Milton and the Epic Hero

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What is an epic hero and do they have to do with Paradise Lost? When Milton was writing epic conventions were readily understood. Epic heroes still attract audiences (see films like Thor for an obvious example) but for some reason epic poetry scares students more than epic monsters: ‘too many long sentences, classical references, my brain hurts’. What’s the answer? Make it manageable: break it down into key issues.

Epic heroes are traditionally figures of great stature: physically large, very strong, skilful leaders and warriors, superhumanly brave in action and endurance of suffering ie fortitude. Milton’s Satan, who is modelled on classical epic heroes, has heroic attributes eg he’s huge, powerful, courageous and demonstrates resourcefulness and fortitude. As the poem progresses he steadily diminishes in stature, appearing in Book 4 in the decidedly unheroic form of a toad. Helen Gardner compares Satan to the heroes of Elizabethan ‘tragedies of damnation’ eg Macbeth; the audience is compelled to feel for a character who deliberately embraces evil. In both Macbeth and Paradise Lost we become involved in the psychology of the evil character – it is an essential part of the drama of each text that we understand and become imaginatively involved in the psychological steps of the protagonist as he becomes progressively evil.

The ambivalent representation of Satan forces the reader to evaluate his motivation, his rhetoric, to contemplate the nature of evil not just as embodied in Milton’s Satan but in ourselves. In part, Satan represents the propensity to evil in all of us.

Adam, as the father of mankind, represents another side of humanity – the ability to love and be faithful. Milton uses heroic epic features such as broad shoulders and broad forehead to describe Adam, trying to set him up as our epic hero. The problem is that before the Fall there is little opportunity for heroism as we understand it. There’s no pain, no great obstacle, nothing to fight or even struggle against. Temptation provides as opportunity for moral heroism but Adam fails. He comes closest to heroism in deciding to share Eve’s fate because he cannot bear to be separated from her but for Milton he still fails because he places his allegiance to Eve above his allegiance to God.

See my lecture on Milton for more.

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