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In most instances, Satan is deemed to be the very embodiment
of evil and villainy; the opposing force to all things ethical. Yet it has been
well documented, especially by critics of the romantic era, that in Milton’s Paradise
Lost this is not the case, as Satan possesses numerous heroic qualities,
drawing comparisons to heroic classical figures. His profound will and courage
in defying God could make him appear to be the hero of the poem. However, I am
more aligned with the view of Fish1, that this is simply a
misreading of the text; we only deem Satan the hero when we are taken in by his
exuberant portrayal in books I and II of the poem. In reality, he does not
possess the fundamental qualities of heroism such as benevolence and
temperance. This is strongly supported by his malevolent actions in book IV and
V, whereby he corrupts Adam and Eve; saying that he “only finds ease” in “destroying”2, which naturally
contradicts the notion of a protagonist. Whilst Satan does present some
admirable qualities, such as courage, all of his actions are underlined with
malevolence and self-interest. Furthermore, I do not agree with labelling Satan
as a tragic hero, as whilst he does reach a tragic conclusion of being harshly
punished, this is entirely deserved, as his intent never has any element of good
about it. Though some draw comparisons of tragic heroism between Satan and
Macbeth, I believe that it is unreasonable to suggest that Satan is worthy of
this, as he even makes the innocent in the poem suffer, such as Adam and Eve.

 

Firstly, book IV serves to show that Satan cannot be
described to be the hero of Paradise Lost, as his destructive actions
only serve to wreak pain and havoc. This naturally juxtaposes notions of
classical literary heroism, such as grace and serenity. The fact that Satan directly
challenges God, the embodiment of benevolence, and attempts to devastate “the
happier Eden”3 clearly
shows that he cannot be defined as the hero of the epic poem, as he is directly
trying to disturb harmony; attempting to subvert paradise into a twisted
hell-like state. Satan convincing Eve to “greedily engorge without restraint”4, and eat the forbidden
fruit demonstrates his conniving and spiteful character, and how he wishes to harm
the innocent, and even those who have not wronged him. This perfectly illustrates why Satan cannot be the
hero, as his actions are merely selfish acts of hatred and vengeance, to try
and strip innocence from the world and thwart an idyllic creation. His
corruption of Eden is no rational or heroic response to being condemned by God;
it is simply a jealous act of “mischievous revenge”5 directed towards Adam,
“the new favourite Of Heaven”6. Classic literary heroes
are not associated with acts of self-interest and spite. Whilst it could be
suggested that Satan is actually courageously fighting against a tyrannous dictator
in God, corrupting Eden proves his actions are born out of jealousy, and not
pride, as he seems naturally inclined to subdue Adam, even despite the fact
Adam has never wronged Satan. C.S Lewis also points out the absurdity that
surrounds labelling Satan a hero, arguing that admiring Satan is “To admire Satan is to give one’s vote for a
world of misery and a world of lies and propaganda”7. This demonstrates how all
of Satan’s messages are just attempts to try and inspire hatred towards God. In
practice Satan’s entire philosophy is supported by hatred and vengeance. Yet it
could be argued that Satan still is heroic, as he is waging war against a
supposed harsh and power hungry tyrant in God. 
However, I believe that the very fact that Satan tries to wage war with
his omnipotent maker, the embodiment of morality, illustrates that he is not a
hero as only a fool would fight such a grand being. Satan’s foolish attempt to
war that he is destined to lose dispels the notion that he is a wise and
trustworthy leader.

