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Although Paradise Lost was written by John Milton more than three centuries ago,

it remains an important fixture in the Western literary canon, and its central
subject continues to be a cause for scholarly debate: Is Satan a heroic figure and
more importantly, how can Satan be described as an epic hero ? While this
question has occupied literary critics and scholars for generations, this question
remains controversial, for it provokes responses that arise from closely held
religious or moral values, on the one hand, and a commitment to strict literary
interpretation, on the other. In biblical and mythical texts, as well as in popular
culture, Satan is consistently portrayed as an evil and antagonistic figure in
Paradise Lost who attempts at every turn to undermine the true hero of the story.
In such texts as Paradise Lost, Satan is objectified and demeaned; he seems to
have no redeeming qualities and is painted as a completely unsympathetic
figure. Yet in Paradise Lost, Milton plays with this tension that the character of
Satan in Paradise Lost provokes, thereby forcing the reader to consider the
possibility that Satan may actually be a hero, or at the very least, a character
worth seeing in a more complex light. As the plot unfolds, there are moments
when the reader can identify with Satans desires and his disappointments. At the
same time, Milton introduces a God in Paradise Lost who is wrathful and
distanced, which makes Satan even more appealing and heroic, if not something
of an everyman heroic figure that the reader has the possibility of identifying
with. When one applies Aristotles notion of hamartia to a reading of Paradise
Lost, it seems entirely reasonable to interpret that Satan, having been a good
person who fell from grace, is indeed a hero.

What makes the debate about Satan as a hero in Paradise Lost so charged for
many readers is that the traditional image of a hero is a figure, generally a man,
who is a fundamentally good person confronting challenges and overcoming
them successfully. In Paradise Lost, however, this hero archetype is challenged
completely, especially by the character of Satan. All of the characters are
complex, containing contradictory dualities. Perhaps what is even more notable is
that in Paradise Lost, even God himself cannot be classified as a hero according
to the traditional definition. In fact, He may be the most anti-heroic character of
all in this epic and is presented in a way that makes the reader fear (or even
resent) him rather than see him in the traditional religious way we are expected
to see God. Along with this theme from Paradise Lost, it should be noted that
Miltons God is not a friendly God seeking intimacy of any kind with his followers;
He is a powerful ruler for despot who will bestow blessings if His will is followed
and eternal damnation if it is not. God sets the rules because He can; He does not
need to justify or explain himself to any living being. If these rules are violated,
however, God is capable of terrible wrath, as evidenced when Satan is expelled
from His kingdom forever. God cannot be the hero of Miltons epic Paradise Lost,
at least not according to the definition of a traditional hero.
Heroes are more complex, Aristotle argued, than the classical archetype permits.
They are good, appealing people who make mistakes; they are people who enjoy
favor and prosperity but who are inhibited and limited by a character flaw which
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jeopardizes their situation and forces them to test their own competence. In
short, heroes are human. This is Aristotles concept of hamartia, and it is a useful
construct for analyzing Miltons Paradise Lost. The concept of hamartia permits
the reader to identify the dualities of the characters that are not on immediate
display. Satan epitomizes hamartia. He has profound ideas and questions, but his
tragic flaw is that he becomes misguided so easily. Nonetheless, he is heroic
because he is earnest and persistent in pursuing what he believes to be true,
which is made clear in one of the important quotes from Paradise Lost by John
Milton, The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell
of heaven./What matter where, if I still be the same. (Book I, ll. 254-256), he
asks. He wants to be different, transformed by knowledge about Gods true
nature, as well as his own. 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. He did not challenge God with the intent of being deceptive, rebellious,
or hateful, although all three of these characteristics emerge later, after he has
been sent into perpetual exile. On the contrary, Satan in Paradise Lost seemed to
want to invite conversation as a means of understanding himself and the world
better. For the reader of Paradise Lost who can identify and empathize with
Miltons Satan, he can be seen as a heroic figure, for he gives voice to what we
ourselves might think or feel but are afraid to articulate. Although he is a bit
nave in this representation in Paradise Lost, Satan raises legitimate philosophical
questions: Is it wrong for humans to think that they are equal to God, since
humans were supposedly created in Gods own image? The question is a bold
one, and the honest reader might secretly admire that Satan was courageous
enough to ask God this question.
The other problem that one might have in conceptualizing Satan as a traditional
hero in Paradise Lost is that he does not, in the end, prevail or achieve his goal.
Nevertheless, the reader can admire Satans fearlessness and tenacity in
pursuing the answers to his questions. He is bitter, but he also acknowledges the
reality of his circumstances. As Satan himself says, Better to reign in hell than
serve in heaven (Book I, l. 263). This acceptance of his conditions and the
commitment to moving forward despite them makes him heroic, and an analysis
of some of the events in Book II of Paradise Lost by John Milton reveals some of
Satans heroic characteristics, especially when contrasted with God. As ruler of
Hell, Satan strives for equality and fairness. In Book II of Paradise Lost, Satan calls
his band of rebel angels to a community forum so that they can voice their
opinions and strategize with him in plotting against God. He asks his followers,
[B]y what best wayWhether of open war or covert guile,/We now debate; who
can advise, may speak (Book II, ll. 40-42). Various angels add their opinions and
the community votes on the strategy. Satan then asks for volunteers to help
implement the strategy, a point which is important because it demonstrates how
democratic Satan is. He does not draft or otherwise compel his followers to do his
will simply because he says so; in fact, because none of his followers volunteer,
Satan decides he will implement the plan himself. His followers are almost
embarrassed, so profound is their awe, as evidenced by this and other important
passages from Paradise Lost: Towards him they bend/With awful reverence
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prone; and/Extol him equal to the highest in heaven (Book II, ll. 477-479). The
fact that he stops along his journey to reflect upon his decision reveals that Satan
has the capacity for heroic insight. He pauses at Mt. Niphates, where hetorments
inwardly (Book IV, l. 88), considering what has happened to him so far. He
wonders, [I]s there no place/Left for repentance, none for pardon left? (Book IV,
ll. 79-80), and decides, based upon his experiences, that there is not: So farewell
hope, and with hope farewell fear,/Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost (Book
IV, ll. 108-109). Satan, like any true hero, experiences this profound existential
despair but pushes forward. Even though he is misguided, perhaps, he remains
faithful to his own ideals and beliefs, as incongruent as they are with social
norms.
Miltons Satan in Paradise Lost starts out whole and good, just as all human
beings do, but he undergoes a transformation. The transformation, however,
does not diminish him as a heroic figure as long as the reader is willing to reject
the traditional archetype of the hero. When the reader of Paradise Lost can
embrace the concept of a hero as a basically good person who has either a flaw
or a challenging experience that is not simple to resolve, the notion of a hero is
permitted to expand substantially. Satan is ultimately a heroic figure in Paradise
Lost because he is able to bear the weight of impossible pain and suffering while
still moving forward and fighting for what he believes in. In the process, he
attempts to empower others and he successfully elicits the readers identification
and empathy. The reader of Miltons Paradise Lost need not agree with Satans
plan of revenge in order to consider him a hero. A hero is someone who persists
against all odds, someone who is willing to plunge into the depths of his or her
inner being, as frightening and as dangerous as that process might be. He
recognizes the risks of his decisions, and he acts anyway. Aristotles concept of
hamartia helps the reader to acknowledge that a true hero is not one who is
wholly good. Instead, a true hero is an individual who is willing and able to
acknowledge his or her human complexity and to continue facing the challenges
of life regardless of the obstacles placed in ones path. Satan is such a hero.