Comparing The Struggle In Dante’s Inferno And Book Vi Of The Aeneid

4378 words - 18 pages

The Infernal Struggle in Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of The Aeneid

Does hell have its own history? For Dante, the structural and thematic history of ‘hell’ in the Inferno begins with the Roman epic tradition and its champion poet, Virgil. By drawing heavily from the characteristics of hell in Book VI of The Aeneid, Dante carries the epic tradition into the medieval world and affirms his indebtedness to Virgil’s poetry. Moreover, Virgil becomes a central character in the Inferno as he guides Dante, the pilgrim, who has no knowledge of hell, through his own historical model. Similarly, the protagonist of The Aeneid, Aeneas, lacks the foresight necessary to make the journey through hell on his own and thus places his trust in the mythological prophet, the Sybil. Because the Sybil and Virgil already have knowledge of the underworld, their characters in The Aeneid and the Inferno are associated with history, both literally through Virgil’s poetry and metaphorically through their enduring wisdom in eyes of the pilgrim and Aeneas. For Aeneas and the pilgrim, however, religious history evolves from an ancient world of paganism to medieval Christianity and these values are transposed onto hell itself--showing that its history changes over time. Furthermore, the living realities that the pilgrim and Aeneas take into the underworld prove unstable when juxtaposed with hell’s slippery and ever-changing ambience. In Book VI of The Aeneid, Aeneas enters an underworld filled with triple-hybrid beasts, sinners, heroes, and a transparent physical reality that foils his warriorlike instincts for conflict and resolution. Likewise, in Dante’s Inferno, the journeying pilgrim witnesses a horrific blurring of life and death, which in this case negates his imagination as a poet--his ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Thus, the journeying protagonists in Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid face the possible subversion of their own living realities as hell’s historical values evolve from ancient paganism to medieval Christianity.

The historical relationship between the Aeneid and the Inferno originates with Dante’s own definition of the former as “the canonic epic model” (Jacoff 3). By definition an “epic model” dramatizes events of historical or legendary importance (Webster). Thus Dante, who “had no direct access to Homer” and the first epic models of Western literature--The Illiad and The Odyssey--chose Rome’s national epic, The Aeneid, as his historical inspiration (Jacoff 3). Specifically, the Inferno finds its overarching structural and thematic antecedent in Book VI of The Aeneid, where Aeneas descends into the realm of the shades. Here among hell’s carnage Aeneas finds his idea of eternal beauty embodied within the shade of his father, Anchises, who has survived in the heaven-like Elysian Fields. In the Inferno, the pilgrim undertakes the same journey as his historical prototype but instead searches for spiritual absolution in a...

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