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 begin...
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.