Paradise Lost Summary and Analysis
by John Milton
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.
Satan has drawn all the fallen angels into a large counsel in his Temple, perched on a volcano top. He addresses them to give them courage. After all, he says, they need not fear ever falling again. He asks for suggestion on how best to continue battling heaven.
Moloch stands up and suggests open warfare on the battlefield. They have nothing to lose, he says, there is no hell worse than this that God can send them if defeated. Even if God kills them, surely this would be better than living in hell forever. Finally, he says, even if they are defeated, "... if not victory is yet revenge."
Belial stands and disagrees. Even if God could kill them, he said, he never would. And there just might be worse hells than where they are now. It is a useless action anyway, he says, because God sees everything and would know exactly what they are doing. Belial suggests that they stay in hell and hope that God either relents on the punishment, or that they will, over time, grow used to the obnoxious fumes and pain.
Mammon stands up and says that neither idea is really acceptable. Open warfare would be an exercise in futility and, even if they were allowed back in heaven, is that a place where they want to spend eternity serving? It is better to live in hell where God's light never interferes. Mammon suggest no war at all, just build a kingdom where they are, and maybe someday they will have a kingdom that will be equal to heaven's .
The crowd cheers at Mammon's speech.
Beelzebub stands and tells the crowd that this will not do either. There is no place where God does not reign, he reigns even here in hell though his presence is not seen as easily. So it is silly, he says, to talk about war and peace when they will be eternally opposed to God and his kingdom, whether they like it or not. "War hath determined us."
Beelzebub then tells them of a new race that God has created called "Man." Man is not as powerful as the angels, but he is God's chosen favorite among creations. Beelzebub suggests that they seek revenge against God by seducing Man to their side.
All of the fallen angels agree unanimously to this decision. Satan asks for a volunteer to find out more about this creation, but none volunteer. They are all afraid of the chasm, called chaos, that lies between hell and the island of earth. Satan then says that he himself will go.
Hell is described. It has a geography like earth, with rivers and mountains, but "where all life dies, death lives and nature breeds, perverts, all monstrous, and all prodigious things." Hell is all the worst of nature: natural disasters, violent streams and volcanoes, unfriendly seas, darkness.
Satan flies to the gates of hell where he meets two beings guarding the gate. One is Sin, half woman, half serpent with group of hell hounds howling around her. The other is Death, a large black shape that stands in front of Satan, blocking his path. Satan knocks him down by throwing pestilence and war at him.
Sin scolds Satan, and tells him that she is his daughter, born in heaven when Satan first thought of rebelling. Later, they were lovers in heaven and she and Satan produced Death, their son. (As an aside, Death raped Sin and produced the hell hounds which surround her forever.)
Satan tells them he is trying to get out of hell to find earth. If he finds it, and there is a race called man, then the three of them can rule it together and Death's hunger will never be satiated.
Sin opens the gates of hell, which now can never be shut, and they gaze at the abyss of Night and Chaos.
Satan flies for a time in the darkness and then comes to the throne of Chaos and his consort, Night. Satan tells him he is only passing through, trying to find earth.
Chaos tells him the way to earth, which is connected to heaven by a golden chain.
With each of the demon's proposals to fight heaven, we see a reflection a number of different worldly concepts of good and evil, heaven and hell. Milton, with the devils, has his own idea of how good and evil is balanced and, with the devils, refute the others as impossible.
These constructs include: an eternal war between good and evil (seen in folk religions where evil spirits must be warded off by good spirits), evil's submission to good and hope of redemption (seen in new age concepts that all things are, in their essence, good), and the opposite yet equal kingdoms of good and evil (seen in Eastern religions with the Yin/Yang concepts). All these suggestions do not work for the devils, and, Milton is suggesting, they do not work theologically either.
First, there can be no all out, open warfare between heaven and hell, because it would be an exercise in futility. Despite the logic of Moloch's proposal, Heaven and goodness will always be more powerful than evil, there is no battle.
Second, evil will never go away. The fallen angels will always exist, they will never be forgiven, they will never be accepted back by God.
Finally, there can be no peace between heaven and earth, as Mammon suggests. Hell will exist, but it will not be an equal empire to heaven. Evil will exist, but it will not be equal to good. There is no yin/yan equality here. Evil, though the furthest from God, is still under God's reign.
