Literary heroism typically refers to a character being admired for their courage, achievements or noble qualities. However, there are many interpretations of what a hero can be defined as depending on the context.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the character of Satan tends to be pigeonholed into an archetype of the devil, with readers often discrediting the nuance of Satan, falling into a trap of dichotomous religious morality. The notions of literary heroism in relation to Satan can be explored through: the lens’ of Christianity, tragedy, epic poetry and comparison within the text itself. Within a Christian context it is inherently difficult to picture Milton’s character of Satan as a hero, particularly when looking at scripture that consistently aligns negative attributes with the devil: ‘Death came into the world only through the Devil’s envy, as those who belong to him find to their cost.’ (Wisdom 2:24) Milton’s portrait of Satan also parallels biblical depictions of the devil by displaying the explicit intent to cause harm unto God’s creation:The Garden describ’d; Satan’s first sight of Adam and Eve; his wonder at thir excellent form and happy state, but with resolution to work thir fall; overhears thir discourse, thence gathers that the Tree of knowledge was forbidden them to eat of, under penalty of death; and thereon intends to found his Temptation, by seducing them to transgress (PL, IV. 116)Here, Satan is unequivocally presented as bitter and spiteful or, as it could be described, “biblically unheroic” due to the fact that Milton directly juxtaposes Adam and Eve’s bliss to Satan’s desire to destroy that paradise. Milton creates an image of Satan as plotting; hidden in the shadows of The Garden as a lowly figure, which does not typify the stereotype of a traditional biblical hero. The acts of temptation and seduction employed by Satan also contrast this idea of religious heroism, being under-zealous for conventional heroic acts in the name of Christianity. The ultimate hero in a Christian context would arguably be God, yet the harsh acts that he undertakes in the bible are presented as retribution, whereas Satan’s acts are seen as revenge against God.
Moreover, when looking at depictions of Hell in Revelation, it is clear to see that anyone who resides there is suffering for their sins: ‘The smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. They will have no respite night or day’. (Revelation 14:11) Hence, the first description of hell in Paradise Lost aligns with Christian scripture:No light, but rather darkness visible Serv’d only to discover sights of woe, Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes that comes to all; but torture without end still urges…as far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost pole. (PL, I. 9)The description of Hell consistent with the bible as a tortuous place suggests a religious opinion that Satan is deserving of suffering, and therefore cannot be a hero.
However, although Paradise Lost is based on Christian texts, the argument of Satan’s heroism should not be saturated with Christian justification. What a 17th century Christian would define as heroic is drastically different to an established critic of epic-poetry or a modern-day reader of thriller and action novels. It is important to remember the genre of Paradise Lost when critiquing Satan’s heroism, which is after all, an epic-poem. Within epic-poetry, protagonism is inherently tied to heroism, so it could be said that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost purely on the basis that he is the main character. Yet, he does not behave in the classical heroic manner of ‘the physically perfect young hero dying for fame and escaping maturation…
by achieving a ‘good death that ends his physical history in combat’. After all, Satan does not die in Paradise Lost, but rather faces an eternity of suffering. If we are to look at other unconventional epics, Belinda from Rape of the Lock is satirised as a typical Homeric protagonist, which inherently makes her the protagonist of the mock-epic, despite behaviour inconsistent with classical epic heroes. Looking at the parallel between the mock-epic Rape of the Lock and Paradise Lost, Neil Forsyth states that ‘perhaps it is closer to the mark to call Satan a parody of the epic hero, as most respectable critics have done for over a century’.
However, heroism within epic poetry can be attributed to the classical narrative of battle, full of pain and loss, not the epic form itself. Perhaps the morality of actions is irrelevant to the heroism of a character, because there are few perfectly moral characters in classical epics. Hence, to strip Satan of hero status would be unequal in treatment to his equally violent epic counterparts, like Achilles and Hector. Critics like Gardner suggest that focusing on Satan’s malice seems ‘curiously irrelevant’ while he still suffers ‘enormous pain and eternal loss’, yet does not label him as an epic hero, but instead as ‘a figure of heroic magnitude and heroic energy’. Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a hero within the context of epic poetry, and there is relevance to Garner’s nuanced argument, it does pose the question of: if Satan suffers like any other epic hero, why should he not be remembered like one? Typically, Satan’s acts of violence are deemed as ethically worse than that of classical epic heroes, largely due to Satan’s religious vilification. However, when viewed outside of the Christian and poetic lens’, Satan does display heroic features in line with a more generalised view of heroism.
If a hero is to be synonymous, at least partially, with being a leader, then Satan’s following shows that he is a trusted and heroic character to the other fallen angels:He spake: and to confirm his words out-flew Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze Far round illumin’d hell: highly they rag’d Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arm’s Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war, Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n (PL, I. 33) The followers are described as ‘millions of flaming swords’ which creates an image of an army with Satan as the head of it. This is indicative of a faith that the followers have in Satan because they would have followed him to Hell for a reason and to them, he is their hero. The feeling that unites this army is one of ‘defiance towards the vault of Heav’n’; yet, although this is a feeling shared by all in Hell, Satan still emerges as their leader, showing that even in rebellion, a natural hero will emerge for the rest to look up to.
