John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost challenges a number of traditional values, including conventional, classical views of what it means to be a hero. In classical epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, heroism is often defined in terms of grand ambitions and achievements on the battlefield, including the number of enemies slain. Milton’s epic, however, often mocks this kind of worldly heroism, focusing instead on a kind of spiritual heroism exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross. A classic epic hero is often celebrated for the number of enemies he kills; the greatest of all Christian heroes, however, is beloved because of the number of lives he saves and redeems.
In Book II, for instance, Milton mocks classical epic conventions when he describes the apparently impending battle between Satan and Death:
. . . Each at the head
Levelled his deadly aim; their fatal hands
No second stroke intend; and such a frown
Each cast at th' other as when two black clouds,
With heaven's artillery fraught, came rattling on
Over the Caspian,—then stand front to front
Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow
To join their dark encounter in mid-air.
So frowned the mighty combatants that Hell
Grew darker at their frown; so matched they stood;
For never but once more was either like
To meet so great a foe. . . .
In a classical epic, readers might be absorbed by the suspense of the impending battle, and Milton certainly plays on such suspense here. We are never allowed to forget, however, that both of the combatants here are equally evil and unsavory, and that no matter which one “wins” the fight that seems just a few seconds away, each will ultimately be defeated, in the end, by Christ, whose ultimate victory is foreshadowed in the final two lines quoted here. Christ will defeat Satan and Death not by coming after them with weapons but by dying on the cross himself. Thus, near the very end of the poem, Adam praises God as a being who is
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek . . .
Adam has learned, from hearing about Christ’s future self-sacrifice,
. . . that suffering for truth's sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And, to the faithful, death the gate of life . . . .
In passages such as these, Milton subverts conventional, worldly ideas and ideals of heroism, celebrating instead the kind of Christian heroism in which humility is a central feature.
Ironically, in Milton’s poem it is Satan who imagines himself as a kind of conventional classical epic hero. It is Satan, “with thoughts inflamed of highest design,” who undertakes the typical adventurous quest of the standard epic hero and who intends to prove his worth by killing. Satan’s thoughts may indeed be “inflamed” (a mocking Milton pun), but his “design” is anything but high. Rather, it is morally low and characteristically evil.