Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thesis Prospectus: The Evolution of Satan in the British Literature Tradition

Current scholarship in Milton studies focuses on several related topics; Paradise Lost’s function as a polemic, Paradise Lost as an anti-royalist writing, Satan as a revolutionary and the use of Satanic subjects as a way of illustrating Milton’s heretical tendencies. This can be seen in Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (1994), Bryson’s The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King (2004), Lieb’s Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (2006), Lander’s Inventing Polemic: Religion, Print, and Literacy Culture in Early Modern England (2006), Loewenstein and Marshall’s Heresy, Literature and Politics in Early Modern English Culture (2007) and Achinstein and Sauer’s Milton and Toleration (2007). These works tend to look at Paradise Lost and Milton as either a way to view the other political writings of the time or as proof of Milton’s heretical leanings. Some writers, most notably and recently Forsyth in The Old Enemy and The Satanic Epic, have looked at what sources Milton may have used in creating his compelling character of Satan. Often what is not present is as telling as what is present and in this case, what is not seen is a comprehensive look at the evolution of the character of Satan in the British Literature tradition, how this led to Milton’s Satan and how his creation was a fusion of the characters that had come before.

In The Satanic Epic (2003), Forsyth focuses mainly on how Paradise Lost functions as an epic however, Chapter One: A Brief History of Satan does address the origins of the character. He begins by mentioning Satan’s original purpose was as the Adversary, as seen in the Book of Job and he uses this example to point out that Satan is not “simply the personification of evil” (26), he was meant as an opposite to God, an opponent. Forsyth goes on to state that the myth of Satan as a rebel is not laid out in any one text, but rather must be inferred through the stories of Zeus, Prometheus, Icarus and the battle between the Titans and Olympians, making comparisons between God and Zeus. He goes on to state that Milton followed the shape of ancient mythic epics such as the Illiad and the Aeneid and the heroes in them in creating Satan. He gives a brief accounting of Satan’s mention in Revelation and the imagery of Satan as a beast and a warrior, citing the combat language. Forsyth then discusses how Origen’s account it the first “fully developed picture of the Devil and his origin as an envious member of the heavenly court” (45). He also discusses how Satan was used by the early and medieval Church as a representation of heresy and how the story of Satan evolved through the middle ages into the story presented in Genesis B solidifies the idea of Satan as a rebelling angel. Continuing the chronology, Forsyth moves onto how Milton’s Satan owed much to Marlowe’s troubled Renaissance Mephistopheles and states that Milton’s military and warlike Satan is a result of the influence of the modern world. He continues in this vein by boldly stating that “the most important influence on Milton’s Satan was the dramatic tradition” (60). He says that the medieval morality plays influenced his greatly, as did the writings of Shakespeare.

Forsyth’s statements as he lays them all out appear at first glance to be logically laid out. However, the key to the gap lies later in the chapter when he quotes Bush in saying that “Romantic readers “start with Satan’ and never get beyond him” (69), referring to Blake and Shelley. While I believe that Forsyth means that readers are often overwhelmed by the characterization of Satan and therefore fail to appreciate Paradise Lost as it should be, what Forsyth fails to realize is that there has yet to be a complete understanding of the history of Satan as a character and how the evolution of the character resulted in Milton’s portrayal.

Forsyth’s views are not wholeheartedly accepted for example, Kelley, in a review of the book, argues that Forsyth bases his work on misreading of previous texts. He says that there is no proof prior to the first century C.E that Satan fell as a result of rebellion, that Forsyth neglects to address traditions where Satan is seen as a world leader, that Forsyth’s sweeping statements that the Lucifer of medieval theology and literature is the same as the Old and New Testament are incorrect and the assumption that Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost is based in Scripture is wrong. Kelley however, is a folklorist and an ex-Jesuit, so his approach is different from Forsyth’s.

Russell explores similar territory with his book Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984) where he researches the concept of evil as reflected in the devil and how popular literature, art and folklore represent this character during the middle ages. He looks at worldwide sources including Byzantium, Muslim tradition and folklore, theologians such as Gregory to Nicholas of Cusa, and examines the devil in medieval art, poetry, and drama. Russell covers a large field, but unfortunately there are gaps in his coverage; it would have been illuminating if instead of rehashing old material, he has focused more on unexplored material, such as looking at the visual representations of the devil through this period since this is a topic rarely discussed. Unfortunately, as exhibited by Russell, examining sources has often fallen into the realm of folklorists versus English literature scholars and the research rarely goes down unexplored paths where some sources are concerned.

However, most of the work involving analyzing sources for Milton’s Paradise Lost was written in the first half of the 20th century. Some scholars have examined the character of Satan in general, not specific to Milton’s portrayal such as Le Bosquet’s “The Evil One: A Development” (1912), Caldwell’s series “The Doctrine of Satan: In the Old and New Testament” (1913), Kellogg in “Satan, Langland, and the North” (1949), and Stein’s “Satan: The Dramatic Role of Evil” (1950). After this, past scholarship has focused on Satan as an epic or anti-hero and comparing Paradise Lost to Judaic and Biblical writings. The current trend of viewing Paradise Lost through a political lens has dominated scholarly work lately.

