Just as a forward, this is a paper that I wrote for my comparative literature class. It is an essay, not a creative piece. I just figured I’d post it because I really enjoyed writing this particular paper. Instead of feeling like work, it was fun to travel deep into the Inferno and figure out just what exactly was going on down there. Maybe I’m weird, but I quite enjoy reading medieval literature. It’s always a bit surprising to recognize modern struggles in a book written 700 years ago. It really brings the past into perspective and reminds us that our problems have been experienced in many ways by many people over the years. We are not alone. It’s guaranteed that someone, somewhere feels or felt the way you do. Well, here goes.
The epic has a long and storied history in Western literature. Ever since human beings began to record stories, they wrote larger than life tales about heroes who were more than merely human. The epic has appeared in many forms throughout the ages, but it is always unquestionably present. From Gilgamesh through The Odyssey and from The Aeneid to Beowulf, the epic poem is very much a part of the literary tradition of the Western world. Though there are many variations, an epic is generally described as a long poem, often from an oral tradition, that describes the journeys and trials of a heroic figure. Dante’s Inferno, though it does not necessarily fit perfectly into the definition of an epic, is clearly a continuation of the epic tradition. However, the character of Dante is not the epic hero that we have come to expect from this type of story. Though a list of his attributes might appear heroic, Dante is, in reality, a weak, religious, and perhaps overly emotional poet. He isn’t a warrior or a strategist. He doesn’t have the power of a king. Instead, Dante is a new type of hero, created for a new time. Dante’s appearance as the hero of his tale represents a shift in how the western world understands heroism. Instead of following the deeds and trials of a mighty superhuman, we are given a story about a pious, and soft-spoken intellectual.
Dante’s Divine Comedy follows a long tradition of epics through history. Though it is perhaps not quite standard, Dante’s work fulfills the qualifications of an epic and fits neatly into the genre. Like the Greek and Roman poets whom he idolizes, Dante begins his narration by calling on the muses. As he is setting off, he calls out, “O muses, O genius of art, O memory” (Canto II, 6). Dante’s invocation of the muses directly relates the beginning of the Inferno to Virgil’s call of “Muse, tell me the causes” (Book 1, 8) and Homer’s famous first line, “Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story” (Book 1, 1). With this line, Dante has made it clear that he is following the tradition of the epic poem. Another aspect of Dante’s work that places it firmly within the epic genre is the fact that the focus of the poem is a fantastical, larger-than-life journey. Much like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Aeneas, the character of Dante embarks on an epic quest. Dante notes again and again that this is not a quest that the average man could make. He appears to be the first non-condemned man to walk through Hell. As he attempts to cross into the underworld, Charon stops him, saying, “You living soul, stand clear of these who are dead!” (Canto III, 73). Later in the story, when he is traveling through various layers of Hell, the fact that Dante is alive and not condemned is mentioned over and over by numerous characters, including Minos, Ser Brunetto, the Jovial Friars, and Mohammed. Dante’s journey, like those of previous heroes, also has a definite purpose. Like Gilgamesh’s search for eternal life or Odysseus’ search for his home, Dante’s journey does have meaning. He is traveling through Hell in order to find his way back home after becoming lost both literally and spiritually and losing “the true path (Canto I, 10). However, despite his epic journey, Dante himself is not truly comparable to the great heroes of past epic poems.