The battlefield, as Beelzebub suggests, will be moved to the souls of mankind. The theory of the human soul as an eternal battlefield between good and evil forces reflects a common element of the theology of Milton's time. There, on a sort of neutral ground away from heaven and hell, evil angels can battle against good angels in a field which makes them nearly equal.
This particular concept we see reflected even today when cartoons are drawn of the devil and the good angel whispering into the left and right sides of a character's ear. Revenge of the fallen angels will be taken out against man, though Milton is suggesting that in the end good will win over.
The description of hell as a geographical place has physical properties that we find in our own world, and we will later find in the description of heaven. There are mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas. The difference between hell and earth, and especially hell and heaven, is that hell has the worst of nature. Milton emphasizes the awful, inescapable smells of hell, the raging "perpetual storms," the rivers with their "waves of torrent fire." By drawing hell as nature gone wrong, Milton also attempts to answer the age-old question of why, if God created this beautiful earth, does it sometimes seem to go against us. Why is there famine, flood, and fire that kill and destroy? Milton demonstrates that these events are nature perverted, nature not as it was intended to be. These events were caused by the creation of hell and evil after Satan's fall.
Contrast, however, the geography of hell with the geography of Chaos and Night. The Chaos is ruled over by "Rumour next and Chance, And Tumult and Confusion all embroiled." In Chaos there is true darkness. Milton compares the situation in Chaos to a nation embroiled in a civil war on a macro scale, to a man paralyzed by indecision and loss of reason on a micro scale. Hell, at least, is contained and is actually ruled by a some sort of law. There is a king and a temple, there are actual visible geographical locales. But in chaos there is no order, one can fall forever (as Satan almost did) in a dark ocean of nothingness. On the other hand, the Chaos is not evil. It is not a perversion of good or of nature. It is land where nothing holds. It is from this Chaos, as is told in the Genesis story, that heaven and earth are created, and where God creates light.
Finally, in this book we are introduced to the first of a number of parrallel trinities that Milton will compare and contrast. The unholy trinity introduced at the end of Book II consist of Satan, his consort/daughter Sin, and his only son, Death. Their relationship is based on lust: Satan raped his daughter Sin and they had Death. Death later raped his mother Sin and she gave birth to the hell hounds that now suround her. Note that Satan tries to kill his only son, Death, when he first approaches the gates of hell. This will contrast with the circumstances that will surround God sacrificing his only son in later books.
The personificaiton of concepts, in this case Death and Sin, was a common literary tool in Milton's time, seen most prominently in Spencer's "The Faerie Queene," which greatly influenced Milton's own work.
God sees Satan heading toward the world and points him out to his Son, sitting on his right hand. He tells his son how Satan is going to tempt man and how man is then going to fall.
"Ingrate," God says of man. "He had of me all he could have; I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall."
Even though God knows man will fall, as opposed to Satan, man will still have the chance to gain God's grace, since he was led to evil by Satan. Satan, on the other hand, freely choose evil without any temptations. God says, then, that there will be a chance for God's grace for mankind, but that mankind will always be cursed with Death.
His Son, of course, offers to die for man, "I for his sake will leave Thy bosom," he says. And then the Son will come back and conquer death himself.
God then agrees, and tells of how his Son will be born to a virgin and die so that God's favorite creation, man, will live. God then makes him the king of man, son of both man and God. God tells the angels in heaven to bow to him.
The scene switches back to Satan who has arrived in the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools, the place where all men and nature go who have vain hopes of achieving heaven while on earth by pursuing riches or superstitions. The Limbo of Vanity, in fact, will soon be filled with "hoods and habits... relics, beads, indulgences, dispenses, pardons, bulls." Here Satan paces on semi solid land.
Satan sees also the Gate to Heaven and the stairway to the gate. As well, there is a large passageway, though it will soon be made smaller, that brings angels down to God's creatures on earth.
Satan flies up to the sun where he can see all of creation. He spies Uriel, one of God's angels, guarding the earth. Satan turns himself into a cute little cherub and asks Uriel where this new creature of God's is so that he may go and admire it
Uriel is impressed that an angel would want to leave heaven to check out God's creation, and he directs Satan to man's home in Paradise.
