Book I of Paradise Lost begins with Milton describing what he intends to undertake with his epic: the story of Man’s first disobedience and the “loss of Eden,” subjects which have been “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” His main objective, however, is to “justify the ways of God to men.”
The poem then shifts to focus on the character of Satan who has just fallen from heaven. The scene opens in a fiery, yet dark, lake of hell. Satan, dazed, seems to be coming to consciousness after his fall and finds himself chained to the lake.
He lifts his head to see his second in command, Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, who has been transformed from a beautiful archangel into a horrid fallen angel. Satan gets his bearings and, in a speech to Beelzebub, realizes what has just happened: Satan, presuming that he was equal to God, had declared war on the creator. Many angels had joined Satan, and the cosmic battle had shaken God’s throne.
Satan and his cohorts had lost and been cast “nine times the space that measures day and night” to hell. Still, Satan tells Beelzebub that all is not lost. He will never bow down to God and now, knowing more of the extent of God’s might, the rebel angels might better know how to continue to fight him in an eternal war.
Beelzebub questions why they themselves still exist. What plan did God have for them since he did not kill them completely, but left them their souls and spirits intact to feel pain in hell?
Satan replies that God indeed wanted to punish them by forcing them to languish in hell for eternity. But, he says, that means that they don’t ever have to obey God again. In fact, Satan says, they must work to instill evil in all good things so as to always anger God.
Satan and Beelzebub gather their strength and fly off the fiery lake to firmer, though still fiery, ground. They look around at the dark wasteland that is hell, but Satan remains proud. “Better to reign in hell, then serve in heaven.”
They see their army lying confused and vanquished in the fiery lake. Satan calls to them and they respond immediately. Satan gathers his closest twelve around him .
Music plays and banners fly as the army of rebel angels comes to attention, tormented and defeated but faithful to their general
They could not have known the extent of God’s might, Satan tells them, but now they do know and can now examine how best to beat him. Satan has heard of a new kind of creation that God intends on making, called man. They will continue the war against heaven, but the battlefield will be within the world of mankind.
The army bangs their shields with their swords in loud agreement. The rebel angels then construct a Temple, a throne room, for their general and for their government, greater in grandeur than the pyramids or the Tower of Babylon.
All the millions of rebel angels then gather in the Temple for a great council, shrinking themselves and become dwarves in order to fit.
Milton tells us that he is tackling the story told in Genesis of the Fall of Adam and the loss of the Garden of Eden. With it, Milton will also be exploring a cosmic battle in heaven between good and evil. Supernatural creatures, including Satan and the Judeo Christian God himself, will be mixing with humans and acting and reacting with humanlike feelings and emotions. As in other poetic epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Ulysses, the Popul Vuh, and Gilgamesh, Milton is actually attempting to describe the nature of man by reflecting on who his gods are and what his origins are. By demonstrating the nature of the beings who created mankind, Milton is presenting his, or his culture’s , views on what good and evil mean, what mankind’s relationship is with the Absolute, what man’s destiny is as an individual and as a species. The story, therefore, can be read as a simple narrative, with characters interacting with each other along a plot and various subplots. It can also, however, be extrapolated out to hold theological and religious messages, as well as political and social themes.
Milton introduces Book I with a simple summary of what his epic poem is about: the Fall of Adam and the loss of the Garden of Eden. He tells us that his heavenly muse is the same as that of Moses, that is, the spirit that combines the absolute with the literary. The voice is of a self-conscious narrator explaining his position. There is some background in the past tense, then suddenly the reader finds himself in the present tense on a fiery lake in hell. The quiet introduction, the backing into the story, then the verb change and plunge into the middle of the action, in medias res, creates a cinematic and exciting beginning.
On this lake we meet Satan, general and king of the fallen rebel angels.
Milton’s portrait of Satan has fascinated critics since Paradise Lost’s publication, leading some in the Romantic period to claim that Satan is, in fact, the heroic protagonist of the whole work. Certainly Milton’s depiction of Satan has greatly influenced the devil’s image in Western art and literature since the book’s publication.
