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Paradise Lost | Book 1 | Summary

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Summary

Book 1 begins with a prologue in which Milton states the purpose of Paradise Lost: to justify the ways of God to humans and to tell the story of their fall. Following the epic tradition, Milton invokes a heavenly muse to help him tell the tale. The muse he calls upon is the same one who inspired Moses to write part of the Bible, he claims. Milton uses the gift of the muse to explain what led to the fall of man, and he introduces the character of Satan, a former great angel in Heaven known as Lucifer. Satan tried to overthrow God's rule and banded together with other rebel angels to begin a civil war. They were defeated by God and cast out of Heaven and into Hell.

The story begins with Satan and the other rebel angels waking up to find themselves floating on a lake of fire in Hell, transformed into devils. Upset, Satan gathers the fallen angels together. They work to build a capital in Hell for themselves, Pandemonium, and form a council to debate waging more warfare against God. Satan and the other angels don't seem to recognize that it is only through God's permission that they were able to loosen the chains that bound them upon their arrival in Hell. God allowed it because he is all-knowing and all-seeing and intends to change their evil intentions into goodness.

Analysis

Greek epics involved heroes, wars, and heroic acts. They usually began with the writer invoking a muse as his guide. By invoking a muse that inspired Moses, Milton places Paradise Lost in the same epic category as religious texts and signals that he is writing an epic in the tradition of the ancient Greeks. Milton echoes and mimics earlier Greek epics in a few ways. His lengthy introduction and naming of all of the fallen angels in Hell resembles an epic catalogue, a long list of soldiers found in epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Further, Milton portrays Satan as a military leader who assembles and commands his troop of fallen angels. This is similar to the ancient Greek epics that glorified war heroes and serves to paint Satan as a kind of idealized protagonist.

But rather than tell the tales of heroic men, Milton is dealing with issues of Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, and the fall of man. He also draws a distinct parallel between Satan's rebellion against God and man's disobedience to God.

By beginning Paradise Lost with a focus on Satan, Milton sets him up as the possible protagonist of the book rather than the antagonist. Though Satan realizes he has been defeated in his battle against God, his sense of pride doesn't allow him to ask God for forgiveness and reentrance into Heaven. Here, Milton hints at the idea that even though Satan thinks he has control of his own life and decisions, God is always one step ahead of his creations. Milton never makes clear if he wants his audience to empathize with Satan, but making him the hero of the epic would have been a risky decision in Milton's Christian era. Milton's audience would have been more likely to understand the complete power God had over Satan and that his battle was doomed to be futile. Contemporary audiences are more likely to see Satan as the sympathetic underdog of the story and to see God as rigid and unfeeling.

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