Milton’s Paradise Lost: The Story of Satan’s Power Politics
In Paradise Lost, Book I & II the power struggle between Satan, his followers on the one hand and God and his angels on the other provides a good story with dramatic conflict. In Book I Satan “who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms” emerges as leader of a rebel group who are overwhelmed by their first defeat but not totally overcome. As a punishment of his ambition and audacity, Satan and his comrades were “hurled headlong from the ethereal sky …to bottomless perdition.” (Bk.I.l.45)
Like a statesman with strategic insight he converts this defeat as a springboard for the next battle and accordingly inspires his followers with a thunderous call: “What though the field be lost?/All is not lost: the unconquerable will,/ And study of revenge, immortal hate,”(ll.105-07) He instills a confidence in his comrades that victory and defeat are in the hands of the fighters. So his clarion call to his army is addressed to boost their morale and shake off their depression: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen!”. (l.330)
There is also the hint that the first battle was lost due to lack of experience and a inadequate strategy. Moreover, the strength of the enemy (the Almighty) was also not known. Now with hindsight they can formulate a better strategy for an embarking on a war that can end only in triumph. Besides, he has a worthy lieutenant in Beelzebub who has great admiration for the general and mobilize the army. The story of struggle between the ambitious and scheming Satan and the Almighty has all the ingredients of a good plot– a bold and strong anti-hero as the protagonist, the vivid descriptive and narrative power, the sublime epic style, the dramatic dialogues and the technique of beginning the story in the middle of action.
Nine days after their expulsion from the bliss of Heaven, Satan and his followers lie stupefied in the burning lake of Hell. Then he rises and awakens his worthy Second-in-Command to lead his army to the scorching dry land and hold a meeting to devise the winning strategy. Presently, a vast council chamber is built to hold a conference of the great Angels. Readers’ attention is arrested by the suspense about the nature of crime for which such harsh punishment has been meted out to them. Members of Satan’s inner circle – Moloch, Belial and Mammon — offer their opinions, but it is Beelzebub’s suggestion about secretly ruining God’s new creation that is accepted as a fitting revenge against the Almighty.
As none offers to undertake this perilous task, Satan volunteers to take the voyage to the earth after passing through the Hell gate and Chaos. Milton has used flash back technique to present earlier events with the help of dreams, reminiscences and conversations (in Books V-VIII) It seems in Satan Milton has subconsciously created a character for whom he feels sympathy and admiration. But C.S. Lewis refutes this view in A Preface to Paradise Lost: “It may mean that Milton’s presentation of him is a magnificent poetical achievement which engages the attention and excites the admiration of the reader.” (Lewis.94)
The setting of Hell is an integral part of Milton’s epic style. It is appropriate as place for punishment of the expelled angels. But Satan with his ingenuity turns it into an advantage by erecting a vast palace called Pandemonium. There he hatches the conspiracy to destroy God’s creation. Hell also highlights the change of scenario for the angels who have fallen from grace. Milton gives us a vivid account of the flaming hell without light and the miserable plight of the fallen angels writhing in pain.
The vanquished followers of Satan “who lay entranced/ thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks.”(ll.301-02). Milton further portrays them “with looks/ downcast and damp … have found their chief/ not in despair, to have found themselves not lost/ in loss itself;” (ll.522-26) To the dejected followers comes the uplifting call “Cherub and Seraph rolling in the flood/ with scattered arms and ensign,” The congregation of the fallen angels at Pademonium is described with due pomp: “Of trumpets loud and clarions be upreared/ his mighty standard (ll.532-33)
The fighting spirit of the downcast and damp followers are raised with the help of sonorous metal blowing martial sounds and ten thousand colorful banners fluttering in the wind and serried shields in thick array convey the impression of the preparation of a counter attack. “The imperial ensign…with gems and golden luster rich emblazed,/ Seraphic arms and trophies:(ll.538-39). We get a grand impression of Satan “in shape and gesture proudly eminent/ stood like a tower” (ll.590-91) “his face/ deep scars of thunder had intrenched … under brows of dauntless courage, and considerable pride” (ll.600-603) The wealth of details truly conforms to the epic tradition and adds to its grandeur.
