Dante Alighieri was born in Florence around 1265. His great work
The Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece not just of Italian, but
of world literature. Composed in three parts, Hell, Purgatory and
Paradise, it can be read on many different levels: the soul’s search for
God, Dante’s own personal journey from despair to joy, and a
narrative poem of great beauty in which Dante sets out to follow the
poet he admires above all others, Virgil, taking the Latin poet’s great
epic, The Aeneid, as the model for his own.
It may seem odd that a deeply religious work can be rooted so
strongly in a pre-Christian world of classical myth. But Dante had no
problem in combining the ancient Roman idea of the afterlife, as
depicted by Virgil, with the medieval view of the soul’s journey after
death, at least as far as the Inferno goes. Hades, with all its
punishments, makes a good template for Hell. So Virgil guides
Dante through the same Underworld that his hero, Aeneas, visits in
The Aeneid: they have to cross the rivers Acheron and Styx, rowed by
Charon, the ferryman, before dealing with Cerberus, the three-headed
guard dog; they see Minos, legendary king of Crete, assigning wicked
souls to their correct punishment, just as he does in the Classical
Underworld, and they are defied at the gates of Dis by blood-soaked,
snake-headed Furies. Contemporary murderers, corrupt churchmen
and traitors are punished alongside mythical characters such as the Giants who rebelled against Jupiter, and Sinon, betrayer of Troy.
Set as it is in a dark, menacing world of snarling monsters and peopled with the heroes and villains of classical literature, the Inferno struck me as having all the ingredients for an exciting adventure story for children. Dante dates his journey in 1300, when, exiled from his home town on a false charge of corruption, he felt himself at his lowest ebb: ‘lost in a dark wood’, Virgil rescues him, leading him on the long path through Hell and out the other side.
For my 12 year-old heroine, Ante, the ‘dark wood’ is the breaking-point that relentless bullying by her enemy, Florence, has brought her to. Cue the appearance of Gil, a mysterious 13 year-old boy with a traditional classical education, and the scene is set for Ante’s own journey through the Underworld to the heart of Hell.
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