There’s no other way to begin this series than with a depiction of the world’s best-known villain. John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost is both iconic and one of the most dynamic. While other great literary depictions (e.g. Dante’s) have their merits, Milton’s Satan is a powerful representation of evil’s temptation and treachery.
In Paradise Lost, Satan represents malevolent evil on a cosmic level. He is the sworn opponent of God, heaven, and all that is good and innocent. He seeks revenge against God, and he harms humanity in an attempt to gain it. In Book I, he is introduced as the literal father of Sin and the literal father and grandfather of Death.
However, what makes Milton’s character stand out is his ability to make evil look good. It’s a quality that gets established early in the epic, just as the fallen angels awaken in hell after being cast out of heaven. But even in his fallen state, Milton’s Satan retains much of his angelic beauty:
“His form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel…” (Book I, ll. 591–600; all spelling here and hereafter original to text)
He may have been cast out of heaven, but he still shines with some of his “original brightness.” He is the captivating glow of the sun on a misty day and an ominous, yet beautiful, eclipse.
Although those things can be perplexing or unsettling, we’re drawn to them because they’re attractive in their own fashions. We want to look at them. We want to know more about them—a perfect example is the increasing excitement about next month’s eclipse. Likewise, we’re drawn to the unsettling character of the arch-fiend himself.
Milton’s Satan makes evil look good through other ways, as well. Despite being cast out of heaven, he is seen as a glorious leader by his lieutenant, Beelzebub: “Leader of those Armies bright, / Which but th’ Omnipotent none could have foyld” (Book I, ll. 272–273). He appears strong, resembling a fortification: “He above the rest / In shape and gesture proudly eminent / Stood like a Towr” (Book I, ll. 589–591). These traits are both enticing and reflections of traditional depictions of goodness—the leadership of heavenly armies is regularly ascribed to Christ in the Christian tradition, and unfoilability and the likeness of a tower are commonly associated with the Father.
Milton’s Satan is also an optimist who takes control of the situation; even though he is floating unconscious on a flaming lake at the beginning of the epic poem, he quickly rises to his new role as prince of hell and oversees the construction of his palace at the end of Book I. His unshakable sangfroid is perhaps best captured in his infamous declaration, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” (Book I, l. 263). In short, he is everything we desire in a capable leader and, at times, what we even fantasize about being.
The ability of Milton’s Satan to make evil attractive is also what makes him such an effective representation of evil. He is the personification of temptation itself. After all, temptation is one of the things that drive us to do evil. It’s what makes pursuing evil seem desirable: it looks good and feels good, and, consequently, we feel drawn to do it. With his attractive and magnetic persona, Milton’s Satan captures that perfectly.
But there’s another reason why he portrays evil so effectively: he is a reminder that, for all its supposed power and attractiveness, evil is inherently weak and carries consequences.
Amid the descriptions of Satan’s power are other descriptions of his shortcomings. Despite his supposed claims to impending victory, “his face / Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht” (Book I, ll. 600–601). He bears the visible scars of his defeat at the hands of God, even as he and his peers plot their revenge. Further, in spite of his supposedly liberated new role, “care / Sat on his faded cheek” (Book I, ll. 601–602). Being cast out hasn’t freed him to be his own ruler, it’s burdened him with the weariness of his own defeat. Milton makes it clear that Satan not a powerful victor at all and, by extension, that little in evil is powerful.
Satan’s beauty—and the supposed beauty of evil—also get undermined. Although he is like the “Sun new ris’n,” he is also “shorn from his beams,” eternally cleft from the light and reduced to a hollow, faded copy of true brightness. He appears attractive like an eclipse, but even that is tainted. At the totality of every eclipse, the sun and the sky are consumed by darkness. Similarly, Satan—despite his pretensions to brightness—is both consumed by darkness and representative of the all-consuming darkness of evil.
Together, the attractiveness of Milton’s Satan and his revelation as a weak pretender are what make his portrayal of evil great. He tempts us and draws us in, and we go along with him only to be brutally shown that we’ve been duped. He reminds us of the duplicitous, treacherous nature of evil while also revealing our own susceptibility to temptation. He reflects our own urges and desires, and his weakness encourages us to turn away from our darker ones. Despite his cosmic status and imperfection, he is a perfect lesson in human nature.
This post used Dartmouth College’s annotated online version of Paradise Lost.
This is the first post in a miniseries on four great literary villains. The others can be found here.