In the poem Paradise Lost, John Milton speaks of Satans rebellion in Heaven and the resulted exile into hell. With his rebel angels, Satan declares all out war on God because he truly believes that it is Better to reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven. Since the poem was written it has been reflected upon and understood in a number of ways. Interpretations as to whether or not Satan is a true Epic Hero have been argued back and forth for the simple reason that Satan does possess the characteristics of an Epic Hero. Although Satan exhibits the qualities and characteristics of a hero, it is the way he uses these traits that takes the title of Epic Hero away from him. Everything Satan does is to further himself and to seek revenge on God and the angels that follow Him.
One characteristic of an Epic Hero that Satan is associated with is beauty. In the beginning Satan is known as Lucifer, meaning light bearer. Lucifer appears to be a very powerful angel under Gods command, but also a very beautiful angel. His beauty and power are two factors that give him the ability to reach out to the angels that no longer want to serve in heaven. Satan is also a very proud angel. He is too proud to be simply a follower. He takes it upon himself to begin the war in heaven that ultimately results in his banishment to Hell along with the other rebel angels that decide to follow him. In Book I Satan lures the angels to his side by making them believe that to follow him is to rise above God and that if they do not, they will be fallen angels, Awake, arise, or be for ever falln (330). Ironically, they follow Satan and still become fallen.
Satans most important characteristic that allows him to be an effective and powerful leader among the rebel angels is his ability to persuade them to do his bidding:
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heavn, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers (I, 33-39).
Satan makes his rebel angels believe in his cause; they no longer want to serve God in Heaven, but they are tricked into serving Satan in the war against Heaven and again in Hell. They believe that they should not have to be servants, but because Satan is such a powerful leader in their eyes, and he has the ability to make his fight sound necessary in order for the angels to be free, they do not even realize that Satan is now dictating to them.
Satans ability to amaze the rebel angels through his many speeches in Paradise Lost is portrayed in the following excerpt:
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of spirits armed
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heavn,
and shook his throne
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome? (I, 100-109)
Satan uses this speech to appeal to the wishes of the rebel angels. They do not want to serve God; they want to overthrow Him and to take his power. This speech reminds the angels of their plans, and gives them the confidence they need to follow Satan in revolt.
Satan uses the same method of flattery on Eve to gain her trust in Book IX: and thy celestial beauty adore/With ravishment beheld/Where universally admired (540-542), along with forms of flattery such as: A goddess among gods, adored and served and Fairest resemblance of thy maker fair (IX, 547,537) Satan makes Eve believe in him, which results in the fall of humankind. Satan has a gift for using flattery to gain trust in others to do his bidding; a very powerful gift that when used for evil results in complete mayhem.
Another factor that makes him appear to be a hero is Satans willingness to give up the comforts of Heaven to become a ruler in Hell. It proves that he is fully committed to his plans. This is also extremely important in gaining the support and loyalty of his followers. Because of Satans allegiance with the other rebel angels, they feel that they can trust him to be their leader. Satan leads them into battle with the intentions of overthrowing God and having himself become the new almighty leader. Satan takes advantage of the power and trust that he has gained with his rebel angels. He uses them to satisfy his own needs. As referred to previously, Satan also uses the trust he found in Eve to convince her that what he wants her to do is the right thing to do. He is a manipulator who can get almost every being he comes in contact with to believe his lies and to trust him when he is deceitful.
Perhaps another trait that may make Satan appear heroic is his willingness to take action. In Book II, after the rebel angels build Pandemonium, Satan volunteers to go to Earth. The angels believe that this is a brave act on Satans part and that he is doing it for the group. But realistically, Satan does this for himself, basically as he has been doing the entire time without their knowledge.Thence more at ease their minds and somewhat raised/By false presumptuous hope (521-22). Satan uses their faith in him to gain their support in his mission to Earth.
According to some, Satan has been labeled as a hero for two reasons: he enunciates ideas in Book I which on the surface appeal to the oppressed against unjust authorityand he engages in a questioning voyage and a struggle with an opposing force (Coles Notes, 44). Firstly, Satan uses his beauty, his power, and his ability to give powerful speeches in order to gain the trust, loyalty, and obedience of the rebel angels. This allows Satan to carry out his own wishes while making the fallen angels believe that he is also doing something for them. The second reasoning is based on the fact that God is an opposing figure. Satan defies God and then lets the rebel angels believe that if they follow him, they will be helping the underdog defeat the powerful opposing force of God.
The idea that Satan is a hero in any sense to the reader confirms Miltons idea that humans are fallen beings. They sympathize with the lesser power, even if the lesser power is an evil power. Satan is a cunning and devious being. His ability to convince others to commit any act, especially an evil act, should not be considered a heroic trait. A true hero would convince the fallen to repent and to attempt to regain their innocence. Truthfully, if all of Satans characteristics are looked into more deeply, the reader would find that only on the surface do they appear heroic. His ability to gain trust in others is used wrongfully, and then the trust is broken because Satan is insincere in letting his true plans be known.
Another characteristic of a hero that is taken out of context to make Satan appear to be the hero is his beauty, and the effect this beauty has on his followers. Satan is initially one of the most beautiful of all Gods angels. He is also very powerful because of this beauty. A true hero would not use his beauty to invoke a false trust in his followers that would eventually lead to their exile into eternal sin and damnation.
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemned
For ever now to have their lot in pain,
Millions of spirits for his fault amerced
Of Heavn, and from eternal splendors flung
For his revolt, yet faithful how they stood,
Their glory withered(I, 606-612).
A true hero would use the trust he has gained from his followers to do something positive. Actions are considered as something that produces an effect. Satans Actions are not true to the sense. They are merely actions of revenge, which is not an action, but a reaction. Satan leads his followers into a negative reaction against God, a fight they cannot win.
Upon looking deeper into the character of Satan it can be seen that his underdog status is a product of his own doing. He knowingly takes on an extremely powerful force in God, and blindly leads his followers into a war that results in their eternal exile. Satan may possess the characteristics of an Epic Hero on the surface, but sin, hate, and the presence of death all around him make these characteristics secondary to his evil intentions.