Is Satan the True Hero of “Paradise Lost” by John Milton
Paradise Lost by John Milton is a classical work of literature with a detailed plot representing Christian myth. Its look on Satan and his rebellion against God was new for his time and is still discussed by scholars. The reason for this is that, in early books of Milton’s work, Satan is portrayed somewhat sympathetically, causing readers to wonder whether he is the real hero of the story. However, Satan is not the true hero of Paradise Lost but rather a villain, yet he does have strong qualities.
The first book begins with Satan describing his poor situation. Being a great speaker, Satan acts as if he is an innocent party in his conflict with God. This is how Milton describes the fires of Hell: “from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible” (17). Then, having made it obvious for the reader that he suffers in the situation, Satan moves to describing God Himself: his arms are “dire” (Milton 18), he is “our Conquerour” (Milton 19). God, according to Satan, is willing to “over Hell extend His Empire, and with Iron Scepter rule us here” (Milton 41). Thus, Satan portrays himself as a victim of a tyrant, who unjustly exiled him to a horrible place, which He plans to conquer as well. A non-believer or an unknowing reader might be tempted to feel sympathy for the Devil.
Satan admits that God’ side is stronger and will eventually crush him and his followers. Foreseeing that this “must end us, that must be our cure, to be no more” (Milton 37), Satan claims to have “courage never to submit or yield” (Milton 18). Further cementing Satan’s image as a fighter for freedom, Milton reminds the reader of his original nature as an angel and his true form with “all her Original brightness” (Milton 29). Thus, the first and second books of Paradise Lost are dedicated to Satan’s viewpoint. The reader learns of this charismatic character’s plight and his self-proclaimed position as a freedom fighter against a tyrannical God.
With Satan’s primary objective being revenge against God, he dreams of victory. Satan wants to turn “our Tortures into horrid Arms against the Torturer” (Milton 36), again pinning the blame on God as the inventor of torture. However, unable to hurt Heaven, as his own experience proved it impossible, Satan aims to hurt mankind instead: “with Hellfire to waste his whole Creation, or possess All as our own…” (Milton 42). Satan is, thereafter, going to hurt humankind as his move against God, despite humanity having done nothing against him and this measure bringing him no freedom from Hell. This already cracks his “freedom fighter” image, which is contributed by Archangel Gabriel seeing through it: “And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem patron of liberty… servilly ador’d Heav’ns awful Monarch, wherefore but in hope to dispossess him” (Milton 97). Therefore, at this stage of the story, the reader begins to gain access to other characters’ opinions on Satan. It becomes evident that, valid reasons or not, Satan aims to strike against humanity, which is yet innocent, proving that justice is not characteristic for him.
Satan’s plan is realistic, however, as God has left an opening in human nature. As He Himself states, “I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (Milton 61). It is, however, still possible for Man to achieve salvation through “prayer, repentance, and obedience” (Milton 63). Knowing of Satan’s plans, God wants to warn Adam of his intentions and sends Archangel Raphael to do so: “enemie late falln himself from Heaven, is plotting now the fall of others… by deceit and lies” (Milton 104). However, this information causes curiosity in Adam: upon learning of his special role God gave him, he mentions animals as “these inferiour far beneath me” (Milton 163). These words echo what Satan himself later tells Eve, reminding her that she is “in this enclosure wild, these Beasts among”, while she actually deserves to be “a Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d by Angels” (Milton 182). Thus, one of Satan’s arguments actually has its foundation in God’s plan for humans being lords over nature.
After Adam and Eve fall, Satan causes Sin and Death to come to Paradise, realizing his plan of hurting mankind. Having done that, he triumphs over him and his demons having the opportunity “over Man To rule, as over all he should have rul’d” (Milton 208), gloating just as he did during the war in Heaven, when he claimed that angels “shall fear we have disarmd The Thunderer” (Milton 131). Forgetting everything he claimed about wanting to overthrow the tyrannical God and be free, Satan savors his newfound ability to rule over the humans, proving that Archangel Gabriel was right in his regard.
Satan is not the true hero of Paradise Lost, despite how it may seem from the early books. Instead, Milton opts to prove it to the reader that Satan is wrong; the best way to do it is to attempt to prove that Satan is right, first. Thus, the early books have Satan present himself as a prisoner of Hell sent there by an unjust, tyrannical God for wanting to be free. Later, the reader discovers that Satan does not actually want freedom from God, and God is not as horrible as Satan described Him. All Satan wants is power, and to gain it and have a minor revenge against God, he is willing to move against unsuspecting humanity. Thus, Satan is not a hero; he is merely a villain who successfully exploited a weakness in God’s creation, utilizing humans’ pride against them.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost: Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes (Collier Books, HS11. Classic). 4th Printing, Collier Books, 1962.