Satan as the Hero in John Milton's "Paradise Lost"

Term Paper 2017 14 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Introduction

2. John Milton - An overview

3. Paradise Lost and Satan
3.1 Content
3.2 Satan

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

John Milton worte his famous epic poem Paradise Lost at the end of Renaissance. It was published in a first version in 1667, consisting of ten books and in the final version in 1674, consisting of twelve books[1]. Up until today this masterpiece is considered as one of the most famous writings of English literature.

The question of this paper is if the character of Satan can be depicted as an heroic figure and in how far Satan can be described as epic hero. John Milton is forcing the reader of Paradise Lost to consider the possibility that Satan may actually be a hero, or at least a character that might be analysed in a more complex way. The character of Satan uses this tension and provokes the reader. During the 13th up to the 16th century the devil was discussed very frequently among people of all classes. Nevertheless Satan or the devil is afflicted with mostly negative thoughts as he is the antagonist of God[2].

While the question whether Satan being a hero or not is examined in many literary critics and scholars for ages, this question remains disputed. On the one hand it provokes responses that arise from closely held religious or moral values and on the other hand it is a commitment to strict literary interpretation. Paradise Lost, however, tries to make Satan an heroic figure that the reader is able to identify with. As consistently portrayed as something that negates, confuses, misleads and devastates, The character of Satan needs to be analysed in a more global way. In order to search for his motives and methods one has to look for positive aspects of his actions[3]. Milton's Satan, as well as other imaginations of him, were mainly created during this period around the 1660s as a result of the establishment of the Church of England[4].

To get an overview of Satan and his actions in Milton's Paradise Lost this research paper only focuses on the parts of the poem where he is presented, speaking or where he is appearing. At first an overview is given about John Milton and his time. Furthermore the story of Paradise Lost, as well as Satan himself are analysed in a second step of this work. Last but not least I try to answer the initial question whether the Satan of John Milton's work can be depicted as epic hero and why this is the case. Milton allows the reader a much fuller access to Satan and especially to the inner working of Satan's mind[5].

2. John Milton - An overview

For many researchers and literary critics John Milton is or was one of the last humanist who were writing in English even though he chose Italian arts as model for his own poems and writings[6]. Moral truth and not history was his matter in his writings and as a religious person, just like many other people in the seventeenth century, literal truth of the Bible was final what makes the main character of his epic, Satan, an actual existing character[7].

John Milton was born on 9th December 1608 into a Puritan middle-class family and therefore attended church and catechism very regularly during his youth[8]. Although his father expected him to take orders in the church Milton was more into learning. In school he was taught languages, literature and verse writing in Greek and Latin. He even became close friends with two of his teachers[9]. In his youth, growing up in London, he developed certain character traits like

"very exacting standards in personal morality and accomplishment; high expectations for human institutions (schools, marriage, government, the church); a disposition to challenge and resist institutional authorities who fell short of such standards; and a strong need for and high idealism about friendship and love"[10] that lasted forever. Grewing up under a Puritan miniter and living in a hard-working tradesmen family Milton became conscious of political and religious questions and discussions very early in his life. As his father was eager to give his son the best education possible John Milton's childhood was mostly given over to study[11]. Between 1625 and 1632 he went to Cambridge University but was disappointed and "sharply critical of the education he received"[12]. His intention for going to Cambridge was to prepare for ordination and he also hoped to combine his love for poetry and the ministry[13].

Milton travelled on the continent especially from 1638 to 1639 and as he could speak French and Italian he was very well prepared for a journey like this[14]. It were journeys and travels like this that Milton used as a catalyst as he repeatedly left his home and left the isolation of his studies. During these travels he became friends with many people who influenced hin and his writings a lot[15]. During 1645 and 1649 Milton worked as poet, schoolmaster, scholar and head of a growing family. In late 1645 he supposed that the end of the armed conflict of the First English Civil War was in sight and that the moment was just right to take up his poetry again. his intention was to form a new culture with the help of the good art[16]. He also expected a period to come in which poetic activity was on its agenda but at the same time he was not really able to produce any verses because of the circumstances that his in-laws lived in his household as a result of the Civil War. After the king was executed and the situation in his household got back to normal he found new motivation to write as he studied ancient and modern history and politics[17].

