Strictly following the tradition of classical epic, Milton made his Paradise Lost, a work that roused the interest of all men in all ages. We can even claim that by his creative genius, he has modified and ennobled that tradition. Though its form is classical, its content tends to be on the scriptural side.
The very opening lines exhort its central theme –“Of man’s disobedience…” The bone of contention between the critics of all ages is about whom the hero of this epic is –God, Satan or Adam.
Undoubtedly we are forced to say that a good number of passages, especially in the first two books of Paradise Lost, give a heroic stature to Satan, the major among the fallen angels. Gradual diminution of Satan’s glory and grandeur is an integral part of Milton’s epic-design. The Satan of Books I and II is a creature of such dynamic energy and colorful splendor that many of the epic’s readers are tempted to consider him as the hero of the poem.
That Milton did not so regard him and that, in rejecting the Satan of the earlier part of the epic, Milton was not being false to his poetic self, is clear from Satan’s opening soliloquy in Book IV, at least the first ten lines of which were written before Books I and II. In this and subsequent soliloquies Milton is able to present the character of Satan more fully and in a partly dramatic form, by placing him in a situation which denies him an outlet for his rhetoric and invites introspective self-examination.
Milton, no doubt, intended Satan – at least in the early books – to be representative of the old heroic values which were to be superseded by ‘the better fortitude of patience and heroic martyrdom’. Unfortunately for Milton, readers of Paradise Lost have not been able to shake off the heroic qualities of Satan in the first two books. Along with that, three other factors contributed to the result. In English, the word ‘hero’ has the meaning of a ‘central figure’, and this Satan is definitely in these early books.
Milton was strong and fresh creatively when he characterized Satan in these early books; and he never succeeded in producing a rival hero of similar stature but opposed ideals. Milton lavished all his power, all his skill, and the greater part of his sympathy on the splendid figure of Satan. Many critics have agreed to the fact that the epic value of the whole epic is centered in the achievements and characterization of Satan. His unyielding agony represents the insightful antinomy of the modern consciousness. Satan expresses, as no other character in the epic does, something in which Milton believed strongly, that is, heroic energy.
It is through Satan that Milton’s own heroic energy has been so powerfully shown forth. This is expressed through conflict and endurance. The odds are against him, he has to wage war against the Omnipotent, but still he persists and struggles, and wins our profoundest admiration and sympathy. No doubt, his energy is unreasoning, no doubt it is devoted to his wicked passion for revenge, and certainly he is carried away by hate and envy, but still we cannot help admiring him for the heroic energy with which he persistently struggles against heavy odds to achieve his aims.
Milton’s Satan is not a comic or grotesque figure like the Devil or Vice of medieval writers or the demons of other epic poets. Being a principal figure of an epic, if a certain amount of grotesqueness was drawn in the character of Satan, it would have definitely impaired the dignity of the poem. Many predecessors of Milton have done the same but in this respect too Milton was daringly original. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that by attempting at proving himself ‘self-begotten’, Satan‘s behavior tends to the comic and contradictory. Moreover, only a fool would pit himself against omnipotence and thus invite certain disaster.
But Milton’s Satan is neither a fool nor a clown. He definitely has the beauty of sublimity and the grandeur and majesty and dignity of bearing. The poet drives home this nobility and greatness of his bearing in wonderfully mentored fine passages which can be hailed as the best among those that have been ever written. The following passage confirms the point: “…Black it stood as Night, Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, And shook a dreadful dart, what seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on. Satan was now at hand, and from his seat The monster moving onward came as fast
With horrid strides: Hell trembled as he strode. ”(II 495-501) Courteously and fearlessly Satan addresses himself to the monarch of the nethermost abyss. His speech contains no threats; he asks for guidance in his quest; and, with politic fore-thought, promises that quest, if successful, shall restore an outlying lost province to Chaos. In the war on the plains of Heaven, Satan ranges up and down the fighting line, like Cromwell; he fortifies his comrades to endurance, and encourages them to attack. In Hell he stands like a tower: “His form had yet not lost All its original brightness, nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess Of glory obscured…” I (591-4) In his contests with Michael in heaven and with Gabriel on earth, he never falls below himself: “If I must contend”, said he, “Best with the best – the sender, not the sent; Or all at once. ” IV (851-3) His followers are devotedly attached to him; they admire him ‘that for the general safety he despised his own’; and the only scene of rejoicing recorded in the annals of Hell, before the Fall of Man, is at the dissolution of Stygian Council, when the devils come forth “rejoicing in their matchless chief”. The allure of free will is where the attractiveness and power of Satan’s character lies. Satan may be quite useless when it comes to fighting the ten thousand thunders of Christ’s fury, but in his will he is free and in his mind he is supreme: ‘What though the field be lost? | All is not lost; the unconquerable will’ (I. 105). ” (Zeng, Nicholas http://www. christs. cam. ac. uk/darknessvisible/about_us/nicholas_zeng. html) As if to set purpose to raise Satan high above the heads of other archangels, Milton devises a pair of similar scenes in Heaven and in Hell.
