Who is your favourite villain in literature and why?
By Arthur James, Winner of the Connell Guides Essay Prize 2017
Satan is a character we should hate. Demented, Machiavellian, and vain, he is the acme of evil. For all that, Lucifer (and his aliases) infiltrate our lives; he is a central character in an array of books by authors from Dante to Dan Brown, from Christopher Marlowe to CS Lewis. He appears in countless movies, TV shows, and songs. Yet, surprisingly, and unlike Claudius or Becky Sharpe or Mrs. Danvers, there is something about the Devil which makes us like him. Despite everything, the Devil is seductive—even desirable. Very often he is also vulnerable; he suffers, is conflicted, is confused. When we look at the Devil in literature, we find not only the traditional fork-tailed, trident-bearing, red imp of popular culture, but also, and importantly, a very human character, plagued by the same flaws and vulnerabilities which haunt us all. The Devil is the best villain—potentially the best character—in all of literature because, while we think of him as an anti-Trinitarian reflection of God, he is really just a carbon copy of man.
In the great Classical depictions of the Devil, we are often surprised when he comes across far less demonic and far more normal than we might expect. In Paradise Lost, John Milton—unlike his Classical equivalents—tells the story not just of any warrior or demigod, but of Satan. Granted, Lucifer is not as pure as Odysseus or Achilles, but he clearly fits the bill for the tragic hero of a classic epic storyline. In lining his Satan up against Homer’s Achilles or Virgil’s Aeneas, Milton subverts the genre to promote an antihero who, while partly divine, behaves, for better or worse, like a human. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who is “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, Milton’s Satan has the “courage never to submit or yield”, and is waging a fight—which he at least deems noble—against God.1
Similarly, in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, we see the tropes of an epic. Guided by Virgil, Dante encounters and discusses at length the authors and characters of Classical literature, and is himself the narrator. But at the same time, by writing in his native Tuscan dialect rather than in Latin, Dante uses language that is everyday and normal humanising both Hell and, in turn, Satan. The words that Dante uses are the words of the vernacular and not of the Catholic liturgy. His bizarre journey is presented not so much as walk through the land of unknowable suffering, but more like a €10 guided tour of Florence. Not only does this give the writing immediacy and vitality, but also can be seen to undermine the authority of the Church. Above all, it suggests that we should engage with Satan not as an alien figure, but as one of the people. This same humanity is sometimes used for comic effect. In Nikolai Gogol's short story, The Night Before Christmas, we see a parodied Devil who “kept shifting from one hoof to the other and blowing into his palms, trying to warm his cold hands at least a little”. Gogol does not treat his devil with the respect which a more traditional Satan might think is due. For the reader, it is startling to see the Devil not only feeling the cold but reacting to it as we would—not exactly the behaviour we expect from the Prince of Darkness.
Satan is also, perhaps, more to be pitied than censured. Though Satan in the Bible unquestionably has a voice, we do not get the sense that we are hearing his unedited perspective. In turn, Dante deprives Satan of his voice entirely, and this silence forces us to consider the possibility that there is another side to his story.2 “La creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante”, the creature once so radiant is left mute and impotent.3 This is not the cunning, maleficent Devil we have come to imagine; it is a tortured and conflicted soul condemned to an eternity of silent suffering for the crime of wanting to be able to make his own decisions. Left without a voice, the Devil is wonderfully ambiguous. Dante tells us to “consider how monstrous must be his entirety”, referring to the physical size of Satan, but also discussing the entirety of the nature of his existence, and reflecting on the horrors of the torment which he endures.4
