The Satanic Epic

The Satanic Epic

The Satanic Epic

The Satanic Epic


The Satan of Paradise Lost has fascinated generations of readers. This book attempts to explain how and why Milton's Satan is so seductive. It reasserts the importance of Satan against those who would minimize the poem's sympathy for the devil and thereby make Milton orthodox.

Neil Forsyth argues that William Blake got it right when he called Milton a true poet because he was "of the Devils party" even though he set out "to justify the ways of God to men." In seeking to learn why Satan is so alluring, Forsyth ranges over diverse topics--from the origins of evil and the relevance of witchcraft to the status of the poetic narrator, the epic tradition, the nature of love between the sexes, and seventeenth-century astronomy. He considers each of these as Milton introduces them: as Satanic subjects.

Satan emerges as the main challenge to Christian belief. It is Satan who questions and wonders and denounces. He is the great doubter who gives voice to many of the arguments that Christianity has provoked from within and without. And by rooting his Satanic reading of Paradise Lost in Biblical and other sources, Forsyth retrieves not only an attractive and heroic Satan but a Milton whose heretical energies are embodied in a Satanic character with a life of his own.


The death of Satan was a tragedy
For the imagination

—WALLACE STEVENS, “Esthétique du mal”

“Evil” has been much on the lips of politicians recently, and some have talked of the Devil as its representative. This kind of discourse has a long history and is common in times of crisis, like the present, or the early Christian Era, or indeed the years of the English Revolution through which Milton lived. I have described some of the reasons for this apocalyptic attitude to politics in my earlier book, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth. I also showed how much it has to do with the very invention of Satan. This new book extends that argument, and shows how Milton made use of the Satanic tradition. It may be an additional bonus of this study to discover how Milton anticipated, and even shaped, the combat discourse of our current leaders with their talk of “darkness visible” and “all hell broke loose,” or indeed “the sound of public scorn.” Had they read Paradise Lost, these leaders might be neither so strident, nor so confident of success.

Some chapters of this book, or parts of them, have been published as articles, but I always intended that they would join together in this book. I wanted to apply to Milton some of the research I had done for The Old Enemy. This new book must stand on its own, but there are surely more references to my previous work than a proper dose of scholarly modesty should permit. In the first chapter I have tried to explain the important findings of the earlier book and to establish the connections with Paradise Lost that emerge more fully in subsequent chapters. But this book is not a sequel: it is about Milton, not, as was The Old Enemy, about the Devil.

In one respect, though, the present book follows the earlier model. It is written with that quixotic idea of an interested, but nonexpert, reader in mind. To that end, I have tried to make it fully readable beyond the flourishing and privileged republic of professional Miltonists. What, I have asked myself, would that ideal reader need to know? The answer was usually that, though I should not underestimate what he or she might have read, I should provide too much, rather than too little, help. Reading Milton can be a thorough and robust education in much of what constitutes Western civilization. One of the functions of the footnote is to point towards that education. Like Aristotle I assume that most people take pleasure in learning.

For permission to rework earlier essays, I am grateful to the publishers of Comparative Literature, Etudes de Lettres, The International Journal for the Classical . . .

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