Christine Haggerty has issued a challenge to write a blog post about literary villains, and answer five questions about your favourite. See her own choice on her blog.
1) What character is your favourite villain?
2) What makes him/her a villain?
3) What do you hate about him or her?
4) What do you love about him or her?
5) What aspect of this villain do you empathise with most?
This is a challenge I had to pick up as I find villains so much more satisfying to write about than heroes. For the reader it’s maybe different, as in the end most people want the hero to win. Where there’s a romantic element, much as we may be drawn to the bad boy or girl, if we’re honest, when it comes to happy ever after we tend not to go for baddie. There are exceptions to that rule though, as I discovered when I studied Paradise Lost for A-Level English.
There can surely be no darker devil in Judeo-Christian culture than Satan, and John Milton was a deeply religious Christian poet. Yet in Satan he created an anti-hero who had so much more charisma than puling whining Adam and so much more sense of honour and justice than the rather vague and uninteresting God, that we Catholic schoolgirls were one hundred percent behind Satan. He became our literary idol and we would have jumped over the crystal battlements for him any day of the week.
Satan is a villain because he wants power. Simple as that. And God obviously isn’t in the business of sharing. Satan was Lucifer, the brightest star in the firmament and thought himself as good as God. Well, we’re all entitled to a huge ego, aren’t we? And given Milton’s portrayal of God, the boring old man with a beard who just wants everybody in creation to thank him and sing his praises endlessly, why wouldn’t Lucifer think he could do as good a job? At one time, wanting to be the equal of God was considered a big deal and enough to set Lucifer beyond the pale. But does it make him bad?
There isn’t anything I hate about Satan, in as much as I don’t think he sets out to be any more dastardly than most rulers. It’s true, he sets out to corrupt humanity—he’s hurt, unhappy and his pride’s dented. Man is so much his inferior and yet has been given the earth to rule over. And we know what a bollix he’s made of that little job. That doesn’t mean I like Satan. He’s an evil character, he lies, he distorts and he manipulates, but he’s human, and for pre-Enlightenment Europe, as rulers go he’s nothing extraordinary.
What I love about Satan is his sense of righteousness and justice. He cries when he sees how low his companions have fallen ‘by his fault’ and he wants to make things up to them. Milton doesn’t say God shed a tear about sending his favourite archangel to live on the burning lake in the bowels of Hell. Satan is loyal to his companions and what he plans is to give them what he believes they deserve.
Satan has a lot of human characteristics. He is proud and arrogant, but he is also steadfast, strong-willed, and he is compassionate. Milton must have been torn between his religious and artistic convictions when he made Satan wipe away that tear. He made him a human being, capable of the kind of things any seventeenth century ruler was capable of, but also able to feel compassion and remorse for his followers. Milton’s Satan isn’t a dyed in the wool demon. He is just like us, the kind of hero we love to follow, tall, strong and charismatic. His crimes seem rather nebulous compared with that single teardrop, and frankly, the wimp, Adam doesn’t inspire much as a rival.
One interpretation is that Milton made Satan so attractive in the early books of Paradise Lost to allow the reader to be lured, exactly as humanity was lured, by his devilish wiles. By the end of Paradise Lost we should have seen through his likeable veneer to the wicked fiend he really is. I prefer to think that Milton had a sneaking admiration for his creation that must have given his Christian conscience severe indigestion. Like my classmates, I’m with Satan all the way.