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There have been many different interpretations of John Milton's epic, Paradise Lost. Milton's purpose in writing the epic was to explain the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Although the epic is similar to the Bible story in many ways, Milton's character structure differs from that of the Bible's version. Through-out the epic Milton describes the characters in the way he believes they are. In book II of Paradise Lost, Milton portrays Satan as a rebel who exhibits certain heroic qualities, but who turns out not to be a hero.
Milton's introduction of Satan shows the reader how significant Satan is to Paradise Lost. He uses Satan's heroic qualities to his followers, and his ability to corrupt to show the thin line between good and evil. Satan was one of the highest angels in Heaven and was know as Lucifer, meaning, light bearer. This shows he was once a good angel. Milton makes the reader see him as a leader and a strong influence to all in his presence. He best describes Satan's ways when stating, "His pride/ had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host. / Of rebel angels, by whose aspiring/ To set himself in glory above his peers" (Milton Book I). Satan's pride was the main reason that God banned him from heaven. Satan always tried to be number one and a leader, instead of following in God's shadow. He would of lived a life in Paradise forever, but he had to follow his feelings as he states, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" (Milton 31). This shows how strongly he felt about not being above everybody else.
Milton uses many events like the ones listed above to encourage the reader to view Satan as a hero. "Satan is described to be the brightest and most important angel" (McColley 32). These traits of Satan show how one might recognize Satan as the second in power right below God, who was the highest power of all. Before Satan decides to give up what he has and to rebel against God, he was one of the wisest and most beautiful of all the angels in heaven (McColley 24). Although Satan was beautiful, the most important trait that makes him fit into the hero category is that he was the most powerful angel in heaven.
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Satan's rebellion leads us to another one of his most noticeable skills. This would be his ability to give speeches. With this ability, Satan is able to persuade others to follow him in his rebellion. When Satan says, "to govern, not to serve" he emphasizes liberty and encourages the other angels in heaven to all join him and his rebellion (Revard 216). Milton uses the whole rebellion scene, when put together with the battle in heaven, ends up being one-eighth of Paradise Lost, to show heroic qualities in Satan. Devoting this much time to a certain scene, Milton makes it clear how important Satan is in his eyes.
Satan gives many speeches throughout the epic. Although, the speeches are very long and thorough, they are also very persuasive at the same time. Satan was able to persuade "one-third of all the angels in heaven" to join with him in his rebellion (Emerson 399). Satan would give speeches, that would raise the attention of his followers and make them feel more confident in him.
To suffer, as to do,
Our strength is equal; nor the law unjust
That so ordains. This was at first resolved,
If we were wise, against so great a foe
Contending, and so doubtful what might fall.
In this fraction of Satan's speech, Milton shows how skilled Satan is in his choice of words. Also, this shows why the others look up to Satan as their leader, as Hamilton says, "Satan is seen as a prince of Hell, as Well as commoner and matchless chief". (Milton 21) After gaining followers, Satan is ready for battle against God.
The most observable trait given to Satan is his excellence in battle. "In the forefront of the battle, where we expect him, is Milton's Satan, the great rebel of Paradise Lost" (Hamilton 7). Hamilton also introduces the idea of an underdog, describing Satan as a person fighting against an inferior power, with extreme odds against a victory for his side (14). In the scenes around the battle in heaven, Milton shows how Satan is viewed as a leader by the other fallen angels.
There are other speeches of war in the epic that arouse the reader. One of the most significant is after Satan has made a meeting in the new Capitol of Hell, Pandemonium. "To have built Heaven high towers; Nor did he scape By all his engines but was headlong sent With industrious crew to build in Hell" (Milton 55). Following the rapid building, all the fallen angels gather for their meeting asking shall it be war or peace. "Their rising all at one was as the sound Of thunder heard remote. Towards him they bend With awful reverence prone, and as a god" (Milton 79). When his followers cheer Satan on, the reader notices how much he likes the attention. This is another sign of how Milton shows the significant role that Satan's pride plays in his decisions. In many different encounters Satan lets his pride interfere with his actions. In doing this, Satan begins to worry only about himself and the opinions his followers hold of him. Satan continues with the speech saying, "Should we again provoke Our Stronger, some worse way his wrath may find To our destruction" (Milton 63).
