Although Satan knows that God is All-Seeing, he still believes that he fill find some ways to outwit God and the Son. Classical epic heroes lack this courage to initiate a vain struggle against their gods, simultaneously revealing the limitations of their heroic resolution and their adherence to the established norms. However, Satan’s courage is also connected with his inability to accept reality, and, as he continues his struggle, his failure is aggravated. As Satan claims, “And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n” (Milton, 1993 Book 4 76-78).
According to classical epic conventions, a hero usually expresses certain negative emotions that bring him to destruction, but despite such flaws, these characters are able to evoke readers’ admiration. This is especially true in regard to Satan, whose ambiguous nature does not depreciate his heroic features. Milton’s initial portrayal of Satan continues to overwhelm readers throughout the poem. When Satan and other fallen angels are driven away from Heaven, Satan is the first creature who manages to accept their defeat and adjust to new circumstances, whatever horror they are.
Simultaneously, the character reveals his intention to continue the struggle and serves as a splendid leader for the frightened fallen angels. Despite such clear heroism of Satan, Northrop Frye (1993) claims, “What Satan himself manifests in Paradise Lost is the perverted quality of parody-heroism… Consequently it is to Satan and his followers that Milton assigns the conventional and Classical type of heroism" (p.521). Although this point can be regarded disputable, it nevertheless proves that Milton regards Satan, but not other characters, as a heroic figure. Although the Son can be also considered as the hero of the epic poem, his heroism is decreased, if compared with Satan’s heroism.
From the beginning Satan reveals a complete obedience to his Father, and his death for the sake of people appears less heroic, if taken into account that the Son is well aware of his further resurrection. Thus, Satan differs from the Son because he does not know the consequences of his actions, but, as Martin Mueller (1980) puts it, “because Satan is the idol, or hideous double of Christ, he necessarily acts within the conventions of the epic tradition” (p.246). John Milton creates Satan as powerful as God himself, that’s why Satan takes the liberty of opposing the Creator.
In this regard, Satan differs from Achilles, because Achilles realises that he is less powerful than Greek gods, although he is one of the mightiest heroes among people. Such difference is explained by various cultural traditions of The Iliad, The Odyssey and Paradise Lost; Greeks considered that gods controlled their lives and thus, they worshipped these gods and plead for better destinies, while Milton wrote his epic poem in the era when people opposed many religious dogmas. Satan is a revolutionary that struggles for a certain idea and, similar to real revolutionaries, Satan struggles till the very end. For him, a struggle itself is more crucial than the final outcome. Of course, Satan hopes to win, but he understands that he has no choice. As William Godwin (1976) states, “Why did Satan rebel against his maker? It was, as he himself informs us, because he saw no sufficient reason for that extreme inequality of rank and power which the creator assumed” (p.309).
Unlike Satan, Achilles is provided with a choice: he may choose death at an early age, but receive eternal fame or he may live a long but infamous live. As Homer shows, Achilles chooses the first way, because it is more appropriate to his way of life and his heroic nature. Due to the inability of Satan to stay aside, he is engaged in the struggle that is predestined to fail. Thus, Satan’s hopelessness is stressed by Milton more than Satan’s evil or pride; only at the beginning of the epic poem Satan reveals his enormous courage, but, as the narration progresses, he seems to gradually lose his valour and, instead, reveal his inner suffering. As a result, Satan can be sympathised and admired, like such classical epic heroes as Achilles and Odysseus, but not despised. Although Satan creates an image of a powerful and independent creature, he is destroyed by this unequal struggle against God.
Satan proves to be weaker than he is presented at the beginning of the epic poem Paradise Lost. Satan’s morality continues to torment him, though he pretends to eliminate good features and reject the laws established by God. Satan’s suffering is especially vivid during his trip through Chaos; when he appears alone and experiences terrible tortures, Satan starts to talk with himself, realising the complexity of his decision to oppose God. As Danielson (1999) puts it, “The fallen Satan is, we gather, a creature of moods, apprehending reality through mists of self-deception and forgetfulness” (p.166). It is Satan’s rejection of reality that makes him turn to evil and finally become a serpent. In this regard, he is similar to such famous tragic heroes as Prometheus, Macbeth, Tamburlaine, Faustus, but contradicts such a hero as Homer’s Achilles that does not make an attempt to escape reality; instead he takes an active part in the battle and dies. The same regards Odysseus who escapes reality only in the cases, when he wishes to achieve a certain goal.
The conducted analysis has compared John Milton’s Satan with some classical heroic figures, especially with Homer’s Achilles. Although Milton implements certain classical allusions to describe Satan, such as an epic journey of the main protagonist of the epic poem Paradise Lost, a struggle against an enemy and epic similes for portrayal of Satan, like his different images of a wolf, a thief and a Pharaoh, the poet considerably transforms these classical conventions, presenting his own vision of a true hero.
Thus, the received results suggest that Satan can not be completely regarded as a classical heroic figure but rather as a character that combines classical heroic features with modern ideas on heroism. Milton challenges a stereotypic portrayal of a hero, maintaining the idea that a true hero is a creature that defends his rights and freedom and rises against the existing rules and principles. Analysing Satan from various perspectives, the essay reflects Satan’s ambiguous nature that uncovers different images of the character. At the end of the narration Satan is transformed from a rebel into a tragic figure that still possesses power and free will after his failure.
Although Satan reflects some negative features, Satan’s power and courage, leadership abilities and inner suffering, as well as unavoidable destiny reveal his unusual individuality. This character may be sympathised for his rejection of reality, but he can be also admired for his resistance and ability to withstand difficult conditions. Milton’s character Satan acquires a more crucial status than classical heroic figures, and Satan’s heroism allows Milton to observe the issue of religion through different perspectives and interpretations. In this regard, some findings of the essay oppose traditional interpretations of Milton’s Satan, paying attention to ambiguous nature of this hero.
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