Some have alleged that Satan is the real hero of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. For instance, William Blake held that Milton was “‘of the devil’s party,’ though ‘without knowing it’” and Percy Bysshe Shelley thought that Satan was “‘a moral being,’ one ‘far superior to [Milton’s] God as one who perseveres in some purpose . . . in spite of adversity’” (The Great Books, 256).
Satan is no more the hero of Paradise Lost than Judas is the hero of the Gospel according to Mark.
Why would people think Satan is Milton’s hero? A big reason seems to be the way that Milton so faithfully presents Satan’s point of view. In presenting Satan’s perspective, Milton doesn’t impose his authorial voice on the drama to pronounce condemnation on Satan. Instead, he allows the evil of Satan’s actions and purposes to be shown. Milton isn’t telling us Satan is evil; he is showing us. Milton expects his audience to recognize the evil of what Satan says and does.
Commenting on Satan’s speech in Book 9, lines 119–30, Anthony O’Hear (The Great Books, 266) writes:
This speech, as Milton surely intends, puts into perspective the admiration of Satan of some of Milton’s critics, who see only Satan’s splendid defiance in the earlier books, but pass over the extent of his sheer malice in the later ones.
I remember reading in C.S. Lewis’ preface to Paradise Lost that the reason Milton’s Satan was his best drawn character was because a fallen man is so much like a fallen angel. We write about what we know.
I think the nature of the allegation is not that Milton consciously made Satan the hero (or, more accurately, the anti-hero) of Paradise Lost, but that Milton subconsciously made Satan the hero by putting a little too much of himself into the character. Milton was something of a law until himself, an iconoclast who rankled at authority. Hence, he unwittingly makes Satan a sympathetic figure, a projection of Milton’s regicidal, anti-clerical, heterodox theology and ideology.
Creative writing is autobiographical to some degree. It reveals the values of the writer. And Milton tipped his hand with his portrayal of Satan.
Authors often find it easier to write some characters than others. They identify more readily with some of their characters than others. Some characters basically write themselves.
One can debate whether or not that’s a fair assessment, but I think that’s what the allegation amounts to.
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