This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I finally got around to reading it now, and I can say that it was worth reading-- even if it left me with more questions about Hell than I had before I started (which, if you're wondering, was zero).
I seem to be saying this a lot in my reviews lately, but I think that my 21st century sensibilities take a lot of the horror and wonder out of the classics I've been reading. What I mean by this is that I'm pretty dang positive that in Dante's time, with the demons and the giants and the gory descriptions of suffering, this book was probably one of the most harrowing journeys in print, and yet I thought it was only OK. Not great, not horrible, but OK.
It was interesting, don't get me wrong. I see the origins of some of the cliches regarding Hell, which is cool. But dangerous? Scary? Rush-out-and-join-the-church-life-altering? No. Not so much. To me, it seemed more like Dante went on a guided tour at the zoo. Yes, the animals were unkempt and suffering (and for some of the silliest of sins - but I'll get to that later!), but there was never any danger. Nothing to keep me on the edge of my seat rooting Dante on to a safe home-coming.
For one, Dante and his guide seem to have free reign of Hell. They can go where they want, chat up or piss off whomever they want. I don't really get this. What makes Dante so special that he THINKS he MIGHT be beginning down the wrong path and God steps in to assign him a guide to show him where he might end up if he doesn't stop thinking the wrong thoughts. Were others given the same opportunity? Or was Dante chosen to be
the opportunity? That might be it.
Dante's Hell seems all-encompassing though. It seems that the slightest of sins gets you a one-way backstage pass to the depths of Hell. It seems that in Dante's mind, there is no redemption. Not baptised? Like chemistry? Too hungry for your own good? One slip, and its the sands of fire for all eternity. Dante is giving us is a one sided view of where NOT to end up. And without the possibility of redemption, the chances of slipping up and coveting thy neighbors perfect lawn and ending up in Hell is pretty high. And, to rub salt in those wounds, God sees fit to put a warning on the Gate of Hell:
"I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.
SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.
ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE."
Oh, he was probably chuckling at that one. 'Hahaha, by the time you read this, it'll be too late!' Yet this wrathful, vengeful God takes an interest in Dante? *sigh* I don't get it.
Yet, and this is what gets me, Dante strives to be this great and noble soul, but during the course of his journey, he makes a promise to help one of the suffering ease his pain a little in order to get information out of him, and then as soon as he obtains the information, he breaks his promise! WHAT? Off to the 8th Circle of Hell for you Dante, you hypocrite!
Anyway, I'm ranting on. I think this is one of those stories that has to be read a couple of times. I think I will read it again sometime, but that can wait a while.