Satan: Epic Hero or Villain?
John Milton wrote one of the greatest epic poems of all time when he wrote
Paradise Lost in 1667. The book tells about man’s creation and fall while detailing
characters and the plot beyond what the Bible taught. One of these characters is Satan,
which is one of the most argumented, controversial, and popular characters in the history
of literature. The reason for controversary is the unclarity of whether or not Satan is a
hero or a villain. He contains many qualities that distinguish him as a hero. On the other
hand he also has qualities which say he is a villain. Scholars have written over time to
support each argument of hero or villain and have explained why Milton decided to
create such a character.
In Paradise Lost there are many times where we see Satan partaking in heroic
acts. His bravery and heroism is shown when he encounters Sin and Death at the gates of
Whence and what art thou, execrable Shape,
That dar’st, though grim and terrible, advance
Thy miscereated front athwart my way
To yonder gates? Through them I meant to pass,
That be assured, without leave asked of thee.
Retire, or taste they folly, and learn by proof,
Hell-born, not to contend with the Spirits of Heaven.
This shows us Satan not being scared to fight. He looks Death right in the face
and says that he doesn’t get out of the way he will physically move him out of the way.
By this readers are not impressed because it is only Satan, but a great heroic figure like
Odysseus would get praised for this. Satan is marked villain because of his reputation.
But it is obvious that Satan is a hero for he contains so many heroic characteristicts.
Another instance in the book in which Satan shows his heroism is when he is leading the
charge against Michael. A regular soldier would stay in the back of the army or linger
around in the middle of the pack. But not Satan, he is right there in the front of the
swarm leading his men. He has no hesitations even though he knows that he has very
little chance to win. He would never show his men fear and by this he leads the charge
and gives him men confidence. This is only something in which a hero would do. This
is something in which Odysseus a great hero had done.
Satan also shows that he was smart and knew what to do in a complicated
situation. This is shown when he is in battlle against the good angels, and Satan invents
the cannon. We see the genius in Satan but he is still denied the title of hero. Any other
person would be considered a hero for doing something great like this, but not Satan. But
it is so hard not to see him as one for all the heroic things he did.
In the book we see Satan’s heroic qualities when he talks to his devils giving
them passion and confidence.
I should be much open for war, O Peers,
As no behind in hate, if what was urged
Main reason to persuade immediate war
Did not dissuade me most, and seem to cast
Ominous conjecture on the whole success..
Worth waiting, since our present lot appears
For happy thought but ill, for ill not worst,
I we procure not to ourselves more woe.
In this we see that Satan has great leadership qualities. He has the great
leadership as many other heroes of literature. He talks to his men with great passion and
desire, this allows them to feel every word that he is saying. When he finally finishes,
they are ready to attack heaven. He has the attention of the devils so greatly that they feel
his words and want to live them out immediately. This great quality is shared again with
Odysseus as he had the same great charisma when he rallied his troops before battle in
the underworld. Satan’s leadership is first seen when he stands up and takes control and
leadership over all the devils. By this we see that Satan has the urge to lead and be in
control of the situation. He would rather have it in his hands than someone elses. Yet he
isn’t given the credit he well deserves.
Satan possesses another heroic quality and this is pride. He shows great pride
throughout the story and it is most seen when he admits he misses God’s grace.
…How dearly I adide that boast so vain,
Under what torments inwardly I groan;
While they adore me on the throne of Hell,
With diadem and sceptre high advanced,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery-such joy ambition finds!
But say I could repent, and could obtain…
In this we see that Satan admits that he misses God, yet he is still too proud to beg
for forgiveness and to return to heaven. He shows that he would rather rule in hell then
to serve in heaven. This great pride is heroic but because he is Satan it is something that
is horrible. Satan is also a crafty and wise character. He is able to do whatever is
necessary to get the job done. We see this when he lures Eve into eating the forbidden
Thou cast who arst sole wonder, much less arm
Thy looks, the heaven of mildness, with disdain,
Displeased that I approach thee thus, and gaze
Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feared
Thy awful brow, more awful thus retired.
Dairest resemblance of they Maker fair,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy celestial beauty adore,…
Satan showed his great charisma and inspiring behavior not only in good times
but in bad times. When the devils were losing to the good angels in heaven, Satan was
still able to use his great ability and show that he hadn’t been rattled. He was still trying
to give confidence to his soldiers and he gave a speech which inspired a great number of
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
to pieces and o’erwhelm watever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmed
The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.
Nor long shall be our labour, yet ere dawn
Effect shall end our wish. Meanwhile revive,
Abandon fear; to strength and counsel joined
Think nothing hard, much less to be despaired.
This shows that even though they were being defeated greatly Satan was still
trying to give confidence to his men and make them believe that they did in fact have a
good chance of winning.
Scholars have contributed their opinion in the role of Satan that he is a hero in the
poem. “With the Prince of Hell Milton reverses the functions and correspndingly the
characteristicts, stressing thoseappropriate to an epic antagonist and underplaying though
incorporating those of an example of evil.” (Kaston 58)
Kaston is saying in the poem Milton totally reverses the beliefs which have
always been associated with Satan. Everyone has alwasy portrayed Satan as evil and as
the villain of everything. But Milton has used him as a hero who was doing something in
which everyone thought was evil. Satan’s actual attemp to defeat god was evil but all the
qualities in which Satan showed us were not evil. All the leadership qualities and acts
are showing us that he is in fact a hero.
Another scholar which writes that Satan was in fact a hero was A.J.A Waldorle.
Dryden thought the Devil was Milton’s hero,
and we must agree that he was, if we are thinking
in terms of if he was a saint who foils the knight
and drives him out of his stronghold.
