Some have criticized Paradise Lost for its sympathetic portrayal of Satan as a heroic and appealing character. At times, Satan’s actions seem somewhat justified: he considers himself to be an innocent victim, suffering alienation once exiled from Heaven. This begs the question: why is Milton’s Satan not more obviously “evil”? Why has the stereotypical, red, horned “Devil” been replaced by a somewhat sympathetic, fallen angel? Does this imply that Paradise Lost failed at its task of moral education, or that perhaps Milton’s own understanding of evil was ambiguous, unclear or incomplete?
To answer these questions, one must consider that it would have been far too easy for Milton to cast Satan and his followers as simple heathens, tyrants or monsters; this would assert that evil is recognizable, knowable, and easily-avoided. What Milton demonstrates in his sympathetic depictions of the devils, rather, is a far more complex understanding of the essential nature of evil as a strong, seductive force that one must resist with vigilance. Milton’s final depiction of Satan in Book 10, in which all the devils are reduced to hissing serpents, offers readers a lasting vision of evil. The transformation of the devils into snakes recalls Satan’s serpentine disguise as the Tempter in Book 9, and reasserts that what makes evil so dangerous is not its size, shape or form, but rather its luring temptation.
Between his introduction in Book 1 to his final appearance in Book 10, Satan takes on many forms – initially of his own choosing, although eventually imposed by God – which significantly affect his character. These transformations, along with Milton’s use of simile and metaphor, inform the portrayal of Satan and dramatize his gradual moral denigration. Satan is first described as a massive (1.222), stately, human-like being, (1. 197) with a shield as big as the moon (1. 284-7) and a spear like the tallest pine (1.292). He is compared to the Titans (1.198) and thus associated with mythological heroes. Later, he transforms into a preying “cormorant” (4. 196-8), spying on his future prey (Adam and Eve) and devising tactical plans. In the Garden, he assumes the form of various animals in order to get close to Adam and Even, specifically a tiger (4.403), a lion (4.402), and a toad (4.800). After being caught and evicted from the Garden, he decides to assume the form of a snake in Book 9. (9.83-6)
The final depiction of Satan in Book 10 revisits this serpent form. He finds Hell deserted, and must journey into Pandemonium to find the other fallen angels. As the fallen angels see Satan, they welcome him joyously, and he addresses them with a gloating speech filled with pride. He tells them of the temptation of Eve and how brought about the fall of Man (“Him by fraud I have seduc’d / From his Creator” 10. 485-6) with a lowly apple. He says that the rebellious angels “as Lords” can “now possess… a spacious World, to our native Heaven / little inferiour” (10. 466-8). Expecting applause and praise from his audience, Satan hears hissing:
And the dire hiss renew’d, and the dire form
Caught by Contagion, like in punishment,
As in thir crime. (10. 543-5)
Satan himself is also reluctantly transformed into one of the “monstrous Serpents”, “a greater power” ruling him, “punisht in the shape he sin’d” (10. 515-7). Snakes are crawling all through Pandemonium, and the devils are quickly turned into snakes, unable to speak:
He would have spoke,
But his for hiss returnd with forked tongue
To forked tongue, for now were all transform’d
Alike, to Serpents all (10. 518-21)
In its final appearance in Book 10, then, evil is returned to a snake form that harkens back to Satan’s disguise in Book 9. Having illustrated Satan in so many deceiving shapes, why did Milton deliberately deliver his final portrayal of evil in the same serpentine form of the “Tempter”? What does this final presentation of Satan and the devils reveal about Milton’s notion of evil?
As Milton chose the snake form as the final image of evil, one can assume that he located some important revelations about the nature of evil in his portrayal of Satan’s serpent in Book 9. Thus to discover Milton’s final claims about evil, one must recall the important passages that describe Satan in his serpentine costume. In Book 9, Milton describes why Satan selectively chooses his snake form:
.. and his dark suggestions hide
From sharpest sight: for in the wilie Snake,
Whatever sleights none would suspicious mark,
As from his wit and native suttletie (9.90-2)
What is remarkable about the snake form, above all other animal disguises, is that it is inconspicuous, camouflaging Satan’s evil wile, wit, and subtlety. It is in this shape, then, that Satan is successful in his temptation of Eve:
So glister’d the dire Snake, and into fraud
Led Eve our credulous Mother, to the Tree
Of prohibition, root of all our woe (9. 643-5)
Satan’s success can thus be largely attributed to his wise selection of disguise, for in it he is able to lead Eve “into fraud”. For Satan does not assume the monstrous shape of a bear, a lion or a tiger to scare Eve, but rather as a satanic snake is able to get close to and cleverly influence her:
In her ears the sound
Yet rung of his perswasive words, impregn’d
With Reason, to her seeming, and with Truth (9.735-7)
Interestingly it is not by any force or grandeur that Satan succeeds in his temptation of Eve, but rather through his argumentation, in which his “persuasive words” seem logical (“impregn’d with reason”) and truthful.
What these three passages offer is a consistent characterization of evil in its snake form as “wily”, fraudulent, and “persuasive” The serpent is an effective disguise because it allows Satan to full utilize his essential evil qualities: guile (9.568), impassioned (or “spirited”) speech (9.678), and fraudulence (9.531). Moreover, the serpent of Book 9 is much more than a snake, but rather is of the worst kind of evil: it is the “Tempter” (9.550, 9.568, 9.678) of Man to impiety, disobedience and sin.
In his final embodiment of Satan and the devils as snakes in Book 10, Milton chooses to expose evil in its truest form. In altering the somewhat sympathetic Satan from his original heroic depiction to a simple snake, Milton is more importantly reducing evil to its essence: temptation. For the final vision of Satan and the devils is not as monstrous beasts, but rather as luring tempters. Thus what Milton offers his readers as a final taste of Satan and his followers, as snakes, is wholly important to his understanding of the great threat of evil itself. It appears that Milton wants to define evil, above all, as “the lurking Enemie / that lay in wait” (9. 1171-2): a persuasive, deceptive and seductive temptation that must be resisted.
Furthermore, the transformation scene of Book 10 is a reflection and reminder of divine justice. Rather than punishing the fallen angels by death, enslavement or torture, God’s retributive “eye-for-an-eye” justice is instituted. As evil (through Satan) tempted Man with the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, so too much all evil and the devils endure the same ritual. They must engage into the same temptation that lured Eve. The devils’ punishment to live as snakes, forever tempted by fruit on a glorious tree that turns to bitter soot and ash upon biting, echoes Satan’s temptation of Eve. Evil must forever suffer the pains of desire, without the hope of wish fulfilment, a punishment befitting their crime. To have the devils frozen in a state of perpetual desire and unattainable satisfaction is fit for a group of evildoers who continue to battle God through their disobedience.
The devils’ inability to speak, and ability only to hiss, further emphasizes this point: for God (and the good) will no longer allow Satan and evil to have a “voice” to which Man is susceptible; he can no longer tempt through false reasoning, lies and justification, and is stripped of his ability to do further harm. Thus not only does Milton in this scene expose evil as the greatest temptation, he also reaffirms God as omnipotent, and as the great good that will always prevail over evil.