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Paradise Lost follows the epic tradition in not telling the story chronologically, with one event following another in the sequence in which they occurred. Instead it begins at midpoint and tells the rest in flashbacks (and flash-forwards). Before we consider the plot as it actually unfolds in Paradise Lost, it is helpful to have in mind an outline of the story in chronological order.
THE CHRONOLOGICAL SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
God has three aspects, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. As creator, God the Father sets everything going, like a clock, so that he knows what is to happen but does not interfere with the running of it. In Heaven he is surrounded by angels ("angel" comes from a Greek word meaning "messenger"). When he decides to announce the equal status with himself of his Son, one-third of the angels rebel under the leadership of Lucifer, who becomes Satan, the Prince of Hell. A terrible three-day War in Heaven ends in the defeat of Satan by the Son, who drives all the rebel angels down to Hell, which God has created for them out of primal Chaos.
To replace the missing angels, God through his Son creates the World, and he puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. Like the angels, they have free will. They live in pleasure, with frequent visits from the angels, but they must not touch two trees in the garden, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.
Satan wants revenge on God for his defeat, so he tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She in turn tempts her husband, Adam. This is the original sin from which all mankind's troubles flow. The life of pleasure is over: man must work and woman must suffer childbirth pains. The two are driven from Paradise to make their home in the rest of the World, comforted by the knowledge that the Son will become man in a later generation and will die for their sins.
Now we turn to the plot as Milton relates it in Paradise Lost.
THE NARRATIVE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
Satan has been in Hell for nine days, lying on a burning lake where he and his companions have been thrown by God and his angels. He moans to his companion Beelzebub about their terrible fate, but he resolves to continue his fight against God through other means.
He and Beelzebub raise themselves painfully from the lake and gather the fallen angels on the shore, where they build a great hall called Pandemonium. In it they hold a great council meeting about their next move.
One of the leaders counsels open war. Two others oppose the idea, saying they've had enough of God's fury and will make the best of it in Hell. Satan tells them of a rumor he had heard in Heaven that another kind of being was to be created. In order to find out how this creature could be corrupted for their purposes, he volunteers to go on a spying mission.
As he leaves, he meets Sin, who is his lover and daughter, and Death, his son and grandson, who guard the gate. They let him out into Chaos, the fundamental material of the universe from which God has fashioned Hell and the World.
Meanwhile in Heaven God foretells what is to happen and asks which of the angels will offer to die for man. The Son takes on the task and is praised for his sacrifice.
Satan alights on the top of the World (the universe, not the earth) and looks up into Heaven and down into the concentric spheres of the planets. He flies down to the sun, where he asks directions of Uriel, the angel who guards the sun.
As Satan watches Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise, Uriel flies down to warn the angel Gabriel that Satan has deceived them both and is on earth. Satan overhears Adam telling Eve that they are forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He conceals himself until night, when he becomes a toad and sits beside Eve's ear. Two guardian angels, Ithuriel and Zephon, find him and bring him to Gabriel. Gabriel threatens to drag Satan in chains to Hell if he's found in the garden again.
Eve tells Adam her terrible dream, induced by Satan. She dreamed that she ate the fruit and became a goddess flying above the earth. She is very frightened and needs Adam's comfort. When they go out to their daily chores in the garden, they find that the archangel Raphael has come to visit them.