Although it is clear that Dante’s Inferno itself fits into the genre of the epic, Dante as a hero is problematic. All of the heroes that we have seen so far have had a fairly standard set of characteristics. Heroes are wiser, stronger, cleverer and better looking than the average man. They tend to be warriors or kings. Even Odysseus, who is known primarily for his wit and cleverness, is described as looking “like one of heaven’s people” (Book 6, 258). Dante never describes himself as appearing in any way heroic. In fact, he mentions before setting off that he is “no Aeneas or Paul: / Not I nor others think me of such worth” (Canto II, 26-27). Dante claims here that he is not a hero in any sense. He is most definitely not a heroic warrior like Aeneas, but he also does not claim to be like St. Paul, a hero of the church. As we follow Dante through Hell, it becomes clear that Dante is not just being humble. Again and again, he shows weakness, fear, and timidity that no ‘true hero’ would display. Dante also faints much more than any hero should. We hear about Dante fainting twice by the end of the fifth Canto. The first time he faints, he is in Charon’s boat, entering Hell proper. As he travels across the Acheron, Dante is overwhelmed by what he sees and falls “as though seized by sleep” (Canto III, 112). Later, he is overcome by emotion at the fate of Francesca and Paulo, the lovers, and passes out again. Clearly Dante does not have the strength of character to be a hero in the traditional sense. He is weak, easily overcome by emotion, and he follows rather than leads. As the majority of epic heroes are noted leaders, this is quite the departure from the norm. Instead, Dante follows Virgil, saying at one point, “I like what pleases you. You are / My lord, you know I follow where your will leads” (Canto XIX, 33-34). He is completely willing to follow Virgil, unlike the strong leaders that have starred in previous epics. Dante’s physical weakness is also mentioned often. At one point, Virgil even scolds Dante for being weak after the poet claims that he can’t go on, saying, “so out of breath / Were my spent lungs I felt that I could get / no farther than I was” (Canto XXIV, 44-46). Dante cannot handle the physical exercise that a hero needs to undertake. Ultimately, however, Dante’s weakness does not stop him from completing his journey.
As he travels through the circles of Hell, it becomes clear that Dante does not need supposedly ‘heroic qualities’ to be the hero of his tale. Though his journey is epic in scope, it is not a journey that rewards raw strength alone. After all, unlike those of many earlier heroes, Dante’s quest is not a physical one, but a spiritual one. As he is preparing to enter Hell, Dante says:
While I alone was preparing as though for war
To struggle with my journey and with the spirit
Of pity (Canto II, 3-5).
Here, Dante has chosen to represent himself as a spiritual warrior of sorts, which is an interesting contrast to the rather pathetic image of himself that Dante gives us. He also describes the true purpose of is journey. He is going through Hell to struggle with the “spirit of pity.” Initially his phrasing is rather unclear. Is he struggling to show pity or to hide it? Is the pity that he shows throughout his journey a good or bad quality? This is not made clear until Canto XX, when Virgil says to Dante,
Here, pity lives when it is dead to these.
Who could be more impious than one who’d dare
To sorrow at the judgment God decrees? (Canto XX, 28-30).
Virgil is telling Dante that he should not be feeling pity for those who have gotten what they deserved. Though it might be natural for an empathetic man like Dante to feel for those he meets in Hell, he needs to accept God’s judgment. This is Dante’s heroic struggle. Unlike the heroes of ancient Rome and Greece, Dante is not fighting a physical battle. He is not fighting to be ‘on top.’ Unlike Gilgamesh and Aeneas, Dante is not searching for glory. Instead, his task is to submit to God. This is a very different understanding of heroics than we have seen up until now. The change from the warrior-king heroes of the past to Dante shows a fascinating shift toward a more personal, spiritual ideal. Instead of the glory of society as a whole, Dante focuses on personal growth and an understanding with God. Introspection and faith have become more important than leadership and strength. According to Dante, the ultimate goal is not to be ‘great.’ Instead, we need to look within ourselves and make sure that our understanding of the world is in line with God’s. Although it is true that Dante’s character is weak, emotional, and that he is not a ‘leader’, these qualities are not important for this new type of hero.
Dante’s Inferno, while it is unquestionably a part of the genre of epic poetry, inverts the idea of the hero that is often found in traditional works. Rather than a strong, masculine, larger-than-life hero, Dante, the hero of his take, is a weak, emotional poet who follows rather than leads and is prone to fainting. Dante’s character is quite the departure from the typical hero seen in an epic. Instead of learning about the trials and quests of a ‘great’ king or warrior, we follow the spiritual journey of an introspective, religious man. The character of Dante is a new type of hero for a changed world. Instead of telling us about glory and greatness, Dante has shifted his focus to introspection and spirituality. The ultimate goal, as seen in the Inferno is a personal understanding of God and oneself. This is very different from the heroics that we’re used to, but that does not mean that it is not valid. Dante’s brand of heroism is just as important as that of more traditional epic heroes and it just might be more important. After all, how could one possibly achieve greatness without self-realization?