Some individual scholars such as Lever, Woolf, Rohrich, Potter, Edden, Laoire and Paolucci and have looked at smaller pieces of the source puzzle. When scholars look at possible sources Milton may have used, many make the contradicting claim that Milton, as well read as he was, must have been familiar with the text while at the same time stating that any similarities are coincidental, hedging their bets so to speak. Lever is a good example of this in “Paradise Lost and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition” (1947) where he spends the entire article addressing the similarities between Christ and Satan and Paradise Lost and then counters himself at the end by stating that the similarities are simply coincidence, as should be expected of something addressing common Christian themes.

Woolf, on the other hand, in “The Devil in Old English Poetry” (1953) states that similarities in characterization are due to Loki myths and Satan (in Christ and Satan) emerging at the same time. He argues that the origins of Satan as heroic possibly began with the Anglo Saxons, as they would have seen his actions as heroic for how he dealt with his inevitable expulsion from heaven. Woolf also addresses the fact that Christian doctrine and Loki mythology would have coincided and compares the similarities between the two characters. Woolf focuses on Anglo Saxon readership and does not offer any insights into how the Loki myths evolved, or cite any particular sources for the Loki myth, but this is also the nature of working in folklore. However, because of his evidence of the similarities between the character of Satan and Loki, the Norse myths serve as an excellent source for the character of Satan.

In “German Devil Tales and Devil Legends” (1970), Rohrich examines the idea that devil tales and legends have stopped being folklore and have become part of the historical record. While he offers some detailed descriptions of how the devil was portrayed and viewed, he fails to cite any particular sources for his information, thus calling into question his information. However, he does vaguely reference the medieval sermons that spawned some of these legends and gives a detailed description of how these devil tales and legends evolved. He culminates his argument by citing Grimm’s fairy tales as evidence of the popularity of these tales and legends. While the Grimm brothers did not compile their tales until the early 1800s, the sources for their tales had been around the Germanic folkloric tradition for much longer and therefore these tales and legends are an excellent source for comparison to Milton. The problem that arises here is that Rohrich is a folklorist and therefore has little written record to work with. However, despite there not being a written record, there is a record of these tales, and therefore they are a valid source.

Another source for comparison is the portrayals of the devil/Satan in drama. In “Three Jacobean Devil Plays” (1931), Potter argues that it was the devil of English folklore that was represented on the English stage, a devil that was instantly recognizable by his physical appearances and starred in comedies of the time. The devil of these plays does not depend upon a magician to conjure him up, the plays’ action all begins in hell and despite the fact that it is accepted that the devil can change his shape, he is recognized by his eyes, animal-like sounds and thunder or lightning that accompanies him. These devils were self-possessed characters of their own merit and not dependent upon humans, although they were often the butt of the devil’s jokes. These dramas served to not only show the devil of English legend and folklore but also to forward the life of the character. Which characteristics of the devil get forwarded and which don’t is also of interest, when looking at the evolution of the character.

Valerie Edden explores a previous gap in the scholarship by looking at the sermon stories of the middle ages for references to devils in “Devils, Sermon Stories, and the Problem with Popular Belief in the Middle Ages” (1992). These stories were written in the vernacular between 1400-1475 and had an audience of parish clergy and a lay audience. These sermon stories had their basis in folklore and legend (214) as the Jacobean plays did but were “remade” so to speak for the church’s purposes. Edden points out that these texts are “important for what they leave out as for what they say” (215) and ties this to her argument, as she states that just because a sermon story had a characterization of a devil did not mean that the reader could assume a belief of the original reader based on this. Edden’s work is valuable because she forwards several collections of these medieval sermon stories: The Alphabet of Tales, Jacob’s Well, and BL MS Cotton Cleopatra Dviii. Edden examines not only the language used to describe these devils (demon, Satan, fiend, little black boy), but also how the original readers would have responded to these descriptions and viewed these characters (217). She states that medieval readers would have seen devils and angels as good and bad spirits however; she counters the popularly held idea that medieval readers would have seen any mention of devils or angels as representative of a dualistic model in which God and the devil were always in opposition over man. She also details the common stories lines of the devils in these stories; devils were not described as in opposition to God, but rather as parallel to angels, and as thus, are able to contend for the soul of a man without involving a conflict with God. She states that these stories were not consistent in their treatment of devils, but that in many, the traditional role was that of tempter. She also states that many stories dealt with the devil as a shape shifter which leads to two types of stories: one in which good men can identify the devil and one in which the man was not looked down on if he was deceived by the disguises of the devil. This scenario was seen in another way when the storyline revolved around a man who was seduced by a beautiful woman who turns out to be a devil. Another theme is the persistence of the devil and the importance of man always being vigilant. Edden’s final argument is that medieval readers did not view the world in a dualistic manner and that to assume that they held such beliefs based on these medieval sermon stories of devils is to base an opinion on too little facts as there is no way to determine what their popular beliefs were based solely on these tales.

