The story of the fall of man from the Garden of Eden is one which has been told
It is a story which has rationalised, explained and shaped our
ideas of perfection and imperfection.1 Yet there is huge diversity in the accounts of the fall, and the portrayals of the characters involved. The Old English poem known as Genesis B describes the fall of Satan and his followers, his plan for revenge upon God, and his sending a messenger to bring about the fall of Adam and Eve.
It comprises lines 235 to 851 of the Anglo Saxon Genesis, found in the Junius
Manuscript, and is agreed by scholars to constitute a different poem.
However, the poem does conjure sympathy for Satan and his plight.
Firstly, the descriptions of Satan before his fall are repeated throughout the poem and serve to construct an image of him which is angelic and prelapsarian.
His brightness is referenced throughout the poem: ‘his lic wære leoht and scene’ (his body was radiant and shining; l.265); ‘engla scynost’ (brightest angel; l.338); ‘hwit on heofne’ (bright in heaven; l.350). Such repetition of his qualities before the fall mean the reader cannot help but associate these with him even while he is in hell.
As Belanoff writes, ‘We are reminded so often of a trait he does not have that the trait perversely adheres to our image of him’.
Overall, it seems that Genesis B offers a challenging interpretation of Satan
and his role in the fall of man. On the one hand, a Christian reader knows that
Satan is evil; but this poem presents him as a heroic, generous, esteemed lord who leads his men in a flawed rebellion, suffers the cruel punishments, and attempts indirectly to avenge his situation. Taken out of context, his behaviour is no less heroic than that of Beowulf or Byrthnoth, for example.
Yet the context is extremely important; this is a poem about the temptation of humankind. I would pose the theory that perhaps this poem is working to prove its own point.
If we view Satan as sympathetic, then we are being tempted away from God, by eloquent and logical reasoning: we are Eve. And thus the poem is not controversial or heretic; it is a test, to see if we fall.