This essay will explore how Satan is a hero and moreover what makes him the tragic hero of Paradise Lost. For the purposes of this essay let’s assume that being a hero means being a protector and being dedicated against all odds. And a tragic hero is a hero with a major flaw, which in a way is the undoing of the hero. Satan is the protector and the leader of angels in opposition to God. He sacrifices a lot for his ideals: he’s willing to give up happiness to stand up against God for what he believes in, and facing eternal torment needs huge amounts of dedication. Below is the passage in question:
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. (Dartmouth.edu, Book 1)
Satan calls out to the ‘profoundest Hell’, the most intense version of Hell it seems, implying that the nature of Hell can vary. This call may be seen as an attempt to harness the power of what is most evil and thus what is most opposite to God in order to fight him. He says ‘Receive thy new Possessor’ suggesting that there was an ‘old’ possessor, who could only have been God since God created Hell, and Satan just seems to have ‘discovered/been thrown into’ it. ‘Hell Receive thy new Possessor’ shows that Satan wants to ‘possess’ Hell in the way God may ‘possess’ Heaven, showing that Satan too wants to be a leader and the protector of beings on his side which is exemplified in his speech in Book 2 where he states that he shall sacrifice himself for the fallen angels by taking the punishment for perverting ‘man’. Satan seems to be trying to mirror God, though he doesn’t want to abide by the ideals followed by God, Satan desires a position that parallels God’s, his desire to reign evident in the line: ‘reign is worth ambition though in Hell’. In his twisted way he is aspiring to be like God: the one being he wants to be the most unlike. (This is a very strong parallel to the political figure Oliver Cromwell, someone Milton once looked up to, who fought against absolutist rule and went on to become an absolutist ruler himself.) Moreover, Satan’s idea of possession of Hell is a metaphor for free will: he thinks he is going against God by being evil because he assumes that God wants everyone to be good and how can one be good if one possess Hell – the opposite of good?
Satan says: ‘Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.’ He is arguably the creature most determined to have free will, almost in a monomaniacal fashion: he chooses to do evil, knowing full well, as evident from the discussion in Book 2 that their (the fallen angels) punishment could get worse if they choose to do more evil, and that he would have to go through even more torment for his actions. He could have done good actions and not meant it and still reaped the rewards of being good in Heaven, but he didn’t; he gave up joy for free will, or at least his version of free will. It is interesting to note that Satan was the first being who ever disobeyed God (according to the poem), which means that there was no precedent for it and that would have required courage and dedication to his principles.
In lines ‘mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.’ there is an implicit assumption that the ‘mind’ belongs to Satan. Also the idea that the mind can make ‘Heaven’ or ‘Hell’ suggests the power the mind can have. Satan demonstrates that Heaven and Hell can be inside us no matter where we are, which also links back to the idea that the nature of Hell can vary since no two minds can create the same Hell. Moreover it is also suggesting that the mind has the power, to a certain extent, to control the Heavens and Hells inside us, which further shows that he thinks he has free will. This quote demonstrates what Satan thinks is the extent of one’s power over one’s own life. He is hence trying to convince himself that he can choose for himself, while also perhaps preparing himself to be strong and courageous through this ‘pep talk’ to himself. This directs ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inwardly suggesting therefore that good and bad are more than simply good and bad actions.
Satan says ‘fardest from [God] is best’, but being away from God means farthest from what is ‘good’. He feels a deep sense of loss for a life lived in joy when he calls Hell ‘mournful gloom’ in comparison to his description of Heaven in the lines ‘Farewel happy Fields / Where Joy for ever dwells’. Even though he protects the right to choose ‘evil’, that doesn’t by itself make him someone who would ‘enjoy’ a joyless/mournful existence. He perhaps is one of the few characters who really understand what it means to be good because he understands what it means to be ‘evil’ and is living a tormented existence. He seems to believe that the farther away he is from God the less he would be affected by God’s will or power, but that is perhaps a delusion he creates for himself in order to cope with God’s overarching will.
In lines ‘‘Here / We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built / Here for his envy’, Satan again deludes himself into thinking that Hell, a prison designed by God, will set them (the fallen angels) ‘free’, because he protects the right to ‘choose’ evil, to defy authority, and to carve out a path, however ‘hellish’, for one’s own self. He however mistakes the right to choose evil to be the same as doing evil regardless of what one may want to do. In this way he protects the right to have ‘free will’, but part of what he is protecting is a delusion.
Satan’s major flaw, therefore becomes denial. The poem hints in two ways that everything is God’s will. One is the way the poem keeps explicitly referring to God as ‘Sovran’ and ‘Almighty’, suggesting that he wills everything. However we can’t be sure that God wills everything simply because he has the power to do so. Satan seems to have some idea of God’s overarching power, which is why he wants to be a separate entity from God and why he resorts to being evil. Therefore in Satan’s quest for executing free will he actually gives up his right to choose, because he thinks that the only way to have free will is to do evil, in spite of what he may actually want to do. Because he was created by God in the first place, one could argue that there is a little bit of God in Satan. He isn’t able to accept that he cannot be completely separate from God and in not being able to make the ‘will of God’ his own, he becomes tragic.
Furthermore, this passage is an excerpt from a speech that he’s giving to his army of fallen angels to reassure them of his dedication to the cause. By being a speech, the cause becomes much bigger than if it were a simply a soliloquy; and he becomes a hero for these angels at least if not for anyone else. His speech also functions to convince himself that he will be okay in his ‘mournful’ prison and that as long he has his mind he can turn his Hell into Heaven, because the price (‘eternal torment’) he has to pay for what he perceives to be ‘free will’ is hideously great. His determination here is exemplary, but his denial to move on from this paradoxical situation of attempting to separate himself from God makes his Hell even more hellish. It is because of this ambition of being completely ‘free’ that he carves out a singular path of ‘evil’, therefore in his denial to see what is really going on, he gives up his ability to choose the one thing he most desires and suffers Hell for.
Dartmouth.edu,. 'Paradise Lost: Book 1'. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.