Another angle to look at Satan as a hero from, is to presume he is fighting against something which he deems as evil: God. From a Christian standpoint it seems blasphemous to suggest that God is evil, yet it can be argued that as an omniscient leader, God knowingly created evil in Satan, and therefore takes partial credit for the pain he inflicts upon the world. The problem of free-will is introduced in Paradise Lost, suggesting that all things are ‘sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’ (PL, III. 88), concluding in a hypocrisy that God is both the omniscient and omnipotent creator, yet the evil actions of his creations are not his fault, but attributed to their free will. David Scott Kastan questions: ‘Why isn’t God responsible for evil, if he created Satan, could have kept him chained, allowed his hypocrisy to be undetectable, and, even after Adam and Eve’s fall, allowed him to resume his shape shifting form?’. If we are to follow Kastan’s criticism of God being partially evil due to his role as creator, then perhaps his adversary Satan could be partially heroic from the perspective of his followers. Another heroic quality of Satan is his ability to take responsibility for his followers, showing a desire to protect them even to his own detriment: ‘A faithful Leader, not to hazard all Through wayes of danger by himself untri’d.
I therefore, I alone undertook to wing the desolate Abyss’. (PL, IV. 155) Satan clearly values the support of his followers and wants to repay that loyalty by being a ‘faithful Leader’, risking his own life in order to protect the lives of those who stand with him. It seems that Satan is aware of the dangers he will face, but chooses to face them alone in a selfless manner that can be described as conventionally heroic.
However, C.S Lewis raises an interesting point that ‘Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests him,’ which is getting revenge on God. Some may argue that Satan’s desire to “take responsibility” is actually a megalomaniac’s justification for desiring glory, aligning with Lewis’ belief that a fallen angel and a fallen man, although alike, are not equally damned, because Satan is inherently evil and chooses to be so.
This archetype of the selfish devil, focused on ‘one thing’ does not take into account Milton’s inclusion of selfless and heroic moments in Paradise Lost that humanise Satan, giving him unprecedented nuance.Moreover, in Book 10 Satan, in heroic style, attempts to inspire his followers with a speech detailing their achievements:I call ye and declare ye now, returnd Successful beyond hope, to lead ye forth Triumphant out of this infernal Pit Abominable, accurst, the house of woe, and Dungeon of our Tyrant: Now possess, As Lords, a spacious World, to our native Heaven Little inferiour, by my adventure hard With peril great atchiev’d… Ye have th’ account Of my performance: What remains, ye Gods, But up and enter into full bliss. (PL, X. 361-363)This unifying speech of the battle’s successes typifies the literary war hero, much alike Henry V’s speech at the Battle of Agincourt. Addressing an army in such a way post-battle affirms the self-assurance and leadership skills needed of a conventionally defined hero.
Contrastingly, Milton directly juxtaposes this moment of heroic strength with the transformation of Satan and his followers into snakes:So having said, a while he stood, expecting Thir universal shout and high applause To fill his eare, when contrary he hears On all sides, from innumerable tongues, A dismal universal hiss, the sound Of public scorn; he wonderd, but not long Had leasure, wondring at himself now more; His visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare, His Armes clung to his Ribs, his Leggs entwining eachother, till supplanted down he fell A monstrous Serpent (PL, X. 363)From the perspective of tragedy, this moment is indicative of Satan’s hamartia, not stripping his ability to be a tragic hero, but instead displaying that not all heroes are moral compasses and they can possess typical heroic characteristics whilst simultaneously being flawed characters.There are numerous links between the tragic heroism of Satan and Shakespeare’s tragic hero Macbeth, in particular concerning their hunger for power and the way in which they both lose a grip of their dominion. Wagen K. Edward states that: ‘Macbeth, as Lucifer, the morning star, was brightest of the angels before his glory was darkened by his fall, but, as a result of his sinful ambition, he becomes ‘black Macbeth’ than whom ‘in the legions of horrid hell’ is no ‘devil more damn’d n evils’.
While this peripeteia is evident in both Macbeth and Satan, a tragic hero is also typified by anagnorisis. The anagnorisis of both Macbeth and Satan stands to highlight their heroism because it shows a nuanced representation of their downfalls. When Macbeth is haunted by his murders and when Satan is reminded ‘both of lost happiness and lasting pain’ (PL, I. 8), both the characters acknowledge their roles in their own punishment. It cannot be disputed that Macbeth and Satan alike ‘were the brightest stars of their respective firmaments before their falls, and afterwards they were darkest’ but what is questionable is whether their self-awareness of their actions places more blame upon them or redeems them as heroes.Ultimately, being a literary hero will depend upon the perspective through which it is viewed, and there is no doubt that the general association of Satan will not be to heroism, entirely due to the religious nature of Paradise Lost. However, Milton’s most famous work, although based off the Old Testament, is fundamentally a fictional text and should be treated as such, regardless of religious associations of God and Satan as the binaries of morality; the embodiments of good and bad.
In Paradise Lost,