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Satan, Sin and Death: The Hellish Trinity

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In opposition to the Holy Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost), Paradise Lost explores the eerie relationship of Satan, Sin and Death.

Milton’s revisiting of the “hellish trinity” in Book X casts a dark shadow over the recently established sense of hope for mankind. The grim representation of Death, in particular, indicates how grave a mistake Adam and Eve have made. But in contrast to the explicitly “grotesque” depiction of Sin and Death in Book II, Milton here seeks to create a far more disturbing atmosphere through the adulations which Sin heaps upon Satan. Furthermore, Satan’s setting himself up as a ‘heroic’ figure for inducing the Fall of Man, gives the poem a distinctly ominous edge.

The punishments which Adam and Eve receive for their disobedience of God are certainly not trivial. Eve is forced to always submit to her husband and bear the pains of childbirth, while Adam is told he must “eat the herb of the field” and tirelessly work the land. But in a characteristically Christian way, the Son then shows some compassion for the wretched couple. He takes on the role of their “servant” and clothes both their “outward” and “inward nakedness” using animal skins and his metaphorical “robe of righteousness.” Milton draws a clear parallel here with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the Bible; the Son is portrayed as never too proud to serve those below him. Evans notes how this act of kindness is reinforced when Adam and Eve are described as the Son’s “enemies” because they in fact ‘made his suffering necessary.’ A momentary impression of calm therefore prevails with the Son having “appeased/ All” through his “intercession sweet.”

It seems difficult to deny, however, that Milton’s juxtaposition of this scene with a return to “the gates of hell” leaves the reader uneasy. Evans reflects on Sin and Death sitting “In counterview” as representative of the ‘conflict’ imagery which will now dominate the poem. The depiction of a “belching outrageous flame” from hell’s mouth is almost unnecessarily fierce. Yet, in her proceeding speech to Death, Sin’s tone becomes subtly disconcerting rather than overtly ferocious. Her description of Satan as a “great author” heralds him as their parent and creator. This inverts the traditional understanding of God as the one great “Maker”   of the entire universe. Moreover, her use of the phrase “offspring dear” in relation to herself and Death not only highlights how twisted they are as a ‘family’ (Sin is also Death’s mother), but the extent to which their perception of themselves is distorted. Sin is convinced that Satan’s absence can only be due to his ongoing “success” in Eden, thus she feels “strength within her rise” and “Wings growing.” Evans reflects that ‘throughout the poem flight is a symbol of aspiration’, but in a post-lapsarian world Sin’s awareness of her “dominion” is not merely a desire, rather it is a reality. This is accentuated when she refers to the “hellish trinity” as a “connatural force Powerful”; their strength is seemingly innate and deep-rooted. She therefore believes she shares a kind of telepathy with Satan and feels with him. Her bond with Death is of a different nature but similarly “Inseparable.” This contrasts with their tenuous relationship in Book II where Death wants to eat Sin, but she warns him she would “prove a bitter morsel, and his bane .” Nothing in this passage verges on quite the same “grotesque” behaviour.

Nonetheless, the building sense of triumph within Sin’s speech arguably has more serious implications for Adam and Eve. She insists they attempt “Adventurous work” and build a bridge to link hell with Earth. As Eden became a monument to the Original Sin, this bridge will later become “a monument/ Of merit” to their success- the use of the word “merit” here is deliberately perverted. She envisages a constant procession of traffic across this pathway; an image which is undoubtedly chilling. Satan is portrayed as a magnet which is attracting and directing her “instínct”, leaving her with no choice but to submit.

In light of this proposition, the way in which Milton represents Death becomes inevitably gruesome and he is reduced to a barbaric monster. Satan has completed the task of inducing mankind’s fall and Sin will now undertake the building of a bridge between Hell and Earth. But Death is still left wholly unsatisfied and only now does his role within the “hellish trinity” truly start to come into play. His senses are alerted and he draws “scent” from the “carnage” and “prey innumerable,” even though Earth remains relatively unpopulated. He insists he could never “err. The way” because he utterly relishes the opportunity to “taste The savour of death.” Milton emphasises Death’s immense anticipation with the oxymoron “living carcasses”; every creature is perceived as purely meat and bones. They are, in effect, destined to die and this is why Death’s appetite has been so aroused. His hungry excitement is almost an inversion of Eve’s longing to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge. Thus, he and Sin venture into “chaos,” while his wide nostrils are still “upturned” to the “murky air.” Armed with a “mace petrific” he assumes the role of a ruthless warrior striding into battle. But Milton’s earlier illustration of Death as a “meagre shadow” of Sin draws attention to his transparency and haunting presence. He is inextricably linked to Sin both metaphorically and theologically.

