When one considers the idea of a hero in the classical sense, images of Odysseus or Aeneas immediately come to mind. These heroes are considered such because of their bravery in the face of adversity, their will for self-sacrifice, and willingness to work for a greater good. However, one would not normally consider Satan to be a hero; on the contrary, in religious theology, Satan is “a personification of the force of evil itself” (Russell 23). How could one even possibly conceive Satan as a heroic character? John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, however, displays Satan in a heroic light, depicting the Biblical story of the Fall of Man from the perspective of Satan as a protagonist. Though evil, Satan possesses many heroic qualities and it is primarily due to his own fatal flaw that he ultimately becomes the twisted, malevolent figure he is understood to be today, suggesting that everyone is susceptible to corruption even when one believes one is doing the right thing.
First, the definition of “hero” must be explained in order to reconcile and conflate Satan with characters like Heracles. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hero as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability” and “the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work”. A hero is not necessarily good, but heroes are often depicted as good. It is far easier to empathize and connect with a protagonist who has similar moral values to one’s own beliefs, than a protagonist who is far different; selfishness and pride are qualities one does not prefer to see in one’s self. Why should we, then, consider evil characters as heroes? It is because a subjective perspective decides who is a hero. One concept must be considered when contemplating the idea of a hero: sonder. Sonder is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness” (Rouviere). Everyone is the hero of their own story; no one would consider him or herself a villain. One believes that one is doing the right thing, according to their own belief system and moral philosophy. To say who is, objectively, a hero or a villain, good or evil, is difficult to say. A hero to one is a villain to another. A hero may also have certain qualities which elevate him above the common man. Some of these aspects include, “Learn about the world around you…Become a leader at sharing ideas and dreams…[and] A strong commitment often requires deep personal sacrifice” (Kile). These are upstanding qualities, which, as will be demonstrated, are possessed by Satan in Paradise Lost.
After the invocation of the muse, Paradise Lost opens with Satan talking before the legions of Hell. Satan had been cast out from Heaven for being “an arrogant angel who defied his commander in Heaven” (Feldkamp 6). Believing that he should not be controlled by the Son, as God had commanded that the Son shall reign over the angels, “Satan refuses to surrender his personal freedom or to submit to what he regards as the illegitimate reign of the Son, and he appeals to the other angels to do the same” (Hoyt). Satan fails in his rebellion, and he and the angels who joined him are cast out from Heaven. Satan’s pride, which later manifests itself as hubris, is at first a strong and good quality. Satan believes that his rights are going to be taken over by a strong-armed dictator of sorts and believes that he can do a better job of ruling. It’s a common story, that of a man refusing to bow to tyranny and defeating it to become a free person. However, because the tyranny he is rebelling against is that of God, the omnibenevolent ruler of Heaven, Satan is instantly characterized as opposing the good nature of God, thus making Satan evil. God is not, however, truly heroic. Because God is also omnipotent, He can accomplish anything easily and without risking anything. Without that risk of self-sacrifice, God cannot be a hero. Satan risks his station in Heaven as one of God’s trusted angels in order to fight for personal freedom. This makes him appealing as a hero; he will do anything to fight for what he believes in.
Satan is not alone in his imprisonment in Hell. In his rebellion against God, Satan led a legion of angels against the armies of Heaven. When Satan was cast down to Hell, the rebel angels joined him and became the demons who serve him. His council consists of great evils like Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, who call Satan “Our envied Sovran”, their lord and leader (Milton I.244). The demons speak of Satan with great reverence and respect, as they believe in his cause. His ideals are the ideals of his followers, allowing him to command great legions to fulfill his orders. Satan not only embodies the heroic quality of self-sacrifice, but his ability to command the armies of Hell shows his aspects of leadership.
Satan makes a commitment to attaining vengeance on God for the punishment of his rebellion, by deciding to corrupt the newest, and potentially greatest, creation of God: Man. Along with Heaven and Hell, God created a third world for his new creations, the world we know as Earth. After counsel with his inner circle, Satan concludes that the first step that must be taken is an exploration of this new world. But a new kerfuffle begins among the great evils: who shall explore this new world? Satan takes it upon himself to investigate the world, telling his fellow demons “…intermit no watch/Against a wakeful foe, while I abroad/Through all the coasts of dark destruction seek/Deliverance for us all: this enterprise/None shall partake with me” (II.462-6). Satan undergoes this risky and dangerous mission alone. He is the lone hero who risks himself for his compatriots in order to ultimately free them from their imprisonment. Not only does this encapsulate his determination to sacrifice for the greater good, it also shows his willingness to learn and expand his own knowledge, an aspect he eventually passes onto the newly-created Man. Despite working from an evil perspective against the goodness of God, Satan’s willingness to learn and explore, his leadership of the legions of Hell, and his willingness to risk himself for his people (well, demons) demonstrate his nature as a hero in the classical sense.