Milton introduces the character of God and Son with preparatory phrases of praise, almost a hymn, describing the nature of God and heaven. From stanzas 1-55, Milton uses the idea of light to represent this nature. Alternately, light is used to describe God himself, the first born Son, the immortality of God, the glory of God, grace, truth, wisdom, and physical light. Heaven is a place, then, full of light but much of it is an invisible light, i.e. the light of wisdom, that man cannot perceive in the same manner as physical light but which works in the same way.
The reader is introduced to the characters of God and his Son, watching Satan from the heavens. The Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit (the one who is inspiring Milton to write) is juxtaposed against the evil Trinity of Satan, Death, and Sin, a relationship originating in lust. Milton relates love and goodness with reason and reason is clear in even a conversational sense in the holy trinity, between God and his Son. Corruption and evil, however, are tied to the irrational and thus to the unholy trinity. The raping of Sin by father and son, the battle between Satan and Death, all emphasis Milton's view on relationships based outside of God's grace.
Compare heaven's council with the one Satan had in hell. Heaven's council is a peaceful, rational conversation between God and his Son, both of whom seem to see and understand the same things. Decisions are made rationally given the circumstances that God's all-seeing eye can predict. Hell's council, on the other hand, argued and debated, their opinions clouded by the distance from goodness, which is here equivocated with reason. A path motivated by revenge, Milton is saying, is not one of right reason, and therefore is unpredictable.
Note, however, the reaction from the heavenly council when God asks if someone would volunteer to redeem man's moral crime. Just as it was when volunteers were asked for in hell to tempt man to fall, no one in heaven is willing to undertake the task of saving him. Finally, the Son volunteers which places him on a parallel with Satan. The implication is that, though God is all powerful, his Son and Satan are more on equal footing in that they can equally impact the destiny of man.
The concept of the Son of God conquering death comes from the Pauline letters in the New Testament, specifically First Corinthians. Because the Son of God cannot really die, his coming down from heaven and becoming fully human while at the same time fully God made it possible for him to experience death ,but then move through it to be resurrected. Through the resurrection, the theology goes, death no longer has the same grip it did before, it is not a permanent state merely a place that all men can now pass through.
Book III introduces the other settings of the epic as well, including heaven and earth, tied to each other with a golden chain and a passageway for angels to go down to earth and help with creation. Milton's universe is structured fairly simply: earth is in the middle, tied to heaven above it and a soon-to-be constructed bridge to hell leading below it. Between the earth and hell is Chaos. In concentric circles, or invisible globes surrounding earth, are the various orbits of the sun and moon, stars and planets around the earth (the earth is still in the middle).
Milton uses Limbo, or the Paradise of Fools, to make social criticism by demonstrating that examples of man's vanity that he saw in his era would find their end there. Thus, Limbo is full of indulgences and pardons, symbolic of the political machine behind the Catholic Church, as well as relics and beads, symbols of the superstitious nature of Catholic worshipers. Milton's point is that it is vain for man to think he can get into heaven by using these things. In fact, there is nothing man can do himself to get into heaven, he must rely completely on God's light. Those that use these religious trappings end up in a fake heaven, a Paradise of Fools.
Remembering always that Paradise Lost is a poem, note the structure of lines 56 through 79 as God looks down at his creation. God starts by seeing all the good things, including his creation of Adam and Eve. Then he pans over to hell and chaos, and finally to Satan himself flying toward Paradise. The paragraph gives equal time to nature as pure and nature as corrupted. Sentences in the middle of these two equal parts deal with love. Therefore, the subdialogue is that love is what divides corrupted nature from pure nature. This circular paragraph structure, with a discussion literally circulating around one theme (in this case love) is a poetic tool employed by Milton throughout the story.
Paradise Lost Essays and Related Content
- Paradise Lost: Essays
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- Paradise Lost: Questions
- Paradise Lost: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Milton: Biography
- Paradise Lost Summary
- About Paradise Lost
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Books I-III
- Summary and Analysis of Books IV-VI
- Summary and Analysis of Books VII-IX
- Summary and Analysis of Books X-XII
- Related Links on Paradise Lost
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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- Author of ClassicNote and Sources