Paradise Lost is an epic poem by John Milton retelling the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s first sin. Milton first recounts the rebellion of Satan, who would afterward act as tempter in the events that transpired in the Garden of Eden. Readers have interpreted the story of Satan’s rebellion in two drastically different ways, each corresponding to one of the two contrary themes I introduced in my previous article titled God and Man: Two Western Themes. In this article, I will provide a historical survey of literary criticism to Paradise Lost, showing how interpretations of the poem have fluctuated between the religious and the humanistic themes.
Satan’s rebellion begins when God calls an assembly of all the angels in Heaven in order to announce that he has appointed his Son to reign over them: “To Him shall bow / All knees in Heav’n” (V.607-608). Satan believes that he and the Son are equal in rank, and he concludes that God in this exaltation of the Son is unjust. Satan refuses to surrender his personal freedom or to submit to what he regards as the illegitimate reign of the Son, and he appeals to the other angels to do the same:
Will ye submit your necks and choose to bend / The supple knee? Ye will not [ ] if ye know yourselves / Natives and sons of Heav’n possessed before / By none. (V.787-791)
One-third of the angels join Satan, and Satan criticizes those that do not follow him: “I see that most through sloth had rather serve” (V.166). Satan then leads his followers in an attack against Heaven. The battle between the loyal and rebel angels rages for days before the Son comes forth from his throne; the Son defeats Satan and casts the rebellious angels from Heaven to Hell.
Even in Hell, Satan remains committed to the cause which he sees as just. He implores his troops to have the “courage never to submit or yield” (I.108). He describes God’s reign as “the tyranny of Heav’n” (I.122-124). He stands firm in his dedication to freedom and liberty, proclaiming:
Here at last [in Hell] / We shall be free. [ ] Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven! (I.258-259, 263)
John Milton published the first edition of Paradise Lost in 1667. Literary critics for over a hundred years afterwards interpreted the fall of Satan along the lines of traditional Christian theology. They took Satan to be the villain and Adam the hero. They read the poem as consistent with what I am calling the “religious theme”: Man must submit to God as the absolute authority; God’s actions are beyond scrutiny. For example, John Dryden (the first literary critic to comment on Paradise Lost) in 1697 criticized the poem for having the villain take center stage and defeat the hero (214).
Near the end of the eighteenth century, however, William Blake put forth a new interpretation. Blake believed that Milton portrayed Satan more richly and magnificently than he portrayed God, and he took this as evidence that Milton (perhaps unwittingly) sided with Satan:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. (Plate 6)
Blake took the meaning of the poem to be consistent with what I am calling the “humanistic theme”: Man should judge whether God’s actions are good or wicked; if man determines that God is wicked, he should rebel against him.
Blake’s interpretation, taking Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, dominated nineteenth century criticism of the poem. These critics saw Satan’s response to God as similar to that of Prometheus’s response to Zeus, both rebelling against wicked tyrants and both regarding their cause as just. Walter Alexander Raleigh, writing at the conclusion of the nineteenth century, clearly took Satan to be the hero of the poem:
Satan unavoidably reminds us of Prometheus. [ ] His very situation as the fearless antagonist of Omnipotence makes him either a fool or a hero, and Milton is far indeed from permitting us to think him a fool.
In reaction to this humanistic interpretation of the nineteenth century, some twentieth-century scholars began reasserting the religious interpretation. Charles Williams, in his 1940 introduction to an edition of Paradise Lost, contended that Satan is indeed not a hero but a fool. His close fried C.S. Lewis developed the idea further in his 1942 A Preface to Paradise Lost:
A creature revolting against a creator is revolting against the source of his own powers — including even his power to revolt. [ ] The same rebellion which means misery for the feelings and corruption of the will, means Nonsense for the intellect. (97)
In 1967, Stanley Fish brought the religious interpretation back to prominence. Unlike Williams and Lewis were, Fish is not religious person; the irony of him arguing for a religious interpretation may have added to the persuasiveness of his argument. He claimed that the poem tempts the reader in the same way that Satan tempted Adam and Eve, but that the reader must overcome the temptation and see Satan as the villain:
The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays [ ] the weakness of Adam and … [fails] to avoid repeating [Adam's] fall. (Surprised By Sin 38)
Both interpretations of Satan’s fall have their adherents today. Philip Pullman’s award-winning His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy was heavily influenced by the humanistic interpretation of Paradise Lost. He tells a story he heard of a country squire from the time of Blake whose reaction to hearing the poem read aloud mirrors Pullman’s own reaction:
Suddenly he bangs the arm of his chair, and exclaims, ‘By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this [Satan's a] fine fellow, and I hope he may win!’ (1)
Stanley Fish continues to be influential, developing and refining this religious interpretation of Paradise Lost over the last thirty years. In a collection of essays published in 2001, he wrote:
[Satan] is trying to bootstrap himself [ ] to deity. [ ] His failure is [the failure] to understand [that] deity is an order of being that is fundamentally different from, and infinitely superior to, one’s own — a source not a rival. (How Milton Works 99)
The two interpretations found among literary critics of this poem reflect the two themes we saw reflected in Western myths concerning man’s proper response to the divine — Job on the one hand, Prometheus Bound on the other. In the next article in this series, I will look at how these two themes appear in interpretations of a story about Iblis (a character in the Qur’an with striking similarities to Milton’s Satan) among Islamic theologians.
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Tesky. W. W. Norton, 2004.
- Dryden, John. “Virgil and the Aeneid.” Dramatic Essays. Ed. William Henry Hudson. E.P. Dutton, 1921.
- Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. (Full text available online.)
- Raleigh, Sir Walter Alexander. Milton. E. Arnold, 1900.
- Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. 1942. Oxford University Press, 1961.
- Fish, Stanley. Surprised By Sin. St. Martin’s Press, 1967.
- Pullman, Philip. “Introduction.” Paradise Lost. Oxford University Press, 2005. 1-10. (Full text available online.)
- Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. Harvard University Press, 2001.
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