Pleased to meet youSteve Bannon
hope you guessed my name.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
‘Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan.
Se ealda feond (‘the old enemy’)—Old Nick to his friends, Satan to the rest of us—has a very long history, both as a fallen angel and as a literary construct who’s been imagined and re-imagined countless times in different cultural and historical circumstances. As both a reader and a teacher of Old English literature, I have encountered him repeatedly across his many stagey entrances and exits in Anglo-Saxon prose and verse. For early medieval Christians, the Devil ticked a number of boxes. As God’s determined but ultimately futile adversary, he lent popular understandings of deity a certain chiaroscuro, providing a black drop-scene against which the theatre of divine love and wisdom could blaze the more brilliantly. He was a fall guy, in every sense of the word: Wile E. Coyote to Christ’s Road Runner. As Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies, he later lent his cachet to the comic-book diabolism of black magicians and heavy metal bands. For early medieval religious authorities, he partly answered the knotty question of how evil could have entered a perfect cosmos summoned into being by a perfect creator, if only by kicking that impossible can a bit further down the road.
One Old English poem stands out among all the rest for its subtle psychological analysis of evil’s origins. Known to scholars as Genesis B, it can be found in a manuscript identified as Junius 11, originally preserved among a number of other texts by Francis Junius, a seventeenth-century antiquarian, linguist and friend of the poet John Milton (hold onto that fact; it will prove important later). It’s part of a longer verse paraphrase of the Book of Genesis (the rest of which is called Genesis A by editors1), and includes extra-biblical accounts of the fall and rebellion of certain angels prior to the creation of the material universe. Both Jewish and Christian traditions invoke versions of this story to give the tempting serpent of the biblical narrative an ID and a motive for his otherwise unexplained role.
Genesis B uses the considerable resources of a heroic tradition that produced poems such as Beowulf to reboot what is essentially a beast-fable about how the snake lost its legs and why women endure the pains of childbirth and men the grind of labouring for their daily bread. Oh, and that little matter of universal mortality, just to top things off. The Anglo-Saxon poet transforms this compact folk-tale into a mead-hall melodrama comprising tangled loyalties, deception and treachery on a far grander scale. He renders the Genesis story strange and strangely compelling by lending it the Germanic sensibilities of something like the Old Norse Saga of Burnt Njal. Definitely weird, but it works. A curious historical note in all this is the connection between Junius and John Milton, who could read Old English and consulted manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Junius’s collection for his unfinished History of Britain, which he began in 1649 and eventually published in 1670. No one has been able to establish whether Milton may have perused Junius 11, but many readers have noted the eerie resemblance between the Satan of Genesis B and Milton’s own megalomaniac bad boy in his Paradise Lost. Coincidence? Maybe.
As it happens, I’ve recently been translating Genesis B with a student for the first time in a good few years. This time round, though, after four years of the Trump presidency and all its attendant hoo-hah, I’ve been especially struck by how the Anglo-Saxon Satan seems to have anticipated the rhetorical posturings of more rancid elements in contemporary hard-right activism. It’s a resemblance that Milton’s own portrait of Satan appears to double down on. That may seem something of a stretch at first blush, but bear with me: this should be fun …
Satan’s first appearance in Genesis B establishes him as a vain, grudge-driven troublemaker. The poet tells us how, smitten by his own luminous beauty, he sees ‘no reason why he ought to toil’ in God’s service. His first speech, whether addressed to fellow rebels or delivered as a kind of soliloquy, pretty much gives the game away:
‘Why should I labour, then?’ he asked. ‘What need(Genesis B ll. 278–283)2
have I to recognise a lord at all?
These hands can shape as many miracles.
I have the power to establish a goodlier throne,
more lofty in heaven. Why must I bow and scrape
to him in such ignoble servitude?
I can be God like him!’
