Preface to Paradise Lost
by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote many controversial things, but it seems very odd to me that his assertion that Satan is the villain in John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, would excite controversy. Isn’t it obvious that a puritan writing about Satan would not make him the hero of the story?
Not for modern man. The current reaction against Christianity runs so deep that many read Paradise Lost and see Satan as the hero. Herman Melville felt this way more than a century ago; the best living literary critic I’ve read, Harold Bloom, feels that way today: “Contra C.S. Lewis, do not start with a Good Morning’s Hatred of Satan, before you attempt the poem [Paradise Lost]. As I remember writing some years ago, regard him as your Uncle Satan . . .”
Bloom finds Milton’s characterization of Satan much more appealing than his characterization of Christ, and then proceeds to argue that perhaps Milton felt much more kinship with Satan than he is willing to admit.
To make this argument is to reveal a certain amount of religious illiteracy. Of course Milton makes his Satan character appealing! According to Christian doctrine, Satan was immensely powerful and beautiful, which makes his fall all the more tragic. What’s more, Satan did not lose all persuasiveness, or personal magnetism, after his rebellion—witness the Garden of Eden. Milton makes his Satan character both tragic and appealing because that’s what the Bible says about him. Christians really believe that there’s a being who was “the prince of this world” and who still patrols the earth like a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” This being is not a milksop or a parody—he’s a fallen angel who is both crafty and passionate. Milton’s Satan is not a two-dimensional villain because the real Satan is the father of all villains—a force to be reckoned with, not a thug on parole.
Lewis provides the proper perspective on Milton’s Satan in this book, which happens to be the proper perspective toward the real Satan: “To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.” Many moderns, already prone to shaking their fists at God, like Satan’s sort of wishful thinking—and that’s the danger that Milton so clearly warns against in this poem.
by Jeff Baldwin