Paradise Lost & Epic Simile

Satan is depicted in epic terms throughout Paradise Lost, but in ever diminishing ways. Beginning with the arch fiend’s address to his nearest mate, Beelzebub, (1.192-208), Satan is a Titanian figure, yet even here referred to, immediately following, in lesser form as Earth-born, a foreshadowing of his coming diminution. The text goes on, calling Satan Leviathan, a whale in size, that creature which God had made the hugest that swim th’ ocean stream, (1.202). He is imagined asleep on the Norway foam, a reference to things northern, thus implying mammoth dimensions in the reader’s mind. Milton returns to this reference later in his depiction of fallen cohorts. Continuing, Satan is so big that a sailor might take him for a small island, dropping anchor overnight to escape the sea wind, and wait till morning. (1.205)

The implication of an ongoing fall continues, as if Satan’s plunge may never end. He is allowed to pursue his dark designs, but he does so only with the high permission of all ruling heaven, (1.212). Heavenly permission granted, Satan sprouts wings, takes off into air that felt unusual weight, and alights once more with his sidekick Beelzebub. Both have recovered slightly, escaping the Stygian flood as Gods, and not by the sufferance of supernal power, (1.240-241). Satan’s determination to overcome his fate is on display, as he rouses himself and his fellow fallen angel.

Further on, (1.283-302), Satan is shown in even more graphic, yet still epic ways, as the superior fiend. Beelzebub has just finished addressing Satan, which but th’ omnipotent none could have foiled, thus raising his profile. But Milton again takes him down a notch in a very subtle way, comparing his shield in epic terms to the moon, (1.287), which object everyone knows hangs suspended in Earth’s orbit, and reflecting not its own light, but light from a larger, more powerful source. The author ends the simile by referring to Satan’s massive following of fellow fallen angels. Once again Milton chooses a rather pathetic analogy, saying that Satan’s legions are Thick as Autumnal leaves, (1.302), thus not only fallen to the ground, but a symbol of death, low regard and seasonal change as well.

Satan reproaches his Princes and Potentates, (1.315), rousing them to fight back. Those other fallen angels are then shown in epic terms, as they stirred to obey, their general’s voice, (1.337). Their numbers were such that they resembled a plague of locusts, a reference to Moses’ showering Egypt with a horde of those biblical insects, turning day to night. This reference is telling, since the fallen are once again described in terms of dark versus light. The plague is not only dark, it is carried on an eastern wind, a symbol in Milton’s world of ominous change, since the east was a source of exotic and dangerous infidels. The geographic menace is extended, when the angels are compared to hordes arriving, this time from the north, home of barbarous tribes spreading over Europe, beneath Gibraltar to Lybian sands, (1.355), thus engulfing the civilized world.

Beelzebub is depicted in epic ways in Book 2 of Paradise Lost. Satan’s second in command, Beelzebub is shown as an almost epically sad figure, perhaps a mirror image of man in his inability to exercise free will, and thus suffer the fate of a stronger angel. His name, from a Caananite reference meaning Lord of the Flies, presents an image of servitude, of someone willing to take whatever falls from the table. He rises, with, grave aspect, as a pillar of state, (2.303). Here, Beelzebub appears to be rising to the occasion, claiming his rightful place as Satan’s counselor, Majestic though in ruin. Proud, but obsequious, he may be Satan’s alter ego. He is reluctant to lead, yet eager to serve, to operate in reflected light. This is epic hubris, as it represents hero-worship, and the refusal to exercise free will.

The epic simile continues, citing Beelzebub’s Atlantean shoulders fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies, (2.306). Is this strength and resilience, or willingness to suffer under someone else’s dictates? Or is it perhaps Milton’s first mention of the need for human reverence and obedience to the Almighty? Regardless, Beelzebub is ready to serve. Yet, like Adam embracing his fate at the end of the poem, Beelzebub’s counsel is taken. Hearing of the coming of a new creature, some new race called Man, (2.348), Satan adopts Beelzebub’s wisdom, and the epic contest is begun.