The Influence of Homer and Virgil in Milton’s Characterization of Epic Hero
“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (389). While this analysis by William Blake recognizes clear stylistic choices John Milton made in his epic Paradise Lost, the implied conclusion is not accurate. Although Satan is portrayed to be a majestic character with many traditional heroic qualities, Milton does not depict him as the epic’s central hero. He instead reserves that role for Adam as a representative of humankind. An examination of the basic definition of a hero reveals that, although Satan is endowed with many heroic qualities, Milton intends this to be understood as a sharp commentary on the relative importance of these traditional values within the Christian world order.
To determine the central epic hero of Paradise Lost, a concrete definition of the term and concept must be established. While etymologically meaning “the timely one,” this definition only partially describes the role of epic heroes. Achilles decides to rejoin the Achaean army just as all hope seems lost, just as Odysseus returns to Penelope right before her proposed remarriage, yet both Homeric heroes do more than simply show up at the necessary time. Instead, an epic hero is truly a “representative of a community’s values.” Continuing with the example of Achilles and Odysseus, it is evident that both men, to obviously differing extents, embodied the traditional values of philos, sophos, agathos, as well as the desire for kleos and nostos. It is because these values coincide with the values of Achaean civilization that Achilles and Odysseus are viewed as epic heroes.
Likewise, it is Adam who is viewed as the hero of Paradise Lost because it is he, not his nemesis Satan, who is supposed to represent the “community values” of God and his world order. Although Adam succumbs to Eve’s entreaties to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, his repentance atones for this failing and constitutes the main body of his heroic actions. In Milton’s Christian view, the failure of humankind is inevitable and it is the act of repentance that pleases God. This realization comes to Adam while he is talking with Eve.
What better can we do than to the place
Repairing where He judged us prostrate fall
Before Him reverent and there confess
Humbly our faults and pardon beg, with tears
Watering the ground and with our sighs the air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite in sign
Of sorrow unfeigned and humiliation meek? (10.1086-1092)
God’s response, after being brought these supplications by his Son, is merciful and hopeful, representing the importance that he, the true determiner of humankind’s values, places in repentance and faith, not Adam’s fallibility and sin. Speaking of the eventual accession into Heaven of Adam and humankind, God proclaims:
So death becomes
His final remedy and after life,
Tried in sharp tribulation and refined
By faith and faithful works, to second life,
Waked in the renovation of the just,
Resigns him up with Heav’n and Earth renewed. (11.61-66)
In contrast to Adam’s embodiment of repentance, Satan’s brash dismissal of his banishment, as well as desire to attack God and his creation, in no way represents the values that God (or Milton) projected onto humankind.
It is also important in determining the epic hero of Paradise Lost to keep in mind the simple story-telling convention—ending the epic when the story of the main hero has culminated—that is constant within historical epics. Milton does not end his epic with Satan’s punishment—transformation into a snake—in Book Ten. “He fell / A monstrous serpent on his belly prone…punished in the shape he sinned / According to his doom” (10.513-514, 516-517). Instead, the last scene of Book Twelve is reserved for Adam and Eve’s dismissal from the Garden of Eden.
The hast’ning angel caught
Our ling’ring parents and to the eastern gate
Led them direct and down the cliff…
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way. (12.637-639, 646-649).
This clear emphasis on the story of Adam and Eve (as representatives of humankind) instead of Satan proves Milton’s choice to place Adam in the role of the epic hero, not his counterpart.
Despite these clear indications of Adam’s heroic role, it is impossible to deny that Satan is characterized as possessing many characteristics typically associated with epic heroes. His epic journey to God’s newly created earth is reminiscent of the great journeys of both Odysseus and Aeneus. Milton even goes so far as to reference these precedents within the text.
And more endangered than when Argo passed
Through Bosphorus betwixt the justling rocks
Or when Ulysses on the larboard shunned
Charybdis and by th’ other whirlpool steered,
So he with difficulty and labor hard
Moved on. (2.1017-1022)
This instance is but one of a myriad where Satan is placed within the epic tradition. Throughout the epic, his embodiment of the ideals of kleos and nostos, as well as his sophos behavior, make comparisons between Satan and other epic heroes inevitable, although ultimately misguided. Satan’s search for kleos, in many ways inextricable from his quest for power and revenge, serves as the necessary impetus for his tirade against God.
