“Paradise Lost” by John Milton (1667, 1674) – 284 pages
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” – Satan
Satan in “Paradise Lost” is quite a guy.
The fallen angel Satan is one of the most intriguing characters of all. John Milton gives Satan a complexity, a subtle intelligence, and a personality that none of the other characters in “Paradise Lost”, not even God, can match. By listening to or reading “Paradise Lost” intently, many thoughtful persons have figured out the reasons that the deeply religious Milton invests the evil angel Satan with all these vivid empathetic qualities. I will explain.
At the start of “Paradise Lost”, Satan and the other thousands of angels are all living peaceably in Heaven under the reign of God. Then God calls an assembly of the angels to announce He has appointed his son to reign over all of the angels. “To Him shall bow all knees in Heaven.”
Now it is helpful to look at the life of John Milton more closely. John Milton was an anti-royalist. He passionately believed in government by republic where the leaders are elected or appointed and there are no Kings or Queens. He even explicitly defended the execution of the then King of England Charles I in 1649. Milton was lucky to have not been executed after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
So back to the story, here was God pulling a Royalist move, appointing his own son to reign. So John Milton must have been severely conflicted. On the one hand, he definitely believed in God; on the other hand, he was an anti-Royalist. The complexity of the character Satan in “Paradise Lost” is a direct result of this conflict in the mind of Milton.
After God’s announcement, Satan rebels, and many of the angels follow him, resulting in an all-out battle. Satan and his followers lose and are relegated to a barren dark place “o’erwhelmed with floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire’. These thrown out angels debate what to do now. Some like angel Molloch want to continue the fight; some want to do nothing and make the best of a bad situation. Satan has a much more subtle subterfuge to exact his revenge on God.
He has heard of a place called Earth that God has populated with a new species called man which is in God’s own image. There man and woman, Adam and Eve, live in innocence in the lush Garden of Eden called Paradise. As long as Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they can stay in Paradise and live forever. Satan’s sly plan is to undermine this idyll, thus ruining God’s plans.
Meanwhile God is watching over Adam and Eve.
“On earth He first beheld
Our two first parents, yet the only two
Of mankind, in the garden placed,
Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love,
Uninterrupted joy, Unrivaled love
In blissful solitude.
Satan proves to be a capable foe in carrying out his devious plan. The poet William Blake was one of the first to state that Milton “was a True Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
“Around this character (of Satan) he has thrown a singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance, and a ruined splendor which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity.” - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” - Percy Shelley
Satan in “Paradise Lost” is the ultimate anti-hero.