The reader first meets a stunned Satan chained down to a fiery lake of hell, surrounded by his coconspirators. In this first chapter, the reason for his downfall is that he thought himself equal to God. Hell, however, has not taught him humility, and, in fact, strengthens his revolve to never bow to the Almighty (Interestingly, the word “God” is not used in the chapters dealing with Hell and Satan).
Satan is often called a sympathetic character in Paradise Lost, despite being the source of all evil, and in the first chapter the reader is presented with some of Satan’s frustration. Satan tells his army that they were tricked, that it wasn’t until they were at battle that God showed the true extent of his almightiness. If they had been shown this force previously, not only would the rebel angels not have declared war on heaven, but Satan, also, would never have presumed that he himself was better than God. Now they have been irreversibly punished for all eternity, but, rather than feel sorry for themselves or repent, Satan pushes his army to be strong, to make “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Hell reflecting heaven and, later, earth reflecting both, will be a common theme throughout the work. Satan chooses twelve close friends: all of them drawn from pagan mythology or from foreign kings in the Hebrew Bible: to echo and mimic Christ’s twelve apostles. Satan’s angels build a large a glorious temple and call a council, both of which will be echoed in heaven. In fact, Satan uses the same architect as heaven, now called Mammon in hell.
Many of the structures and symbols are similar. In heaven and hell there is a king and a military hierarchy of angels. In most cases, however, they the reverse of each other. In Book I, we are shown that the most prominent thing about hell is its darkness, whereas heaven is full of luminous light. As well, the fallen angels, previously glorious and beautiful, are now ugly and disfigured.
These mirror, and therefore reverse, images of heaven and hell also work on a theological level. The darkness of hell symbolizes the distance Satan and his army are from the luminous light and grace of God. Simultaneously, the rebel angels pulled away from God by their actions and are forced away by God himself, outside of all the blessings and glory that come with God’s light and into the pain and suffering that comes with distance away from him. The physical corruption and disfigurement that occurs to all the fallen angels is symbolic of the corruption which has occurred in their souls.
Hell itself is described as a belching unhealthy body, whose “womb” will be torn open to expose the “ribs” of metal ore that are necessary to build Satan’s temple. Natural occurrences in hell, such as the metaphor of the eclipsed sun, are symbols of natural, and therefore spiritual, decay.
Psychological motivations also work in reverse in hell. Hell is punishment for turning away from the Good, but instead of learning his lesson, Satan becomes more stubborn and more proud. While heaven is a place where all are turned toward the good and toward pleasing and obeying God, Satan makes hell a place turned away from God and turned deliberately toward displeasing him. Whereas before falling from heaven, Satan was only guilty of presuming to be greater than God (pride), now Satan has, in fact, become a creator himself. He has created evil: the direction away from God.
Other critics have examined the political implications of Milton’s hell. Like Dante’s hell, the characters and institutions in Milton’s hell are often subtle references to political issues in Milton’s day. The Temple of Satan, for example, has been thought to symbolize St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the “capitol” of Roman Catholicism and home of the Pope. The comparison of the glory of hell to the light of an eclipsed sun was thought to be a veiled critique of the Sun King, King Charles, who reigned during Milton’s time.
A full understanding of the metaphors and images that Milton uses, however, would take more than a knowledge of his contemporary history or religious background. Describing Satan’s kingdom, Milton takes from a myriad of sources, including Greek mythology and epic poetry, Egyptian and Canaanite religious traditions, the Hebrew Bible and Mishnaic texts, the New Testament and apocryphal texts, the Church Fathers, popular legends, and other theological texts.
It should be noted that, in the epic tradition, Milton is using poetry to tell his story, following most prominently the style of Homer. The work, therefore, can also be examined through the lens of poetry with an eye toward rhythm and sound. In the first sentence, Milton uses an alliteration to conduct what is referred to as a double discourse: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree…” Not only does the repeated “f” sound add to the aesthetic of the sentence, it connects the “f” words to present a different idea than the sentence itself is presenting. In this case, “first… fruits” are “forbidden.” This double discourse, literally two sentences spoken at the same time, is repeated throughout Milton.