Better to Rule in Hell: A Comparison of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Old English Genesis

Why does Satan choose to rebel against God?  While Satan is not mentioned in the Book of Genesis, he is featured prominently in its Old English counterpart.  The story of Satan’s rebellion and fall provided by Old Testament Narratives (OTL) is remarkably similar to that which appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Satan conspires to reign over Heaven, he and his angelic host are overthrown, their luminous forms are twisted into devils, and the devils are cast down into Hell.  After making a grand speech to his followers, Satan then hatches a scheme of revenge to thwart God by corrupting man, who God creates as a replacement for the fallen angels. 

Although the two narratives share these same broad strokes, there are some distinctions in the finer details.  According to Genesis A, Satan’s original sin was his desire to “partition” Heaven, setting aside for himself and his followers “a home and a throne in the northern part of the kingdom of heaven” (5).  God ironically fulfills this secessionist wish by “form[ing] a home in banishment for that traitor [in] the howls of hell” (5).  Thus Satan, who arrogantly hoped to reign over a swathe of Heaven, instead becomes the king of Hell.  This version of events differs somewhat from Milton’s, in which Satan aspires to supplant God as sole ruler over all of Heaven, not just its northern reaches.  Interestingly, though, Milton’s Satan is also said to “possess / The Quarters of the North” of Heaven (5.686), though this may be a coincidence. 

In Milton’s version of events, Satan first strays from God out of jealousy of Christ the Son, who replaces him as God’s right hand and favored child (5.659-69); this adds a shade of sibling rivalry to Satan’s grievances.  What irks Satan most, however, is not that he is less favored in God’s eyes than the Son but that he ranks lower in the celestial hierarchy.  Satan complains more than once about the Son’s “newness,” resenting him for having skipped to the front of the line: “The great MESSIAH, and his new commands…speedily through all the Hierarchies / Intends to pass triumphant” (5.688-90).  Both Satans despise servitude; while Milton’s Satan may have tolerated being God’s inferior, he cannot countenance being third in line.  As Satan famously declares in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (1.263). 

In both narratives, Satan’s ambition to rule proves his undoing: “He could not find it in his mind that he would serve God, the prince, in obedience…He planned how he would create a stronger throne for himself” (OTN 21-23).  Unlike in Paradise Lost, where Satan wages a full-scale rebellion against God, Satan in the Old English Genesis never seems to get beyond mere planning.  God, the supreme witness, hears of his “great boast” (5), punishing him and his followers for their treasonous intent.  This is why Satan complains that God “could not accuse us of any sin, that we carried out any harm in [heaven]” (31), since, at the time of his banishment, he had not yet put word into action. 

Satan also claims that God can read his mind, and that God had him bound in chains in order to prevent him from meddling with Adam (31).  Satan solves this problem by sending an intermediary to act in his stead (33), apparently overlooking the fact that if God can read his mind, he will no doubt have foreseen this course of action.  In Paradise Lost, the devils also contemplate the prospect of God’s omniscience and the problem that it poses for their schemes of revenge.  Belial, in his speech to the infernal parliament, advises giving up the struggle against God, since, “who [can] deceive his mind, whose eye / Views all things at one view? he from heaven’s highth / All these our motions vain, sees and derides” (2.189-91).  The other devils, though, ignore his correct reasoning, just as Satan in the OTN fails to appreciate the implications of God’s mind-reading abilities.  After all, how can anyone aspire to defeat a foe who is omniscient and omnipotent? 

In both versions, Satan ultimately does resolve not to combat God directly but rather to injure him by damning humanity.  One interesting point of similarity between the two is God’s motivation for creating man.  In the OTN, God creates humanity to fill the vacant thrones of heaven, “settl[ing] with a better troop the great creations and the native-seats after that, the bright radiant thrones, those which the boastful destroyers had given up, high in the heavens” (9).  Likewise, in Paradise Lost, God announces to his loyal angels that he will create mankind in order to deny Satan the satisfaction of having depopulated heaven: “But lest his heart exalt him in [having] dispeopled Heav’n…I can repair / That detriment…and in a moment will create…out of one man a race / Of men innumerable” (7.150-56).  Thus, by Milton’s account, mankind was created literally to spite the devil.    

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