In the one Satan takes upon himself the unknown dangers of the enterprise that has been approved by the assembly. In the other, which occurs in the very next book, the Heavenly powers are addressed from the Throne, and asked – “Which of ye will be mortal, to redeem Man’s mortal crime, and just, the unjust to save? III (214-5) None in heaven is ready to take the risk; but Satan takes upon himself the dangerous task of traveling through Chaos and seducing Man. There is no doubt in the fact that Satan’s over-mastering passions are hate, ambition and desire for revenge, but he is not presented as a monster of wickedness or an unredeemed villain.
Milton has skillfully humanized his character. Hence, though Satan in the enemy of God and Man alike, he is not entirely devoid of gentler characteristics. He is deeply remorseful at the thought of the ruin in which he has involved his followers and this remorse actually brings tears to his eyes. In the second book, we see him showing forth a noble sense of the duty of self-sacrifice incumbent on him owing to his position as king of hell, by sacrificing his own safety for the general cause and as a result, undertaking alone the difficult enterprise which daunted the courage of the mightiest of his followers.
This trait of Satan’s character is maintained in the later books. We see him twice melted with compassion seeing the harmless innocence of Adam and Eve whose ruin he is plotting in book IV (389. 462-66). These softer feelings are to be seen as only occasional touches introduced to relieve the grandeur of a character essentially terrible, a character who is, though not totally devoid of gentle traits, on the whole most like a mighty tempest, or an avalanche, or any other force of nature that is a harmonious blending of beauty of sublimity and immense destructive power.
With due sympathy and dramatic power, Satan’s character has been drawn which further revealed Milton’s proud spirit of independence and superiority to the utmost. Satan is certainly a self-portrait, a rebel against tyranny and injustice like Milton himself. The sentiment which he expresses – ‘courage never to submit or yield’; “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven’, raises his stature to that of an epic hero.
Satan is such a magnificently drawn character and such is the fascination he has exercised on the readers of the great epic of all times, paradise lost, that ever since Dryden has christened Satan as ‘Milton’s hero’, critic after critic has taken him to be the hero of the epic. There is no doubt that he dominates Books I and II of the epic in which he towers head and shoulders above his followers, but after that there is a progressive degradation and shrinkage in his character. His gradual loss of physical brightness is accompanied by a corresponding deterioration of character. The audience, however, does find someplace to invest its sympathy, and that place is in the character of Satan. The audience first sees Satan waking in Hell where he and the other fallen angels despair. Through his despair, however, Satan claims, “All is not lost — the unconquerable will,// And study of revenge, immortal hate,// And courage never to submit or yield — . . . That glory never shall his wrath or might// Extort from me” (I. 104- 111). ” (http://www. essortment. com/all/satanparadisel_rsng. htm) It is by his own will that he becomes a serpent in Book IX. In Book X, he is a serpent whenever he wants to wear its garb.
This degradation that is progressive is drawn home most effectively. His beginning is shown as fighting for liberty, however it is misconceived. But very soon his stature goes down as he starts fighting for “Honour, Dominion, glorie, and renounce’. But it is seen that he is defeated in this in no time. Then he resorts to the great plotting that forms the essence of the epic – the ruining of two creatures that are in no way harmful to him, but this is not at all keeping in front a serious expectation of triumph, but only to annoy the enemy who is beyond his reach for a direct encounter.
This makes him stoop to the level of a spy coming into the universe, that too as a low level spy who peeps into the privacy of a man and wife, and it is there that he is described for the first time as ‘Devil’, not the fallen Archangel nor the dreaded emperor of Hell. If we take into account not merely Books I and II, but the epic as a whole, Satan cannot be regarded as the hero. As he is carried away by his passion for revenge, envy and hatred, to use ‘guile’ and cunning to achieve his end, Satan is the villain of the piece and not the hero.
Closely woven with the story of the fall of man is the story of the fall of Satan and his followers. Their fall also bears out that the theme of the epic is the victory of passion over reason and its terrible consequence. Satan falls not because he is a lesser being, but due to his giving priority to passion over reason. He is proud and is carried away by inordinate ambition and lust for power. He claims absolute equality, foolishly imagines that he is self-created, regards god’s rule as tyrannous, rebels against him and is consequently overthrown and hurled into hell.
He is the very embodiment of unrestrained passions which ultimately bring no satisfaction. Debates are still going on about the fact that Satan is such a driving force within the great epic. It ranges from William Blake’s comment that Milton “wrote in fetters when 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” (Black 2007, p. 996) to the plea that this poem is nothing more than a christian tale in which milton is unsuccessful in portraying what he intended to do. (Marshal 1961, p. 19)