The question, “Where should my story begin?’ is, as every storyteller knows, both immensely important and immensely difficult to answer. ‘Once upon a time’, as the fairy-tale formula has it; but once upon a time there was – what? The opening governs the way you tell everything that follows, not only in terms of the organization of the events, but also in terms of the tone of voice that does the telling; and not least, it enlists the reader’s sympathy in this cause rather than that. Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out that if a film opens with a shot of a burglar breaking into a house and ransacking the place, and then, with him, we see through the bedroom window the lights of a car drawing up outside, we think ‘Hurry up! Get out! They’re coming!”
So when the story of Paradise Lost begins, after the invocation to the ‘heavenly muse’, we find ourselves in Hell, with the fallen angels groaning on the burning lake. And from then on, part of our awareness is always affected by that. This is a story about devils. It’s not a story about God. The fallen angels and their leader are protagonists, and the unfallen angels, and God the Father and the Son, and Adam and Eve, are all supporting players. And we begin in medias res, in the middle of the action, with the first great battle lost, and the rebel angels just beginning to recover their senses after their vertiginous fall. What an opening! And what scenery! Satan first looks around at
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed . . .
(Book I, lines 60-9)
– Philip Pullman, from his introduction to the new, illustrated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.