[Milton-L] Characterization of Satan

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Sat Dec 18 19:23:13 EST 2010

Yes, quite a few people have argued that Satan is the protagonist of the 
heroic epic that Paradise Lost turns out not  to be.  Maurice Bowra made 
that case in 1945 and he was followed by many critics in the 1960s, 
including Davis P. Harding, John Steadman, and Michael Wilding (among 
others).  The argument is very plausible, but (like all arguments about 
Satan) it risks jumping from the frying pan into the fire because it invites 
the retort that Milton was of Homer's party without knowing it (a retort 
that would, if just, bring us back to square one).  Milton in PL obviously 
is offering a critique of martial epic, but many commentators (notably 
Raleigh and TIllyard) have refused to take him at his word (Tillyard uses 
the phrase "unprovoked lies") when he claims to be "nor skilled nor 
studious" in military heroics.

Hope this helps,

John Leonard

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Grewell, Cory L." <CGrewell at thiel.edu>
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Saturday, December 18, 2010 7:05 PM
Subject: RE: [Milton-L] Characterization of Satan

The remarks on the humanization and sympathetic (arguably) portrayal of 
Satan here remind me of a question I've been meaning to pose to this groupe 
for a while.  Has anyone that you know of written an analysis of Satan as 
sympathetic in light of the classical epic tradition?  What I have in mind 
is the sympathetic portrayal of Hector in Homer's Iliad.  Given the agon 
that ensues between Achilles and Hector, the valor and ability of Hector 
gives more glory to Achilles when he bests him in battle finally.  Has 
anyone explored whether this might be to a certain extent what Milton is 
doing with Satan in the early books, i.e. building him up as a formidable 
foe who tentatively seizes a "moral" high ground only to be bested by the 
Son?  I know this is sort of similar to what Fish describes in his reading 
of the poem, but I don't recall him setting his analysis in the Classical 

Dr. Cory Lowell Grewell
Assistant Professor of English
Thiel College
75 College Ave
Greenville, PA  16125


From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu on behalf of James Rovira
Sent: Fri 12/17/2010 10:21 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Bloom & Rovira on Xtian narratives

Would be very interesting to hear you describe your reading experiences of 
PL from that background, Carl.  I was fortunate enough to teach selections 
to a very mixed audience in a survey course this semester.  Many of my 
Christian students -- most of them Evangelical of sorts with little real 
historical understanding of Christianity -- were largely shocked by their 
being drawn toward Satan as a character.  Many comments about that.  The 
general feeling was that Satan was humanized, given feelings and motivation, 
rather than being a somewhat abstract force of pure evil.  Alongside these 
students were others who had no religious background at all.  They too were 
similarly drawn, without the sense of shock.  Students both Christian and 
non-Christian were about evenly divided over Satan turning into a real jerk 
eventually and Satan being a character with whom one could sympathize.

Of everything we read from, gasp, Beowulf to the 18thC, Paradise Lost seemed 
the greatest and most impressive work of the imagination.  I could tell that 
it captured students in ways that other literature did not, even my students 
who were not great readers and certainly not great readers of poetry.  One 
of my most gifted students rewrote sections of PL into a short story set in 
a rural church today.  The church building represented Pandaemonium, the 
pastor Satan, who tries to seduce the female partner in a young, innocent 

But, to get to the point, most of those who read it from a faith perspective 
did not feel that their beliefs were challenged.  When I've taught it in the 
past I've had Roman Catholic students who, surprisingly, treated it 
consistently and coherently almost as a doctrinal manual.  THAT was shocking 
to me, esp. since they'd been taught in their Catholic HSs to read it that 

My responses to this thread have been that we can't assume how an orthodox 
believer will respond as both Scripture and Milton are subject to 
interpretation, like everything else.

Jim R

On Sat, Dec 18, 2010 at 1:03 AM, Carl Bellinger <bcarlb at comcast.net> wrote:

Sorry Jim. Attempting to escape the tedious style that dogs my keyboard I 
have flown apparently into mere opacity. I think I should try-&-find [is 
there a proper spelling of the idiomatic "try and find"?] Bloom's comment in 
situ before getting back to you on this.
    But in the mean time I would say only that having myself grown up in a 
bible-centered but also bible-rich [Christian narrative?] community I know 
what it's like to feel blasted at every turn in this great poem, and to feel 
that not only the monks deserve to be tattered into rags by the violent 
crosswind but Milton too.



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