‘Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error.’ – C.S. Lewis.
In his Christian Doctrine, Milton forms a cohesive picture of Satan, the conclusion being that Satan is viewed as the root of all evil. He is a Freudian expression of man’s super-ego – the subordinate part of the psyche – for example, when he uses the word ‘spite’, thereby attributing emotions to God. From Book IX, Satan starts to degenerate as a character; he is unable to make his thoughts logical in his speech, i.e. referring to Earth as ‘how like to heaven’. He presents himself as unlike a hero: his ability to think appears weak and confused (‘so much more I feel torment within me’), rather like a delusional psychopath [‘What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything’ – C.S. Lewis]. As a result, it could be suggested that although he may have been heroic to begin with, he becomes less ‘glorious’ as events unfold.
Satan’s essential nature is described in his soliloquy; it comprises of destruction, in contrast to God’s creation (‘For only in destroying I find ease’). Satan gives the impression that he would have liked Earth (so ‘productive’), but cannot, therefore feels a sense of envy and loss; in this respect, it is as though he is constrained by the limitations of Milton’s fiction [‘we see how much more interesting, as a character, Satan is than God’ – Philip Pullman]. The reference to ‘bestial slime’ is metaphorical, and hints at the feeling of entrapment. Another important metaphor is within the high and low references relating to Heaven and Hell (‘height’, ‘descend’, ‘low’, ‘high he soared’.) With this in mind, it cannot be determined that Satan is the true hero of Paradise Lost; it can simply be inferred that God is spiritually high, whilst conversely, Satan is spiritually low.
It is unusual that Milton helps the reader to understand Satan’s feelings when he is on his diabolic quest and how he doesn’t fit in with the scenery (‘houses thick and sewers’). The words Milton chooses are familiar to the reader, and present an incongruous situation in comparison to the poem’s general setting. When Satan comes across Eve, he describes her as ‘divinely fair’ with ‘graceful innocence’, showing admiration for her. The effect of Eve’s feminine innocence on Satan is stunning; his first impulse is to love Eve, enraptured by her beauty. For a moment, seeing Eve inspires a little bit of good within him because he becomes disoriented (‘overawed his malice’): Satan and evil are separate (‘abstracted stood from his own evil’). By this logic, it could be suggested that Satan has the potential to be heroic, but his very nature prevents him from surrendering (‘fierce hate he recollects’). ‘Her ruin’ shows Satan’s intentions, and gives Eve tainted imagery. When he describes her ‘with ravishment beheld’ and approaches her ‘erect’, there is an erotic and aggressive undertone that is given to Satan’s approach.
The degeneration of Satan in Book IX is reinforced by Milton with visual images (‘rising mist’). Eventually, he becomes a ‘serpent’; he is progressively made more earthbound and lowly [‘progressive degradation’ – C.S. Lewis]. The immense irony here is that the more Satan tries to be like God, the lowlier he becomes; as a result, he is depicted as puny rather than like a hero. Despite the irony, the first prong of his attack on Eve is a cunning masterpiece: as a prelapsarian serpent, he gives a flattering list of compliments comparing Eve to Heaven and God, implying that she should be admired (‘adored and served by angels numberless’). His sycophantic words are those of a courtly lover addressing his ‘sovereign mistress’. Eve refers to the fact that the serpent speaks as a ‘miracle’, which is ironic because miracles normally refer to God. ‘The wily snake’ maintains the careful flattery and deceptive slyness (’empress’, ‘resplendent’). He misleads Eve like an ignis fatuus; Milton calls this effect a ‘wandering fire’.