The notion that he might owe allegiance to a hearran (a ‘higher’, or ‘lord’) strikes him as a gross insult, an affront to his self-evident excellence. While modern egalitarian sensibilities might sympathise, what the Anglo-Saxon poet dramatises here is an insanely self-involved denial of reality. For all of his existence, this bright angel has stood closest to God’s all-powerful presence, and would have seen better than any other angel the radical difference between his created being and God’s un-contingent essence. Did he not notice? He’s lost the plot: his claim to be God’s equal is literal nonsense, but it’s nonsense he prefers, piling up comparative constructions (‘as many’, ‘goodlier’, ‘more lofty’) that aspire, even more irrationally, to superiority but point only the other way, towards his own pumped-up smallness. In Paradise Lost we hear Milton’s Satan speak only after he and his cohort have been thrust from Heaven, but even as they bob in the lake of blazing brimstone where they’ve all landed after their long fall, his denial of creaturely contingency resists an even more insistent contrary reality:
‘That glory never shall his wrath or might(Paradise Lost I. 110–114)3
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
Doubted his empire—that were low indeed’.
His whole speech fairly drips with aristocratic disdain for what he characterises here as the fawning of the lesser upon the greater. The Puritan faction’s cavalier adversaries in the English Civil War were defenders of inherited privilege who showed a similar sniffiness towards the Roundhead rebels. As Donald Trump later put it with less sectarian panache: ‘I don’t like losers’. Both of these Satans, along with their lesser echo Trump, equate raw power with worth, tout court. Addressing his lieutenant Beelzebub later, Milton’s Satan will observe that ‘To be weak is to be miserable, / Doing or suffering’. In this passage he indulges in some very selective memory: his sneers at the thought of bowing and scraping for God’s favour (‘that were low indeed’) rest on his insistence that in their recent rebellion gave God a considerable run for his money, and even delivered a shock at which he ‘doubted his empire’. Nice try! We learn later in the poem that they did no such thing, and Milton would probably recognise a comparable derangement in the howls of denial and baseless charges of vote-theft and other chicaneries bellowed by the Republican Right in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections.
‘Beside me stand(Genesis B ll. 284–291)
some strong companions, who will not desert me at need,
heroes hard of heart. They’ve chosen me
to lead this fearsome band; with such a troop
I can plot and take what I desire.
They are my faithful friends, true of heart.
I can become their lord and rule this realm.
It seems to me a scandal that I should fawn
on God for his paltry blessings. Never more
shall I remain his servant’.
Here, in a nutshell, we can see an anticipation of the relationship between some far-right politicians and the gun-toting Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who have scowled and prowled around the fringes of Stop the Steal rallies and other related shindigs, among them, as Trump once observed, ‘some very fine people’—weirdly echoing the angelic ‘Proud Boys’ commended by the Father of Lies in this ninth-century poem. Its author, at least, could wield irony at its blackest: the troops in whom his wayward angel places such trust, his ‘faithful friends and true of heart’, are all proven traitors. In the conventions of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, such treason taints the traitor’s identity indelibly. No sane lord would take into his retinue thanes who’d proved faithless in another lord’s house. Yet Satan here imagines them as his heavies, à la Al Capone—the muscle that will propel him higher than his rightful place in God’s creation. Milton’s Satan pursues a comparable tack, addressing his minions-to-be with a deft mixture of outright flattery and false expectation:
‘O myriads of immortal spirits, O powers(Paradise Lost I. 622–624)
Matchless, but with the Almighty—and that strife
was not inglorious, though the event was dire’.
Not quite ‘Well, actually, I won’ (they are in Hell, after all!), but flecked with the resistless urge to spin the fact of their calamity more agreeably, with phrases such as ‘matchless’ powers (though utterly overmatched) and a ‘not inglorious’ strife (‘Okay, we lost, but we coulda won!’). You can hear the squeak of Trump’s own rhetorical slippage, like a dog trying to creep unnoticed under the off-limits dining-room table at meal-time, from frank acknowledgement into delusive denial. Milton’s Satan even extends his narcissistic afflatus to his followers, allowing them to bask in his brilliance:
‘For who can yet believe, though after loss,(Paradise Lost I. 631–634)
That all these puissant legions, whose exile
Hath emptied heaven, shall fail to re-ascend,
Self-raised, and repossess their native seat?’
