Academic journal article Akroterion

'Mighty Hunters of Mankind': The Influence and Subversion of the Classical Hero Archetype in Milton's Satan

Academic journal article Akroterion

'Mighty Hunters of Mankind': The Influence and Subversion of the Classical Hero Archetype in Milton's Satan

Article excerpt

In the form, imagery, and language of Paradise lost, Milton makes no effort to conceal the strong influence that Classical literature has upon his work. In fact, at the opening of Paradise lost, the speaker calls upon the Holy Spirit as his Muse to assist him 'That with no middle flight [his song might] soar / Above th' Aonian mount' and pursue 'Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme' (1.14-16). This daring claim suggests that Milton himself regards his own epic poem as a continuation and indeed a surpassing of the great Classical epics that precede it. Yet during a reading of Milton's work, it may become apparent that his feelings concerning the Greco-Roman world are greatly complicated by his Christianity. A particularly poignant example of the poet's ambiguity regarding the Classics may be observed in Milton's shorter poem, 'On the morning of Christ's Nativity'. In a verse depicting the birth of Christ as putting to flight the pagan deities of antiquity, Milton describes with triumph and an undeniable sense of sadness how 'From haunted spring and dale / [...] the parting Genius is with sighing sent' (184186) and 'With flower-inwov'n tresses torn / The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn' (186-187). In this way, Milton's poetry appears to be both lovingly infused with the Classicism of his education, and driven by the need to break away from its pagan origins. In Paradise lost, this complex conflict between Classical ideals and Christian morality is most noticeable in Milton's controversial characterisation of Satan, in whom is portrayed both startling heroism and terrible villainy. To better understand Milton's aims in creating a Satanic character who initially appears so appealing to the Classically-orientated reader, it is useful to examine closely the ways in which the Satan of Paradise lost both exemplifies and subverts the Classical heroic archetype. In order to do this, multiple heroic figures from Classical texts will be considered, focusing mainly, but not exclusively, upon the heroes of the three great Greco-Roman epics: the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Simply by comparing the beginning of Book 1 of Paradise lost to the opening lines of the Classical epics named above, it may become evident why a reader with some previous experience of the Classics is instantly tempted to think of Satan as the work's heroic protagonist. For after the speaker in Paradise lost has called upon the Holy Spirit to inspire his poetry, he moves on to ask his Muse to answer 'Who first seduced [Adam and Eve] to that foul revolt?' (1.33), to which the immediate answer is 'Th' infernal Serpent' (34). Having named Satan, the following lines are his first introduction to the reader: 'He it was whose guile / Stirred up with envy and revenge deceived / the mother of mankind' (34-36). Thus, the focus of the poem is directed towards Satan very early in its course and it is he who appears to be the poem's central concern. It is a close echo of Homer's introduction of his own principle characters. The Iliad opens in a similar fashion with a plea to the 0ea, or goddess, to 'Sing [...] of the devastating wrath of Achilles / [.] which placed countless pains upon the Achaeans' (1.1-2).

As with the attention given to Satan's guile and revenge, the speaker in the Iliad wishes to focus upon Achilles' driving emotion: his all-consuming anger, which ultimately leads to catastrophe. It is also interesting to note that the brunt of the suffering caused by Achilles' wrath falls upon his own people, the Achaeans. It is not the righteous violence of a warrior upon his enemy, but the resentment and bitter hurt of an individual who feels he has been insulted by a tyrannical leader. The dispute between Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, and Achilles, who is the foremost warrior of the Greeks, causes immense internal turmoil amongst the Achaeans, in a manner not dissimilar to the consequences of the 'impious war in Heav'n' (1. …

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