Monday, August 9, 2010

Dante's Inferno

So I was visiting my folks' place the other weekend, and in the evening went hunting from the bookshelves for something to read. One thing I picked up was Dante's Inferno -- assigned in a class in college, I failed in a half-dozen attempts to read past the first 10 pages or so. Now 20 years later I've finally finished it.

(In hindsight, a major reason that I couldn't finish it before is that I've got a translation by Mark Musa for Penguin Classics -- pictured above -- and the guy went nuts with the annotations: 60-page introduction, header summary to each Canto, and Notes after each Canto, frequently longer than the text itself. The header summary in particular gives away all the plot in advance, and then you have to slog through the longer poetry about stuff you already know is going to happen -- that's what killed me in college. By avoiding those header summaries, I could read it the other week and find it fresh and compelling.)

Now, there's not a whole lot to say about it beyond what people like Milton, Longfellow, T.S. Eliot, Rodin, Mike Watt, and an imperial legion of literature PHDs haven't already said. But I figured it's worth a few bullet points here, seeing as it directly contributed its nine-descending-concentric-circles architecture to the D&D conception of Hell -- from Gygax's first presentation of the Outer Planes in Dragon #8, to devils in the AD&D Monster Manual, Greenwood's influential articles on the subject, and all the way to 4E today -- with some slight topical/naming rearrangements. (D&D's Heaven is similarly inspired by the structure of Dante's Purgatorio/Paradiso.) So here goes:
  1. It's torture porn. There's no other way to put it. The truly enduring allure of the Inferno is the monumental creativity behind pages and pages and pages of ingenious, surprisingly graphic, ever-mounting tortures inflicted upon the damned in hell, and the quasi-ironic poetic justice (contrapasso) which relates each punishment to the associated sin and sub-sin. Much like a modern Saw movie, you can wrap this in a facade of moral meditation, but the deeper attraction is really not that. You get the same moral themes in Purgatorio and Paradisio, but most people don't bother to read those.
  2. The classical allusions are great. For some reason it's still exciting (in a comic-book-crossover-kind-of-way) to see Dante's character running into, and interacting with, some legendary figure in each section such as Virgil, Homer, Odysseus, Achilles, Caesar, etc., etc. Dante sets an intriguing, powerful model for melding Christian with Classical mythology -- including positions for Cerberus, Centaurs, the Minotaur, Medusa, and the Titans in the Christian cosmos -- much like Original D&D's establishment of Catholic clerics adventuring against an almost all-Greek-myth cast of antagonists (OD&D Vol-1 and 2). However, I'm now enormously sensitive to the faultlines of this approach: Are the Centaurs in Hell being punished, or are they devils themselves? If the Titans (and others) still shudder from Zeus' casting them down into the pit, how is it that Zeus and the other Olympian gods are themselves missing from the cosmology? Stuff like that.
  3. The 14th-century Italian references kind of suck. In contrast to the preceding, Dante's character actually spends more time constantly running into contemporary Florentines and other Italians, speaking with them at length, and grinding various axes against rivals, competing merchant clans, out-of-favor politicians, etc. These are a bunch of people you've never heard of before, and really couldn't care about -- much like a TV show with too many topical references, it's aged fast compared to the other parts, and it's rather a bore to slog through these sections. Unfortunately, somewhat more ink is spent on these characters than the classical ones above. (Kudos to the translator Musa from providing annotations to all of these, although the fact that he included equally-long notes identifying who are Caesar, Achilles, Hannibal, the Minotaur, etc., makes it look pretty goofy.)
Part of me is left with a desire to sit down and write a top-to-bottom D&D campaign directly out of Dante's Inferno (sticking more closely to the text than the D&D version), but possibly someone's already done and/or published that at this point -- and in addition, I'm sort of committed to avoiding the Christian church/mythology in my own games these days, so it wouldn't mesh very well with other stuff I do. The overall construction and specification of Dante's Inferno remains novel and absolutely compelling (particularly to a math-oriented guy like myself).

Here's a couple cool ideas I'd consider using in a D&D campaign right now:
  • The circle of Sorcerers has this intriguing passage:
    They built a city over her dead bones,
    and for her, the first to choose that place, they named it
    Mantua, without recourse to sorcery. [Canto XX, lines 91-93]
    So, this has two interesting seeds within it. One is to make it a practice of founding your cities over the bones of dead wizards for some sort of protective-power effect (I'm quickly thinking of Lankhmar's lich-like defenders here). The other related practice is to require a divinatory spell (contact other plane) to actually get some higher power to tell you the proper name of the place. (As Musa writes in the notes here, "The customs of ancient peoples dictated that the name of a newly founded city be obtained through sorcery.")

  • The other idea is how to name your devils -- specifically, pick some simple descriptive phrase and run it through an online Italian translator, and you get an authentic-sounding, baroque Hellish name (at least to my ear). That's effectively what Dante did for his Malebranche devils in Canto XXI, and of course those were transcribed directly into the writeup on the same kind of devil in the AD&D Monster Manual (p. 22). Some quick examples: "Strong Hand" = "Manoforte", "Knobby Leg" = "Manopolagamba", "Angry Face" = "Facciarrabbiata". (I suppose this will be a lot less impressive if you actually know Italian, but I'm fond of it.)

(As a final aside, my picking up Dante's Inferno doesn't have anything to do with the recent EA video game using the same title -- that's just a coincidence.)


  1. There is always the recently re-released Inferno 1980

  2. That's too bad that most people don't read the Purgatorio and the Paradisio. The Purgatorio is my favorite part, and the Inferno is my least favorite. That said, all of Dante is excellent.

  3. The Purgatorio is my favorite part, and the Inferno is my least favorite.

    Same here -- but then we've had this conversation before :)

  4. BlUsKrEEm: Well, there you go. :)

    Noting that the Judge's Guild 1980 "Inferno" product covered only the first half of Hell (the 2nd part never got published), and that the creator Geoff Dale is planning on finishing & publishing it online later this year.

    I guess the PDF version of the old adventure has just been put online within the last few weeks. Really funny how serendipitously these kinds of things seem to happen.