-Oscar Wilde from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
Who is John Milton in Paradise Lost? Is he Satan, is he God, is he the narrator? Is he anyone? The question provoked by the extraordinary nature of the text, written by a man known for his love of scripture in a time when atheism was all but unthinkable and certainly not something one admitted, regards primarily a wonderfully crafted and sympathetic Satan. The debate has now gone on for centuries and will likely continue for centuries more, if Earth survives that long. The work survives partly because of the questions but even more because of the artistic beauty of the work which, as William Empson says, "is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions" (Empson, 13). Empson disagrees with a preface C.S. Lewis wrote for Paradise Lost primarily on the grounds that to Empson Satan resembles more Oliver Cromwell and Satan's forces the leaders of the Commonwealth while God most resembles Charles I. Lewis rejects this idea, affirming the goodness of God and the badness of Satan. Yet it's in taking their contradictory ideas both at once that one most appreciates the work as, with all great works of art, it rises above allegory.
C.S. Lewis was not altogether against allegory as can be seen by anyone who's read his Narnia books and spotted the obvious parallels between Aslan's torture at the Stone Table and the crucifixion of Christ (The Chronicles of, 177). In his Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis begins by discussing at length the nature of epic poem. In discussing the advances Virgil made to the form, Lewis remarks "It will be seen that in these two lines Virgil, with no intention of allegory, has described once and for all the very quality of most human life as it is experienced by any one who has not yet risen to holiness or sunk to animality" (Preface, 39). What Lewis refers to is a superior utility in art that is not allegory in that it touches on a larger subject by not aiming to be just one. The sentiment is better expressed by Lewis' friend J.R.R. Tolkien in a preface to The Fellowship of the Ring.
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Tolkien, xxiii)
The usefulness of Tolkien's idea can be seen in his own Lord of the Rings where the Ring of Power in the story has variously been interpreted as representing nuclear power or drug abuse. In fact, since Tolkien intended it to be neither, it can be both along with many other things besides. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of human nature that applies to many human problems.
Therefore, Satan in the first two books succeeds as a character not by being Oliver Cromwell or John Milton or even by being the biblical Satan. He succeeds by being Milton's Satan.
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankinde, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers (PL, lines 34-39)
Like Milton, Satan seeks excellence in his endeavours, like the King, he seeks glory above peerage. Either interpretation is applicable. Meanwhile, the beauty of the language enchants us. Witness the tumbling alliteration of "Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host." Like in his prose, Milton loves long sentences which compel the tongue to continue reading without pause. At all times because of it there is a sense of movement and energy in the first two books.
Lewis refers to the fact that all contemporary readers of Paradise Lost would have been aware that Satan rebelled against God for pride alone, that obviously Satan and his cohorts did not face the same injustices that drove the Republicans to rebellion. Empson, though, argues that this ignores the power of the rhetoric in isolation from Christian consideration. He remarks on the beauty of the speech Satan gives to his followers:
that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost? (PL, lines 97-105)
The average reader, coming to the work without the context of the Christian religion, "vaguely invents enough background to justify the emphases which the rhetoric and the music require" (Empson, 45). Empson would know, too, having delivered the speech himself to a group of Chinese refugees. "It was received with fierce enthusiasm, but also with a mild groan from some of the older hands, who felt they had been having enough propaganda already" (Empson, 45). In a context so far from Milton's time and place, the words still work because they are in themselves good.
However, the characters in Paradise Lost cannot be wholly divorced from their biblical counterparts. In describing Satan's cohorts, the pagan gods, the poet invokes specific details related to their biblical stories.
And when Night
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of BELIAL, flown with insolence and wine.
Witness the Streets of SODOM, and that night
In GIBEAH, when hospitable Dores
Yielded thir Matrons to prevent worse rape. (PL, lines 500-505)
One cannot fail to recognise Belial by the incident in Judges 19, surely not actions Milton would wish to ascribe to his comrades any more than the human sacrifice he ascribes to Moloch in impressively gruesome lines. The shadow of Milton himself, though, is still clearly visible in the description of Satan as is asserted by both Lewis and Empson. "The force and music of the poetry here proved that he had been feeling this pent-up comment deeply" Empson says when referring to a line from Satan lamenting the lot of he and his cohorts. Percy Shelley, in an introduction to his Prometheus Unbound, provides an explanation for how Satan can simultaneously be Milton and not Milton.
A poet is the combined product of such
internal powers as modify the nature of others; and of such external
influences as excite and sustain these powers; he is not one, but both.
Every man's mind is, in this respect, modified by all the objects of Nature
and art; by every word and every suggestion which he ever admitted
to act upon his consciousness; it is the mirror upon which all forms
are reflected, and in which they compose one form. (Shelley, 6)
This mutability of identity in an artist is reminiscent of a curious line in Paradise Lost included as part of the description of Satan's host:
For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their Essence pure,
Not ti'd or manacl'd with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens't, bright or obscure,
Can execute their aerie purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfill. (PL, lines 423-431)
The idea that the fallen angels are not of any fixed sex opens the way to intriguing interpretations of Satan's relationship with Sin and Eve, neither of which can apply if one sticks dogmatically to an interpretation based on the English Civil Wars or the Christian Bible. For me, the beauty, the tragedy, of Satan is best expressed in this early speech:
Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n. (PL, lines 250-255)
Often cited as evincing an admirable quality of the human mind and its ability to make any place heaven or hell misses the significance of a "mind not to be chang'd by place or time." Satan embraces horror rather than contemplate the possibility that he might be wrong, his damnation is truly at his own hand. In such a case, what can one feel but terrible and profound despair? Milton, in his grace, puts a very human sensibility to it so his Satan becomes something much bigger than a biography of one man.