Satan: Character Analysis in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Satan is the only character in Book II that may be called complex. There is a deep psychological interest in the character of this adversary of God and Man. He is an interesting personality. The curious admixture of high and low, the sublime and the ridiculous makes his character an interesting study. He is not good and innocent like his human victims. He is proud, envious, mischievous, and deceitful but he is grand and sublime. He is the great Arch-rebel, the avowed enemy of God and Man, the hater of good and lover of evil, the notorious Prince of Darkness—but he is strong, defiant and unyielding. His heart knows no shaking, knees know no bending, hands know no serving. He is fearless, careless and relentless. In the first books of the epic, he is such a towering personality that even God the Messiah pales into insignificance before him. The hell-fires cannot daunt him, the vengeance of the Omnipotent cannot change him, defeat cannot damp him. He hurls defiance at God, challenges even Death and fearlessly swims through the dark, dreadful and wild ocean of Chaos. In his opinion to be weak is always miserable and to reign is worth ambition though in Hell. He is the living protest against all oppression and tyranny and the mighty champion of freedom.

      Dryden and some other adverse critics pointed out the incongruity that the Prince of Evil should be the hero of the great Puritan epic Paradise Lost. At first we cannot but admit the justness of the criticism when we find that Milton poured forth his whole soul into Satan and laid under contribution all his poetic powers in delineating the picture of this colossal and imposing personality. But Satan is far from being absolutely evil. He has great beauty, great intellect and great physical daring. In him, there is much that is good and praiseworthy though "the evil finally masters the good."

      Now there is an epical necessity in depicting satan as a sublime character.
Several causes, both conscious and unconscious on the part of the poet, must have contributed to the vastness and the greatness of Satan’s characterization. In the first place, we have got to remember that Satan is the adversary of the Almighty. It would be ridiculous to represent the adversary of the Omnipotent as a weak, puny, negligible creature. The adversary had to be worthy of the Great Power which he defined so boldly and so formidably. Secondly, Satan, according to even the Biblical account, was the first of created beings, who for endeavoring to be equal with the Highest and to divide the empire of Heaven with the Almighty was hurled down to hell. Such a person, once chief among the archangels who stood nearest to God, cannot possibly be a mean, insignificant personality. The ambition and pride which hurled him from his high position must be proportionate to the high state which he occupied, and his courage and determination should be worthy of the vastness and magnitude of his unholy mission.

      Another reason seems to be the fact that Milton, himself a rebel at heart against all kinds of tyranny, unconsciously and for a time gave his sympathy to the first great Arch-rebel. Once this sympathy was given, the epic character of Satan evidently got out of the hands of the poet, and it was only after the fourth book perhaps that the poet realized that Satan was becoming something like the hero of Paradise Lost. In the later books there is a distinct falling off from the loftiness of the conception that we notice in the first four books of Paradise Lost. The sublimity of Satan’s character in the first four books of the epic and that gradual falling off in the later books has, however, been beautifully explained by Hazlitt. Hazlitt points out that in the earlier books of the epic Satan is still the fallen archangel. Something of the greatness, the grandeur, the power and the sublimity of an archangel must necessarily continue to abide in him even after he has fallen. But this is only for some time. The consequences of the fall, though not immediate, are bound to make themselves felt in the long run. In other words, the Satan of the first four books is still an archangel, though fallen, and worthy of his great past. Corruption and sin gradually take hold of him and the result is seen, according to Hazlitt, in the gradual deterioration of his character in the subsequent books. This is, of course, a very plausible and beautiful explanation, though we have very much to doubt whether Milton consciously intended such a metamorphosis. However, the fact remains that we have got in Satan an imposing and powerful personality, not without several good and noble points and, in some places, absolutely heroic in conception.

      The second book of Paradise Lost is a grand record of Satan’s glory. In the very beginning of the book we find this magnificent Arch-rebel seated high on a throne of royal state, as the mighty champion of a lost cause and the sworn enemy of God’s tyranny. He is proud, ambitious and fearless. The grand infernal Peers "surround the throne of their mighty Paramount" in speechless reverence. His brief but weighty inaugural address proves that he has the dignity and diplomacy of a successful public leader. There is not the least trace of fear or despondency in his inspiring words. He says,

"Powers and Dominions, Deities of Heaven!
x x x x x x
I give not Heaven for lost; from this descent
Celestial Virtues rising will appear
More glorious and more dread than from no fall:
And trust themselves to fear no second fate."