Around 1658 Milton began to write his most famous work Paradise Lost. During 1665 and 1669 he finished it and published his work which was mainly written with the help of friends and students. Everything that he learned, experienced, desired and imagined about love, life, artistic creativity, theology, work, history and politics found its way into the writing process[18]. Even in his final years Milton was busy and productive as he was pleasured by the comfort of his home and garden. He also taught some students occasionaly in return for their services in reading and writing for him[19]. He was even able to write the short epic Paradise Regained as a counterpart to his famous masterpiece Paradise Lost. Besides he revised his masterpiece and published a second edition with twelve books in it[20].

The precise date of his death remains unclear as the records do not give any hints on the exact date. It might be the 10th November 1674 or the 9th November 1674. He probably died from renal failure associated with his gout. The place were his body was burried is marked by a stone with the engravement "Near this spot was burried John Milton. Author of Paradise Lost. Born 1608. Died 1674"[21].

In literary history Milton is a more controversial figure than any other English poet. During the English Civil War he was a "propagandist of revolution, a defender of regicide and of the English republic"[22]. On the one hand he was "a sour Puritan, an arrogant and hypocritical male chalvinist who ill-treated his own wife and daughter"[23]. On the other hand he was "a libertine of women, as an advocate of 'divorce at pleasure' and polygamy"[24]. From a historian point of view one is able to explain how Milton came to hold his views at that time and why he changed those views over time. John Milton was not an original thinker. His strength was to combine all those different ideas and concept and relate them to the Bible[25].

3. Paradise Lost and Satan

3.1 Content

As mentioned in the introduction John Milton's final version of Paradise Lost was published in 1674. This version consists of twelve books describing the First Book of Moses which deals with the rebellion of Satan and ends with the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise[26]. The text is written in blank verse which means that there are is no rhyme sceme. The fact that John Milton uses this type of writing indicates that his work should be a drama in the first place[27]. In this work of Milton in particular it is very hard to distinguish between the author and the speaker or between the poet and the narrator. It seems to be impossible to say whether Milton is author and speaker in Paradise Lost at the same time. He uses first-person singular pronouns very often in his text and also refers to himself by self-descriptions and facts of the author's life[28].

[...] Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,/ Sing heavenly muse, that on the secret top [...] Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song, [...] Instruct me, for thou O spirit, that dost prefer [...] I may assert eternal providence,/ And justify the ways of God to men [...][29].

Paradise Lost begins with the perspective of Satan[30] and narrates in the following books five to eight the fall of Satan and the creation of the world[31]. The last four books of Milton's Paradise Lost describe the fall of mankind, as well as the banishment from paradise[32]. The speaking voice begins the story with the statement that his subject will be Adam's and Eve's insubordination and the fall of mankind, "Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/ With the loss of Eden, till one greater man/ Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, [...]"[33]. The narrator mentions a "heavenly muse"[34] and asks for help in relating his ambitious story and God’s plan for humankind, "[...] Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song [...]"[35]. In order to analyse the character of Satan, this overview will just focus on the main parts where he appears.

The actual story of Paradise Lost begins with Satan and the rebelling angels who have joined him chained to a lake of fire in Hell. The fire of this lake does not illuminate the dark but spread darkness, "[...] To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire, [...] A dungeon horrible, on all sides round/ As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible [...]"[36]. Shortly after this they free themselves and fly to land where they are able to discover minerals in order to construct Pandemonium, a meeting place for Satan and his fallen angels who are now devils[37]. In order to begin a new war with God Beezelbub suggests that they attempt to empoison God's new creation, the human race or in other words Adam and Eve, "[...] Some advantageous act may be achieved/ By sudden onset, either with hellfire/ To waste his whole creation, or possess/ All as our own, and drive as we were driven,/ The puny habitants, or if not drive,/ Seduce them to our party [...]"[38]. Satan agrees, and volunteers to go himself. As he prepares to leave Hell, he is met at the gates by his children, Sin and Death, who follow him and build a bridge between Hell and Earth,

