The Original Antihero: A Paradise Lost Study Guide

John Milton
John Milton. Hulton Archive 

Paradise Lost is an epic poem by John Milton originally published in 1667, later revised in 1674. At the time of its publication it was, in fact, quite daring in its politics and its handling of the character of Satan, who remains one of the most complex and subtly-rendered characters in literary history. That Milton, who was a pious man of real faith, would consciously or unconsciously sympathize with the Devil is still a starling revelation to first-time readers.

Milton was a fierce proponent of divorce and individual freedom, as well as a critic of the monarchy—but also a critic of the government and society that emerged after the deposition and execution of King Charles I, which Milton felt had failed to create a better society.

These ideas informed his composition of Paradise Lost, his greatest and most famous work. Milton had intended to write a truly epic work for some time, and originally intended to tell the story of King Arthur and the Holy Grail before changing his focus to the twin narratives of damnation and salvation taken from the most foundational stories in the Bible: The fall of man and Satan’s rebellion in heaven.

The Plot of Paradise Lost

After a brief introduction in which Milton offers an overview of Milton’s intentions, Satan and his fellow rebellious angels are shown in Hell, plotting their next move. The entire heavenly civil war has already happened, and Satan rallies his allies with a stirring speech. The demons briefly consider mounting another assault on heaven, but then a better idea is proposed: In the wake of the war in heaven, God has created the Earth and his new favorites, man, in the form of Adam and Eve. Satan volunteers to undertake the perilous journey to this new, material world and cause the downfall of mankind.

The journey through the chaos outside of hell is perilous. Satan enters the universe and encounters the Angel Uriel guarding it, but Satan disguises himself and claims to have come to sing praise, and is allowed to pass.

Satan comes to the Garden of Eden and is jealous of Adam and Eve’s perfect happiness; they live without sin, commanded only to never eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Satan comes to them while they sleep and whispers in Eve’s ear. Uriel becomes suspicious and tells the Angel Gabriel of the visitor; Gabriel sends angels to investigate and they capture and exile Satan from the Garden.

The next day Eve tells Adam she had a terrible dream, and he comforts her. The Angel Raphael is sent to warn them about Satan’s plans, and he relates to them the story of Satan’s rebellion, stemming from Satan’s jealousy of the Son of God. Once known as Lucifer, Satan inspired his followers to rise against God. Satan’s forces are initially defeated by the loyal angels of heaven, but during the night create terrible weapons. The angels hurl mountains at Satan’s forces, but it is not until the Son of God, Messiah, arrives that Satan is wholly defeated, his entire army swept out of heaven. God then commands his Son to fill the space left by the fallen angels with a new world and new creatures, which are created in six days. Adam returns the favor of the Angel’s story with his own tale of being created, discovering the wonders of the world, and his happy marriage to Eve. Raphael departs.

Satan returns and assumes the form of a snake in order to escape detection. He finds Eve alone and flatters her again, tricking her into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. When Adam finds out what she has done he is horrified, but then also eats of the fruit because he believe he is bonded to Eve and must share her fate. They experience lust for the first time, followed by fear and guilt, and quarrel over who is to blame.

The Son of God is dispatched to judge Adam and Eve, but delays sentencing them, clothing them and giving them time to regain God’s favor. Satan returns in triumph to Hell, where the demons are in the process of building a great bridge to Earth to make future journeys easier. He boasts of his success, but finds that all the fallen angels—including himself—have been transformed into snakes.

Adam and Eve are miserable; Adam is given a vision of the future up until the Flood and is horrified at what he and Eve have doomed mankind to experience. However, they are also assured that their offspring will have revenge on Satan, and so they do not kill themselves and dedicate themselves to regaining God’s trust. They are expelled from paradise with the knowledge that a descendant of Eve’s will be the savior of mankind.

Major Characters

Satan. Once one of the most powerful Archangels, Satan led the rebellion against God and then schemed to ruin God’s newest creations: Mankind and paradise. The most beautiful and powerful of the angels, Satan is charismatic, funny, and persuasive; he is easily the most popular character of the story despite his evil nature, making him something of an antihero. His great sin is in denying his subservience to God; Satan believes the angels are self-made.

God the Father. This is the Christian God, an all-powerful creator who made everything in the universe from himself. God demands praise and worship, and spends a lot of time in the poem explaining himself, as Milton saw the purpose of the poem to justify the mysteries of God to humanity.

God the Son. Both the same as God and a separate personality, this is the part of God that will eventually become Jesus, but in the poem is depicted as a sort of general or co-ruler.

