Milton’s Satan

I am going to be teaching Paradise Lost this semester and my students often really like the devil in the work.

I don’t know whether Milton intended Satan to be the protagonist, but my students think he is.

This fact made The Guardian‘s “Sympathy for Milton’s Devil” a timely and interesting read.

It’s really no surprise that this revolutionary, defiant Satan was the Romantics’ devil of choice. William Blake famously declared that Milton “wrote at liberty” when he wrote the character of Satan because he “was of the devil’s party without knowing it”. Two centuries later, Philip Pullman took Blake’s anti-hero reading of Paradise Lost to heart when he created the His Dark Materials trilogy. Shelley declared of Milton’s epic, “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost”. For Shelley, Milton’s Satan was the archetypal Promethean individual struggling against the ordained order and against all odds.

With Milton’s Satan was born the modern anti-hero, the bad boy who rocks the boat and shakes up the world. It is no coincidence that some of our finest literary devils come into being at times when society appears to be going to hell in a handcart, from Mikhail Bulgakov’s dazzling Stalin-era The Master and Margarita to the rakish wit of CS Lewis’s wartime The Screwtape Letters.

Some of the students I am teaching this semester will be in my course next semester when I teach Shelley’s Frankenstein. I hope to be able to make the connection to PL memorable.

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