My essay is supposed to be on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. We only read books 1, 4 and 9, so my essay is based only on what is in those books, or it could be entirely different. I wasn't really given any guidelines. What I had first proposed my teacher said needed a set of criteria that Satan meets in order to be identified as the hero, then I needed to explain what effect that has on our understanding of the poem. I am not sure if I was able to do that.
In his epic Paradise Lost, John Milton recreates the Genesis story of the fall of man as it was caused by Satan. It is Satan's fatal flaws of pride and ambition that led him to battle over Heaven and even though he was defeated, he refused to give up his war against God, promising to always do evil against Him and man and succeeding with man's fall from grace. However, throughout the epic we also watch Satan struggle with the despair, desire and even the repentance he feels, making him seem more human than evil and eliciting our sympathy for him. Satan's fatal flaws, ever present inner struggles and his determination to wage covert battles in his war against God that he knows he cannot win, make him Milton's unlikely hero.
Paradise Lost begins, not with the expected potential heroes of the Genesis stories, God or man, but he begins instead with Satan, thereby placing focus on him and his actions. Milton, introducing Satan by blaming him for the fall of man, "Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?/Th' infernal Serpent..." (1.33-34), appears to set him up as the definitive adversary, not just of the epic, but of humanity. He briefly tells of Satan's pride that led him to try to overthrow God and how he was cast into Hell, but he also tells us, "...for now the thought/Both of lost happiness and lasting pain/Torments him..."(1.55-56), right away trying to make Satan someone to be pitied, more human and less evil. Milton describes Satan's physical character to be "in bulk as huge/As whom the fables name of monstrous size,/ Titanian..."(1.196-198), and then "Deeming some island," (1.205), meaning Satan's size is so vast a sailor would mistake him for an island on which he can moor his boat. Satan's size growing larger with each new comparison supports Satan as the hero. Satan is so physically imposing Milton can't find anything his equal, setting him apart from the angels and man.
Upon finding himself in Hell after being defeated in battle, Satan proclaims, "All is not lost; the unconquerable will,/and study of revenge, immortal hate,/And courage never to submit or yield:/And what is else not to be overcome?/That glory never shall his wrath or might extort from me" (1.105-110). Though he has lost Heaven, they have not lost revenge, hate or courage and he will never give glory to God again. Satan "may with more successful hope resolve/To wage by force or guile eternal war" (121-122). Satan admits that he is "Matchless, but with th' Almighty" (1.623), that they cannot beat God in a war, "Henceforth his might we know, and know our own" (1.643), but that they can challenge God in other ways, "our better part remains/To work in close design, by fraud or guile" (1.645-646). Satan's cunning plan of attack against God is simply to be and do evil, "To wreak on innocent frail man his loss/Of that first battle, and his flight to Hell" (4.11-12). The fact that Satan has committed himself to a life of evil does not seem as something that could be considered heroic, but it is not his doing evil that makes him the hero, it is his ability to persevere against an opponent he knows to be greater and more powerful than himself. Satan knows that he is not capable of overthrowing God, so he has instead engaged in an eternal war against God in which he fights him by doing that which is "contrary to his high will"(1, 161).
While he plots his revenge against God, Satan struggles with an inner turmoil that he hides from the other fallen angels, "...his face/Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care/Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows/Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride/Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast/Signs of remorse and passion.." (1, 600-605). Satan's knows his flaws that caused him, and his followers, to lose Heaven, "pride and worse ambition threw me down" (4, 40). Satan's torment is so great he asks "is there no place/Left for repentance, none for pardon left?" (4, 79-80) He considers reconciliation, but realizes that his pride would lead him to commit the same sins over again, "say I could repent and could obtain/By act of grace my former state; how soon/Would heighth recall high thoughts" (4, 93-95). Knowing this, Satan lets go of hope and remorse, "So farewell hope...Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost" (4,108-109), but this does not end his struggle or his torments. Satan's personal struggles humanize him and make us more sympathetic to him. Pride and ambition are sins many people struggle with and can relate to and no one wants to be tormented by pain. Satan does not try to overcome his flaws so he can overcome his struggle, but he does accept that he will have to bear them and the torment as his burden.
Because of our preconceived notions of Satan as evil and humanity's adversary, we do not expect Satan to be portrayed as the hero of the poem, much less pitied. It is expected that Adam or Eve would be the hero. But the way Milton recreates the story neither really fits the hero role. Adam and Eve, being created by God are "from sin and blame entire" (9, 292), free of sin and blame. Being free of all sin and blame makes them both harder for us to relate to because we were all supposedly born with their original sin. Also, being free of sin means they had nothing to struggle with or overcome, such as Satan's pride and ambition. Neither did they struggle with good or evil because they did not have the knowledge of either, "Knowledge of good brought dear by knowing ill" (4, 222). Living in the Garden of Eden they were not confronted by evil until Satan. It is hard to make a hero of one who is free of struggle and whose happiness is ignorance because he lacks the knowledge of sorrow.
In Book 9 Adam faces his first conflict, he must choose between gaining knowledge to join Eve or to obey God and remain as he is. In choosing to join Eve, Adam could be viewed as the hero because he is sacrificing his immortal life for Eve. However, as hard as it is for him to disobey God and give up his place in Eden, he gains knowledge, "...achieving what might lead/To happier life, knowledge of good and evil" (9,696-697), he doesn't react to his new knowledge in the way a hero would. Adam felt lust and ran off with Eve into the bushes, and after he felt shame and blamed Eve.
Satan has many heroic traits, he is a being of mythical proportions that has lost a major battle, but is determined to continue, even though he can never win the war, all the while bearing personal struggles, earning sympathy, and in the end is successful in his temptation of man. Satan is the unlikely hero of any epic, especially one of the fall of man, yet his character is the most complex, goes on the 'quest' expected of a hero and he reacts in ways a hero would. Satan's 'quest' is the one he sets for himself, to tempt man. Satan has hard time on his quest because he is tormented by despair and remorse each time he sees something that reminds him of God or Heaven and once in Eden he faces the angel Gabriel and is made to leave by a sign from God. Despite these difficulties, Satan is successful in epic 'quest' to tempt man and get revenge. In tempting man Satan is responsible for the fall of man, but to Milton the fall of humankind is fortunate, we "...shalt possess/A paradise within thee, happier far" (12, 586-587).