Adam and Eve. The first humans; Adam was created first and Eve created from him. Milton depicts Eve not as evil or corrupt by nature but as inferior to Adam in all things except sin—Adam’s sin is greater because he understood fully the consequences of his actions, while Eve was tricked.

Raphael. An angel instrumental in explaining Satan’s backstory and goals.

Literary Style

The poem is written in blank verse, meaning it follows a set meter (iambic pentameter) but does not have rhymes. Milton uses a variety of tricks to make the repetitive rhythms and patterns of this sort of rhyme seem anything but; what initially seem like strained pronunciations or oddly broken words are quite intentional, as Milton bends and stretches the rules of blank verse to make his lines flow.

For example, Milton's meter often broke words in ways that deliberately went against assumption, as in the line "Still glorious before whom awake I stood"; reading this line as if it was prose renders it unremarkable, but applying the rhythm of iambi pentameter forces you to break the word glorious as "glo / rious," altering the rhythm of the line and turning it into some delightful to speak.

Milton worked in a deliberately grand style, without resorting to slang or common phrasings as Shakespeare did. He did this both in service to his subject matter and to lend his themes weight and gravitas. At the same time, his work is not particularly dense with allusion and wordplay; even today it is remarkably easy for people to read, understand, and appreciate.

Themes

Milton argues throughout the poem that there is a natural order to the universe; Satan’s great sin is believing he is greater than God as opposed to accepting his subordinate role. Yet Milton also writes Satan’s sequences with a fierce energy that sets them apart. Milton sympathizes with rebellion and believed strongly in individuality, themes that also emerge throughout the poem. This is most notable in the fate of humanity—Adam and Eve rebel in their own way and are punished, but instead of their punishment being a total disaster, some good does come of it, as humanity learns that God the Father has boundless love and forgiveness for them.

Historical Context

Milton worked on the poem during the Commonwealth Period of England, after a civil war that ended with King Charles I deposed and executed in 1649. This period ended in 1660 when his son, Charles II, was restored to the throne. Milton supported the deposition of Charles but deplored the Commonwealth, which was essentially a dictatorship, and his attitude is in many ways reflected in the poem’s storyline.

There are many obvious parallels between the angels rebelling against God and the rebellion against Charles I, who chafed against the restrictions forced upon him by the strong English parliament and fought two wars to impose his supreme will, claiming "divine right of kings." Charles I was widely blamed for the unnecessary bloodshed of the second civil war and was executed as a result. Milton supported the republican side against the monarchy and argued in his political writings that Charles' attempts to claim divine right were an attempt to make himself a god. Satan can be viewed as a stand-in for Charles in a sense, a powerful being with a rightful place in the hierarchy who attempts to pervert the natural order and accomplishes little more than chaos and destruction.

Paradise Lost Fast Facts

  • Title: Paradise Lost
  • Author: John Milton
  • Date Published: 1667, 1674
  • Publisher: Samuel Simmons
  • Literary Genre: Epic Poem
  • Language: English
  • Themes: Hierarchal structure of the universe, obedience to God.
  • Characters: Satan, God, the Son of God, Adam, Even, assorted angels and demons.
  • Influences: Satan as antihero has influenced works ranging from Frankenstein to Breaking Bad. Modern writers such as Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) and Neil Gaiman have based works explicitly on the poem (Gaiman even makes this obvious by having the character of Lucifer in his Sandman comics quote the poem freely). Additionally, many films and novels depicting Satan and rebellious angels, like the film The Prophecy, explicitly ground their angels and demons on the versions found in Milton's story.

Quotes

  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” — Satan
  • “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven.” — Satan
  • “Sing Heav’nly Muse/What in me is dark/Illumine, what is low raise and support;/That to the heighth of this great argument/I may assert Eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men.”
  • “God hath pronounced it death to taste that Tree,/The only sign of our obedience left/Among so many signs of power and rule/Conferred upon us, and dominion giv’n/Over all other creatures that possess/Earth, air, and sea.” — Adam

Sources

  • “Paradise Lost.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 May 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_Lost.
  • “PARADISE LOST.” Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/20/20-h/20-h.htm.
  • Simon, Edward. “What's So 'American' About John Milton's Lucifer?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 Mar. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/whats-so-american-about-john-miltons-lucifer/519624/.
  • Rosen, Jonathan. “Return To Paradise.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/02/return-to-paradise.
  • Upinvermont. “Milton & Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter).” PoemShape, 5 Oct. 2013, poemshape.wordpress.com/2009/02/23/milton-blank-verse-iambic-pentameter/.