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Book Review: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno Retold

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 76, Spring 1998 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

By Nancylou Patterson

Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Retold, with Notes, by Kathryn Lindskoog (Macon, Georgia, Mercer University Press, 1997), 226 pp.

THE INFERNO is the first of the three portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and for many people, the only one they have read. It should not in fact be read in isolation, because it is the first movement of a great symphonic structure which culminates in Heaven, but if it is read alone, this version, with its crisp and vigorous prose rendering of the poem, presents its images and meanings not only effectively but unforgettably. The poetry is absent but the power is not.

The images are the meanings, for the Commedia is an allegory. This means that the characters represent and embody forms of behaviour while expressing these behaviours through human images (fictional and historical) who were fully recognizable to Dante’s readers. An author writing in the same vein today might include — well, you will have your own idea of who! Dante did not mean that any of them, except for Satan, were actually in Hell, or that Hell and its pains are actually those he describes. Instead, he used the damned and their plight to present in vivid vignettes what sin is really like. As Aldous Huxley said in Heaven and Hell (1956), “many of the punishments described in the various accounts of hell are punishments of pressure and constriction. Dante’s sinners are buried in mud, shut up in the trunks of trees, frozen solid in blocks of ice, crushed beneath stones. The Inferno is psychologically true.”

It is customary to say that the narrative, a tour through Hell, is bracketed by two especially potent sequences, one the moment when the first tiny bud of sin appears, and the other when sin is fullblown. It is a good test of Kay Lindskoog’s gifts that she has preserved this potency in her own characteristically forceful English.

The first is the story of Paolo and Francesca, whose forbidden love has condemned them to everlasting flight on the wings of a cold wind: “When we read how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover,” she says, referring to the story of Lancelot’s adulterous love affair, “he who shall never be parted from me trembled . . . and gently kissed my mouth. The book, and he who wrote it, had been our matchmaker.” Then, she pronounces these gentle, terrible words: “That day we read no farther.” (p. 50)