Milton's Satan - Essay

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Milton resources on this website:-

1. this simple academic essay

2. a speculative diary entry interpreting Milton's Paradise Lost as a poem more about sex than about religion.

3. a science fiction story called Bad Sex which, again, speculates about Milton and sex.

4. there is also some material which relates, peripherally, to Milton and Paradise Lost - this tangential material touches on Homer's Iliad and is in the diary file about the Trojan War. (If you want to know how Homer relates to Milton then the essay on this page right here should give you a hint or two.)

Milton's Satan

Second Exercise
due by Monday 11 July 1994
- write about 1000 words -

C.S. Lewis in A PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST argues that Milton's satan is a "comic spirit", one without the capacity "to understand anything". Helen Gardner, on the other hand, views Satan's characterisation as essentially tragic.

Write an essay on Milton's Satan.

Milton's Satan

Milton's Satan is a rebel who seduced his own daughter, impregnating her with a male child who, after violently tearing his way out of his mother's womb, promptly raped her. Satan is as yet ignorant of the existence of his incestuous issue when, in Book II of Paradise Lost, he sets forth on a mission of reconnaissance. On reaching Hell Gate, Satan is about to do battle with a fearsome monster when a "Snakie Sorceress" rushes between the two.

O Father, what intends thy hand, she cri'd,
Against thy only Son? What fury O Son,
Possesses thee to bend that mortal Dart
Against thy Fathers head?

So beginning, the "Portress of Hell Gate" proceeds to describe her own birth. Satan having assembled his rebellious army, she sprang fully-grown from Satan's head. The angels at first feared her, and named her Sin; but Satan, finding her attractive, mated with her, engendering their son, whose name is Death.

On the allegorical level, this passage is very simple to decipher: rebellion against God is a sin, the result of which is death. The passage also has other functions. Satan's sin parallels the sin later committed by Adam and Eve, which "Brought Death into the World" (I.3), and the lustful conception of the son of Satan contrasts with the immaculate conception of the Son of God (who, as Paradise Regain'd says more than once, was born to a "Virgin").

Clearly, Milton's Satan functions as the antithesis of virtue, obedience and chastity. Satan's actions bear this out, for, confronted by his son and daughter, he proceeds to appeal to their worst instincts, offering them a life of luxury in which "all things shall be your prey." (I.844). Despite the horrific consequences of incest, which have left his daughter with such severe gynaecological problems that "Hell Hounds" (the issue of her incestuous relationship with her son) are now free to kennel in her womb, Satan shows no signs of remorse. Nor does he contradict his daughter when she looks forward to a renewal of their incestuous relationship, saying:-

thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall Reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

Milton's Satan, then, is a rebel whose hierarchical transgression (his revolt against God) is paralleled by his sexual transgression (his incestuous relationship with his own daughter).

The Satanic family, consisting of the unholy trinity Satan, Sin and Death, is severely dysfunctional; as Sin makes clear, Death would kill even her, except that he knows "His end with mine involv'd" (II.807).

It has been said that the example of The Iliad "led Milton to think of the triangle of Adam, Eve and Satan in terms of Achilles, Patroklos and Hektor-Apollo" (Mueller 1984:188). In this view, Milton's Satan functions as an antagonist to the hero, as Hector (aided by the god Apollo) functions as an antagonist to the hero Achilles. By convention, the antagonist must be a figure of heroic stature so that the hero who does battle with him can be seen as properly heroic.

Precisely who Milton's hero might be is debatable. Another critic has argued that "In reality Adam is the progatonist and Christ the hero, while Satan is reserved for another role, that of antagonist." (Woodhouse 1972:189). However, the notion that Milton's Satan serves an adversarial function similar to that of Hector in The Iliad seems beyond debate, so it is instructive to compare Milton's treatment of the Satanic family with the glimpse which Homer famously affords of Hector's home life in The Iliad (6.390-502).

Whereas Milton's Satan does not express sympathy for his son and daughter, but proceeds immediately to manipulate them by tempting them, Hector and his wife are full of tenderness for each other and for their son. Furthermore, both have a realistic awareness of the dreadful fates which are in store for them. Even while seeking to comfort his tearful wife, Hector acknowledges the inevitability of his own death:

No man is going to hurl me to Hades, unless it is fated,
but as for fate, I think that no man has yet escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward

The Iliad (6.487-489)

Characteristically, the great Homeric warriors acknowledge the inevitability of their own deaths - Achilles, for example, is fully aware that he is doomed to die in battle - and it can be argued that it is their ability to fight on in the face of this awareness of death which gives them their glory.

The Homeric warrior, then, is fully aware of the dire nature of his predicament. Milton's Satan is shown as being possessed of a similar awareness in the long soliliquy of Book IV of Paradise Lost (32-113). There is, however, a profound difference. The Homeric warrior is doomed to death by an inevitable fate which cannot be altered. In contrast, Milton's Satan theoretically has an option, which is submission.

Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heavn'n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath


In practice, Satan thinks no such submission is possible, since God would not accept his repentance because God knows he would soon unsay "What feignd submission swore" (IV.96). However, it appears to be only his pride which prevents him from making a true act of submission. Whereas the Homeric hero has no control over the fundamental nature of the realities he must endure, Milton's Satan can theoretically choose to alter his own circumstances, but finds this impossible on account of his unmitigated pride.

Because Milton's Satan does have a theoretical route of escape from his state of damnation, he cannot be regarded as essentially tragic. Rather, he is a monster of pride, fully aware of the options which confront him and deliberately choosing the path of maximum perversity. Furthermore, the circumstances of the Satanic family, which are described in horrific terms which border on the pornographic, make it impossible to justly describe this monster as comic.


Homer. (First Phoenix Edition 1961). The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Milton, John. (New Edition 1980) The Complete Poems. Ed B.A. Wright. London: J M Dent & Sons.

Mueller, Martin. (1984) The Iliad. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Woodhouse, A.S.P. (1972) The Heavenly Muse. Ed Hugh MacCallum. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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