The devil, in literature, is always a catalyst of change for those who encounter him. He is a force working underground, moving against what is widely considered virtuous and good, and it is contact with him that often changes the course of characters lives, and even the world. In Paradise Lost and a book based on it, The Golden Compass, the devil’, in both cases, is an advocate for moving away from the control of God and the Church. Where the stories differ, is in the author’s intent for these actions.
In the former, John Milton uses the devil to display how vanity and pride are the sins that halt us in an opportunity to live blissfully, with and under God. Philip Pullman, in his twist on Paradise Lost, The Golden Compass, claims that the original sin was the first, and most essential, step in human beings claiming their free will. He writes the devil (Lord Asriel) as a manipulative, selfish but ultimately admirable character. One who stands his ground and holds onto his beliefs with an intense passion.
Milton’s Satan, on the other hand, comes off originally as charming, but slowly presents himself to be weak and unsure, and his ideals are eventually presented as a mask for his insatiable pride. When Milton’s Satan tricks Adam and Eve into leaving paradise, they are ultimately worse off. Pullman, on the other hand, shows that human beings are essentially crippled without their right and ability to sin and make choices. It is through their differing portrayals of Satan, that Milton and Pullman present their respective cases on how the original sin caused man to lose paradise and eternal bliss, or find free will.
When Paradise Lost begins, the vainglorious actions of Satan have resulted in his removal from heaven and placed him on the path to exact revenge against those who have done so. Though, the reader is hardly able to experience any distaste when reading about this man who opposes the consented force of good. He is are charming, dark, fanatical and desperate in his attempts. It is from these characteristics, that the reader may be swayed into viewing him as the protagonist (or even the hero) of the tale.
Even C. S. Lewis, famous for his critical detraction of Milton’s Satan acknowledges how, “Milton’s presentation of him (Satan) is a magnificent poetical achievement which engages the attention and excites the admiration of the reader” (Lewis, 94). Almost as if he wishes to show the reader how easy it is to falter to the temptations of evil, Milton infuses as much passion into Satan as he can. “His splendor simply overrides our consciousness of his evil” (Werblowski, 12). The reader cannot help but be swept up by his fervor.
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice, To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. ” (Milton, BK I, 259-263). Lord Asriel also exudes a charisma and a determination that everyone who crosses his path cannot help but be moved by. Literary critic Werblowsky claims Milton’s Satan “is surrounded by an aura of majesty and power” (70, Werblowsky), which is the interpretation which Pullman seems to directly draw from for his character.
When his daughter, Lyra, observes him, she thinks, “Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity” (Pullman, 12). The powerful difference in the two characters, lies in the fact that Lord Asriel’s passions appear to be rooted to his core, and to be genuine, and Satan’s may be there only to mask his doubt and are the result of enormous pride.
As a result of the latter, many critics often view Satan as an almost comical character. His unparalleled vanity and boasting, and (as some believe) posturing as God, makes it hard for some to not see the humor in his character. “Satan is certainly given to perversity of his own, particularly in displays of almost laughable vanity, but when he is at his absolute worst… he is also attempting to emulate the Father” (Bryson, 97). He battles “exalted as a God, Th Apostate in his sun-bright chariot sat, Idol of majesty divine” (Milton, BK VI, 99-101).
Lewis also claims that Milton wrote Satan to be intentionally skimming the edge of farce as “we know from his prose works that he believed everything detestable to be, in the long run, also ridiculous” ( CS Lewis XIII 95). As Milton was a devoutly religious man, it is possible to see how Satan’s attempts to overthrow God would be so offensive, they would become absurd. Pullman, on the other hand, writes Lord Asriel with not the slightest trace of humor within his character. He is a dark, deceptive man, whose arrogance concerning himself and his beliefs have resulted in a man who knows no boundaries.
Even his own daughter, is frightened and chilled by his infinite drive. “Her father was lying back in his chair, lazy and powerful, his eyes as fierce as his daemon’s. She didn’t love him, she couldn’t trust him, but she had to admire him, and the extravagant luxury he’d assembled in his desolate wasteland, and the power of his ambition” (Pullman, 330). Lord Asriel, while not technically “the Devil” by any means, becomes a more chilling character, as his passion is unwavering and he holds his views with the utmost importance.
It is through the exploitation of innocence and ignorance that Satan and Lord Asriel achieve their goals. They are both rebelling against an overpowering force and are juxtaposed by young, savage-like females, who they manipulate to help them in their revolt. Satan, “is clearly attempting to provoke Eve to precisely the same “sense of injur’d merit” that led to his own desire… ” (107, Cullen) by flattering her and questioning why someone who is so beautiful, must live among animals.
C. S. Lewis notes that through all Satan’s lies and manipulation, he does “not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he has almost willingly imposed upon himself” (Lewis, 97). The same question can be posed for Lord Asriel. He uses the fact that Lyra admires him so deeply, to subtly convince her to go out North (to where he is being helped captive), free him and provide him with what he needs to create a bridge to another universe (his ultimate goal, that the church has been attempting to stop him from doing).
