Who is The Hero of Paradise Lost?

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      Much controversy has clustered as to who is the hero of Paradise Lost. There are very sensible persons, who advocate the claim of Satan, and others, that of Adam. One critic suggests God and another, the Messiah. A French critic (Denis Saurat) puts forward the strange thesis that Milton himself is the hero of Paradise Lost. It is not difficult however to find one’s way through the maze of this controversy, if we look at the central action of Paradise Lost. The whole epic turns round what Milton indicates even in the first line of the poem—‘Man’s first disobedience.’ Adam disobeyed God, and by this act of disobedience, he not only lost ‘paradise’ but brought about the fall of the whole human race. No action can be more tremendous in its impact and significance than that which brought the fall of the whole humanity. And Adam, being responsible for it, is obviously meant by the poet to fill the role of the Hero of the great poem.

      Difficulty arises because Adam does not act. He is merely a passive figure, who is acted upon by others. But it is his fate that engages the attention of God and the angels in Heaven, and of Satan and the devils in Hell. His fate again causes a terrible upheaval on the Earth. When Eve plucks the fruit, “nature sighs that all is lost”. Adam may not be heroic figure in the same sense as Achilles is. But Paradise Lost is a different kind of epic from Homer’s Iliad. Milton himself says,

Yet argument
Not less but more heroic than the wrath
Of stem Achilles.

      Adam’s role is not that of a warrior but that of a God-fearing man faced with a temptation and defeated in the conflict between himself and Satan. In studying the question of the hero of Paradise lost, we need not be obsessed with the classical conception of the epic hero. Adam has defeated no doubt through Eve, and loses Paradise, but he achieves victory through the Messiah, and regains the Paradise ‘happier far.’ Thus the ultimate victory which is of a spiritual nature goes to Adam. Adam is the real hero of Paradise Lost.

      But Milton has endowed Satan with all those qualities which make a hero. In fact, it is the grandeur of Satan’s character that makes Paradise Lost an epic. Milton has imparted something of himself to Satan, and so Satan arouses our admiration by the strength of his character and individuality. He asserts himself against the autocracy of God, and is able to win over to his side the third part of the angelic host in heaven. He is no doubt defeated by the Messiah but his defeat and his expulsion from Heaven cannot curb his indomitable spirit. He would urge eternal war against God; he remains as bold in spirit and as defiant as he was before his defeat; and the change of his surroundings cannot in any way damp his unconquerable spirit. He will make Heaven of Hell, and undertakes all kinds of risks and dangers in order to take revenge on God. This figure is heroic in every way. He is a perfect leader, and all the fallen angels submit unquestioningly to his authority. “It is surely the simple fact” says Abercrombie, “that Paradise Lost exists for one figure, that is Satan, Just as the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the, Odyssey for Odysseus. It is in the figure of Satan that the imperishable significance of Paradise Lost is centered; his vast unyielding agony symbolizes the profound antimony of modern consciousness.” Satan is indeed a great figure of epic dimension. He is a true hero, but he is so only in Books I and II of Paradise Lost. As the poem proceeds, this heroic figure gradually loses its splendor, though he retains his original greatness even when he comes to the earth and sees the joy and innocence of Adam and Eve. He almost regrets that he has to destroy their innocence and joy; but pride prevails over him, for he must have his revenge on God who is his eternal enemy:

Ah! gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish, and deliver ye to woe—
* * * *
Yet no purposed foe
To you, whom I could pity thus forlorn, Though I unpitied.

      From now onwards, the deterioration of Satan starts. In fact, when he enters into a serpent to tempt Eve, he has turned from a great hero into a despicable spy and cunning trickster. So when we take the whole of Paradise Lost into consideration, we cannot agree with the view that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost.

      To put forward the claim either of God or of the Messiah is absurd, for they do not take part in the central action of Paradise Lost. Saurat’s argument that Milton himself is the hero is simply to evade the main problem. No doubt, Milton’s personality is revealed in Paradise Lost; and he never conceals where his sympathy lies. There is again some similarity between the position of Satan and that of Milton. Satan had defied the authority of God the autocrat, just as Milton had defied the autocracy of the King. Hence Satan is endowed with all the force and fire of Milton’s own spirit. But Milton’s object was to justify the ways of God to men. He, therefore, expresses himself here and there to execute his avowed aim. The epic, it must be remembered, is a piece of objective art. He calls Satan ‘infernal Serpent,’ ‘Arch Fiend’ and uses abusive epithets to expose Satan’s real character. But Milton himself cannot and does not take part in the action of the poem. The lyrical qualities of Milton’s genius inevitably enter into Paradise Lost. But to say that he is the hero of Paradise Lost is nothing short of being preposterous.

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