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However,
it could be said that many aspects of Satan align with some aspects of literary
heroism; these attributes are prominent in the early stages of the poem. The
fact that Satan says he and his exiles “hath emptied heaven”8 suggests that he possesses
heroic attributes of heroic leadership and inspiring courage. The “emptying” of
heaven implies Satan could be a hero, as he has outdone the omnipotent God in
this instance, as he is able to easily convince a hoard of God’s creations to
follow him in battle. This could draw comparisons with classic epic heroes such
as Achilles, as it shows Satan can be an inspiring warrior. This is furthered
by Satan saying “who can believe that they shall fail to re-ascend and
repossess their native seat”9, as it implies a level of pride
and faith in his army, suggesting that he is an inspiring idol of defiance. Also,
his faith that they will “re-ascend and repossess” heaven, even after defeat,
strengthens this idea that could be a courageous and valiant leader. It is
certainly an admirable and somewhat heroic feat to still maintain faith after
crushing defeat. This view of Satan being a proud hero is developed by Percy
Bysshe Shelly, arguing that “nothing”, not even God, “can exceed the energy and
magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost”10. This quotation shows
that Satan’s heroic and “magnificent” qualities should make him the hero of the
poem, and certainly the most fascinating character in the text. In particular,
this description of Satan as “magnificent” suggests that he should be the
primary protagonist in the poem, and reinforces the notion that he is an
inspiring leader.

Moreover
saying that Milton’s Devil, as a moral being is “far superior to God” and
“perseveres… in spite of adversity and torture”11 is indicative of how God
should be perceived as the evil antagonist of Milton’s epic. It could be said
that Satan becomes a hero in defying God’s “torture” and having the courage to
contest an omnipotent being. This could, in turn, make Satan’s malevolent exploit
of corrupting Eden could actually be defendable, as he is heroically and
justifiably reacting to God’s punishments and his “foul descent”12

 

Adding
to this, it could be argued that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost as he
draws likenesses to notions of heroism to characters in other literary genres. Whilst
most depictions of Satan naturally display him as an antagonist, Milton perhaps
conceives him as a tragic hero, due to the fact that he wages a valiant yet
unwinnable war with a God he deems to be tyrannous. Satan could also be
labelled as a tragic hero, as the Aristotelian definition13 argues that a tragic hero
should invoke a sense of pity from the audience. If we apply this concept to
Satan, he could be depicted as a tragic hero, as both his failures in battle
and severe punishments from God, show that he is somewhat helpless and subject
to loss. This is especially the case when he is degraded to being “a
monstrous serpent on his belly prone”14, which illustrates god
has deformed him into a helpless and wholly unpleasant being. However, I do not
agree with the notion that Satan is even a tragic hero, as Aristotle also notes
that a tragic hero must possess some virtuous qualities. This certainly is not
the case in regards to Satan, who seems to have no regards for any other being
bar himself throughout the text.

 

 

 

Notwithstanding
this, it is worth noting that Satan does share some characteristics with
examples of tragic literary heroism in other texts. For example, there are same
distinct parallels with the tragic hero Macbeth. Both characters share some
heroic characteristics, such as leadership and valour. This is evidenced by
their abilities to raise effective armies, even in the face of opposition.
Additionally, they are both heroic in that strive to conquer, and it is perhaps
their flaws that allow them both to fall15. However, I feel it is
their flaws that prohibit them from becoming true literary heroes, especially
due to the fact that they commit extreme examples of evil; in the case of Satan
this is corrupting Eden and in the case of Macbeth this is getting Banquo
killed. For me, this hunger for power is not truly heroic, as they both lack redeeming
features of grace and mercy.

 

Notwithstanding
this, it could be argued that Satan relates the notion of heroism contained in
the epic classical figures such as Achilles. Forsyth16 in particular notes this,
stating that Satan is a “variant of Achilles”, “who is slighted by his
commander in chief” and courageously “refuses his orders”. This rejection of
the all-powerful God combined with Satan’s ability to rally his army and
implore them to “hurl defiance towards the walls of heaven”17 naturally draws comparisons
with the heroic Achilles’ warrior-like qualities. These actions could be deemed
as admirable and heroic, as he is intent on serving justice to those who have
wronged him. The warrior like comparison is furthered with his early physical
description. However I believe that this is an unfair comparison, as whilst
Achilles is favoured by his respective Gods, Satan is rightfully condemned for
his actions of disobedience, and is not celebrated by any benevolent figures in
the text. This is largely due to the fact that his actions are only altruistic;
he is only fulfilling his selfish desires of conquering God’s throne, and
pettily attempting to destroy innocence and beauty in Eden.