This speech seems to be one of Satan's highest moments in the eyes of his followers. They are all willing to cooperate with Satan, and Satan loves being in charge of his followers. "Satan except, none higher sat, with grave Aspect he rose and in rising seemed a pillar of state" (Milton 72).
Now that Satan has reached the peek of his greatness, he must start to decline in his heroic ways. The first sign is after his speech,
I should be much for open war, O peers,
As not behind in hate, if what was urged,
Main reason to persuade immediate war,
Did not dissuade me most,
This speech shows how Satan seems ready to battle with God, but after his flight to heaven we see him in a different view with respect to the following citation. "Satan, with thoughts inflamed of highest design, Puts on swift wings, and towards the gates of hell Explores his solitary flight"(Milton 88).
In these lines, Satan seems to be overwhelmed with thoughts of how he is going to confront God. Satan is still viewed as a hero to his followers due to the way he goes to face God alone, "Satan their chief, undertakes alone the voyage, is honored and applauded" (Milton 59). Although, Milton shows the reader this side of Satan to make them think before assuming that Satan is the hero of the epic. Even with the "heroic qualities" Satan is given, one does not have to think of him as a "hero" (Hamilton 14). This speech foreshadows a future speech of Satan that places enough evidence against Satan being a hero. The time for Satan to have to confront God has come and Satan states,
And spirits of this nethermost abyss,
Chaos and ancient Night, I come no spy
With purpose to explore or to disturb
The secrets of your realm; but, by constraint
Wandering this darksome dessert, as my way
Lies through your spacious empire up to light,
He is not as "bold" as he was in the first of the epic, but "he has sank to low cunning" (Anstice 7). Milton begins to show the reader these traits to acknowledge the truths of Satan. With these facts, one can see how Satan is not a hero, but only a character with so much "reliance on power" that he has many heroic qualities (Frye 33).
Satan can very well be described as a hero in the start of this great epic, but Milton changes the view of Satan drastically as the epic continues. Satan is really and egoistic coward that let his "pride lead to ingratitude towards God" from the beginning of the epic (Weber 25). Although Satan is a great warrior and can give wonderful speeches, he seems to be hypocritical of what he tells his followers he believes and what he really does. An example of this is when we are first introduced to Satan. Satan and the other fallen angels are in hell and Satan tells the others to not be frightened, when he is frightened as well.
The character of Satan "deteriorates" greatly through the epic (Ruma 81). Satan is viewed as a great warrior and then as time passes, his own followers begin to doubt him. "Milton has his brilliant hero advance to be met and repulsed, first verbally, and then in arms" (Revard 225). This explains how the two most heroic qualities, that Milton uses to describe Satan as a rebellious hero, were diminished and Milton's Satan is not a hero after all.
Anstice, Robert H, Sir. The "Satan" of Milton. Folcroft, Pa: Folcroft Press, 1969.
Emerson, Everett H. "Milton's War in Heaven: Some Problems." Modern Language Notes 69. (1954,June): 399-402.
Frye, Roland Mushat. God, Man, and Satan; paterns of christian thought and life in Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress, and the great theologians. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1972.
Hamilton, George Rostrevor. Hero or Fool? A Study of Milton's Satan. London: G. Allen and Uwin Ltd., 1944.
McColley, Grant. Paradise Lost; An Account of Its Growth and Major Origins. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost: Books I and II. Boston: Ginn, Heath, Pc Co., 1883.
Revard, Stella P. The War in Heaven: Paradise Lost and the Tradition of Satan's Rebellion. London: Cornell University Press Ltd., 1980.
Ruma Sarma, M.V. The Heroic Argument; a study of Milton's heroic poetry. Calcuta: Macmillian, 1971.
Weber, Burton Jasper. The Constitution of Paradise Lost. Forword by John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 1971.