Pow’rs and Dominions, deities of Heav’n,
For insce no deep within her guld can hold
Immortal vigor, though oppressed and fall’n,
I give not Heav’n for lost. From this descent
More glorious and more dread than from no fall
And trust themselves to fear no second fate. (2.11-17)
While traditional epic heroes are motivated to do conventionally moral acts by their desire for kleos (the idea being, of course, that their respective communities would only value virtuous deeds), Satan chooses not only to attack the Supreme Power of his existence, but also to provoke others into eventually doing the same. Milton’s adaptation of traditional epic traditions serves as a critical commentary on the importance of values of this nature within a Christian world. That Satan, proud of his heretical views, exemplifies the same values that glorified Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneus, seems to show Milton’s criticism of the values of these Pagan epic heroes.
Satan’s embodiment of the desire for nostos, especially through sophos actions emphasizes this further. Although Satan’s eventual decision to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden is not directly representative of this fact, Satan’s original desire to confront God, be it directly or through the harming of his creation, comes from his displeasure in Hell and his desire to return home to a more satisfactory existence in Heaven.
Is this the region…
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so…
…Farewell happy fields
Where joy forever dwells! Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time. (1.242, 244-245, 249-253)
The nostos of Satan, like that of Odysseus, takes him on a similar epic journey that requires cunning in order for the voyage to prosper. Satan uses sophos behavior, through lies and false pretenses, to trick the Angel Uriel, residing near the orb of the sun, into pointing the way to God’s newly formed Earth. With flattery and insincere praise, Satan misleads Uriel into helping him.
Brightest Seraph, tell,
In which of all these shining orbs hath Man
His fixèd seat[?]…
The Universal Maker we may praise,
Who justly hath driv’n out His rebel foes
To deepest Hell and to repair that loss
Created this new happy race of men
To serve Him better: wise are all His ways. (3.667-668, 676-680)
Again, the way in which Milton negatively portrays values traditionally attributed to glorious epic heroes indicates that these values are not the ultimate determination of virtue and worth.
Although Satan embodies many heroic qualities, this does not limit or diminish the heroic qualities of Adam, the true hero of the epic. The act of repentance—Adam’s most heroic moment—does not easily fit within the confines of traditional classification. Adam’s actions transcend the narrow confines of philos, sophos, or agathos categorization, and are instead an amalgamation of all three. Adam’s knowledge of the power of prayer and repentance, as evidenced below, prove his conscious decision to entreat God’s forgiveness. This decision proves to be the wise and noble option that allows for a relationship to continue between God and his fallen creations.
Yet this will prayer
Or one short sigh of human breath upborn
Ev’n to the seat of God. For since I sought
By prayer th’ offended Deity to appease,
Kneeled and before Him humbled all my heart,
Methough I saw Him placable and mild
Bending His ear…
Home to my breast[.] (11.146-154)
While the sophos action of repentance is not tricky and clever like Satan’s deception of the Angel Uriel, it is a wise, measured choice by Adam. Adam’s actions are in contrast with those of his counterpart Eve, who must be persuaded to not pursue her thoughts of suicide. This is logical because sophos actions are traditionally meant to be the mental component of heroism, and throughout the epic, Milton characterizes Adam as possessing intelligence and reason, while Eve is merely beautiful. Adam, conversing with Raphael, claims that God “from my side subducting took perhaps / More than enough, at least on her bestowed / Too much of ornament, in outward show / Elaborate, of inward less exact” (8.536-539). Beyond the intelligence of his decision to repent, admitting fault and accepting blame from God is brave and courageous. This stands in stark contrast with Satan’s cowardly unwillingness to assume his punishment in Hell. Furthermore, Adam’s repentance, as well as the repentance that he provokes in Eve, foster philos behavior between the pair and with future mankind. Eve, expressing feelings within both herself and Adam, clearly voices her devotion to her counterpart, and thinks warmly on the human race they are destined to found.
With thee to go
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay
Is to go hence unwilling. Thou to me
Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou,
Who for my willful crime art banished hence.
This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence: though all by me is lost,
Such favor I unworthy am vouchsafed,
By me the promised Seed shall all restore. (12.614-623).
