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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO VIII

Picture Dante and Virgil walking along the murky marsh of
the river Styx until they can see the gate to the fiery walls
which surround the city of Dis, the beginning of the Nether
(Lower) Hell I. A signal light comes from the top of the tower
and a boatman sets forth across the river to fetch Dante and
Virgil. Phylegas, who in Greek mythology set fire to Apollo's
temple, is the boatman. He fumes at the knowledge that Virgil
and Dante are not sinners who have come for placement, but
he does ferry them across.



The boat, precariously positioned because of Dante's weight,
sets out across the grimy water. A head appears in the mud
and challenges Dante's passage "before his time." Dante
recognizes the shade as Filippo Argenti, a fellow Florentine.
When Dante tells Filippo to remain and rot in the slime,
Filippo grabs the boat. Virgil casts him off and turns to
embrace Dante with a most unusual blessing: "Blessed is the
womb that bore thee." Dante wishes that he could see Filippo
at the hands of some of the Wrathful. While the poets watch,
Filippo is beaten and mauled by a gang of fellow sinners.

This can be a very confusing passage. It looks like Virgil is
encouraging Dante to be cruel and un-Christian. The line he
chooses comes from Christ himself and suggests that Dante's
reaction has brought him closer to his goal. This is the first
time that Dante has not pitied the sinners; it is the first time he
was repulsed by them. Allegorically, Dante sees for the first
time how vile and degrading sin, in the image of the sinner,
really is. For this step, Dante is rewarded. Immediately after
this episode, however, Dante's quest gets very difficult.

The poets draw near to the gate of the city of Dis and Dante
loses heart. Phylegas lets them off near the gate where they
are met by some of the Fallen Angels, those that fought with
Lucifer in the battle of Heaven. They challenge Dante and
refuse him passage while he is still alive. They also tell Virgil
to let Dante find the way back himself. When he hears this,
Dante begs Virgil to quit and to allow them to go back
together, quickly. Virgil tells Dante to take heart-their
passage is guaranteed from above, and Virgil will not abandon
him. Virgil does, however, leave Dante for a brief private
meeting with the Fallen Angels. While Dante quivers in fear,
he sees the gate slammed in Virgil's face. Virgil returns to
Dante with assurances that they will win entry and that help is
on the way.

NOTE: You are probably wondering why the entrance to Dis
is so impassable. What is the significance of the Fallen
Angels? What threat do they pose? On one level, it makes a
good story. Another way to look at it comes from its
juxtaposition with the reward Dante has just received from
Virgil.

Dante is just beginning to understand the nature of sin and
how it blinds the soul and binds the will. Virgil is Dante's
teacher and guide, a provider of light. The Fallen Angels, in
their attempts to separate Virgil and Dante, are deniers of
light, if you will. They represent the loss of reason that is part
of the will to sin. Had the Fallen Angels been successful in
separating Virgil and Dante, this would have been the end of
the guidance of reason, and Dante, literally and figuratively,
would have been lost.

Virgil's faltering in this situation suggests that humanism
alone, represented by Virgil, often underestimates the power
of evil and is confused by the will to evil. The Nether Hell gate
is the passage point from the sins of Incontinence to the sins of
Violence. To deal with this more potent sin, help from a
source higher than reason, namely Heaven, must intercede.

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