Wednesday, 13 October 2010

"Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven"

Satan (from the Hebrew הַשָׂטָן meaning ‘the Adversary’) is for all of us, whether faithful or not, the supreme embodiment of evil. Many names we know Him by; Lucifer, the Enemy, the Antichrist, Samael, the Fallen One and the Devil are a few of the more well known. Yet by whatever name we call him, to all He is evil incarnate. Unsurprisingly, our shared culture is awash with imagery and legend about the First Traitor. The greatest epic written in the English language, Paradise Lost, takes as its focus the tale of Satan, and the temptation of Adam and Eve which cursed humanity forever (known as the Fall of Man). Almost four hundred years old, John Milton’s great work easily eclipses Shakespeare as the first among English authors in my eyes. Now we look to the opening of the story, a story which takes as its purpose ‘to justify the ways of God to men’, and turn to an infamous speech epitomised by the oft quoted line ‘Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven’.

Satan is thrown down from Heaven
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell... ”

Once the brightest, most beautiful and greatest of all the Archangels of Heaven, Lucifer (from the Latin lux meaning ‘light’ and fero meaning ‘bringer’, giving one of Lucifer’s other names – the Morning Star) as he was then known possessed but one weakness. Gravest of all the sins was Pride, and Lucifer had dared to lead an open war against God himself for control of Heaven. Fully one third of the angelic host sided with the Morning Star, and the War in Heaven was begun. The loyalist angels, lead by the Archangel Michael, had the power and blessing of God and triumphed over the Fallen Ones. The Archangel Michael himself cast Satan (as Lucifer became known after his betrayal) from Heaven, as God condemned the Morning Star and his followers to Hell. Why, you wonder, did Lucifer rebel against God? This I will explain in a future post, as Milton too opens his work in media res (in the middle of action) and leaves us in wonder. You will be most surprised at how curiously compelling Satan’s motivation was...

Satan awoke in the Lake of Fire, and was overcome with lamentation for his loss of Heaven, his own Paradise Lost. Surrounded with the Darkness of the Pit and the sulphurous Inferno, what many do not realise is that Hell was as much a torment for Satan as it was for sinners. Satan turned and saw Beelzebub, his second in command, stir. He too is grieved at their lot, banished from the plains of Heaven where they as angels belong. Beelzebub rages against God, ‘Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy, sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heav’n’. Then Satan consoles him, and soothes his lieutenant:

The Melancholy of Satan
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ Fall’n Cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or suffering: but of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end... ”

Satan pledges that now they must seek to ease their suffering, and ‘overcome this dire calamity, what reinforcement we may gain from hope, if not what resolution from despair’. Invigored, Beelzebub rises from the Lake of Fire. Other Fallen Angels awake, and begin to rise at the words of their accursed prince:

                                “ Is this the region, the soil, the clime,
                                  Said then the lost Archangel, this the seat
                                  That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
                                   For that celestial light?... Farewell happy fields
                                  Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors,
                                   Hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell... ”
                                                              - SATAN MOURNS THE LOSS OF HEAVEN

Transfixed by the Morning Star’s words, the tragedy of Satan is unveiled at the most famous of his exhortations:

                                “ The mind is its own place, and in itself

                                   Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

                                   What matter where, if I be still the same,

                                   And what should I be, all but less than he

                                   Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

                                   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 Heav’n. ”

                                                            - SATAN CONSOLES HIS FOLLOWERS

For the Classicists among you, perhaps you may notice an echo of Achilles’ lamentation here, when Odysseus spies his ghost in the Underworld? Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a servant in a poor man’s house on Earth than a king of kings down in Hades. Now Satan calls to his Fallen legions and, in droves, his faithful angels emerge from the Pit. Many names we hear, and some described:

                                “ First Moloch, horrid king besmeared with blood

                                  Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears,

                                  Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud

                                  Their children’s cries unheard,

                                  that passed through fire to his grim idol. ”

                                                           - THE FALLEN ANGELS RALLY TO THEIR LEADER

Azazel unfurls Satan’s banner, thousands more rise into the air, and ‘with them rose a forest huge of spears: and thronging helms appeared, and serried shields in thick array of depth immeasurable’. Standing above them all was their dread Commander, brightness still clinging to the Morning Star. Yet in the Fallen One’s face:

Satan calls forth His defeated Legions
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care

Sat on his faded cheek, but under the brows

Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride

Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast

Signs of remorse and passion to behold

The fellows of his crime... ”


Satan fires the passion of his legions, praising their valour, and willing them on to rise again, ‘For this infernal pit shall never hold celestial spirits in bondage’. The Legions scream their approval at His words, drawing:

                             “ Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
                               Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
                               Far round illuminated Hell: highly they raged
                              Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
                              Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
                              Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n. ”
                                                 - THE FALLEN ANGELS SCREAM IN DEFIANCE UNTO GOD
But how did this come to pass? What was it that caused God’s greatest creation to Fall? How did He rally so many to his cause? This is only the beginning of Paradise Lost. In future posts, we shall return to this great work, and discover how the pride of one being caused so much pain and anguish, not among the angelic host alone, but also in man.

Paradise Lost is widely regarded as 'England's epic', written in English by an English poet. It is indeed questionable why England's national writer is Shakespeare next to Paradise Lost, which is a rival for Dante's Divine Comedy (which I will certainly be looking at in future posts). It is available in many texts, all available easily and at a fantastic deal at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)


  1. I really love those Doré engravings! Do you know the ones he made for Dante's Divina Commedia?

  2. They are magnificent are they not? I always found them to complement the poetry perfectly, in Dante too! I have a nice collection of Dore's engravings in my books and they are always a joy to look at. I'll certainly be using them a lot!