Paradise Lost in His Epic Poem Essay

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Paradise Lost

In his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton characterizes Satan in such a way that William Blake actually suggested that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." This is because in Blake's view, Satan was actually the true protagonist of Paradise Lost, as Milton presents him as a far more relatable and sympathetic character than one might believe. Although Milton's Paradise Lost is undoubtedly written from a Christian perspective, and thus implicitly marks Satan as villain and adversary, a close inspection of Milton's treatment of Satan reveals that he is far more complicated of a character than usually believed. In particular, Satan's speech in Book I presents him as a noble, compassionate character acting in defiance of an oppressive, restrictive God. By conducting a close examination of these passages, one is able to better understand how Satan, more than any other character, represents the hero and protagonist of Paradise Lost.

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In one sense, to say that Satan is the protagonist of Paradise Lost is merely to make a statement in line with the most straightforward definition of protagonist. That is to say, Satan is the character who motivates the action of the entire story, and it is his journey that constitutes the key trajectory of the poem, even if the story is ostensibly focused on Adam and Eve. Although ultimately God is responsible for the creation of the world, the story would not exist without Satan's intervention, because it is his rebellion that introduces conflict and thus meaning into the narrative. While Milton is ostensibly trying to "justify the ways of God to men," he ended up justifying Satan's actions to the point that he becomes the most sympathetic and understandable character in the entire poem (Milton 1.26). In this sense, he lives up to the name of "Lightbringer," because he is the shining center of the entire poem.

TOPIC: Essay on Paradise Lost in His Epic Poem Paradise Assignment

Before examining the character of Satan in greater detail, it is necessary to first point out an important distinction in the poem, because it is central to understanding Paradise Lost's treatment of Satan. Simply, one must recognize that the narrator of the poem is not necessarily reliable, and furthermore, that his account of the events in the story is admittedly biased in favor of God's position. As mentioned above, the narrator explains his desire to "justify the ways of God to men," so his narration must be read in this context; that is to say, not as an objective account of the events described, but rather a partisan perspective on the issue (Milton 1.26). It is important to make this distinction because there is a marked disconnect between the narrator's description of Satan's motivations and character and what is revealed through Satan's own speech and actions. In this way, it is possible for the narrator to hold a negative view of Satan while the book as a whole presents him in a positive, sympathetic light.

After the narrator's address to his muse, Paradise Lost begins with Satan awakening in Hell, having been cast out of heaven by God and the archangel Michael (Milton 1.30-44). The narrator describes Satan's rebellion as motivated by a desire for Satan "to set himself in glory above his peers […] with ambitious aim / Against the throne and monarchy of God" (Milton 1.39, 41-42). This description of Satan's character is generally in line with traditional representations of him as vain, prideful, and rebellious, but this is only natural, because as stated above, the narrator's account is biased in favor of God. To get a more accurate understanding of how Satan is treated within the poem as a whole, one must examine Satan's account of the reasons for his rebellion, because as will be seen, they are far more sympathetic and justifiable than mere greed or vanity.

When Satan first awakes in Hell, he is almost immediately defiant, declaring that "though the field be lost / All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / and the study of revenge, immortal hate, / and courage never to submit or yield, / and what is else not to be overcome" (Milton 1.105-109). Aside from revenge and "immortal hate," the values Satan describes as remaining even after defeat in battle are precisely those values which are so often lauded as the most noble elements of human nature. The will to continue on even in the face of adversity, not allowing oneself to be overcome by seemingly insurmountable odds, is the defining feature of the underdog. Thus, Paradise Lost effectively casts Satan in the role of the noble underdog in opposition to God, a stark contrast to the vain, self-concerned character described earlier by the narrator.

Even Satan's desire for revenge and his "immortal" are ultimately justifiable, because that immortal hate comes as a result of an injustice, and an immortal one at that (Milton 1.107). Satan was cast out of heaven for a finite offense, that is, for rebelling against God, but the punishment for that offense was infinite banishment from Heaven. In very basic terms the extent of Satan's punishment is unjust, and thus his "immortal hate" is merely the natural response to this immortal punishment. As a result, his decision "to wage, by force or guile, eternal war / Irreconcilable to our grand foe," is equally just, because he is fighting against a tyrant (Milton 1.121-122).

In addition to presenting Satan's rebellion as a just response to an oppressive, tyrannical God, the poem also imbues him with a certain degree of compassion and understanding, particularly for the angels which were cast out with him. When an almost frightened Beelzebub worries that it might be better to simply surrender completely to God and act as his servants, Satan responds by giving him hope for a better future in Hell by suggesting that they begin building a new home for themselves (Milton 1.143-150, 180-185). Rather than sink into despair at the sadness of their position, Satan encourages his compatriots with a wry kind of sarcasm coupled with hope, when he says:

Farewell happy fields,

Where joy for ever dwells! Hail horrors! Hail, infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,

Receive they new possessor! One who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (Milton 1.249-256).

He recognizes the bleakness of their situation, but he further recognizes that free will allows him to make the best of his situation. In this way, he further represents a sympathetic and relatable character, because rather than wallow in his defeat or give in to God, he uses his decidedly human ingenuity and charm to regroup and his encourage his entourage.

Beelzebub further hints at the close, respectful relationship between Satan and his followers when he tells him that "if once they hear that voice," meaning Satan's, "heard so oft / in worst extremes, and on the perilous edge / of battle when it raged," they would "soon resume / new courage and revive" (Milton 1.275-279). Satan inspires such loyalty and devotion that even after their dramatic defeat, his followers would nevertheless heed his words in an instant. This is a crucial observation for appreciating how the poem characterizes Satan, because Beelzebub's account means that there are now two accounts of Satan's character that directly contradict the one given by the narrator. While one might be suspicious of Satan's self-reporting as to his motivations and character, the fact that Beelzebub and the other demons have such loyalty for Satan means that he is at least compassionate and selfless enough to be worthy of their respect.

Following Beelzebub's entreaty, Satan addresses the rest of the fallen angels, telling them to "awake, arise, or be for ever fallen!" (Milton 1.330). They respond… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Paradise Lost in His Epic Poem.  (2012, June 3).  Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

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"Paradise Lost in His Epic Poem."  3 June 2012.  Web.  28 September 2021. <>.

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"Paradise Lost in His Epic Poem."  June 3, 2012.  Accessed September 28, 2021.