Millions of rebellious spirits thus stand suffering silently with loyalty and devotion to their commander even after being flung from their eternal splendor, “driven out of bliss, condemned/ in his abhorred deep to utter woe;/ where pain of unextinguishable fire” (Bk.II.ll.86-88). Satan’s makes a dramatic escape from Hell with a view to covertly strike God by sabotaging his beautiful creation. However, according to F.R. Leavis, “After the first two books, magnificent in their simple force (party politics in the Grand Style Milton can compass), Paradise Lost, though there are intervals of relief, becomes dull and empty: ‘all,’ as Raleigh says, ‘is power, vagueness, and grandeur.’ Milton’s inadequacy to myth, in fact, is so inescapable…”(Leavis 61)
If the setting of Paradise Lost is changed, we have a new story. In modern era a person of Satan’s caliber would be hailed as an irrepressible leader of the opposition party in a country with democratic set up. His goal would be to dislodge the ruling party in power in the election. He would aim to convince people by highlighting the government’s failures and underestimating its achievement. Naturally, there would neither be God nor Satan, neither Heaven nor Hell, neither angels nor devils in the new scenario. The ambition to rule would not be regarded a punishable offence.
Examples and parallels abound. Many countries in Asia now have militant groups of separatists who declare themselves as “Liberation Force” that wage armed battles against their own government for freedom and autonomy (naming them would be unwise). Satan’s role has affinity with a militant trade union leader who sometimes, like Lech Walesa in Poland, can win election and become the President. In stead of brute force the opposition leader uses his political strategies and communication skill to convince majority of the voters that the ruling party is at fault and their country will be safer in the hands of his political party.
In U.K. the Labor party won the election overthrowing their rival Tories in 1994 under the leadership of Tony Blair. It is the business of the opposition to pick holes in the performance of the ruling party. He would criticize their policies, attack their inefficiency, expose their corruption and project them as responsible for country’s backwardness. He would offer better plans and strategies to get the country out of the mess. He does not have to fight physically to defeat his rival like Satan, but the methods of attack have much resemblance.
As Satan says: “our better part remains/ to work in close design, by fraud or guile,” (Bk.I.ll.645-46) and his continual emphasis on victory: “For who can think submission? War then, war/ open or understood must be resolved.” (ll.661-62) The opposition leader often resorts to disparaging remarks and undermining the image of his rival as Satan debunks God, “Who now triumphs, and in excess of joy/ sole reigning holds the tyranny of heaven.” (ll.123-24) The political rival is presented as oppressor.
The main difference is that in Milton’s world there no neutral voters who decide the fate of the leaders. It is God and his angels are in power, and Satan and his ambitious followers endeavor to dethrone Him. Like real life politics there are fence-sitters and defectors in Paradise Lost. The rebel leaders’ meeting in Book II to discuss and debate their strategies has a parallel in modern politics. It may be argued that Milton’s religious epic still have relevance in a secular world. Satan’s story is everyman’s search for power and his struggle to gain it.
The underlying theme of Satan’s struggle against God and his angels is that of search for power and motivate a demoralized group of fallen angels and a determination to sacrifice everything to conquer Heaven and rule it. As Satan proclaims: “to be weak is miserable,/ Doing or suffering:” (ll.157-58) “To wage by force or guile eternal war,/ Irreconcileable to our grand foe,” (ll.121-22)
The main characters, the epic style, the inspiring speech, and the preparation for a “perpetual war” all help to develop the theme of pursuit of power and the use all means to get it. Satan shows the right mindset of a winner who would not accept anything short of victory as he speaks candidly about it: “To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:/
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”(Bk.I.ll.262-63) Satan represents the freedom-loving individualist who also demonstrates great pragmatic sense by adapting himself to the harsh realities of Hell and consoles himself with his psychological insight: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Bk.I.ll.254-255)
Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London. O.U.P. 1984
Leavis, F.R. Revaluation. Harmondsworth. Penguin.1972
Abrams, M.H. & Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.(7th ed) New York. W.W.Norton & Co. 2001. pp.722-764
April 28, 2008