Who, indeed? In Satan’s spiel, the bum’s rush he and his mates were given from Heaven is actually Heaven’s loss, as it has deprived it of ‘all these puissant legions’. The ability to ignore the evidence of your own experience (or of counted, re-counted and validated vote tallies, for that matter) amounts to what psychologists call ‘magical thinking’: a triumph of will over reason, but not over reality, compounded here by Satan’s wholly rhetorical suggestion that the fallen angels will almost certainly ‘repossess their native seat’—how could they not?—thus restoring their hopelessly lost fortunes. At rallies in front of his own ‘puissant’, MAGA-hatted legions, Trump repeatedly tried on comparable rhetorical curlicues, announcing at a rally in 2016, ‘I have the most loyal people—did you ever see that? I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?’ In what alternative universe would this be something to boast about? Bragging about fans so rabidly devoted they’d cheer your commission of a violent crime is a form of gangster-speak. It differs from the discourses of Satan in Genesis B and Paradise Lost only in its greater baldness and lack of subtlety. Both the Anglo-Saxon poet’s Satan and Milton’s seek to stir their troops by stoking resentment at the prospect of a new sort of being—the humans God has compounded of spirit and dirt (adding insult to injury!)—taking the fallen angels’ vacated seats in heaven:
He’s now laid out(Genesis B ll. 397–400)
a world in the middle, where he has created man
after his likeness. With such he means to restore
the ranks of heaven, with shining human souls.
We must give careful thought to how we might,
should it prove possible, exact our vengeance
on Adam and his offspring, mar his joy there,
if we can find a way to bring it about.
In the Parliament of Hell that features in Book II of Paradise Lost—which eventually devolves into a Satan-is-the-greatest rally—the arch-fiend informs the rank and file about
‘ … some new race called Man, about this time(Paradise Lost II. 348–353)
To be created like us, though less
In power and excellence, but favoured more
Of him who rules above; so was his will
Pronounced among the gods, and by an oath
That shook heaven’s whole circumference, confirmed’.
Established power? Presuming to admit lesser beings to stations above their worth? To replace us? Satan’s prefiguring of today’s hard-Right ‘great replacement’ paranoia would be just a delicious irony were the latter not turning the heads of so many susceptible souls in our time.
Satan then goes on to speculate aloud about the shortest way to deal with these upstart humans:
‘Some advantageous acts may be achieved(Paradise Lost II. 363–370)
By sudden onset—either with hell-fire
To waste his whole creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive, as we are driven,
The puny habitants; or if not drive,
Seduce them to our party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works’.
Wadda we gonna do with dese guys, huh? You can just about see Robert De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables, baseball bat on shoulder, circling his seated lieutenants like a shark. Trump’s repeated rally-calls for supporters or police to rough up protestors and journalists taps into a woefully similar register. In Genesis B, Satan calls for similar action to make humans hateful to their creator,
‘ … so that his heart will kindle in rage towards them,(Genesis B ll. 405–408)
and he will cast them from his retinue.
Then they will have to make their way to hell,
to the terrible floor of the pit. Then the children of men
will be subject to us in this fast prison’.
Misery loves company, I suppose! In both poems, the Devils’ thirst to avenge themselves on God and recover their lost bliss gets no farther than scheming to extend their own immiseration, and drag the newly created upstarts down to Hell with them. Given the ways far-right policy and (where it’s been enacted) legislation have tended to worsen the hardships borne by their most strident partisans, Milton and his Anglo-Saxon predecessor could practically have been commenting directly on our latter-day contentions.
The two Satans I’ve been considering differ dramatically in one key regard. In Genesis B, Satan lies perpetually bound in Hell and cannot leave, so he recruits an off-sider to do the heavy lifting of tempting Adam and Eve for him, which invokes yet another rich irony:
‘Whoever fulfils my desire(Genesis B ll. 435–438)
will have his reward forever after here,
whatever benefit we can contrive
here in these flames. Whoever returns to hell
and tells me they [Adam and Eve] have dishonoured, in words and deeds,
the heavenly king’s command, shall have a seat
beside me here’.