[...] Sin and Death amain/ Following his track, such was the will of heaven,/ Paved after him a broad and beaten way/ Over the dark abyss, whose boiling gulf/ Tamely endured a bridge of wondrous length/ From hell continued reaching the utmost orb/ Of this frail world [...][39].

Meanwhile in heaven God tells his angels about the plan and intention of Satan when his son volunteers to make the sacrifice for humankind, "[...] Which of ye will be mortal to redeem [...] Behold me then, me for him, life for life/ I offer, on me let thine anger fall;/ Account me man; I for his sake will leave [...]"[40]. After tricking the Archangel Uriel, who stands guard at the sun, Satan reaches the paradise, where he takes a moment to reflect[41]. He also decides to make eveil his good, "[...] Evil be thou my good [...]"[42].


[1] cf. Weidle, Roland (2013). Englische Literatur der Frühen Neuzeit. Eine Einführung. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, p. 116.

[2] cf. Flusser, Vilém (1993). Die Geschichte des Teufels. Göttingen: European Photography, p. 8.

[3] cf. ibid.

[4] cf. Rosenfeld, Nancy (2008). The Human Satan in Seventeenth-Century English Literature. From Milton to Rochester. Hampshire: Ashgate, p. 1.

[5] cf. Hopkins, David (2013). Reading Paradise Lost. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 26.

[6] cf. Partridge, A.C. (1971). The language of Renaissance Poetry. Spencer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton. London: Andre Deutsch Limited, p. 261.

[7] cf. ibid, p. 291.

[8] cf. Lewalski, Barbara (2000). The Life of John Milton. A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 2 - 4.

[9] cf. ibid., p. 1.

[10] cf. ibid.

[11] cf. Lewalski (2000), pp. 4 - 5.

[12] ibid., p. 15.

[13] cf. ibid.

[14] cf. ibid., p. 87.

[15] cf. ibid., pp. 87 - 88.

[16] cf. ibid., pp. 198 - 199.

[17] cf. ibid., p. 199.

[18] cf. ibid., p. 442.

[19] cf. ibid., p. 489.

[20] cf. Lewalski (2000), p. 489.

[21] ibid., p. 538.

[22] Hill, Christopher (1977). Milton and the English Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, p. 1.

[23] ibid.

[24] ibid., p. 2.

[25] cf. ibid., p. 6.

[26] Milton, John (2005). Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[27] cf. Weidle (2013), p. 116.

[28] cf. Fallon, Stephen (2014). Milton as Narrator in Paradise Lost. In: Schwartz, Louis (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Paradise Lost. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 3.

[29] Milton (2005), pp. 17 - 18, ll. 5 - 36.

[30] cf. ibid., pp. 13 - 133.

[31] cf. ibid., pp. 135 - 241.

[32] cf. ibid., pp. 243 - 369.

[33] ibid., p. 17, ll. 1 - 5.

[34] ibid., l. 6.

[35] ibid., p. 18, l. 13.

[36] ibid., p. 19, ll. 52 - 63.

[37] cf. Milton (2005), p. 38, ll. 752 - 766.

[38] ibid., p. 55, ll. 364 - 377.

[39] ibid., pp. 73 - 74, ll. 1024 - 1030.

[40] ibid., pp. 85 - 86, ll. 214 - 238.

[41] cf. ibid., pp. 98, ll. 656 - 742.

[42] ibid., p. 108, l. 110.


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Renaissance Poetry Renaissance Poetry Literature Literature Studies John Milton Milton Satan Satan as Hero Paradise Lost



Title: Satan as the Hero in John Milton's "Paradise Lost"