Paradise Lost is one of the finest examples of epic tradition in all of literature. In composing this work, John Milton was, for the most part, following in the manner of epic poets of past centuries. By knowing the background of epic characteristics and conventions, it is easy to trace their presence in Book I of Paradise Lost.
One of the biggest questions that a reader must face is that of the hero; exactly who is the epic hero in the poem? While Satan may not be the "hero" of Paradise Lost, Milton quickly establishes him as its main character, and as the most complex and detailed of Milton's descriptions. Satan is given many traditional attributes as an epic hero. Although he may not be the classical hero, he does defeat the creatures that God had created. This is why I feel that Milton meant Satan to be the hero of Paradise Lost.
Another three characteristics of the epic are hardly items of debate, as was the hero. The setting of the poem is indeed vast in scope. It ranged from Heaven to Hell and to the Earth. The action of the story also consisted of deeds of great valor that required superhuman courage. Although biblically, we may not consider Satan to have courage, we know that he must have shown it while fighting the war in heaven against God. According to the dictionary, courage is "that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking." Satan most certainly may be said to fit this description. There were also supernatural forces at work throughout the poem, such as gods, angels, and demons.
In addition to these four epic characteristics, Milton also employees the so-called epic conventions in his poem. Milton definitely begins by stating his theme: the entire story of salvation is summarized in the opening twenty-six lines, and the purpose of the epic is stated, "And justify the ways of God to men" (line 26). Milton also opens his narrative "in medias res"; he begins by asking how Adam and Eve could have fallen. Who could have caused it? And then we meet an already fallen Satan; it is in Book VI that the War in Heaven which caused Satan's fall is actually described.
Milton also invokes a Muse in his poem. "Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top of Oreb, of Sinai, didst inspire" (line 6 & 7). This Muse's job was to inspire and instruct him, as was traditional. Along with a Muse, Milton includes a catalog of the fallen angels for his readers in lines 376 through 505. He also provided us with extended formal speeches by the main characters: for example in lines 84-124 is a speech directed to Heaven from Satan over how he refuses to accept defeat. It is on the basis of the eloquence and power of some of the speeches that much of the claim for Satan's position as "hero" is based.
Finally, Milton makes frequent use of the epic simile. There are four major examples in Book I. The first is the simile of what seems to be a sea monster. "Thus Satan talking to his nearest mate with head uplift above the wave…" (lines 192+). The second simile is the autumnal leaves. "Of that inflamed sea he stood, and called His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced, thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks…" (lines 300+) The sun makes up the third simile. "Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen looks through the horizontal misty air…" (lines 594+). The final simile is the swarming bees. "Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings. As bees in springtime, when the sun with Taurus rides, pour forth their populous youth about the hive…" (lines768+). These similes are Milton's way of helping us to better relate the story to common things in our lives.
In spite of some alterations and modifications, we can clearly see how Milton used the classical epic characteristics and conventions in his writing. It was by employing these methods in to an already well known story that Milton created a masterpiece. Francis C. Blessington seems to sum it up the best. "Milton built his epic out of those of Homer and Virgil, like a cathedral erected out of the ruins of pagan temples whose remains can still me seen" (xiii).
Blessington, Francis C. Paradise Lost and the Classical Epic. Boston: Routledge, 1979.
Milton, John. "Paradise Lost." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H.
Adams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. 1475-1495.