      At the end of the debate when Beelzebub’s resolution of indirect revenge on God is accepted, and none is found bold enough to give effect to the resolution, Satan bravely offers himself to undertake the perilous quest. There is pride but no bravado in the following words:—

"Wherefore do I assume
These royalties, and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept as great a share
Of hazard as of honour, due alike
To him who reigns, and so much to him due
Of hazard more, as he above the rest
High honoured sits."

      Noble sentiments are these! Accredited leaders of modem human republics would do well to learn this valuable lesson of Millon’s devil. His Satan is far from being an embodiment of absolute evil which is barren and repulsive. He is a wonderfully mixed character, and sheer epic necessity compelled Milton even to stultify the professed moral of his poem by endowing him with many excellent qualities. Satan comes out of the Stygian Council with proud and dignified steps.

"and seemed
Alone the antagonist of Heaven nor less
Than Hell’s dread Emperor, with pomp supreme,
And God-like imitated state; him round
A globe of the fiery Seraphim enclose
With bright emblazonry, and horrent arms."

      This is the sublime adversary of God—an image of great beauty; great intellect, great emotion and great physical daring; in all things proudly eminent. But the evil finally masters the good, and the good is made vivid and attractive by the darkness which surrounds it.

      With huge wings outspread the solitary intrepid leader of the fallen angels flies through the hellish vault and his gigantic body looks from a distance like a far-off fleet hanging in the sky. At the gates of Hell, he meets two hideous figures, one a combination of woman and serpent and the other a mere phantom, dark and dreadful. The grim phantom advances towards him, shaking his fatal dart at him; but what is that to the fearless fallen Archangel?

"God and his Son except—
Created thing naught valued he nor shunned."

      He challenges the threatening deformed shadow, and, as befits the mighty adversary of God, briefly but firmly says, pointing to the Gates of Hell

"Through them I mean to pass,
That be assured, without leave asked of thee?"

      Prof. Raleigh rightly remarks that the passage which gives us a dreadful picture of the grim King of terror "is a scaffolding merely whence we may view the greatness of Satan." The all-conquering Death has at last caught a Tartar who wants to conquer even him. The dauntless friend who drank deep of the delight of battle on the battlefield of Heaven is not to be frightened by a phantom, however dreadful. All Hell, now "darker at their frown," looks with breathless horror and suspense at the sight of this thrilling fight. In their fury, they look,

"As when two black clouds,
With Heaven’s artillery fraught, come rattling on
Over the Caspian, then stand front to front
Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow
To joint their dark encounter in mid-air,"

      This is an intensely tense and dramatic situation which to our great disappointment is eased by the interference of Sin.

       Another fine picture we get when Satan coming out of the Hell-gates takes a survey of the immense hoary deep, a wasteful and dreadful expanse of anarchy, confusion and darkness. Neither the deafening noise nor the war of elements can daunt him even in the least. He plunges headlong into the hideous confusion and,

"O’er bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
And head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies."

      What a significant march of monosyllables expressing a noble and tremendous fight against adverse circumstances! When he reaches,

"the throne
Of Chaos, and his Dark pavilion spread
Wide on the wasteful Deep,"

      Where the confusion is worse confounded, he is not at all confused, and even "the dreaded name of Demogorgon,'' most terrible courtier of "the Anarch old," fails to frighten him even in the least. In bold and clear accents he asks for chaos guidance in his quest, and, with political forethought, promises that that quest, if successful, shall restore an outlying province to him. With the direction of Chaos, the impetuous friend, and pursues through the boiling gulf his laborious way till he reaches the very boundary of Chaos where a glimmering dawn and the distant sight of the bright Heaven, once his happy abode, and the pendent starry Universe welcome his eyes.

"Springs upward, like a pyramid of fire,
Into the wild expanse,"

      So we find that in the second book Satan is bold, defiant, strong and sublime. Here he is so magnificently painted by Milton against the background of Hell and Chaos that we have high admiration and even something of honor for this avowed adversary of God and Man.

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