I saw Transformers (the new film) tonight. When Optimus Prime first appeared, I freaked out. I explained to my wife: "This is Optimus Prime. He is everything that is good and noble and high-minded in the world. He is order and light." And--I did not add out loud--in the animated series, he died in fighting for good.
Which had me thinking--because, you see, I often side with the bad guys. Jesus Christ could be argued as exactly the same deal, but in Paradise Lost, I prefer Satan. Frankly, if nothing else, Satan is a far more interesting character.
And yet Optimus Prime is interesting and compelling. There are good and interesting and overall worthwhile characters that fight on the side of good.
Perhaps it is because Christ, in PL, is primarily a static figure. He is not a thing of change. His speeches are simply hymns to glory. Moreover, we know that the good guys in PL did not rise to their position of greatness. They simply dealt themselves the highest cards. Jesus is great and mighty and wonderful because he decreed it should be so, not because he worked for it.
Optimus Prime struggles for goodness--that is why he is worthwhile and interesting.
In PL, Christ offers himself as a sacrificial lamb to redeem all mankind. And yet this is not an awe-inspiring sacrifice, for we know that it is only temporary. He is certain to win. This is, perhaps, why it is easier to buy religion as a gnostic. The gnostics believe in a world of good and evil as nearly equal forces, and it is uncertain which will win. If we know good will always win, why should we care when it does?
In PL, there is a battle in Heaven. The angels under Lucifer design a mighty cannon and use it in their attack; the Host of Heaven responds by hurling mountains at them. One side creates an ingenious and complex projectile system, and their opponents throw rocks, like cavemen. This is the essence of the good/evil conflict of Paradise Lost: the Evil creates something new and brilliant, and the Good simply uses primitive, static force.
Perhaps this is the nub of it. It seems, very often, that Evil is the label applied to that which is simply new and different. It is what is unpredictable--and therefore somewhat dangerous. Evil is exhilarating, and ultimately it is innovation. These forces of Good that I discount do not seek to rise higher or to make things better; they seek only to preserve things as they are or return them to some previous state of superiority. Then they will rest easy.
They are not innovative, but reactionary.
Optimus Prime seeks to make things better than they were. So does every hero or champion of good that I have ever respected--PL's Satan included. You see, this is the center of the war in Heaven: Heaven could not be Paradise, for if it were, rebellion would be impossible. Sociologically speaking, we only rebel when we can imagine how things might be better. Desire, you see, is a flaw in Paradise. Any desire that is not instantly sated or eliminated means that there could be something greater than Paradise, and therefore proves Paradise a sham. Satan seeks something he believes is greater: the principle of liberty and personal choice. The forces of Heaven seek to simply preserve things as they are.
I watch Heroes with my uncle. He once remarked that it scared him a bit that I derided Peter Petrelli (the quintessential good guy) and admired Sylar (the unequivocably bad guy). I think I understand why I felt that way now. Peter is a static and reactionary force: he does not like his newfound powers and seeks to do away with them. Sylar understands the world has changed, and goes with the change. He sees the opportunity to, in his twisted mind, make the world better than it was.
But you see, we have such a character on the side of Good as well. Hiro. He finds joy in his powers, and he sees the world has changed. He does not fight that change, but seeks to make the world a better place. He does not idealize the past as a time that was better, but works in the hopes of a future that will be far greater.
I think, now, on all the good and noble characters in fiction I have admired. King Arthur. Optimus Prime. John Milton's Satan. Albus Dumbledore. They seek a new world better than the one we have. They know they fight against insurmountable odds, and they know that they very well may die in the attempt, without ever achieving any success.
And yet they go on fighting regardless.
NOTE: When I speak, I speak of characters in fiction. I do not speak of Christ or Lucifer as religion portrays them, but as John Milton does in Paradise Lost. Just as when I speak of Optimus Prime, I do not mean the real one, but the one we see in movies and cartoon shows.