A Sample 'A' Paper

from English 230: Great Narrative Works



Things to note:

1) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

2) The paper proceeds logically from sentence to sentence and from point to point (although the student might have done a yet better job in providing transitions from paragraph to paragraph).

3) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the text at hand.

4) The student has used a good deal of textual evidence from Paradise Lost to support his/her case.

5) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


The Evolution of the Epic Hero: A Social-Political Analysis

From a broader social-anthropological perspective, Milton's unconventional portrayal of the old epic traditions not only reflects a shift from a shame-based culture to a guilt-based culture; it essentially captures civilization's advancement towards a more defined social contract/ awareness. Yet Milton's numerous invocations to Homeric traditions suggest that the change is a matter of evolution, an indication of an intellectually more sophisticated society building on, rather than abandoning, the ideology of the past. As such, Milton's work mirrors part of the turbulent transition period from the self-absorbed rationality of the early Homeric era to the present day concept of social consciousness. The advances in philosophical intellectuallism can also be directly linked to the political upheavals that took place in Renaissance England between 1642 and 1660.

Conventional epic heroes before the Renaissance were traditionally men of war; their greatest virtues were usually their military valor and tactical cunning oality and motivation were seldom questioned as the focus was almost entirely on their achievements. In contrast, the archetypal Renaissance hero not only possesses the martial and cerebral prowess of his Homeric predecessors but also, ironically enough, the moral and theological strengths of the ideal Christian knight. For example, Milton's indomiable Satan continues his struggle against God's rule even though he acknowledges that victory is impossible (Bk 1, lines 142-45) while Odysseus is a man who chooses his fights carefully. Conveniently postponing his quest to return home, Odysseus was only too quick to jump into bed with the very same Circe who turned his companions into swine.

In addition, conquest and glory motivated Homer's epic heroes while the Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost rebelled in search of an abstract ideal--freedom in its absolute and spiritual sense. In the Homeric shame culture, surface appearance was of foremost importance. It did not matter whether you engage in thievery as long as you avoid getting caught. It was not until the emergence of a guilt culture that it became accepted that the individual is accountable to himself/ herself, regardles of the factwether ther are other witnesses. This "accountability to the individual's own conscience" has a modern equivalent in Sigmund Freud's theories about the id, ego and superego. In Book I, lines 255-263 of Paradise Lost, Satan speaks: "A mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n/.... Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n." Milton's differentiation of mind and actual physical self is remarkable, offering a glimpse into a seventeenth-century conceptualization of the Freudian superego--existence or being on the ideal philosophical and moral plane. The contrast between Milton's early prototype of the contemporary anti-hero and the Homeric heroic figure of Odysseus could not be greater. In both Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, the hero is often described as cunning and resourceful: "Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,/ the man who wandered many paths of exile/ after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel" (Homer, lines 1-3). It would seem remarkable that Odysseus's standout strengths are his wiliness and his ability to lay waste to an entire city. In fact, the only skills that Odysseus seems to possess are also the "virtures" that make him such a widely admired figure-- the skills of a liar, killer, cheat and master manipulator. Throughout the saga, Odysseus is the quintessential savage war-chieftain, leading his men in numerous raids, pillages, and swindles.

Objectively, however, the epic hero does serve as a very useful indication of an era's values as these ideal men typically embody the attributes esteemed at that time. While Odysseus's all-conquering martial abilities were undeniably suited for the harsh conditions of the millenium past, the gentling of Europe has led to the making of a more sensitive and updated epic heroic model. The progression from the accepted norm of simplistic superficiality to an infinitely more complex and pluralistic value system is obvious. As Europe's population burgeoned, independent city-states yielded to the formation of much larger nations and cities. With the demographic explosion and close proximity and interaction, there wasa need for some form of mass social cosciousness to replace the existing egocentrism. This is precisely why Milton is so effective, be it intentional or otherwise. He takes what is undoubtedly the most despised and feared figure in the Christian world and imbues him with remarkable strength of character and principle. At the same time, through his invocation of Homeric oral tradition, Milton draws a favorable contrast to a brutal hero of aeons past that remained an acceptable role model in Europe right through the Dark and Middle Ages.

Despite all the changes that he makes to the character make-up of the epic hero, Milton has adopted several of the virtues displayed by homer's heroic model. In Paradise Lost (Book 1, lines 338-355), Milton's description of Satan's hordes bears a close similarity to Homer's portrayal of the ancient Greek heroes--a veritable army of "godlike shapes and forms," ready to do battle to fulfil their destiny. It is apparent that Milton's new version of the pic hero, much like the Homeric predecessor, retains the ability to change his environment to suit him, rather than just simply to conform to his environment. It is this resilience and desire to challenge the status quo that binds the two heroes together. The main difference is that Milton introduces an additional dimension of intrinsic motivation. Moral justification and the nobility of the cause take on an importance ignored by earlier epic traditionalists.

The evolution of the social doctrine is also paralleled by the metamorphosism of seemingly entrenched political systems. Inevitably, Milton's work heavily reflects his personal theological alignment to the social issues of his time. As opposed to God's self-imposed rule, Milton's Satan was elected as leader by the other fallen angels (Book 2, lines 18-21). The question of rule by divine decree versus leadership via democracy and mass consent has its echo in the armed conflict between Cromwell's Republic and the King of England. Tradiationally and perhaps ironically, the Church has been inextricably linked to the throne and most of Europe's royal houses. Long a bastion of royalist tradition, the pecking order of seventeenth-century England was challenged by the Cromwellian revolution in which Milton played an important peripheral role as one of the most important advocates of regicide. In his The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Milton argues that the power of the rules was due to a binding social contract between the ruler and his people. He also states that the masses possess the ethical right to revoke the contract if the ruler abuses his mandate. Paradise Lost frames this argument more succinctly; in it Satan justifiably challenges the right of God to make absolute judgments. Unfortunately, Milton's transparent attempt at arousing the symnpathies of the ruling elite was to no avail as Charles the Second was returned to power in 1660, just two years after the death of Cromwell.

Despite Milton's high profile in the social upheavals of seventeenth-century England, his political views can hardly be considered acceptable in contemporary terms. Milton remained an elitist and was convinced that rule by a virtuous elite was preferable to the extremes of absolute monarchy or true democracy. However, the political upheavals of the seventeenth century did set a fortunate precedent and Milton was also at the forefront of a Renaissance wave that was to have tremendousinfluence on subsequent incarnations of society, both philosophically and politically. Much as early philosopher-bards like Plato, Aristotle and Homer helped provide the early foundation for the Renaissance school of thought, the conventions that we take for granted today owe their beginnings to the great thinkers who scandalized traditionalist England more than three and a half centuries ago.