Warldorle is saying that Satan is a hero in terms of someone who was a great
knight and was able to become a great leader.
“According to Tertivillain, the Devil was good until the day when he was jealous
of Adam’s destiny, and it was jealousy that was his first sin.” (Coulange 10) In this
Coulange is saying that Satan was a hero until he was jealous of Adam. But it still shows
that he was a hero before this. Before this was the Satan’s great attempt to take over the
realm of God and to be the ruler in heaven.
“As epic antangonist, the Prince is above all an impressive leader, as general of the army
of Hell and as director of the Stygian Council. Almost everything about him bespeaks as
a great epic warrior; he gains additional stature by being the leader of an army which
althogh recently defeated is presented as greater by far than any human force.” (Koston
58) Here we see that Koston is saying that Satan was a great epic warrior and leader by
leading an army which was greater than any human force. Even though he was defeated
Satan is a hero because of the great leader in which he was. The loss in the war is
overshadowed by how great a leader Satan was.
” The obdurate pride and stedfast hate of the prnce characterize him far more
convincingly than they do the archangel. His sense of heroic action, honor, and glory
mixed with ferocity and anger filled revenge make him an Achilles magnified a hundred
fold, so that as he steps from the stygian Council he not the archangel is the true epic
antagonist in Heaven.” (Lewis 121)
This shows that Satan is the hero in the poem. He compares Satan to Achilles but a
hundred times greater. This is a great compliment to the heroism of Satan. The
greatness of Satan is so great that it compared to a hundred times that of Achilles. Now
that is some great company which tells us Satan belongs as the hero.
Even though there is all this evidence of Satan being a hero there are still many
people who feel that Satan was in fact the villain of Paradise Lost. Satan is said to be
the villain mainly because he goes against God and tries to overthrow the most powerful
being in the world. Satan’s own determination allows him to feel that he is greater than
God and able to take over allows him to become the villain in people’s minds and this
gives him his bad reputation forever.
Maximilian Rudin, a scholar, writes, “The downfall of the Devil is, according to the
Church authority, attributed to self conceit.” (Rudwin 6) This can not be considered
something that would go against the idea of Satan as a hero because pride is a trait of
every hero so it can not be used against Satan. Father Louis Coulange is convinced that
that Satan is a villain.
“The Devil of the Christian Church is an evil being” (Coulange A) Although this is true,
it can not be considered in the case of Paradise Lost because this is a conventional view
of Satan and does not take into consideration all of Satan’s actions in the poem. Coulange
also states that “Since his gall, the former prince of the heavenly spirits has used his
power only for evil.” (Coulange 29) This is true depending on what angle you look at it
from. It is true that Satan went to Eden with the intention of deceiving Eve and he did go
to war with heaven. He is also considered the villain because of his first sin: jealously.
Coulange writes “the Devil was good until the day when he was jealous of Adam’s
destiny, and it was jealousy that was his first sin.” (Coulange 10) This can be considered
a valid point but all humans have committed this sin and not all humans are considered
villains so it is not really that strong of an argument. Reverend Jewett also has the notion
that Satan is a villain.
“The devil is the implacable enemy of the human race and especially of believers whom
he desires to devour.”(Jewett 84)
Jewett feels that Satan is a villain because he is the enemy. He is the enemy to the
human race and to everyone who is a believer in him. Satan is a villain because he lures
people into believing him and the bad things in which he represents.
” Anyone who refuses to accept the tradition of the four canonical gospels and despises
companions of the lord despises Christ himself, he even despises the father, and he is self
condemnded, resisting and refusing his own salvation, as all the heretics do. (Forsyth
348) This says that anyone who goes against God is a villain. This is what Satan has
done and is why he is a villain no matter what other qualities he may have.
“The more Satan rejcts the order of things by asserting his own angelic natre, the more he
accomplishes his own unfulfillment the more the demons attempt to reasend, the more
they achiever their own self-damnation.” (Jewett 20)
This says that the more Satan rejected the order of things the more he became a villain.
The more and more he began to want things his way the more of a villainous character he
became. “Even the being of nature of Satan as originally crated was thus met as
physically considered good. But from self-determination and choice of opposition onto
God, and the conservatoins of holiness in his nature morally considered has become
changed.” (Jewett 91) This states that Satan was originally good but from his own choice
and decision to go against God he then turned into the villain. If he had not made that
decision he would have been a good person but once he chose to go against the great God
he had turned into the villain and will always be looked at as the villain.
“”The Devil of the Christain Church is an evil being. But he has not always been such.
His perversity is his own personal fault. He was good in the beginning and it was a sin
which made him what he is now.” (Coulange A) Coulange is saying that the devil was
good until his own mistakes made him into the villain he is. If it weren’t for his own
personal fault he would have stayed good and would never have been the villain. His
original sin is what has made him into the villain which he is in everyone’s mind. The
original sin that he made has allowed him to be given such a stereotype for all this time.
“From the fact that the Devil sinned form the beginning and that pride is the begfginning
of all sin it was inferred that the Devil’s sin was pride.” (Rudwin 91) Here is another
example in which Satan’s fault was his original sin and this is what lead him to be
labeled the villain time and time again. There is nothing he could have done about it
once he let out his original sin, from there he just took off and never looked back and will
be considered villain in many peoples minds forever.
Many people have mixed views of what Satan was in Paradise Lost. Even though
there were examples trying to prove him as a villain I feel that he was the hero of the
book. He had many courageous and brave scenes where only a hero could have done
some of the things he did. A regular person would not have been able to make an army
feel that they can defeat God. Only a hero could do such a thing and only a hero would
be willing to lead the charge against the greatest power in the world.