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Opponent: Satan in Paradise Lost

In this issue of The Angler I would like to talk about my favorite pal. A pal I know I share with many of you: Satan. Well... Satan as he is described by John Milton in Paradise Lost, at least. This is the story of the world’s first deceiver, who might even be one of the greatest deceivers in English literature.

Milton’s epic begins in medias res, as most epics do. However, I will start the story of Satan from the very beginning. Before the creation of Earth, God gathered his angels and told them he had chosen a successor to the throne of Heaven: His Son. Satan, who was in the audience, did not exactly agree with this series of events: “envie against the Son of God” (l. 5.661) and “pride … thought himself impaird” (l. 5.665) are words that describe Satan’s emotions after God’s declaration. Satan, in his infinite wisdom, decides to spread the word to a third of the angels to meet Satan in secret.

At this point in the story we get to see Satan’s deception and trickery in action. When the angels are assembled Satan only pretends to listen to his fellow angels, but in reality his mind is already made up:

Pretending so commanded to consult
About the great reception of thir King
Thither to come, and with calumnious Art
Of counterfeted thruth thus held thir ears.

(ll. 5.768 - 71)

Satan only listens and responds to the suggestions of his fellow angels because he knows that they will leave him alone if he commands them from a superior position. Instead, after hearing all the suggestions, Satan “allows” his second in command, Beelzebub, to take the stage and convince all of the assembled angels that war with God is the right path. This plan is really Satan’s, however, should the assembled angels disagree with the plan, they would blame Beelzebub and not Satan. Suffice to say: war is on the menu.

As interesting as the account of the war is (physical cannons and gunpowder in a war between celestial beings), it must unfortunately be skipped due to the focus of this article. Therefore, we continue with the journey of our hero. After God’s Son kicked Satan and his followers so hard that they fell all the way down to Hell, Satan is the first to recover from the beating that was handed to him and decided that he cannot exactly remain still. So he wakes up the rest of the fallen angels and has them build a castle named Pandemonium in Hell, where the great debate will take place.

This debate is reminiscent of the debate in Heaven1 in which Satan allows his fellow angels to speak and make suggestions2 while he pretends to listen. Before the angels give their advice to Satan and each other, however, Satan gives a speech from an elevated position, a throne one might say. In this speech Satan makes an interesting comment:

[For] none sure will claim in Hell
Precedence, none, whose portion is so small
Of present pain, that with ambitious mind
Will covet more.
(ll. 2.31 - 35)

Here Satan plays the rhetoric game and tells his fellow fallen angels that there is no need for a single angel to proclaim themselves better than the rest, as doing so will just give you a greater slice of the pain that they are all feeling in Hell. The joke here is that Satan already set himself above the rest without them knowing, thus deceiving his followers.

Just as he did in Heaven, Satan uses Beelzebub as a patsy to suggest a plan, just in case Satan’s followers disagree with it. This plan is for a fallen angel to go up to Earth, which would have been created at that point, and take it as their own, or destroy it entirely (ll. 2.364 - 66). Luckily, Satan himself volunteers for the dangerous mission of scouting Earth. This is to make sure that his fellow fallen angels are quick to approve of this plan because none of them wants to be the first to leave the relative safety of Hell. This is the second time that Satan deceives his followers as far as we are told: first in Heaven, and now in Hell.

However, when Satan reaches the gates of Hell he finds it guarded by two figures: Sin (daughter of Satan) and Death (Son of Satan and Sin). These two figures are under strict orders to keep Satan in Hell. Satan, however, is having none of it and convinces both of them to let him pass, suggesting that they follow Satan through Chaos to Earth where both Sin and Death can feast (ll. 2.868 - 70).

The next, and final, deception Satan is guilty of in Paradise Lost is also the most famous one. In Milton’s story, however, it is entangled with a another plotline: one belonging to the humans Adam and Eve. Paradise Lost has sparked some critical debate as to their nature and role of God, angels and devils in this grand-scale story. There are several arguments to be made as to whether Adam and Eve were perfect creations by God, even before the fall. After God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, the first image she sees is herself in a surface of water and she is mesmerized by her own beauty: Eve is already vain. The imperfection of the humans made Satan’s goal easier to achieve.

After the angels realize that Satan has escaped to Earth they send angel Raphael to talk to Adam about the rebellion in Heaven and warn him about Satan. Adam in turn retells the story to Eve. Even after hearing about the danger they are both in, Eve decides that she wants to tend to her duties in the garden all by herself. Satan, who is observing them, sees this as an apportunity to strike. He inhabits the body of a snake, makes his way to the lonely Eve and strikes up a conversation with her. Eve is marvelled by this snake who can talk and wishes to know how this is possible. The snake tells Eve it is simple: all he did was eat a piece of fruit. He suggests that Eve should eat this fruit as well, as it would make her more than just a human. Eve, who is flattered by the kind words of the snake, follows him to where the snake ate the fruit. When she realizes that he is leading her to tree with the forbidden fruit she hesitates. However, after more of Satan’s flattery Eve eats the forbidden fruit thus accomplishing Satan’s mission and causing the downfall of humanity.

Well, this summary took longer than I expected, and I only talked about the major deceptions Satan performed in Paradise Lost. My main argument is that Satan is perhaps the biggest deceiver to have walked the Earth, at some point in time. He manages to deceive angels to join his cause, deceive devils to remain loyal to him, and deceives the humans to fall from grace with God.

By Rowan Chander

Works Cited

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Riverside Milton, edited by Roy Flannagan, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 296 - 710.