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Table of Contents
The first book (1) introduces the theme of the entire poem, (2) introduces us to Satan and the fallen angels, and (3) tells us that we are reading an epic poem. In order to put himself in the epic tradition of The Odyssey and The Aeneid, Milton uses devices like the invocation, epic similes, and catalogs. They'll be explained as we come to them. They are used heavily in the first two books to establish the credentials of Paradise Lost as an epic, then they occur less often in the later books.
This book begins, as they all do, with Milton's prose summary, "The Argument." He is using the word in the sense of "subject matter," not as we do meaning a verbal clash. You will see "argument" used again with this meaning in line 24. The prose summary tells you the story, so you can use it as reference.
In Book I we meet one of the story's main characters, Satan. Whether he is the hero or the villain is one of the questions you'll face continually in Paradise Lost. It is obvious from this first book that Satan has qualities we all admire. He is a fearless leader, eloquent, inspiring, resourceful, even sympathetic to his followers' sufferings. Is he portrayed with these virtues because Milton wants to show us how we can be deceived by heroism? Have you found yourself attracted to "friends" who weren't good for you?
It is (unfortunately!) easy to identify with Satan when we first meet him in the imaginary landscape of Hell. We have all felt angry, bitter, and vengeful after a brush with authority. Perhaps you've received an F in a class where you thought you would pass, or gotten a speeding ticket when you were sure you weren't observed. These are small-scale personal grievances, but your feelings are intense. Satan's grievances result from conflict with God and have universal consequences. He wants to strike back at God for throwing him into a stinking pit of darkness, and he's going to do it by dragging us all down there with him.