How does Milton redefine the concept of a Homeric hero?
A Homeric hero: courageous, daring, angry, charming, strong, manly, passionate, commanding, skilled in oration, alluring.
This is Satan in Milton’s masterful prequel, Paradise Lost. Although we watch the Devil’s extraordinary fall from heaven into the pit of hell, Milton’s brilliant writing draws readers in, tempting them to cheer for Satan. The poet gives the villain all the charming characteristics of a typical Homeric hero. Satan is a passionate and fiery leader, quick to speak, he takes action and grows angry, and is audacious in courage—a powerful lord in his own right. Yet he is also determined to “have equalled the most high,” and it is this hallmark of pride which leads to his downfall (line 40). Milton paints a powerfully favorable picture of the Devil: “In shape and gesture proudly eminent stood like a tower; his form had yet not lost all her original brightness” (590-592). As the poem progresses, Milton calls into question our preconceived notion of a “hero” by drawing his readers in with Satan’s winning courage, audacity, and leadership skills. As the reader, I had to continually remind myself that this was the bad guy, not the character I was supposed to root for.
Now skip forward to Paradise Regained, which takes place during Jesus’ temptation. At first glance, this seems like an odd choice—wasn’t paradise regained on the cross? At this point, Christ has not even started his ministry; in fact, Milton gives Christ some “musings” before he goes into the desert, in which he contemplates “how best the mighty work he might begin of savior to mankind, and which way first publish his godlike office now mature” (186-88). Christ has not yet started the business of saving souls. But Milton is suggesting here that the real battle is fought—and won—when Satan comes to tempt Christ during his forty days of fasting in the desert.
Think of it in terms of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker must defeat Darth Vader in battle before he can address his true enemy, Emperor Palpatine. Yet while he is dueling physically with Vader, he is also fighting mentally with Palpatine. As a result, when Luke defeats Vader—physically, mentally, and emotionally—the emperor is no longer a threat. Excuse my poor metaphor—I realize that there are many problems with this analogy. Yet I find it a striking image. Satan is the one who tempted mankind in the first place, and it was he who caused their downfall. If the same tactics were to cause Christ’s downfall, God’s plan of salvation would be futile. Instead, when Satan makes his attempt against Jesus, the Christ conquers, reciting Scripture as argument, and standing firm in God.
This makes Christ’s forty days in the desert significant because they become the reversal of Paradise Lost. In the garden of Eden, Satan battles man and triumphs. In the desert, Satan battles Christ (both God and man), and loses. Thus, when Christ begins his ministry, he has already conquered the Devil himself.
In Paradise Regained, Christ’s character stands in stark contrast to all of Satan’s “Homeric hero” traits, and in one fell swoop, trumps them all. Christ’s quiet character stamps upon the proud tilt of Satan’s head. His rash passion is beaten down by Christ’s steady faith, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love. Proud ignorance is overcome by wisdom, more ancient than the stars, which beholds all things and makes plans before the foundations of the earth were laid. Satan’s disobedience, hot and fierce, proud in nature and refusing to bow to the Creator, looks weak and powerless in the shadow of Christ’s obedience, that clear spring of joy which Christ yields like a sword upon his foe. This unbreakable wall sends Satan reeling back to hell: “So struck with dread and anguish fell the fiend, and to his crew, that sat consulting, brought joyless triumphals of his hoped success, ruin, and desperation, and dismay, who durst so proudly tempt the Son of God” (576-580). In this “epic battle,” Milton shows the uselessness of the qualities which Homer and Virgil valued so highly. True victory is not won with fire, anger, and disobedience, but with faith, Scripture, and obedience.
To answer the question, Milton re-defines the concept of a Homeric hero by setting up Christ’s character as the ultimate hero, which opposes Satan, Achilleus, Odysseus, Aeneas, etc.
A new definition of a hero: brave, meek, obedient, loyal, patient, wise, slow to speak, slow to anger, abiding in steadfast love.