Book III opens with a prologue, often called "The Prologue to Light," that is addressed to the "holy light" of God and Heaven. In this prologue, Milton asks for God's light to shine inwardly so that he can reveal what no man has seen.
Following the prologue, Milton reveals God, the Son (Jesus), and the Heavenly Host in Heaven. God looks toward Earth and sees Satan approaching the home of Man. A council takes place in Heaven. This council is mainly made up of a discussion between God and the Son on how Man will respond to Satan's wiles and what the ultimate resolution will be. God says that Man will be corrupted by Satan's treachery but that the evil will redound to Satan himself.
Man's failure to resist temptation will, however, be Man's fault since God has provided Man with both the reason and the will to resist these temptations. Nevertheless, because the fall of Satan and the other rebellious angels is worse than Man's (the angels fell because of personal failures; Man will fall only because of outside forces), God will offer Man mercy through grace. God adds, however, that unless someone is willing to die for Man, Man will have to face death: Divine justice requires that penalty for Man's transgression. The Son says that he will suffer death but also overcome it and, through this sacrifice, redeem Man from Man's sin.
The scene of Book III now shifts from Heaven to Satan who has landed on the border between Earth and Chaos. From this seat in darkness, Satan sees a light and moves toward it. The light is a golden stairway leading to Heaven. From this new vantage point, Satan views the magnificence of the Earth and of the beautiful sun that illumines it. As Satan moves toward the sun, he sees the archangel Uriel and quickly transforms himself into a cherub. Satan deceives Uriel and asks where Man may be found. Uriel directs Satan toward Earth.
Book III opens with a prologue as did Book I. This prologue is often called "The Prologue to Light" because it is addressed to the "holy light" of God and Heaven. Light here is associated with the eternal good and stands in contrast to the darkness associated with Hell and evil in Books I and II. The idea that stands out in the well-known "prologue to light" that opens Book III is how personal it is. Milton's blindness prevents him from seeing any light except the light of God, which illuminates the mind and which still allows him to be a poet. He makes references to the greatest classical epic poet, Homer (Maeonides), who according to tradition, was also blind, and to two mythic blind prophets, Tiresias and Phineas, who, even though blind, saw what others could not because of a gift from the gods.
Artistically then, Milton is able to place himself between the erudition of a classical "Invocation of Light" (as in Dante's Paradiso) and a personal, almost lyric, meditation on blindness. In the closing lines of this prologue, Milton brings the entire passage into focus as he asks for God's light to shine inwardly so that he can reveal what no man has seen. In this closing, he is able to transform the evil of his blindness into an intellectual and spiritual insight that surpasses anything possible by normal human sight. This notion of evil transformed to good is picked up thematically in the next section of Book III.
Milton took some risk in making God and the Son characters in Paradise Lost. The overriding problem was how to make a figure who is the embodiment of perfection, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, into a fictional character. Further, since the Son (Jesus) is, in traditional Christian belief, a part of the trinity and, therefore, a part of the godhead, how does he become a separate character from God? Milton dealt with the first problem in his characterization of God, a characterization that has received a fair amount of criticism. As to the second problem, Milton was not a Trinitarian. He did not accept that God and Jesus were co-eternal, and he believed that Jesus was, in the strict hierarchy of the universe, imperceptibly to man, lower than God. Therefore, he was able to treat the Son as a separate and distinct character from God, even as the Son has powers equal to God and is sometimes referred to as God.
In the second section of Book III, the council in Heaven, Milton presents an obvious contrast with the council of the demons in Hell in Book II. Here the reader sees clearly that God is in control of all, including Satan. Further, in their speeches, God and the Son provide the arguments that begin Milton's justification of the ways of God to man.
Milton runs a great artistic risk in introducing God as a character because God must then make the theological arguments that are introduced. God must explain the creation of Man, Man's temptation by Satan, and Man's fall. But further, God must clearly explain why his foreknowledge of these events in no way means that Man's fall is predestined in the sense that God causes it. Instead, he must show that the fall results from the failure of Man to use the gifts and abilities God has granted to him. Then God must convince the reader that Man deserves punishment for the fall, including eternal death if no one will step forward to accept death in Man's place.
