This weighty, thorough, wide-ranging, and authoritative book examines ancient texts and uses recent theories about folktales to examine the rise of the character we call Satan.
I was torn between assigning this book 4 stars or 5. It deserves 5 stars by reason of the importance of its subject-matter, the thoroughness of its treatment, and the reasoning power of the author. I feel a slight hesitation only because I feel that the book, which is aimed at academics, could and should be a more popular work aimed at a wider audience, and should help the reader to understand more about the implications for our current world of the development of Satan as, essentially, a literary character. But this may simply be my bringing slightly wrong expectations to a book that is clearly a deeply researched and carefully thought-out piece of work.
Making use of the functional analysis of folktales developed by Vladimir Propp, Forsyth, an expert on Milton's "Paradise Lost", shows us how the modern and theologically vital character of Satan evolved from the ancient "combat myth" in which a hero, seeking glory or justice, sets out to defeat a menacing foe. Examining variants of this tradition from ancient Babylon, Canaan, Greece, and other places, Forsyth shows how the biblical character of Satan (still "the" Satan in the Old Testament--the accuser who had a respectable job on the divine council of Yahweh) gradually came, for theological reasons, to conform to the combat myth as a way of accounting for evil and sin in the world.
In a closely reasoned, step-by-step argument, Forsyth shows how Satan evolved from employee of Yahweh to leader of the angels lustfully tempted by women to resentful rebel against God to cosmic antagonist seemingly rivaling God in power. He concludes with a discussion of the theology of Augustine, who managed to knit the disparate and often incompatible aspects of Christian teaching on cosmology, sin, and evil into a more or less consistent whole that could meet the challenges of sophisticated heretics and pagans.
Forsyth's writing style is scholarly but readable. He has definite opinions about the issues, but comes across as fair and reasonable. His knowledge of the ancient texts and scholarly literature is impressive, and he does many of his own translations. The guy is a brain, and you'll need your thinking-cap on to read this book.
This is an important work in the history of Western religion, philosophy, literature, and ideas. I suppose I feel it's a bit too scholarly and deep to make the wide impact that it deserves. But if you're interested in Satan, Christian theology, the structure of combat myths, or even the underpinning of "Paradise Lost" (which Forsyth does not really discuss in this book, however), this book is for you.