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Who is the hero of Paradise Lost? Adam, the first man, is the obvious and most popular choice for this uniquely human role, successor in literature and precursor in mythology to Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas. Others argue that the self-sacrifice of the Son makes him the hero of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, if both poems are considered as a unified narrative. The most interesting and controversial choice for this role, however, is a character far more charismatic and memorable than Adam or the Son. The poem begins with Satan, who is literally the protagonist, the beginner of the action, and readers as perceptive as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley have regarded him as the poem’s true hero.

Blake, in particular, was fascinated by Milton. He wrote an epic poem called Milton, in which the earlier poet is the hero and tutelary spirit of a character he bases on himself. As an artist, Blake often illustrated Milton’s poems, Paradise Lost most notably. However, Blake’s Milton is very clearly a Romantic reinvention of the seventeenth-century Puritan poet, intended chiefly to serve as an inspiration for Blake’s own peculiar philosophy and theology. At one point in Milton, the eponymous poet enters Blake’s foot in order to allow him to wear a golden sandal and enter the City of Art. It seems unlikely that Milton would have been entirely flattered by this and equally unlikely that he would have concurred with Blake’s reading of his poem. He might, however, have appreciated the tremendous compliment to his own poetic artistry that the misreading implies.

Milton is a writer who naturally attracts superlatives. As the greatest epic poet in the English language, he has no rival, and only Homer, Virgil, and Dante vie with him to be considered the greatest in Western literature. He is the most learned of writers, a polymath and a polyglot, and perhaps the only major poet ever to have achieved significant power as a politician. He is also the most ambitious of poets. The first version of Paradise Lost, in ten books, was published in 1667, by which time Milton had served a poetic apprenticeship of almost sixty years. He could have written a great Latin epic to rival the Aeneid, since he was as proficient in Latin as in English. He could have written an epic about England, an Arthuriad, the great unwritten poetic mythology and history of the English people, which would have made him the national poet of England, as Pushkin was to be in Russia and Whitman in America. Such goals would have been lofty enough for any other poet—but not for Milton. Nothing less than a poetic theodicy, a history of heaven and earth, with God and Satan as characters, would satisfy him. He reminds the reader of Paradise Lost several times, most explicitly at the beginning of book 9, that his subject is more important and more heroic than those of Homer and Virgil.

Milton spent his life in preparing to write his great poem. He composed a series of works on a smaller scale, akin to the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, all the time adding to his vast store of erudition. The scholarship and the Latinate diction of Paradise Lost are so overwhelming that they sometimes seem to be in danger of overwhelming the poem. The reader is almost buried beneath a thundering cataract of polysyllabic allusions. T. S. Eliot observes that Milton writes English like a dead language, and it is certainly true that his sentences sometimes give the impression of having been translated from Latin. The deluge of eloquence, however, does not ultimately suffocate the poetry, and this is at least partly because the character of Satan is so compelling and so dramatic. Milton never misses an opportunity to belittle the fiend with his comparisons (“squat like a toad”) or his insistence that Satan is continually in despair and can never triumph. Nonetheless, Satan not only succeeds in his objective of seducing Eve into sin, but he has beguiled William Blake and many other readers across the ages as well.

A fourth contender for the title of Paradise Lost’s hero was proposed by Denis Saurat in his 1925 monograph, Milton: Man and Thinker. Saurat sees the poet himself as the poem’s hero. This is related, though not quite identical, to the Romantic notion that Satan stands as a proxy for Milton’s own character and views. It is certainly true that in any study of Milton’s character, pride and ambition would emerge as dominant features of his personality. His poetic ambition in writing Paradise Lost might be seen as analogous to Satan’s in seeking to conquer heaven. It might also be regarded as blasphemous, since Milton is presumptuous enough to put his own words into the mouths of God and his angels.

The debate about the hero of Paradise Lost is futile if its only purpose is to emerge with a definitive answer. Milton’s knowledge of classical epic was exhaustive, and if he had wished to furnish his poem with a character analogous to Odysseus or Aeneas, he would have done so. The point of such a discussion is to appreciate more deeply the originality and the strangeness of a poem by a Christian poet who speaks with the voices of God and Satan and which can support the notion of four alternative candidates for the role of hero: the first man in the world, the son of God, the source of all evil, and the poet himself.

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