Satan is the protagonist and anti-hero of Book I of Paradise Lost. Satan is introduced to the readers at his lowest. Rather than beginning his narrative with Lucifer, the angel’s disagreement with God in his grand kingdom, Milton begins his narrative in the epic tradition after Satan has rebelled and fallen from grace.
Milton presents Satan as a complex character. While wishing to be the antagonist to God’s plans and missions, he serves the very function designed by God. Thus, he never strays away from the scheme of things even when he rebels. For instance, Satan follows the Christian doctrine of ‘do not despair’, not once; even in his fallen state does he ever despair and give in to his suffering and submitting. In doing so, he never strays from the precepts set by God, his folly being his inability to recognize the source of his power and resilience. On one hand Milton delves into Satan as a tragic hero who overcomes his own struggles, on the other, he is the primary example of corrupted power and the perils of ambition and pride. In Book I, Satan can be seen as a leader who rallies his troupe and shakes them out of their feeling of hopelessness and misery by providing them a purpose. He is majestic in his grandeur, unafraid in the face of adversity. However, this purpose is meaningless as a force of perpetual destruction as opposed to the forces of Creation by God.
Satan not only stands in opposition to God but also acts as a foil for the heroes – Adam and Eve who will lead to the redemption and salvation of mankind. His fall is paralleled in the later books to the Fall of Adam and Eve as well as all of mankind who are then redeemed by Christ, the “one greater Man”. Milton ascribes Satan certain human qualities in his sense of hurt and betrayal, as well as his sorrow for the state of his fallen angels.His seductive appeal most prominent in Book I, at the very beginning of the events that set the stage for the greatest battle between evil and good. Milton perhaps turns him into a tragic, fallen hero so that the readers can sympathize with him and in doing so; realize the seductive nature of evil. His hamartia (tragic flaw of the hero of an Epic) is his excessive pride. Nevertheless, he is portrayed as heroic in his persistence to achieve the impossible.
Milton portrays Satan as an orator par excellence, the master of rhetoric. In doing so, he cautions against empty words and promises that only serve to lead the listener astray. Below is a brief analysis of Satan’s speeches throughout Book I:
Satan’s first speech to Beelzebub – magnificent leader, sympathizes and identifies himself as one with his followers and their misery. He shows pity on the reduced stature of his friend. He justifies his animosity towards God in his sense of “injur’d merit”. It is a mark of Satan’s eloquence that he makes a ceaseless war with impossible odds seem like their only option
Satan’s second speech – Infuse a sense of courage in his commanders after their defeat, overconfidence in his schemes masks their futile nature because in no way will they help in gaining back what has been lost. Foiling God’s plan will not get them heaven back
Satan’s third speech – Accepting their fate to be eternal adversaries of God, Satan willingly accepts their dismal situation as a rebellion against the servitude of Heaven. “Farthest from him is best” marks not only physical alienation but also the moral distance between himself and God. Milton suffuses Satan’s speech with irony. Milton draws the readers’ attention to how Satan’s speech is “full of ringing phrases expressed with a deliberate sonority”, laying bare the rhetoric.
Satan’s fourth speech – Ironically calls these angels ‘princes” to rouse their sense of pride
Satan’s fifth speech – A war cry which rules out any other options such as surrender or submission to the authority of God, repentance for their rebellion against Heaven, or even the idea of bearing their sufferings due to their punishment with patience and persistence.
Two particularly interesting interpretations of Satan have been touted by critics throughout the many centuries of scholarship since the publication of Paradise Lost in 1667. One bases Satan as the villain, the anti-thesis of Adam & Eve on the basis of theological theme, while the second interpretation, brought forward most prominently by William Blake, interprets Satan as the hero of the poem, rebelling against the anarchy of a tyrannical ruler. Alexander Raleigh compares Satan to Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus for the benefit of mankind. Likewise, Raleigh calls Satan a “fearless antagonist of Omnipotence”. On the other hand, Stanley Fish suggests that Milton attempts to ‘tempt’ the reader as Satan tempted Eve and it becomes the moral and religious duty of the reader to overcome this temptation. The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays […] the weakness of Adam and … [fails] to avoid repeating [Adam’s] fall. (Fish, 38)