College history instructor Ronna Pennington has a Master of Liberal Arts in History and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction.
Adam = epic AND tragic
In Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, Adam is a unique blend of both epic and tragic hero, although he is more tragic hero than epic. Like an epic hero, Adam receives supernatural help in Paradise Lost. In The Aeneid, the gods constantly interfere with Aeneas’ life. His meddling mother Venus stays at odds with Juno over Aeneas’ prophecy that his descendants will found the city of Rome. When Aeneas discovers his ships have been burned by women at the encouragement of Juno, he appeals to Jupiter for intervention. Jupiter supplies rain that extinguishes the fire. Similarly, the Son of God intervenes on Adam’s behalf in Paradise Lost. The Son’s choice to save Adam likewise offers salvation to mankind (10.208). In addition to saving Adam and Eve, He even offers clothing to them (10.217).
Atonement is another aspect of an epic hero. When Adam and Eve finally come together to stop blaming each other and begin to pray for forgiveness, they offer atonement for their sins (10.1087-1104). Aeneas offers atonement when he harkens to the reminders of his prophesy delivered by Mercury. By leaving Dido to complete his prophecy, he repents.
Difference between epic and tragic heroes
The differences between Adam and heroes of the epic nature are more than the similarities. An epic hero is born of nobility. A tragic hero is one who has some high, possibly noble, stature from which to fall. In the case of The Odyssey, Odysseus is a king. In The Aeneid, Aeneas is half-god. Milton presents a different situation with Adam in Paradise Lost. God creates Adam, so his birth is not noble at all. Rather than being nobility himself, Adam is simply affiliated with nobility. He has noble stature as the world’s first man created in God’s image, but has no royal ranking of his own. The only royalty in Paradise Lost is God and his Son (5.603-607).
An epic hero leaves his land and sets out on a journey. The most obvious journey in Paradise Lost is the one made by Satan from Hell into Paradise (271.“Argument”). Satan cannot be the hero of the story, however, because it does not make sense that a Protestant like Milton would grant such an accomplishment to God’s evil challenger. Adam does not make a journey at all. Even when he and Eve are removed from Paradise, angels deliver them safely to their new homeland (11.98-108).
In an epic, a hero typically loses his mentor. In the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante loses Virgil and must continue his journey without the comfort of his respected mentor. He has Beatrice as a guide, but Dante best identifies with Virgil since the two are fellow poets. Adam never really loses God. He worries that he will, but Michael assures him that God is everywhere all the time, even in the new land that is so far from Paradise (11.335).
The most telling difference between an epic and tragic hero is his outcome. An epic hero is revered and receives god-like treatment. For example, Aeneas is respected and becomes a leader of nations. Odysseus likewise becomes a respected ruler. Adam, however, is humbled by his experience. He is simply a sinner with a second chance. If Milton’s story had honored Adam and brought him to the same degree as an epic hero, Milton would have been guilty of the same sin as Adam – worshipping someone other than God. Adam’s sin – idolizing Eve’s beauty over God’s covenant – is his tragic flaw.
The tragic hero also possesses free choice. Adam, despite living in Paradise, has free choice. God reminds the angels that Adam and Eve may make their own choices despite his omniscience (10.45). Ultimately, Adam’s free will and his respect for Eve’s free will leads to his downfall (10.145).
Tragic heroes are also severely punished. God boots Adam and Eve out of Paradise, leaving them to work for the food that had previously been so readily available to them. The bigger punishment, however, is death. Luckily, the Son steps in and offers salvation to Adam and Eve, and thus mankind. Adam ends the story with an increased awareness of his flaw and has learned a valuable lesson, another quality of a tragic hero. He accepts God’s punishment and remains thankful for the promise of salvation (12.560). In terms of the tragic hero, this catharsis completes the tragedy’s cycle, leaving the reader also with the promise that the Son of God shared with Adam and Eve.
Read for yourself
Based on the reading of:
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. New York: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
Ronna Pennington (author) from Arkansas on June 22, 2019:
Thanks for your comment, Tim!
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on June 17, 2019:
This was an enlightening piece. Thank you for explaining in great detail the differences between a tragic hero and an epic hero. I truly enjoyed it.