God's argument is essentially that Man has free will, that Man has the power to resist temptation, but that Man will give in to temptation because he does not use his powers. God's foreknowledge that Man will fall in no way indicates predestination. God simply knows what Man will do; God does not cause Man to do it. Since Man falls away from God because of Man's weakness, Man deserves punishment, even death. However, because Man was tempted to the fall by Satan, Man also deserves a chance for redemption and salvation. The entire argument is scholastic, even pedantic, and in making it, God sounds more like a Dickensian schoolmaster than a magnanimous and loving father, and at this point, God's argument seems weakest. He created Man, he allows Satan to tempt Man, and then he blames Man for it. Man can be saved, but he must die. Divine Justice requires the punishment even as Divine Love offers salvation. The only way to resolve the quandary is for someone to take death on for Man.
Intellectually the argument may be sound, but for many readers, God seems to be an administrator more interested in following the written down procedures rather than looking at the specific situation. Still, for Milton's purpose, God's view must be presented in a clear and closely reasoned argument. Who better then to present God's argument then than God himself? Probably no author can create God as a character and not make him less than the sense of God in a reader's mind. For his purpose of justifying God's ways to man, Milton does what he has to do. The questionable depiction of God is somewhat redeemed by Milton's representation of the Son (called "the Son" since Jesus, in the poem's time, has not yet been born into the world). The Son sees a solution to the problem and steps forward willingly, accepting death in order to overcome it and save Man. The Son seems generous and loving, and through the Son, the reader is able to see God's love and concern for Man and move beyond the legalistic debate points of God's opening argument. Finally, in the hymn the Heavenly Host sings in adoration of the Son, the reader finally sees something of the glory of Heaven that, up until this point, Milton has ignored.
This passage also highlights the contrast between the Son and Satan. Satan asked his council which demon would leave Hell to find Earth and corrupt Man. When no demon volunteered, Satan undertook the task himself. The Son takes on the opposite and more onerous task of becoming man, going to Earth, and suffering death in order to save Man. In motive, spirit, and action, Satan and the Son are almost direct opposites.
In the final section of Book III, Milton turns his attention back to Satan, who sits between Chaos and Earth contemplating his next move. Here Milton interrupts the flow of the narrative to describe a future Limbo of Vanity or Paradise of Fools that will occupy the area where Satan sits. This description is Milton's digressive view of the future and not something that Satan imagines. Over the years, many commentators have questioned the positioning and effect of this passage. Milton stops the flow of his story and argument to describe such foolish sinners as those who built the Tower of Babel and the philosopher Empedocles, who thought to prove himself immortal by jumping into a volcano only to have the volcano prove the opposite by spewing his dead body back out. To this group of foolish sinners, Milton adds a group of monks, friars, and priests in an obvious satire on Catholicism and such beliefs as Limbo, which Protestantism had rejected. It is difficult to defend Milton's positioning of this digressive passage at this place in the poem.
The last scene of Book III shows Satan as a shape-shifter. He assumes the appearance of a cherub, one of a lesser order of angels, to speak with the archangel, Uriel, on the sun. (The sun itself provides a fitting end to Book III since the book opened with the "Invocation to Light" and will now close with the sun shining over the Earth.) Satan's guise as a cherub graphically demonstrates two thematic ideas that will continue to recur in the poem. First, Satan will, in varying ways, be diminished from the magnificent being he first appears to be in Book I. The cherub disguise, one in which he appears as a much smaller and less significant angel than he once was, is the first of several images that convey this idea. Second, Uriel does not recognize Satan because the disguise exemplifies hypocrisy. Milton says that hypocrisy is the one sin that angels cannot recognize. Only omniscient God can see hypocrisy. In later books, Satan will not always be able to use hypocrisy to hide his identity. Here though, in cherub form, Satan gets from Uriel the information he needs to find Adam, Eve, and the Garden.
glozing (93) [Obs.] to fawn or flatter. Used by Milton to describe Satan's lies.
foreknowledge (118) knowledge of something before it happens or exists; prescience.
incarnate (315) endowed with a body, esp. a human body; in bodily form. The Son will become incarnate to save Man.
Fiend (430) here, Satan.
Chaos (421) the disorder of formless matter and infinite space, supposed to have existed before the ordered universe Milton personifies.
wicket (484) a small door or gate, esp. one set in or near a larger door or gate. Used by Milton for Heaven's Gate.
Limbo (495) in some Christian theologies, the eternal abode or state, neither heaven nor hell, of the souls of infants or others dying in original sin but free of grievous personal sin, or, those dying before the coming of Christ; the temporary abode or state of all holy souls after death.
Seraph, Seraphim (667) any of the highest order of angels.
bower (734) a place enclosed by overhanging boughs of trees or by vines on a trellis; arbor.