Adam: the Ultimate Epic Hero

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In the infamous blank verse poem Paradise Lost, John Milton employs many epic similes, or extended comparisons that span several lines and are used to intensify the heroic stature or nature of the subject being described. In particular, Satan's army is made analogous to glorious armies of the past, its soldiers likened to prominent warriors of myth and legend. Milton uses these epic similes to reveal his attitude towards heroic values, while seeming to primarily portray Satan as the obvious protagonist, and thus the epic hero. Yet, using these extended comparisons in the end allows Milton to make known his true views on heroic values, and actually glorify Adam through his religious commitments to God as the ultimate epic hero of Paradise Lost, instead of Satan.

One example of Milton using an epic simile to portray his attitude towards heroic values is introduced in Book I. Satan's raising of his army is surprisingly described in positive heroic terms: “Anon they move/In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood” (I. 550). First of all, the phalanx was the formation of the foot soldiers of ancient Greece, while the Dorian mood is parallel to the valor and calm with which the Spartans went into battle with the sounds of flutes, impervious to fear or rage. Here it seems as if the satanic army is being made to resemble a celebrated gathering of strong, well-trained, and brave soldiers, when it would seem to many that there is nothing heroic or brave about demons and creatures of hell. “Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as raised/To heighth of noblest temper Heroes old/Armin to Battle, and instead of rage/Deliberate valor breathed, firm and unmoved... Moved on in silence to soft Pipes that charmed/Their painful steps o’er the burnt soil (I. 562). To highth of noblest temper Heroes old" is a description that would be characteristic of any great military force. However, this is Satan's army that Milton is talking about in elevated terms, proclaiming that the evil power is actually magnificent and comparable to the highest of all armed forces throughout history. Immediately, it seems that Satan is the hero of the story and that he is even admirable in battle, despite that fact that he is fighting angels of heaven, trying to kill them. Values of bravery and principle seem to be very significant to Milton early on.

This description of the gathering of Satan's army follows up the explanation of Satan’s effort to hearten his army. “With high words that bore/Semblance of worth, not substance, gently raised/Their fainting courage and dispelled their fears” (I. 530). We see that the surface of the army is actually superficial, plain “Semblance of worth, not substance.” There is the appearance of greatness and bravery, yet it is only a facade covering the true cowardice underneath. The heroic terms used to describe the soldiers thus become a somewhat mocking irony caused by Milton. The values they share with the armies of old really come to nothing of true importance. There are about as valuable and functional as deflated balloons at a birthday party.

Again, it is obvious to see that in Book I Milton presents Satan primarily as a courageous champion of battle. In doing so, he makes Paradise Lost comparable with prior epics, which tend to focus on military conquerors and their conquests or exploits at war. At the same time though, Milton seems to question the ideals of a civilization that worships warfare and its warriors. Milton definitely creates Satan in a way that exhibits all of the qualities of celebrated soldiers like Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus. He is audacious, unworried, apparently completely carefree, and has the gift of spurring his followers into horrific situations on a whim. In this way, Satan is almost admirable in the early sections of the poem and we come to wonder if we could ever root against him seeing as he displays all of the heroic values and characteristics...
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