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John Miltons Satan
John Milton’s Satan
People argue about who the hero is of Paradise Lost: Satan, Adam or Christ, the Son? Since Milton’s overall theme stated in the opening lines of Book I is to relate ‘Man’s first disobedience’ and to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, I think Adam must be regarded as the main hero. John M. Steadman supports this view in an essay on Paradise Lost. “It is Adam’s action which constitutes the argument of the epic.” Steadman continues that “the Son and Satan embody heroic archetypes and that, through the interplay of the infernal and celestial strategies, Milton represents Satan’s plot against man and Christ’s resolution to save him as heroic enterprises. Christ and Satan are therefore epic machines.” (Steadman, 268-272).
Although Satan may be an epic machine, he is best portrayed as the tragic anti-hero of Paradise Lost or, at the very least, a main character who possesses the stature and attributes which enable him to achieve tragic status. In the Greek tradition, the essential components of tragedy are admiration, fear and pity for the ‘hero’, who has to display a tragic weakness or flaw in his character, which will lead to his downfall. It might be argued that the flaws in Satan’s character are such that we should feel no admiration, fear or pity for him, yet he can be seen to inspire these emotions. Satan’s tragic flaws are pointed out in Book I, they are envy, pride, and ambition towards self-glorification.
Satan’s pride, in particular, is stressed throughout Paradise Lost. In accordance with epic convention, Satan is frequently qualified by Milton’s use of the word ‘proud’. Virgil used the same device in his epic the Aeneid, in which the name of Aeneas rarely appears without being preceded by ‘pius’. The most striking visual example of Satan’s main weaknesses appears in Book IV (89-90) during Raphael’s narrative to Adam regarding the battles in Heaven, Raphael refers to Satan as ‘the proud/Aspirer’. ‘Proud’ at the end of one line and ‘Aspirer’ at the beginning of the next gives equal emphasis and impact to Satan’s pride and ambition and it is implied that, in Satan, the two characters are inseparable and of equal importance. Milton, in fact, defended his use of blank verse as a suitable vehicle for epic poetry, as opposed to the frequently favored heroic couplet.
How then, does Satan inspire the feelings of admiration, fear and pity necessary to a tragic figure? Milton was, undoubtedly, conscious that he was in danger of portraying Satan as too much of a heroic figure and made efforts to belittle him through the use of unflattering imagery, and by highlighting his less complimentary characteristics. Nonetheless, our emotions are still fired.
Our first encounter with Satan and his rebel hosts occurs in Book I when they are recovering from the shock of having been expelled from heaven by the Son after three days of fighting the angels of God. Despite the defeat he has suffered, Satan gains our admiration by displaying resilience in quickly coming to terms with the change in his circumstances, in remustering his forces and organizing the building of his palace, Pandemonium. At the same time he demonstrates his determination not to be defeated and shows true qualities of leadership, persuasively arguing that there is still hope for battle and victory. Satan is convincing in his first speech to Beelzebub, his chief partner in crime, as he declares:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. (I. 105-111)
The language here is particularly powerful and the lines are extremely weighted, underlining Satan’s resolution. He similarly instills renewed resolve in his followers to challenge God and hope of regaining their former state, claiming that they are now better placed to contend because there is not fear of division in their own ranks (II.11-42). He then gives his supporters the opportunity to speak their minds as to whether to engage in open warfare or in guile to achieve their end, although ultimately they agree the course of action he has pre-planned - that is, to introduce evil on Earth.
In Satan’s speech at the beginning of Book I, Milton emphasizes Satan’s self-glorification. Satan has no dread of being challenged in hell because he sees himself in the most dangerous position and the one to be most severely reprimanded by God.
Satan is daring, which is best demonstrated when the resolve to send someone to investigate Earth has been taken and Satan offers to undertake the task. Milton diminishes Satan’s courage by points out that Satan stands forward with bravado and purely to gain personal glory for any success he might win. Yet, Satan does not volunteer immediately but is only undertaking what his followers are afraid to attempt
Milton’s suggestion is, however, supported by Satan’s speech itself, in which he states that he will go to Earth alone and defies any of his followers to accompany him in case they detract any of the hoped for acclaim from him.
Satan’s courage and daring is restored during Milton’s description of Satan’s journey through Chaos to Earth - in fact, the poet dedicates over 400 lines to it (II.629-1055) - and Satan’s exaggerated claims to his peers of the danger and difficulty of his enterprise when he returns to Hell in Book X after the seduction of Adam and Eve are not without some justification (X.460-80).
In Book IV (917-23) when the angels guarding Paradise confront Satan, Gabriel also belittles Satan by accusing him of being less valiant than his peers and less able to endure the pain of hell. There appears to be some inconsistency during this confrontation between Satan and the angels towards the end of Book IV. Having become even more steadfast in his determination to seduce Adam and Eve against God’s will and now directing his hatred against man also as a result of his envy of their happy state (IV.502-35), it seems inconsistent that the next time he speaks, he is so sensitive to the taunts uttered by Zephon, Ithuriel and Gabriel. Although Satan’s scorn for the angels is still apparent, he stands ‘abashed’ and provides Gabriel with the means by which to insult him (IV.888-90):
Lives there who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from hell,
Though thither doomed?
It is important that we believe in the Satan as portrayed in Books I and II: Milton’s argument depends upon that belief. Satan must be seen as being of sufficient stature to attempt God’s overthrow. If Satan is considered too weak, he can pose no threat to God or to Man and there would be no reason for Milton to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. So while making allowances for
Satan’s arrogance in the opening Books of Paradise Lost, he does give the impression that he is ruling hell and it is not expedient to deliberate to what extent it is possible for Satan to succeed in his quest to corrupt God’s good works with evil.
The very structure of Paradise Lost assists in creating the illusion of Satan’s power, since we first learn of the expulsion of Satan and his followers through the rebels themselves and it is not until much later when Raphael tells Adam of the wars in heaven in Books V and VI
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