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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 77, Summer 1998

Dante's Divine Comedy

Purgatory, Journey to Joy, Part Twoby Kathryn Lindskoog

Mercer University Press, 1997
Introduction and Preface, xiv pages, Purgatory, 202 pages

A Review by Father David Baumann

AT THE TIME he was writing the Comedy nearly seven hundred years ago, Durante (later shortened to Dante) Alighieri was confident that he was producing classic literature of timeless beauty. He intended to present to ordinary people the eternal Christian truths of damnation, redemption, and salvation in a work of marvelous splendor. To achieve this end, he wrote in Italian, not in Latin, and he used many images which the people of his age understood. And he succeeded.

For a number of reasons, ordinary people in our own age are unable to hear the message which Dante proclaimed so majestically. Most of us, even dedicated Christians, are unfamiliar with these eternal truths as they are wrapped in the images Dante used, and the hundreds of contemporary references which enrich the work have been lost to common memory. Most recent translations of Dante, no matter how accurate or beautiful, seem directed more to scholars than to the reading public.

Kathryn Lindskoog’s retelling of the Comedy superbly achieves for our age the aims which Dante had for this masterpiece in his own age. As in the Inferno and most of Purgatory Virgil is guide to Dante, so is Lindskoog guide to the reader on the same journey. Her remarkable achievement is two-fold. In spite of not knowing Italian, by comparing seven different English translations Lindskoog created an English rendering of poignant poetic beauty, both inspiring and accessible; and her thorough and detailed knowledge of Dante’s life, work, and times comes though footnotes which are expertly written without being intrusive or condescending. The footnotes, alone an impressive accomplishment, provide neither too much commentary nor too little, and afford even a casual reader with sufficient background to the personalities and events of Dante’s day which are vital for understanding his work. Lindskoog explains the medieval imagery which Dante and his age took for granted. Although probably few Christians today are familiar with the classical “seven deadly sins” which shape the journey Dante takes through Purgatory, Lindskoog’s delineation of them shows not only how they were understood in the early fourteenth century but also what forms they take in our time. She shows that the timeless teaching of the Comedy is very timely for today.

However, the greatest insight Lindskoog has, not only into Purgatory but into the entire Comedy, is that it is a “journey to joy.” Her deliberate use of these words as the subtitle shows that the Christian Way, so often caricatured by its detractors and misunderstood by its adherents as being restrictive, threatening, punishing, or opiative, is rather always to be seen as the Way to the radiant and invincible joy of eternal communion with God. This is the deep and abiding, guiding principle in the Comedy which Lindskoog recognized and never lost sight of. Even in Purgatory, the threshold of Paradise, the joy of the redeemed comes through Lindskoog’s rendering with almost painful incandescence. This was the great gift of Dante to his time, and Lindskoog has made it new for our own, which has desperate need of it.