Elsewhere, we see in Satan moments of profound humanity—of sadness. Milton shows us a Devil genuinely moved upon seeing Adam and Eve for the first time; he cries that he sees in them “divine resemblance, and such grace”.5 By extension, he is also seeing a palimpsest of his own former glory. In the Inferno, Satan is forever crying “tears from his six eyes”, which gives us for the first time a sense of him as an individual experiencing the horror that Dante “lacks words” to describe. Dante uses the word “piangëa”; in Italian, these are specifically not tears of malice nor of deception, these are tears of despair. It is a moment of raw emotion, evoking St. John’s Gospel: “Jesus wept”.6 The word “piangëa” is also used in Canto V, to describe Dante’s own reaction to the story of Francesca and Paolo, showing that Lucifer’s pain is same as the pain felt by by Dante himself. Dante’s sympathy for the Devil is transparent: in speaking of him later in the same Canto and referring to his “entirety”, he reminds the reader of Satan in heaven, saying “If he was fair as he is foul and grim”.7 The use of alliterative antithesis links his current form to his former state of grace; Dante forces us to remember Lucifer the light bearer, the beautiful broken, and, perhaps, a tragic rather than a frightening figure.8
Have we got Satan all wrong? Could he, in fact, be on our side? Unlike Dante, Milton allows the Devil to speak; his bad-boy antihero uses language in a compelling way to show us that Satan may not be quite as satanic as we have come to believe. Milton allows him to be his own apologist; his eloquence reaches its zenith in his second speech, where he tries to wake the rebel angels from their lethargy, “awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n”.9 In Satan’s attempts to rouse them from indolence, he is painted as the champion of the common man. These are themes that we encounter in the Gospels—Jesus’ command to the paralytic at Capernaum, “arise, and walk” is surely an exact parallel of Satan’s rallying cry.10 Lucifer’s power is seen by the reaction of the formerly despondent angels in the very next line; “they heard and were abashed and up they sprung”. In short, he drives them to action. By Book Five, Satan feels more like a populist politician or propagandist than an evil mastermind, raging against the despotic heaven that rules tyrannical over man.11 When he says to Eve of the tree of knowledge, “Is knowledge so despised?” there is an impression that he is genuinely trying to free her (and mankind) from the tight grip of a paternalistic and capricious God. In this case, for instance, I am not sure that I disagree with his desire to free Eve from the shackles of ignorance, nor that I would do anything differently were I in Satan’s shoes (or indeed, Eve’s).
In Book One, Milton suggests that Satan’s mission is to illuminate how difficult life is under God, saying “No light but rather darkness served only to discover sights of woe”. Initially this phrase feels like a damnation of hell, but on a closer reading Milton suggests that it is darkness, meaning Satan’s presence, which reveals the suffering in the world. The implication is that God’s light blinds us from seeing His tyrannical grip over humankind. Milton’s Devil is, literally, in the details. Satan himself slips from Lucifer the light bearer to the antihero to the general to the politician to the spy to the serpent. Over the course of this ‘moral slide’ he, more and more, attempts to reveal the problems with a world which we have accepted.
The best characters, heroes or villains, are those with whom we can empathise. The reason that the literary Satan is so much more compelling than the literary God is that, in our own flawed and imperfect condition, we can never begin to understand God’s majesty. God as a literary creation is reaching to something outside of us, by definition unknowable. Satan on the other hand is reaching to something inside us. For the reader and the writer, Lucifer is realised in the darkest parts of our souls. That is what makes him so enticing; in the end, the stories we like best are the stories about ourselves. We seek, and find in the Devil evil, yes, but also humanity, ambition, greed, sorrow, anger, lust, individuality. God is ineffable, priggish, superior. Lucifer is very different. Lucifer is one of us.
1 Paradise Lost 1.108
2 Dooming him to grind for all eternity in his three mouths the three greatest traitors of all time.
3 Inf. 34.18 — I am using Michael Palma’s translation of the Inferno.
4 Inf. 34, 32-33. In referencing his physical size, Dante aggrandises his form through alluding to titanic mythological figures like Typhon or Prometheus.
5 Paradise Lost 4.364
6 John 11:35
7 Inf. 34.34
8 The alliteration also exists in the original Italian: “S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto” (Inf. 34.34)
9 Paradise Lost 1.330. This line evokes seventeenth Century hymns, it could potentially even directly reference Thomas Ken’s hymn “Awake, my soul, and with the sun”.
10 Matthew 9:5
11 This suggests a clear link to Milton’s famous polemic against censorship, Areopagitica. The speech is historically one of the most influential defences of free speech heard in the Seventeenth Century.
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