Satan’s return to Hell and his subsequent dialogue with Sin does not embody the “grotesque” imagery which has hitherto been largely characteristic of the “hellish trinity.” As with Sin’s opening speech to Death in Book X, there emerges an unsettling notion of rejoice and triumph in Satan’s heroism. Moreover, the parallels which Sin decides to draw between the structures in Heaven and Hell give the impression of foreboding evil. Yet Milton is also keen to highlight Satan’s relief upon his homecoming; for ultimately he was scared of God’s wrath whilst still in the Garden of Eden. The enjambment in “The Son of God to judge them terrified. He fled” makes it ambiguous as to whether Satan was as “terrified” as Adam and Eve. But one assumes that his “guilty” fear led him to make a quick exit. This re-asserts the idea that God will always have the last word in spite of Satan’s successful attacks on Creation.

Through the eyes of Satan, Milton alerts us to the “stupendous bridge” which has now been built between Hell and Earth. As he turns to meet “his fair/ Enchanting daughter” there is a grave sense of irony in that we know Sin to be a severely deformed creature. She praises the “magnific deeds” he has orchestrated and the “trophies” he has won could even refer to Adam and Eve. She gives him all the credit for achieving their “liberty” and empowering them to build the “portentous bridge.” Evans stresses the skill with which Sin delivers her speech, including lots of ‘high-sounding diction’ which seems to disguise its inherently sinister content. The repetition of “thy virtue” and “thy wisdom” suggests there is no end to Satan’s talents. Sin therefore concludes with the resolution that “here thou shalt monarch reign” as a reward for his bravery. Satan has already waged “war. Irreconcilable” on God’s kingdom, but Sin here firmly establishes an official war between kings. The implications of this are perhaps the most unnerving yet.

Satan’s reply to Sin echoes that of God’s when he directed the Son to carry out His errands on Earth. But first he is sure to revel in the glory which Sin has amply bestowed upon him. His egotism grows as he declares himself to be the “Antagonist of heaven’s almighty King” and announces his children as worthy of his “race” because of their efforts to build an eternal bridge. The victorious tone of his speech again seeks to hide the evil they have inflicted, for the term “glorious work” generally refers to God’s Creation. But in his instructions to Sin and Death, Satan quickly re-assumes a cold and ruthless attitude towards mankind. The repetition of ll sounds in “Him first make sure your thrall, and lastly kill” has a sharp quality which underscores his utter contempt for God’s Creation. He echoes Sin’s sentiments of “Such fatal consequence unites us three” when he says that his reign over Hell “depends” upon their “joint vigour” on Earth. By stark contrast, any descriptions of unity in Book IX tended to relate to Adam and Eve in their matrimonial bliss. Ironically, Satan’s temporary breaking of their human bond has only served to make his relationships stronger.

Thus, while Milton certainly depicts Death as dangerously “grotesque” in his behaviour, the re-emergence of the “hellish trinity” in Paradise Lost Book X appears to have more fundamentally perturbing connotations. Resolutely backed by his children, Sin and Death, Satan is intent on fighting God indefinitely and perceives himself as a fine match for the “Almighty.” But God’s speech to his “Assembled angels”  reminds us how Satan’s scheming was foretold from the very beginning and that God hopes through “reiterated crimes he might/ Heap on himself damnation .” In theological terms, therefore, one cannot argue that the promise of redemption has been undermined because God knows justice will prevail. Milton’s poetry, however, does leave us questioning the extent to which God will be able to control such a powerfully “hellish trinity.”

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Satan, Sin and Death: The Hellish Trinity. (2018, April 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from
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