Hi, everyone. Let’s pretend, just for one second, that I never got eaten by life and this installment isn’t horrendously late. For those of you who just came around, you can read the first article in this series here.
So now that we’ve covered the Devil as a personification of evil, let’s look at his identity as a character in a narrative, particularly his role as the single and oldest antagonist in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Figures in a narrative are known as actors, who are defined as agents that perform actions within the narrative: it is through their distinct traits that they transform into characters (Bal 5, 9). All characters can be divided into protagonists and antagonists, and all characters possess particular motivations ad traits that define their personalities. In this light, the Devil has been consistently portrayed as an antagonist in Judeo-Christian narratives, but in spite of his individual traits he is remembered less as a strong or convincing character and more as a figure whose sole purpose is to serve as a foil to God.
In this sense, we can say that the Devil has been almost permanently typecast into his role as antagonist, ignoring any potential for character growth. This is a natural result of Judeo-Christian philosophy placing more prevalence on the supremacy of God. This archetypal role of the Devil has made it difficult to make the distinction between the Devil as symbol and the Devil as character. One text, however, seems to have made this attempt: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A Look at Paradise Lost and the Miltonic Devil
Although there are more than a few notable Devils in Western literature, John Milton’s Satan is probably the most powerful one in the lot. Milton was the first to create a Devil that was a “rounded, credible, at times sympathetic and always seductive figure” (Stanford 194). He took what other authors always did – use the Devil as a metaphor for evil – and then raised the bar by going into the self-defeating nature of evil.
Paradise Lost is an epic poem, and the narrative voice in all epic poems always attempts to regulate the reactions of his readers and pass judgment upon the characters that he is describing. In Milton’s case, he attempted to play Satan up in the eyes of his readers while simultaneously undermining him, dispelling the initial impression of heroism through the descriptions of both is physical attributes and his habits. (Stanford 195-198). In spite of this, though, it’s impossible to ignore the centrality of Satan in his poem. He is, first and foremost, the Adversary, the antagonist of God Himself. Furthermore, what makes the Miltonic Devil remarkable is the fact that Milton’s variant of the creation and combat myth is that it illustrates how Satan was necessary for mankind’s Redemption as much as he was responsible for mankind’s Fall.
So why is this cool again? Simple: Satan in Paradise Lost appears to have been pitted against an opponent who simply cannot be defeated, but he chooses to try anyway. He has defined himself in rebellion, as the Adversary, the one who opposes omnipotence: to give up the fight, even if he wanted to, would be to defy the new identity that he forged for himself (Forsyth 157).
Characters in the classic construction of a narrative are subordinate to the plot, and function in a particular way that allows the plot to remain in motion (Forsyth 26). Furthermore, ideas like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are subordinate to the protagonist-antagonist dynamic: ascribing a moral slant to the actions of the characters should ideally come afterward. In conclusion, Milton’s Satan was declared the Adversary by the camp of God, and upon realizing this, merely acted accordingly. “Even in Paradise Lost,” he says, “Satan is initially the Enemy, he who opposes and rebels against the divine decree: he chooses evil just to be different” (26).
While Milton may have succeeded in identifying the Devil as his own character instead of an archetype of evil, he was unable to completely differentiate the figure of the Devil from its purpose. This is probably because the author himself remained too close to his own beliefs as a Protestant, and simply couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the creative potential of the Devil as a character that people could come to love. His faith, after all, obligated him to see Satan as the enemy, and likely made him incapable of seeing the Devil as someone who could stand on his own, without his “lighter” reflection in God and the Son of God.
Re-Awakening the Devil: Mike Carey’s Lucifer
“Fate’s a slippery sort of concept, though, isn’t it? I mean, most of the time it’s just an excuse for doing what you want to do anyway.”
-Lucifer Morningstar, Lucifer Volume 2: Children & Monsters
Contemporary literature, from the looks of it, has “killed” the figure of the Devil in three ways: through satirical portrayals of the Devil meant to demean Christian beliefs or the figure of the Devil itself, by failing to move beyond the traditional associations of the Judeo-Christian Satan, or by simply absenting the Devil as we understand him from the narrative completely. The only notable exception to this trend is Mike Carey, who appears to have resurrected the Devil in literature and moved beyond portraying the Devil figure in his traditional role as a personification for evil and an antagonist to God.
Lucifer is a 75-issue comic series centered on Lucifer Morningstar, a character based off the Judeo-Christian Devil. Lucifer actually made his first appearance in Sandman, a comic series by Neil Gaiman, as the traditional ruler of Hell. During the course of Sandman, Lucifer decides to abandon both Hell and his position as ruler of Hell: near the beginning of Sandman: A Season of Mists, he has Morpheus, the main character of Sandman, cut off his wings — the source of his power — in order to leave Hell and walk where he pleases as a mortal man. It is at this point that Lucifer, Mike Carey’s series, picks up. The first arc, Devil in the Gateway, opens with Lucifer Morningstar performing in Lux, a piano bar he has set up somewhere in the United States of America. He is visited by the angel Amenadiel, who informs him that God has given his fallen son a mission that he cannot refuse. The rest of the comic covers Lucifer’s continuing conflict with the Creator as he forges a new Creation in which he would be able to rule supreme. It ends with his decision to leave the Creation of his “Father”, as a departure from that universe appears to be the only real way in which he could be free.
Lucifer plays host to characters and concepts from world literature, folklore, mythology and several other religious systems of belief outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition – readers, in fact, who are familiar with both texts will be able to draw a lot of comparisons between the narrative of Milton’s Paradise Lost and a good chunk of the story in Lucifer. Outside of that, though, what truly makes Carey’s Lucifer impressive is the fact that he’s the main character of his own narrative, with traits and motivations that make him a convincing literary figure. In Lucifer, the figure of the Devil finally takes center stage: he becomes the protagonist, the primary motivator of the plot. His actions may make him an anti-hero by narratological standards, but Carey’s decision to portray Lucifer this way has finally cemented the Devil’s identity as a character, successfully differentiating the Devil from his role as an archetype and his portrayal as a second fiddle to the figure of God.
In the third and last installment of this series, we’ll discuss some of the finer points of Mike Carey’s Lucifer together with how the fact that Lucifer is a comic book actually helps present the Devil as an impressive literary figure.