After having previously scouted the exterior of the land and choosing a new form, Satan chooses to become a snake and skulk through Eden in order to corrupt it, all the while noting its immense beauty. He cries out, “O Earth, how like to Heaven, if not preferred/More justly, seat worthier of Gods, as built/With second thought, reforming what was old!/For what God, after better, worse would build?” (IX.99-102). Satan finds himself in a land which he cannot enjoy, a paradise more wondrous than Heaven ever was. Had Satan never experienced such previous greatness in Heaven or new greatness in Eden, he would not feel the jealous passion that bursts from inside him. Knowing how terrible his station in Hell is, when compared to the beauty of Eden, fills him with torment because he cannot experience the land for himself, as well as the arrogant notion that he will destroy it and “make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (I.253-5). He will make his own land all the better by destroying Eden and defeating God’s plans. Only vengeance will slake his thirst for a better situation for himself and his followers. Satan eventually finds Eve alone, tending to the Garden while Adam works elsewhere. He talks with Eve, who is shocked that an animal of the Garden can speak the language of man, and Satan tells her “I was at first as other beasts that graze/The trodden herb, of abject thoughts” but after eating from fruit from a certain tree, “to speculations high or deep/I turned my thoughts, and with capacious mind/Considered all things visible in Heaven,/Or Earth, or middle, all things fair and good” (IX.571-2, 602-5). The thought of such power intrigues Eve. As a servant of God, like the angels of Heaven, she never questioned her place nor her actions, but Satan plants a seed of doubt within her, much like the seed within himself when he first rebelled against God. Leading Eve to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she explains to Satan that God forbade her and Adam from eating the fruit, but Satan replies, “Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,/Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,/His worshipers?…And wherein lies/Th’ offense, that man should thus attain to know?/What can your knowledge hurt him” (IX.703-5, 725-7). Because of Satan’s claims that he ate from the Tree and survived, he convinces Eve that God does not want her to eat from the Tree because it will make her powerful. Satan turns Eve into an apprentice of sorts, following along the same path as him and rebelling against God’s word. The temptation becomes too great for Eve and, desiring the knowledge hidden in its sweet flesh, bites into the fruit of the Tree, as the world weeps in woe. While seemingly malevolent in his actions, Satan causing the Fall is not solely centered around a quest for vengeance. He is attempting to give mankind the chance he never had, to allow them to question the world around them: “Satan dares to challenge God, articulating the doubts and questions that he has because he thinks that doing so is the only way to find answers” (Smith). Satan is the first skeptic, questioning authority rather than purely submitting to it, and his attempt to consider new outlooks beyond the will of God forces his fall from Heaven. Now, seeing creatures in Eden in a similar situation to his own in Heaven, he gives Eve and Adam the opportunity to free themselves and become their own personal leaders.
Satan exits Eden and meets Sin and Death, who congratulate him and cross over to the world of mankind, instilling within Satan the pride that he has attained his goal at last. However, upon returning to Hell, Satan’s punishment has just begun. Satan tells his legions of Hell how he had tempted Man and brought about their fall, and “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” (Milton X.504-9). Satan then writhes in pain, ironically turning into a serpent, and gazes out from Pandemonium to see that all of his demonic legions have also turned into snakes. He then notices a newly-sprung grove of trees growing in Hell, “laden with Fruit like that/Which grew in Paradise…thinking to allay/Thir appetite with gust, instead of Fruit/Chewd bitter Ashes” (X.550-1, 64-6). Rather than being able to take joy from outsmarting God, Satan and his followers are instead punished to a worse fate than they had experienced previously. The legions of Hell now scorn the being they once considered their sovereign. Satan, who had risked everything to uplift his people, failed them in the end. Satan’s ultimate failure stems from him “trying to bootstrap himself…to deity…His failure is [the failure] to understand [that] deity is an order of being that is fundamentally different from, and infinitely superior to, one’s own — a source not a rival” (Fish 99). It is his hubris towards God which leads to Satan’s fall. Satan believes that he and God are equal, which causes the initial rebellion and the fall from heaven. This arrogant notion festers inside of him until it boils over and takes control of his intentions to improve the quality of his and his followers’ lives. His misguided attempts to secure personal freedom fail, along with his envy of Eden’s beauty, cause a physical degradation that reflects his own internal degradation: “The once beautiful archangel, who flew out of the burning lake, has become a crawling creature slithering to his prey and eternal damnation. Heaven’s feathered wings have been replaced by the scales of deception” (Feldkamp 21).
Ultimately, Satan’s defeat came not from evil intentions; on the contrary, he shows himself to be, in a traditional sense, quite heroic. It is Satan’s fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. Tenacious and driven, he attempts to bring about a good welfare for his followers in Hell, but his jealousy and pride lead to their undoing. Satan’s pursuits towards universal understanding and freedom are defeated by the omniscient and omnipotent nature of God. The most well-intended actions can be considered evil when darker thoughts take hold of one’s heart. Instead of helping his people, as Satan initially intended to accomplish, his overwhelming pride turned him to try and prove himself to be God’s equal. His weakness got the best of him, in the end, and Satan is now eternally damned for fighting for knowledge and freedom. One must weep for him.
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