Laoire addresses a similar topic in “That Be’t Banagher and Banagher Be’t the Devil. An International Devil Tale in Irish Tradition” (1994/1995) when she examines an Irish folktale, The Old Woman as Trouble Maker that has a dual duty as a folktale and a religious tale as it deal with the devil and the power of evil. She states that this story was used as an exemplum “in sermons from at least the thirteenth century onwards” (189). She says that there are more than 59 variants of the story and the tale occurs throughout Ireland. In the tale, the devil spends a long amount of time trying to interfere with a happily married couple. In many of the stories, the devil enlists the help of a woman who, either by lying to the husband or the wife, makes them believe their spouse is cheating which results, in most variants, in the death of said spouse. In some variants, the devil sends a servant and in some, the devil condemns his female helper to hell, as she has proved herself more wicked than he is, while in others, the devil promises his female helper a reward if she does his bidding. The moral of the story rests not on the married couple (whose sins and downfalls differ with the variants) but on the woman who has fallen into “the devil’s clutches” (196). This single tale manages to touch on several different aspects of the devil tradition in Ireland. Both Laoire and Edden’s work help to address the gap of written references to the devil in literature in the medieval and middle ages.

Often, Inferno’s Satan is dismissed due to the fact that he appears in the poem so briefly. However, in “Dante’s Satan and Milton’s ‘Byronic Hero’” (1964), Paolucci argues that despite the differences in their physical descriptions, these characters are in fact very similar in the ways in which they suffer the pain of their sins. Both were the brightest of angels, and now, although in different ways, are the lowest of creatures. She also points out the parallels between how Heaven and Hell are organized and how this order is political in nature; by defying God, these characters have not just defied him, but the political order of the universe. Paolucci also argues that neither Dante or Milton meant for their characters to be read superficially and that the reader is misunderstanding the texts if they do so. She also notes that Dante’s representation is important because of the way in which it functions, just as Milton’s characterization is the culmination of all that came before, so was Dante’s at the time.

These scholars fail to look at the major characterizations, compare them side by side to Milton and use this to highlight how his Satan is not only a fusion of these characters but also a new creation. This is important because it opens up a whole new set of questions in regards to examining Paradise Lost and the character of Satan. Some of these questions I will use to examine how the source functions within it’s time period but they are useful questions for not only examining these sources, but also to serve as a baseline for examining works that came after. Some of these questions include: how is the character used to personify a particular religious or political figure of the time (pope, anti-royalist)? How did religious representations of Satan differ from the political representations and what is the significance of these differences? How did the character of Satan move from a character in Biblical literature to one used my the Church to exemplify evil, to a literary character, to a symbolic representation of the opposition in political writings? How does the author of any given source or analogue use the character of Satan (as a figure to be feared, a moral lesson, as an anti-hero) and how seriously does the author treat the character of Satan? What role did the character play in nationalistic arguments? How was the character of Satan used to mask dangerous political positions? How did the character evolve as time went by?

In not addressing this question, scholars have failed to be able to fully place Milton in context. Examining classical and biblical sources he may have used only goes part of the way. In order to truly appreciate and understand Milton’s genius in creating something entirely new, one must know of all that came before. In neglecting this course of study, scholars are also deprived of a course of study in examining the literature that came after Milton and was influenced by Paradise Lost.

In this paper, I will look at the major characterizations of Satan that came before Milton’s from the British literary tradition in order to understand the evolution of the character. This paper will look at these works in chronological order: Christ and Satan (7th century), the myths of Loki in Poetic Edda (13th century), canto XXXIV of Inferno (1308-1321), the Third Vision: The Quest for Dowel, Passus VIII; the Fifth Vision, Passus XVI and the Sixth Vision, Passus XVIII of Piers Plowman (1369-1387), the York plays, specifically The Fall of the Angels (1463-1477), Malleus Maleficarum (1486), Daemonologie (1597), Doctor Faustus (1604), The King James Bible (1611), and the Jacobean play The Devil is an Ass (1667).

The primary focus will be on comparing the character of Satan in these works with Milton’s characterization in Paradise Lost by looking at how the character is described, both by the character himself and by other characters. A secondary focus will be the gap that exists between the 7th and 13th century in which Satan was mainly appropriated by the Catholic Church. Thirdly, I will look at how individual scholars have addressed some of these individual sources and analogues.


  1. This is fascinating - when will your thesis be finished? Can I get a copy (also writing a PhD Thesis on Milton's Satan).

    Derek Murphy

    1. I've been working on this while saving money for grad school, so a little bit. Would love to have someone to talk this out with!