His daughter, upon realizing what he has done, thinks, “She had struggled all this way to bring something to Lord Asriel, thinking she knew what he wanted; and it wasn’t the alethimeter at all. What he wanted was a child. She had brought him Roger. ” (Pullman, 334). It is quite evident that Lord Asriel “believes his own propaganda” (Lewis, XIII 97) as he has become fanatical in terms of his beliefs and curiosity. Satan’s struggle for freedom and independence are far from alien concepts to any person. “Milton’s devil stands for the essences of human individuation and thus comes within the scope of psychology” (Werblowski, XI).
These are part of the reasons why the reader feels such a draw towards this character, there is an unquestionable desire in all of us to live our lives and simply ignore the regulations and intrusion of society. “To admire Satan, then is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us…. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented” (CS Lewis, XIII 102-103).
Satan also attempts to convince Eve that his self-service (that is, of allowing one’s self to know the difference between good and evil, and make personal distinctions between what they are) is what God truly wants for her. While it may seem hard to dispute that one should have the right to make their own decisions and judge what is right and wrong, an individual cannot follow their own instinct or desire and follow God. Yet, his words are enough to convince Eve and cause her, and humanity, to fall from grace.
It is Milton’s overriding point that there is no happiness or satisfaction greater than existing in God’s light or following his path. Milton describes, when Eve eats the fruit and defies God, “Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat, Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe that all was lost” (Milton, Book IX 782-784). After giving in to the temptations that Satan has presented them with, Adam and Eve are subject to the burdens of lust and shame, and immediately argue (after Adam, as well eats the fruit) with one another over who is at fault for the situation.
Though Adam and Eve are now removed from God’s overriding control and the destiny he chooses of them, Milton exemplifies how lost they are without him. Pullman views this inevitable fall from grace in a drastically different light. In his story, the Church is conducting experiments where they are attempting to eradicate the “original sin” by cutting off a creature that every child has, known as a daemon, that they believe causes sin in humans, once they reach puberty and mature. Yet, Pullman presents the Church as broaching greatly on fundamental freedoms and removing essential elements of human beings.
Lord Daemon describes a man without a daemon as, “It has no will of its own; it will work day and night without ever running away. It looks like a corpse… ” (Pullman, 329). Pullman views the attempt to delete original sin as something that would delete all of humanity’s freedom. Literary critic, Bryson, believes “Satan is a hero who chooses to fight the right battle in the wrong way” (83, Michael Bryson) and Lord Asriel very much follows him in this regard. He refuses to bow down to the suffocation of the church, but is willing to damage others to obtain the freedom he desires.
Milton never fully allows the reader to truly love or admire Satan. While we are tempted to upon our introduction of him, we eventually come to see his desperate jealousy for those who live on earth and in heaven, and how he may even regret his actions. There is no burning passion for his cause, only stubborn pride that prevents him from asking God for forgiveness. Just before he tempts Eve in the garden, he observes what is around him and wonders what could have been. “Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in Man.
With what delight could I have walked thee round, If I could joy in aught-sweet interchange Of hill and valley, rivers, woods, and plains, Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned, Rocks, dens, and caves! But I in none of these Find place or refuge; and the more I see Pleasures about me, so much more I feel Torment within me” (Milton, Book IX 113-121) It is here, we begin to view Satan as Milton intended, for he is not one who was so abused or mistreated in heaven or in God’s light, he is happier anywhere else.
Instead, his jealousy and ego created a sense of deservedness within, that went unfulfilled. “He thought himself impaired because the Messiah had been pronounced Head of the Angels” (Lewis, 96). Yet, the reality of the situation that Milton wants to impose is that “no one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated- he only thought of himself impaired” (Lewis, 96). Milton wants the sense of shame Satan feels to reverberate so strongly, it is felt by the reader, because at one point, they may have sympathized with his plight.
Perhaps the most important difference between Lord Asriel and Satan is the fact that the above quality is not shared by Lord Asriel at all. While Asriel is an arrogant and self-interested man, it is very possible to seem him as the hero in The Golden Compass. Pullman writes the church as an institution so oppressive, they essentially wish to create soulless, thoughtless creatures out of their children, to avoid sin. Pullman views the original sin as not a folly of humankind, but as an essential moment that exemplifies our true nature.
Lord Asriel represents this, a man who is cunning and self absorbed, who is selfish in his tendencies, but also willing to fight passionately for freedom and independence. Pullman’s Lord Asriel never feels guilt or remorse for his actions, as he fully believes his actions are not wrong. In The Golden Compass, the church is an institution that oppresses it’s citizens, and Lord Asriel has no qualms in fighting against it. It is the truth behind Lord Asriel’s passion, that allows the reader to accept him as a sort of hero, while it is Satan’s doubt and weakness that allows us to eventually cast him aside.
The resolve of Lord Asriel reflects Pullman’s insistence on how detrimental our own individual thoughts and determinations are. Though our actions may be negative and even harmful, he believes we are essentially soulless without them. Milton, however, see’s that man has no greater obligation than to serve God, and this is the only way which we can find true peace within. Both authors use Satan as their strongest tool, to reflect where they believe we should put God and the Church in man’s life.