Comparing and Contrasting Milton’s Satan with The Holy Bible’s Satan
By Rebecca Long-Kluckner
After researching Satan and his kingdom, Hell, through the Bible and Paradise Lost to compare and contrast the two characterizations, I realized that Milton must have been a true Bible scholar. Milton’s Satan is described so closely to the Biblical view of Satan that it is often times hard to distinguish the two. Milton changed and elaborated on a few characteristics of his Satan and his Hell in order to create Paradise Lost, but based his characterization and his descriptions on his interpretation of the Bible, using his imagination to form a more vivid picture of how horrible Satan and Hell are in reality. The action of Book One in Paradise Lost begins immediately after God has thrown Satan and his other fallen angels down to Hell from Heaven. The reader then comes to know that Satan was cast into Hell because he became too proud and believed that his power was equal to God’s own power. He wanted to set himself up on a pedestal in Heaven. Milton writes, “What time his pride had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring to set himself in glory above his peers, he trusted to have equaled the Most High” (Norton 1819). In the book of Isaiah, the story is relayed very similarly to Milton’s version of how and why Satan fought against God and that he was thrown down into Hell. Milton speaks of Satan as “O how fallen!” (Isaiah 14:12-15). This phrase comes directly from Isaiah 14:12. Isaiah wrote, “How you are fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Isaiah 14:12). Isaiah continues in the same fashion as Milton in verses 13-15 when he writes,
For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into Heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit (Isaiah 14:13-15).
Satan was indeed so vain and proud, both in the Bible and in Paradise Lost, that he tried to battle God. Revelations 12:7-9 also describes Satan battling and loosing to God.
And war broke out in Heaven: Michael and his angels
fought with the dragon (Satan); and the dragon and his
angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a
place found for them in Heaven any longer. So the
great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called
the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he
was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out
with him (Revelations 12:7-9).
God, being so much more mighty than Satan, threw him and his followers down into Hell. Milton describes this when he writes, “Him the Almighty Power hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky down to bottomless perdition” (Norton 1819). This is very similar to how this action is described in the Bible. Also, in Luke 10:18 Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven” (Luke 10:18).
After Satan and his followers are thrown into Hell, Milton writes that Satan “comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven” (Norton 1818). Milton does go on to write that Satan describes God as, “our grand foe, who now triumphs” (Norton 1821). I think that Satan’s attitude that he knows God is stronger is echoed in the Bible, although the Bible does not allow the reader much insight on Satan’s feelings or attitudes after he was cast into Hell. Why does Satan continue fighting with God both in the reality of the Bible and in Milton’s Paradise Lost? Why does he not give up against the One he knows he has eternally lost to? In both texts, I believe Satan realizes that God will always be more powerful than him; he just thinks that he must cause evil “so as perhaps shall grieve Him” and to hopefully “disturb His inmost counsels from their destined aim” (Norton 1821). If Satan can cause God any pain or make Him do more work, this will bring Satan some enjoyment or reason for existing.
Milton describes Satan as being full of “pride and steadfast hate” (1819). He hates God for throwing him into “a dungeon horrible” that is “as one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible” (1819). God not only took Satan and “all his host of rebel angels” out of Heaven to a place that is “nine times the space that measures day and night”, but, much worse than that, He placed them somewhere far away from the presence of Himself, into a “bottomless perdition” where there is “torture without end” (1819). Most, if not all, of the torture of Hell is that it is not Heaven. There is not the purity, perfection, and the presence of God in Heaven. Hell in the Bible and in Paradise Lost is both viewed as being the worst possible place to be, but not solely based on the physical torture, but the mental torture of being away from God’s presence. In Revelations 20:10, Hell is written to be a place where the unbelievers and Satan “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelations 20:10). Hell is also described as the opposite of Heaven in the Bible. In Revelations, Heaven is described as a place where there “shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain” (Revelations 21:4).
One aspect of Satan that is echoed all throughout the Bible and never mentioned in Book One of Paradise Lost is that fact that Satan is a deceiver. Milton never really has a chance to hit on this aspect of Satan in Book One, but many places in the Bible described Satan as such. The disciple John wrote that the Devil “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). In Revelations 12:9, it is written, “Satan deceives the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). Other verses in Revelations, such as 20:10, describes Satan as the deceiver, making this characteristic of Satan very reinforced, due to its importance, I believe. It is important to know that Satan is a deceiver because God does not want people to follow his untruthful ways.
There is never a doubt all throughout the Bible what the reader should think about Satan. He is bad and the opposite of all that is good and perfect, which is God. Milton’s readers, however, are “continually challenged to choose and to reconsider their most basic assumptions” about the views of Satan and heroism (Norton 1815). In the Norton Anthology Preface to Paradise Lost, the author writes “nothing in the epic tradition or in the biblical interpretation can prepare us for the Satan who hurtles into view in Book One, with his awesome energy and defiance” (1816). I do not believe that Milton intended Satan to truly be the hero of the poem, but others have described him as such. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley first wrote, “nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost ” ( A Defense Of Poetry). Shelley goes on to say that Milton’s Devil is one that “perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy” (A Defense of Poetry). Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Milton’s Satan as a character that possessed “hope in which there is no cheerfulness; steadfastness within and immovable resolve, with outward restlessness and whirling activity; and violence with guile”. All of these characteristics add up to create “the commanding genius” (The Statesman’s Manuel). The Bible does not deny that Satan does possess strong powers over human beings, only that God is the strongest force that has ever been or will ever exist.
The physical Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost can also be compared to Satan in the Bible. Milton writes that Satan’s head was “above the wave” and that he has “eyes that sparkling blazed, his other parts besides prone on the flood, extended long and large lay floating many a rood”, which is a measurement between six and eight yards long (Norton 1822). Milton also describes Satan as having “expanded wings” which he uses to fly around Hell. Milton also compares Satan to other monstrous creatures such as Briareos, who was said to have had 100 hands, and Typhon, who was said to have had 100 heads. This is similar to Revelations 12:3-4, when The Bible describes Satan as “a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” and it also mentions “his tail” (Revelations 12:3-4).
As horrible as Milton’s Satan is portrayed in Paradise Lost, the reader must keep in mind that this characterization is very much based on biblical descriptions. Milton did use his imagination to describe Satan and Hell at length in his work, but the horridness and fierceness of Milton’s Satan is biblical. Perhaps Milton did not write this story to scare the people of his day into thinking more about religion and their own lives, but I believe that it probably did have quite an effect on people’s thinking about the horribleness and the petrifying aspects of Satan. Paradise Lost surely shaped how people from that point in history on thought about and pictured Satan and Hell, along with God and Heaven, making it very influential and possibly a learning tool for those that were not as familiar with the Bible.
1. Abrams, M.H. (editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Edition. Volume 1. New York City, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000. pp. 1815-1825.
2. Abrams, M.H. (editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume 2. New York City, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1968. pp. 704-707.
3. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Statesman’s Manual; or the Bible the best Guide To Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society. London: Gale & Fenner, J. M. Richardson, and J. Hatchard, 1816.
4. Extreme Teen Bible: New King James Version. Ed. Bruce Barton, Christopher Hudson, and David Veerman: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999
5. Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1904
6. The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version. Ed. Earl Radmacher,Th.D., Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997
© Rebecca Long-Kluckner