Tool of the Devil: Comparing Satan in Paradise Lost and the Golden Compass

Topics: His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, Northern Lights Pages: 6 (2358 words) Published: March 23, 2005
The devil, in literature, is always a catalyst of change for those who encounter him. He is a force working underground, moving against what is widely considered virtuous and good, and it is contact with him that often changes the course of characters lives, and even the world. In Paradise Lost and a book based on it, The Golden Compass, ‘the devil', in both cases, is an advocate for moving away from the control of God and the Church. Where the stories differ, is in the author's intent for these actions. In the former, John Milton uses the devil to display how vanity and pride are the sins that halt us in an opportunity to live blissfully, with and under God. Philip Pullman, in his twist on Paradise Lost, The Golden Compass, claims that the original sin was the first, and most essential, step in human beings claiming their free will. He writes the devil (Lord Asriel) as a manipulative, selfish but ultimately admirable character. One who stands his ground and holds onto his beliefs with an intense passion. Milton's Satan, on the other hand, comes off originally as charming, but slowly presents himself to be weak and unsure, and his ideals are eventually presented as a mask for his insatiable pride. When Milton's Satan tricks Adam and Eve into leaving paradise, they are ultimately worse off. Pullman, on the other hand, shows that human beings are essentially crippled without their right and ability to sin and make choices. It is through their differing portrayals of Satan, that Milton and Pullman present their respective cases on how the original sin caused man to lose paradise and eternal bliss, or find free will.

When Paradise Lost begins, the vainglorious actions of Satan have resulted in his removal from heaven and placed him on the path to exact revenge against those who have done so. Though, the reader is hardly able to experience any distaste when reading about this man who opposes the consented force of good. He is are charming, dark, fanatical and desperate in his attempts. It is from these characteristics, that the reader may be swayed into viewing him as the protagonist (or even the hero) of the tale. Even C.S. Lewis, famous for his critical detraction of Milton's Satan acknowledges how, "Milton's presentation of him (Satan) is a magnificent poetical achievement which engages the attention and excites the admiration of the reader" (Lewis, 94). Almost as if he wishes to show the reader how easy it is to falter to the temptations of evil, Milton infuses as much passion into Satan as he can. "His splendor simply overrides our consciousness of his evil" (Werblowski, 12). The reader cannot help but be swept up by his fervor. "We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice, To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." (Milton, BK I, 259-263).

Lord Asriel also exudes a charisma and a determination that everyone who crosses his path cannot help but be moved by. Literary critic Werblowsky claims Milton's Satan "is surrounded by an aura of majesty and power" (70, Werblowsky), which is the interpretation which Pullman seems to directly draw from for his character. When his daughter, Lyra, observes him, she thinks, "Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity" (Pullman, 12).

The powerful difference in the two characters, lies in the fact that Lord Asriel's passions appear to be rooted to his core, and to be genuine, and Satan's may be there only to mask his doubt and are the result of enormous pride. As a result of the latter, many critics often view Satan as an almost comical character. His unparalleled vanity and boasting, and (as some believe) posturing as God, makes it hard for some to not see the humor in his...
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