 

Adding
to this, I feel that Stanley Fish18 effectively shows that it
is only through deception and misjudgement that we are able to deem Satan as
the hero in Paradise Lost. Much like Adam and Eve, the reader must
ensure not to “fall before the lures of Satanic rhetoric”, and misread his
enthralling speeches. For example, Whilst Milton describes Satan as a grand hero-
esque physical “bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size”19, in reality he is
powerless and not of monstrous size in comparison to God, and this description
of a powerful being is simply a ruse. The ease in which God condemns him to
hell also shows that in battle, he is not as valiant as he wishes to be
presented. Furthermore, whilst books 1 and 2 describe God and his punishments
as overly harsh, documenting him being locked “his Angels lying on the burning
Lake”, this is only because Satan wants us to believe God to be evil, as to
vindicate his courageous struggle. In reality, it is God who preaches the more
commendable and heroic values of peace, whereas Satan inspires only acts of
hatred from his followers urging them to wreak havoc. For me, Satan would need
to actually inspire some messages of positivity and heroism in order to be
deemed a true hero. Yet it could be argued that due to God’s omnipotence and omniscience,
Satan’s fatal flaws are not his fault; they are only the result of God’s
actions, which means he was set up to fail, which could draw connotations with
the notions of a tragic hero.

 

In
reality, however, Satan’s degeneration throughout the poem shows that he
becomes the antagonist of the text; not the hero he wishes to present to the
reader. I feel his deterioration into a miserable hate-filled being in book 9 and
10 exhibit how he cannot be considered heroic. Satan saying that he wishes to “make
others such as I”20, as in miserable, exhibits
how he is not the inspiring leader he wishes to be seen as earlier in the text,
and simply becomes a hate-stricken villain. This degeneration I feel dispels
notions of his figure, as it makes him lose all familiarity with this notion
that he is of noble physical stature and “monstrous size”, and is now a far cry
from his original state, illustrating that now he lacks both the physical and
benevolent aspect of a hero. He and his followers are now condemned to be “punished
in the shape they have sinned”, which in effects means that they have lost all
physical grandeur, and are forced to now reside on the bottom of the earth for
eternity. Personally, I do not see how it is possible to deem Satan the hero of
the poem at its conclusion, as we truly see him for what he is; that is a harsh
egoist, bent on destruction.

 

Overall,
Satan is not the hero, but rather the antagonist of the poem. In response to
critics that may point to his grand and regal nature in books I and II, and how
he was shown to be a courageous hero, we can see that in reality, all of his
actions were underpinned by hatred. We are able to see what Satan truly is at
the end, the true villain of the piece only bringing pain to the innocent and renouncing
all authority. I believe the comparison to Achilles is unfair, as whilst he
does match up to some notions of heroism, such as courage and pride, he contains
no empathy, and shows no remorse for his villainy.

 

1 Stanley
Eugene Fish Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. (Harvard
University Press, 1998)

2 Paradise
Lost : Book 9, lines 129-30 – page numbers of subsequent references will be
to Oxford World’s Classics, 2008) edition, and will be given in parentheses in
my text thus: (PL b.x, l.x)

3 PL b.4 l.507

4 PL b.9 l.791-4

5 PL b.2 l.1054-5

6 PL b.9 l.175-176

7 C.S
Lewis A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford University Press 1942), pg 100

8 PL
B.1 L.631-4

9 PL
B.1 L 631-34

10 A
Defense of Poetry, 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley

11 From
A Defense of Poetry, 1821

12 9
163

13 Charles
H. Reeves, The Aristotelian Concept of The Tragic Hero, Vol. 73, No. 2 (1952),
Published by 172-188

14
10 514

15 Paul
N. Siegel

16
The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth pg 30

17 B.
1 L. 669

18
Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. by Stanley Eugene Fish

Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1969), pg 38

19 1
197

20 9
128

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