Similar to his soliloquy, Satan refers to the contrast between high and low and Heaven and Hell, which is a clever argument, because by that logic the Tree of Knowledge is good (‘could not reach’). Moreover, he associates the tree with reason rather than passion (‘sacred’, ‘wise’, ‘mother of science’). In addition, he appeals to senses and appetite – base pleasures – and the temptation works (‘sharp desire’, ‘hunger’, ‘thirst’) as well as to Eve’s intelligence and mind (‘inward powers’). With the repetition of ‘thy’, the second person pronoun, convincing emphasis is put on her importance. Satan goes on to question the entire hierarchy (‘I question it’), and uses a clever and subtle argument (‘What can your knowledge hurt him, or this tree impart against his will if all be his?’), raising the important theological issue of free will. Using the word ‘envy’, he even tries to suggest that Good feels jealous of the knowledge Adam and Eve may possess through eating from the tree. In this scene, Satan gives an impression of himself as heroic through his tactics: furthermore, he is inviting Eve to become a heroic resistance fighter against an oppressive God, who wants to keep her ‘low and ignorant’ rather than disobeying him.
Satan’s children Sin and Death alongside Satan form the Unholy Trinity. Sin in particular feels sure that Satan has been successful in his mission to find Earth and liberate Hell,
therefore begins to feel elated. She feels a ‘sympathy, or some connatural force’, thus linking her with Satan. When she feels ‘wings growing’, it gives the reader a subverted image of angels, which is symbolic of the effects of the Fall. With the words ‘my shade’, Sin is given imagery which she can share with Satan; her words take us back to earlier (‘meanwhile ere thus was sinned and judged on earth’). In this section of Book X, Satan is depicted as a hero for his children; he goes on to give Sin and Death his infernal commission (‘dwell and reign in bliss’) so that they can infiltrate mankind. The phrase ‘Satan our great author’ creates an interesting link between Satan and Milton, giving rise to the idea that he perceives Satan to be an interesting character, worthy of experimenting with [‘The Satan in Milton enables him to draw the character well just as the Satan in us enables us to receive it’ – C.S. Lewis].
Satan’s victory speech to his followers in Hell is meant to represent his authority, i.e. how he perceives himself and his heroic status. His version of events is a distorted perspective because a biased viewpoint is presented. Firstly, Satan almost removes responsibility away from himself when he describes Hell as an ‘infernal pit’, ‘house of woe’ and ‘dungeon’. ‘What I have done, what suffered, with what pain’ are words that depict Satan as a hero for his followers: he describes the task he has accomplished as a hero of his own epic story. The descriptions ‘toiled’, ‘forced’ and ‘plunged’ emphasise the difficulty of his journey with violent verbs. He describes Earth as ‘a fabric wonderful’, commenting on its ‘perfection’ which arguably shows that he still appreciates God’s work; on the other hand, he could be using the language as temptation for his followers. Satan really makes it seem as if he has won the battle (‘over man to rule’) and has all the power, which is distorted. When the words ‘full bliss’ come out of his mouth, it is extremely ironic because the only place he can experience that is Heaven.
Upon giving his speech, he expects to hear applause, but instead hears a ‘dismal universal hiss’ because they undergo metamorphosis into ‘complicated monsters’; i.e. they undergo physical transformations into serpents. Thus, Satan the supplanter is ‘supplanted’, and becomes a mere monster in God’s epic at the moment that he is about to celebrate his heroic triumph in his own epic. The word ‘hiss’ uses onomatopoeia, and the reader can literally be thought of as hissing along with the snakes, which in turn gives the impression of scorn and contempt. Shortly afterwards, the grove of trees appears: the serpents feel an overwhelming desire to eat the fruit (‘scalding thirst and hunger fierce’), appealing to ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ much like Satan’s approach to tempting Eve before the Fall. There is irony in the use of the word ‘sublime’ because it is a heavenly emotion.
To conclude, whereas Satan seemed somewhat ‘glorious’ and heroic in his rebellion, he seems to become a dangerous con man coming to believe his own lies. He has ‘an incapacity to understand anything’; consequently, the concept of heroism cannot be stretched to include Satan’s attitude and thinking as time progresses and he degenerates as a character. More profoundly, Satan and the rebel angels end their role in the epic totally defeated by the power of God.