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Generally, Milton’s Satan is considered to be the greatest literary villain of all time.
(If you can even really call him a “villain”.)
The poem is set following him more than any other character, so in that respect he’s more like a main character or protagonist. And though morally in the wrong, he displays many righteous and admirable traits while his enemy, God, though having the moral high ground, is yet considered often profoundly unrighteous and dispassionate. In this way, Satan is very much an “anti-villain” while God is more like an “anti-hero”, both in the roles they play in the story, and the characteristics they exhibit.
Milton’s Satan is both cartoonishly one-minded and yet inconceivably complex as a character. His motives are both simplistic and silly while also managing to be unclear, elusive, complicated and even relatable and wise to the reader.
In essence, Lucifer, the greatest and most powerful being in existence after the big guy in the sky himself, became envious after God began to show greater love towards his (yet unborn) “son” and king of men- who would eventually incarnate as Jesus Christ. Satan is essentially like a toddler who gets jealous when his/her parents have a new baby and begin showing more affection towards the new child while ignoring the tantrums of the older one. So with God loving proto-Jesus more than himself, Lucifer grew resentful of his “father” and wished essentially to be emancipated from him. But, like all rebellious teenagers, there’s a catch to his want for independence. Lucifer—or as he became known as later— Satan, wasn’t just content with not being able to set his own curfew anymore. He also wanted to burn down his dad’s house in the process, just to make a point. He wanted to be his own master, certainly, but in truth, it became his life’s mission not just to replace God, but to destroy and corrupt all of what he created.
Of course, Satan was uncannily intelligent. Despite his claim that the hosts of Heaven were self-begot, Satan knew that everything he was or had, all his greatest assets (and weaknesses) and gifts, were all a direct result of his unique creation as God’s own special little friend. And everything he saw or felt was known to God, because God is omniscient and omnipotent. Yes, Satan was angry and sad and resentful, but unlike many villains, his emotions never made him deluded. Satan was no fool. While many literary baddies eventually are victims of their own delusions, Satan knew very well that his rebellion would be pointless. He could never have “been god”. He wasn’t born for that role and he knew it. He framed his argument as legitimate by portraying his “campaign” as one meant to liberate all who suffered under God’s tyranny.
The crazy part is, that, in and of itself is not evil. To the reader, Milton’s God is kind of an asshole who is more like an unfeeling disciplinarian than a just and kind “father of the year”. He comes across almost like an emotionless, dispassionate robot and seems to care very little for his creations. Meanwhile, Satan was relatable, likeable and strangely human, even capable of making an eternity long meltdown seem entirely justified and moral. He was passionate and endearing and very, very mighty indeed. He seems a much more benevolent and competent god than God himself, at least on the surface. Yet for all his lip service, in reality, Satan’s motives are completely self serving. He was not actually interested in changing anything for anyone’s benefit, much less those he perceived as being lesser than himself (meaning everybody). Of course, he was not naive enough to believe he could’ve in the first place.
Satan manages to be the best and worst of characteristics and attributes rolled into one grand being. He’s unimaginably powerful and monumentally strong, in greatness, second only to God himself. He’s infinitely wise and hyper-intelligent, charismatic, passionate, likeable, majestic, imposing, and awe-inspiring. He’s incomparably beautiful and magnificent to behold, and though his might and resplendence cause even the greatest of beings to wilt and wither in awe and fall at his feet in reverence, in fear and in wonder, he can be (or at least can feign being) humble, at times even thoughtful, genuine, and understanding. There are not enough adjectives in the dictionary to describe his splendid magnificence. It is not a wonder at all why a third of all the angels in heaven abandoned God to serve him. Yet all the while, his true form is only barely belied by these positive qualities; one of pure and unimaginable malice and malignancy- wholly and unadulteratedly evil, hateful, jealous, terrifying, nihilistic, destructive, corruptive, cruel, petulant, oppressive, vengeful, deceitful, insincere, prideful, conniving, self-righteous, sadistic, and pitiable—all in spite of his greatness.
Milton’s Satan does something that most other literary villains do not do. The guy is completely irredeemable, and yet is still easy to love, not for his power or brilliance, but for his humanity. Despite the incredible evil he commits, we see ourselves in him completely. He isn’t just an oppressive God like Sauron, or just a power hungry megalomaniac like Lord Voldemort. He isn’t just a jealous sadist like Iago, or just a mass murdering lunatic like The Joker. Satan is us. He is all the characters above and is that being within each of ourselves. We fear him, we love him, but maybe most of all, we pity him. Milton’s Satan’s greatest trait is that despite his irredeemability, he is still profoundly pitiable.
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