In the Germanic heroic tradition, for a lord to reward one of his thanes with a seat by his side in the mead-hall would be a signal honour, marking some magnificent achievement that had brought glory and material benefit to their people. But in this case, by the standards of that same tradition, such honour would be utterly hollow: a seat in the darkest depths of Hell, next to a ‘lord’ proven bankrupt in all his dealings:
‘Start thinking now about that expedition!(Genesis B ll. 408–413)
If ever I bestowed on any thegn
a princely treasure, while we in that good realm
sat blessed and ruled ourselves in our own land,
then he could find no better time than this
to repay my generosity’.
Satan calls on his followers to remember his former glory and generosity, a genuine virtue in a Germanic lord that should inspire his thanes’ devoted service. But this lord is a busted flush. He used to be great, but in defeat his only ‘gifts’ to his retainers have been loss, pain and indignity. Not a good look.
In Paradise Lost, Satan claims the mission to escape Hell and tempt Adam and Eve to their destruction as his own. In doing so, he coincidentally confirms and consolidates his hold on that ‘bad eminence’, the absolute monarchy of Hell he so clearly covets for himself. He speaks ‘with monarchal pride / Conscious of highest worth’, laying out the deadly perils of the way back up into the light that the champion sent on this expedition will have to dare. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that he and he alone is fit for the undertaking:
‘But I should ill become this throne, O peers,(Paradise Lost II. 445–450)
And this imperial sovereignty, adorned
With splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed
And judged of public moment in the shape
Of difficulty or danger, could deter
Me from attempting’.
Trump’s similarly grandiose assertions that ‘Only I can fix it’, whether it be the faltering economy, crime or America’s faded greatness among nations, offered no specific remedies, merely Himself and His Greatness, which would self-evidently reduce any rivals to trivial footnotes. In the end, the self-promotion schemes of both Milton’s Satan and Trump prove mockeries of any real notion of greatness or glory. In Book X of Paradise Lost, Satan returns to Hell from his successful expedition and choreographs another Nuremberg-rally convocation to celebrate his awesomeness, only to be met with loud hissing, as he and his assembled hosts are metamorphosed by divine wrath into the form of serpents. While perhaps not quite so dramatic a comeuppance, Trump’s eventual performance as President looked nothing like the brave new world of restored American greatness that he’d promised. Same old same old. Sssssss…
Milton knew a thing or two about badly wielded authority and how it can illegitimately oppress those it presumes to govern. His aversion to authoritarian government drove his parliamentarian sympathies, which eventually led him to compose The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a vigorous defence of the Commonwealth’s trial and execution of the deposed Charles I. His Satan, for all his Stygian grandeur, in the end shrinks to a ranting comic-book Duce or Fuehrer, all grandiose gesture with no means to realise his grand designs except in mean instances of petty malice against creatures far weaker than he. In his final performance he’s just a Ceauşescu-analogue, droning one last time from his balcony, unaware that his time is well and truly up. Whether or not Milton modelled his Satan on the Satan of Genesis B, the two are cut from the same cloth, and both sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to the latter-day authoritarians strutting and fretting their loud pretences on the world stage.
Charles Williams, the mid-twentieth-century English poet, novelist and sometime member of the Oxford academic ring the Inklings (which famously included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) once observed tartly that ‘Hell is inaccurate’. By that, he means it breathes an air of mental slovenliness that mocks any notion of balance, measure and sound judgement. Williams’s observation captures equally well the raucous contentions of today’s hard Right, as well as the vain posturings of the Satans of Genesis B and Paradise Lost. Not to mention a certain fake-tanned, ‘braggadocious’ son of P. T. Barnum who’s been a persistent public nuisance over the past few years. Plus ça change, huh?
1. Genesis B, unlike the rest of the poem, appears to have been translated into Old English from an earlier poem in Old Saxon, a continental contemporary language that stands in relation to Old English at about the same level as the family resemblance between Portuguese and Spanish. The difference between them is so slight that scholars commonly talk about the Anglo-Saxon ‘author’ of Genesis B without constant qualification, as I shall do here.
2. Old English text from Old Testament Narratives, Daniel Anlezark (ed and trans), Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2011. All translations are my own.
3. All quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from Milton, The Complete English Poems, Gordon Campbell (ed), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.