Apendix N: The Divine Comedy

Dante's Inferno Canto 3: The Doomed Souls embarking to cross the Acheron
Dante’s Inferno Canto 3: The Doomed Souls embarking to cross the Acheron by Gustave Doré

It is ridiculous of me to sit here and pretend I can seriously write a piece about Dante’s divine comedy. I’m a second-rate blogger who writes about tabletop games; The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest classics of medieval European literature. It stands beside such epic poems as the Aeneid, or the Odessey and is no less remarkable than those masterworks. Even Dante’s own arrogance in proclaiming that his work stands next to Virgil and Homer’s does not diminish his achievement. It’s not pompous if you can back it up.

But I was recently asked not once, but three times by three different people, to write about the books which inspire me as a GM. As Brendan put it, my personal “Appendix N.” I’ve written extensively about the video games I am inspired by, such as the old Zelda, Dragon Warrior, and Final Fantasy games. If I’m being honest, this is probably because video games have had a more profound impact on my life than books have. I tend to read slowly, and I’m not as widely read as I feel I ought to be. I can fit in with the lit nerds when I want to. They accept me as one of them, but I have to say “Ya know, I haven’t actually read that one yet!” a lot.

Dante's Inferno Canto 4: Homer, the Classic Poets
Dante’s Inferno Canto 4: Homer, the Classic Poets by Gustave Doré

But the Divine Comedy, and Inferno specifically? I’ve read the shit out of that. It has been a never ending font of inspiration to me since I first picked it up for a medieval literature class back in 2008*†. Dante’s description of Hell represents the most vicious and memorably fantasy I’ve ever experienced. And one which is remarkably simple to read for a piece written 695 years ago. Though, if you’re not an expert on 14th century Florentine politics, it helps to have a version with copious footnotes.

As most everyone knows, the story gave us our now-commonplace vision of a hell. It shows us a land of descending circles where punishments are ironically tailored to progressively more grievous  sins. Dante himself is the story’s protagonist, who becomes lost while on a stroll, and finds himself on a road which can only lead through hell itself. He is accompanied on his journey by his literary forebear Virgil. There’s a hilariously self-indulgent scene where Virgil introduces Dante to the other great poets of history, and they accept him as one of them. Seriously. The bulk of the story is a collection of interviews as Dante meets hell’s sufferers, and speaks with them about their punishments. Some are figures from Greco-Roman mythology, while others are Dante’s personal enemies, or those of his family. A few are even friends Dante, and there are numerous popes found in hell’s lowest reaches, including one who was still alive at the time.

Dante's Inferno Canto 13: Harpies in the Forest of the Suicides
Dante’s Inferno Canto 13: Harpies in the Forest of the Suicides by Gustave Doré

I don’t really care for the book’s morality, but that’s hardly surprising. I’m an atheist who grew up in a catholic household and made a conscious decisions to reject that system of beliefs. I think it’s pretty disgusting to assert that suicides, sodomites, and simonists need to be punished for all eternity. But I also believe that history ought to be judged within context. And just because I’m an atheist, doesn’t mean I feel the need to cut myself off from thousands of years of human art and culture, simply because it was inspired by philosophies I believe to be flawed. The forest of the suicides is one of the most beautifully haunting places I’ve ever seen in fiction. So much so that it featured predominantly in a game where my players chose to travel to the Abyss. (Though I did edit the purpose for the tree’s existence).

I think part of what makes the poem such a perfect source for inspiration is its breakneck pace. The plot is just a vehicle for describing the various environments and torments of hell. First Dante encounters “the Neutrals,” who were too cowardly to choose between good or evil in their lives. He describes them almost like zombies, “the woeful people who have lost the good of the intellect.” But Dante has barely finished speaking of them when Virgil ushers him forward.

He replied: ‘I will tell thee in a few words. They have no hope of death, and so abject is their blind life that they are envious of every other lot. The world suffers no report of them to live. Pity and justice despise them. Let us not talk of them; but look thou and pass.’

And I looked and saw a whirling banner which ran so fast that it seemed as if it could never make a stand, and behind it came so long a train of people that I should never have believed death had undone so many. After I recognized some of them I knew the shade of him who from cowardice made the great refusal, and at once and with certainty I percieved that this was the worthless crew that is hateful to God and to His enemies. Those wretches, who were never alive, were naked and sorely stung by hornets and wasps that were there; these made their faces stream with blood, which mingled with their tears and was gathered at their feet by loathsome worms.

And then, directing my sight farther on…”

Dante's Inferno Canto 10: Farinata degli Uberti addresses DanteThat’s it. Dante glances over to see an impossibly huge group of people running along the shore chasing a banner (which, as I understand, represents self interest) and being tormented by hornets, wasps, and worms. Then he glances back to the path ahead of him, and moves on to the next terrifying sight. (Which, in this case, is actually just some people waiting by the shore, but you get the point).

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone looking for hellish inspiration. The density of information makes this relatively short epic more useful than many of the sourcebooks I’ve read. Plus, having read it allows you to pretend you’re significantly more educated than you actually are. If you are interested, I suggest you get the translation by John D Sinclair. Not only does it have those copious footnotes which are helpful for understanding the politics in the book, but each Canto is followed by an insightful analysis which helps in understanding the nearly 700 year old writing style.

Oh, and by the way, Gustave Doré made some absolutely beautiful fantasy art based on the Divine Comedy. That’s what I’ve been posting here, but there’s tons and tons more. Check it out if you like fantasy art!

* On that note, every class I took with Professor Nicholas Margaritis is a source of inspiration for me. I’ve had the privilege of studying under some remarkable individuals, but none of them affected me the way that man did. I felt as though I personally failed him when I didn’t finish a reading assignment on time, and the single A- he ever gave me remains one of the most profound compliments I’ve received in my entire life.

 † That’s also the year which Dante’s exile from Florence was finally rescinded by the Florentine City Council. So, ya know, you’re welcome, Dante. 

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