Adam, sharing these feelings with Eve, clearly feels a strong connection not only to his partner, but also to the entire race of subsequent humankind. By understanding his responsibility to posterity, Adam models philos behavior through his repentance and willingness to accept responsibility. However, his remorse is more than just a way to be true to Eve and future humankind; it is the wise, noble measure that he chooses to take after his fall. Because his penitence can be characterized by sophos, agathos, and philos components, Adam’s greatest heroic act fits within the traditional value system prescribed to epic heroes, although in a somewhat revisionist way.
Adam, of course, models other heroic mantels throughout Paradise Lost, notably xenia (when entertaining the Angel Raphael) and the importance of dreams as accurate predictions of the future. Once Rapheal is noticed by Adam, he calls immediately to Eve to prepare a feast for the dignified guest.
Some great behest from Heav’n
To us perhaps he brings and will vouchsafe
This day to be our guest. But go with speed
And what thy stores contain bring forth and pour
Abundance fit to honor and receive
Our Heav’nly stranger. (5.311-316)
Eve, quick to comply with Adam’s wishes, immediately begins to think “on hóspitable thought” and “[w]hat choice to choose for delicacy best” (5.332-333). These preparations, while thorough, depart mildly from the traditional guest-host relationship modeled by Homer and Virgil. Because Adam and Eve are unworried about material possession, they offer no gifts to their dignified Angel guest, but instead set forth a platter of abundance. Also different is the way in which the guest is portrayed. Unlike Odysseus and Aeneus who appeared before their hosts bedraggled and worn, Raphael is described as being “godlike” (5.351). “In himself was all his state / More solemn than the tedious pomp that waits / On princes [with] their rich retínue long” (5.353-355). However, the exchange of information that occurs between the Angel and his host is very typical of the guest-host relationship found within the historical epics. Just as Odysseus and Aeneus recount their voyages and history to their benevolent (or enamored, in the case of Aeneus) hosts, Raphael narrates Satan’s rebellion and fall at Adam’s request.
Sudden mind arose
In Adam not to let th’ occasion pass
Giv’n him by this great conference to know
Of things above his world and of their being
Who dwell in Heav’n[.] (5.452-456)
Raphael happily obliges Adam’s thirst for knowledge, informing not only Adam, but also the reader, of the Satan’s formerly mentioned, although unexplained, rebellion.
In addition to following the epic precedent of participating in the guest-host relationship, Adam also believes in the power of dreams to foretell the future, another important epic motif. Initially, neither Adam nor Eve believe that Eve’s dream foretelling her tasting of the Fruit of Knowledge will come to pass. Eve, while explaining the dream to Adam, expresses her distress. “The pleasant savory smell / So quickened appetite that I, methought, / Could not but taste… / But O how glad I waked / To find this but a dream!” (5.84-86, 92-93). Adam proclaims his displeasure with the dream, but reassures Eve that it will not come to pass. “Nor can I like / This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear. / Yet evil whence?” (5.97-99). While Adam does not believe in the validity of Eve’s dream, he still recognizes that it appeared from some evil that previously had not been present in the Garden. Indirectly recognizing this evil, Adam foretells Eve’s temptation and their eventual fall. Much later in the epic, immediately before Adam and Eve’s dismissal from the Garden, this idea is explored more concretely. While talking with Adam, the Angel Michael lulls Eve into sleep and controls her dreams, proving that dreams not only originate in the subconscious, but sometimes from higher powers. “[Eve] also I with gentle dreams have calmed / Portending good ad all her spirits composed / To meek submission” (12.595-597). Eve, upon awaking, reinforces this concept, claiming that “God is also in sleep and dreams advise / Which he hath sent propitious” (12.611-612). The connection that Milton draws between dreams and reality, while not identical to that within other epics, is clearly influenced by their precedent.
In molding the characters of both Adam and Satan, Milton departs only subtly from epic tradition, most notably in his sharp critique of traditional heroic values. These values, while partially attributed to Adam, are more readily found within his nemesis, Satan. Instead of implying, therefore, that Satan is the true epic hero of Paradise Lost, Milton is rather suggesting that these traditional values are only of secondary importance and that true heroism stems from repentance and acceptance of God’s superior power and will. That Adam takes part in the epic tradition, while at the same time transcending it, is Milton’s way of melding his strong religious devotions into the pagan tradition of Homer and Virgil.
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