The argument over who is the true protagonist of Paradise Lost, has been brewing for centuries. One would gather that Milton, a Puritan, would have no problem casting God as the hero, and Satan as the antagonist. But looking back in history, Milton saw that most epic heroes had conflicts that prevented them from accomplishing their goals. God and his Son have no conflict, and Adam’s story doesn’t really begin until the Fall of Man. Therefore, Milton was forced to select Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost because he adheres to the guidelines of epic poetry set by Homer, Vergil and others. There many examples of how Milton uses and edits the tradition of these previous epics in the formation of the Devil as a hero.
One of the most basic examples of heroism in epic poetry is the exhortation of the leader to his followers. In The Odyssey, Homer lets Odysseus give a speech that would convince anyone they could survive the journey to the Strait of Messina,”Then we die with our eyes open , if we are going to die, or know what death we baffle if we can.(ln.1243-1245)” After passing the Sirens, the ship approaches the Strait, and the crew sees the twin terrors of Scylla and Charybdis, they are mortified. Odysseus again lifts their spirits with this speech,
“Friends, have we ever been in danger before this? More fearsome, is it now, than when the Cyclops penned us in his cave? What power he had! Did I not keep my nerve, and use my wits to find a way out for us? Heads up, lads! We must now obey orders as I give them.(1294-1302)”
Here Odysseus shows the true ability of a hero to lead in the face of adversity. Of course Odysseus had the assurance that he would survive the journey and his crew will not, but that does not stop him from leading them.
In Paradise Lost, this device is used in the opening scene. After suffering a major defeat at the hands of the Almighty and his angels, Satan awakens in a lake of fire. He first speaks to Beelzebub, his second in command, telling him,
“All is not lost, the unconquerable Will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield: and what else is not to be overcome? Since by Fate the strength of Gods and Empyreal substance cannot fail, Since though experience of this great event in Arms not worse, in foresight much advance’s, We may with more successful hope resolve to wage by force or guile eternal War irreconcilable, to our grand Foe, who now triumphs, and in th’excess of joy sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.(106-109,116-124)”
Beelzebub, perhaps showing signs of little faith in his leader (like Odysseus’ crew), raises some important questions.
“What if he our Conqueror, (whom I now of force believe Almighty, since no less than such could have o’erpow’r’d such force as ours) have
left us this our spirit and strength entire strongly to suffer and support our pains, that we may so suffice his vengeful ire, or do him mightier
service as his thralls by right of War, whate’er his business be, here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire, Or to do his errands in the gloomy Deep; What can it then avail though yet we feel Strength undiminisht, or eternal being to undergo eternal punishment?(143-155)”
Satan, as any good leader would, quickly allays his companion’s fear with more speech. During the speech, Satan casts doubts about God’s supremacy and boldly states that they are better off where they are, “Here at least we shall be free Here we may reign secureBetter to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.(258-263)” Beelzebub is taken aback by Satan’s words and awakens all of the fallen angels. Once Satan has their attention, he rouses these fallen angels with another speech, asking
“How such united force of Gods, how such stood like these, could ever know repulse? For who can yet believe, though after loss, that all these puissant Legions, whose exile hath emptied Heav’n, shall fail to re-ascend self-raised, and repossess their native seat.(629-634)”
Finally, at the end his speech, Satan sets them all on their course of conflict, “Peace is despaired, for who can think of Submission? War then, War open or understood, must be resolved.(660-662)” The fallen angels respond with a rowdy confirmation, waving their swords in the and hurling defiance at Heaven.
Milton has given you Satan in the tradition of the epic hero. Even though he knows Satan is not the “good-guy”, he does possess some of the qualities of a hero.
He is the pinnacle of the assembled crew, hailed even by enemies as the strongest of the lot. All the angels face a bad situation (exile in Hell) and yet Satan exhorts them all with a speech. He recounts how they survived some bad encounters in the past, and then says they will survive their present predicament. His speech also spurns the angels into some positive action. The action of war against God sets a task out in front of Satan. This quest allows Satan to fulfill another quintessential element of the epic hero.
In almost every epic ever written the hero has to overcome obstacles that stand in their way to complete their daunting task. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is away from his home 20 years, 10 fighting the Trojan War and another 10 years trying desperately to get back home. Odysseus quest or journey is to travel against the will of Poseidon to get back home to Ithaca. The invocation of the muses, describes most but not all of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus.
“Tell me the story of a man skilled in all ways of contending the wanderer, harried for years on end after he plundered the stronghold of Troy. He saw the townlands and learned the minds of many distant men, and weathered many bitter nights and days in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only to save his life, to bring his shipmates home. But not by will or valor could he save them(1-10)”
Odysseus’ obstacles can be traced back to a mistake he made when he blinded Polyphemos and let his pride get the best of him, announcing to the Cyclops his real name. This allowed Poseidon to enact Polyphemos’ wrath on Odysseus, vowing that he
would never see his home again. But Odysseus does conquer those obstacles and finally makes it home.
Satan can be said to have the same flaw as Odysseus. He, in part, is the cause of his own demise. Had Satan served God willfully, the war never would have raged in Heaven, and Satan and his Army never would’ve been thrown in the fiery pits of Hell. However, without that action Satan would not be a hero. His being in Hell leads to him realize his purpose, to corrupt the new type of being God has created on Earth. Satan’s journey can be said to be some of Milton’s most “original” piece of writing, because nobody had ever written about Satan’s journey so intricately as Milton. To quote Isabel MacCaffrey,
“The voyage of Books II and III is Milton’s greatest “original” creation. There was precedent for the journey motif in epic tradition, but no real parallel to a voyage by Satan in the Christian literature on which Milton drew.(29)”
Unlike most epic heroes, Satan does not necessarily come out on top at the end of his journey/quest. This is where many are quick to judge and point out that since Satan losses, he can not be an epic hero. Milton intended for Satan to lose, after all, the epic is based on the Bible and is meant to “justify the ways of God to man.(26)” Milton was merely explaining that Satan both won and lost. He won in the hero sense by completing his task of corrupting Adam & Eve, which allowed Sin and Death to enter the world. But he lost in more ways than one. One of Milton’s central themes is that God knows what
Satan will do before he actually does it. This is where Milton’s poetic side and his religious side clash. It creates a hypocritical division because Milton wants to show that God is All-Knowing(Satan is just hunk of mass with no free will) and that Satan is our epic hero(Satan is head the rebel angels). Satan also loses because of the fact that 1)due to his trickery he would be a snake forever and 2)The Son was going to come down to earth and die to save Adam & Eve, so that Satan’s action would be eliminated.
Break down Paradise Lost to it bare bones, removing all religious overtones, and you have yourself an epic poem, plain and simple. The hero of this poem is a man named Satan who is banished for challenging the leadership of the clan. This man Satan makes a vow to destroy or corrupt anything created by the clan. This Satan was resourceful, making the best of what he had, very little, and accomplishing his goal. Satan may just be the nonconformist who couldn’t abide by what was considered normal. In any case one must show their admiration for Satan in his unwillingness to serve in Heaven, and then in the way he accepted his resulting role in Hell.