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‘Dante the Pilgrim’
To begin with, the pilgrim is the poet's creation, who moves in a world of the poet's invention. The pilgrim is assigned the role of a fragile and inexperienced soul. At the beginning of the poem, 1300, Dante the pilgrim, is thirty-five years of age. That is, he has already covered one-half of man's Biblical life span of seventy years. He finds himself lost in a dark wood, threatened by wild beasts. These are merely symbols that reflect aspects of his life: the dark wood stands for a life of sin and the various beasts represent specific sins. Thus the pilgrim can be said to be going through a spiritual mid-life crises. Trapped by his own human nature and unable to find a way out. What he is really seeking is movement toward the highest spiritual idea - God and Goodness - but he is unable to find the resources within himself. He is in spiritual peril and requires outside aid. And he is fortunate enough to receive it in the form of Virgil's shade that comes to guide him.
Dante has always held Virgil in great respect and looked upon him as his teacher. Thus Virgil has tremendous influence on the pilgrim. The latter holds him in great awe and fears to displease him. In fact, he always tries to please him and mould himself according to what Virgil considers desirable. Thus Virgil serves as a very important instrument in the pilgrim’s spiritual journey and development.
Firstly, awe and fear overcome the pilgrim as he enters Hell. The emotions are so strong that he faints more than once. Secondly, he pities the sinners whom he finds undergoing extreme pain. Their plight touches his heart and he is overcome by grief for them. Moreover he is also taken in by the lies of some of them, most notably that of Francesca da Rimini. His naiveté angers Virgil considerably and the pilgrim learns, under Virgil's tutelage that to feel pity for an unrepentant sinner is a misguided and spiritually unwholesome emotion. He should instead despise them because by sinning without repenting, they have blasphemed Divine Justice. And if he feels any tender emotion toward their plight he too blasphemes Divine Justice.
But eventually, by the time their (Virgil and Pilgrim's) circuit of Hell is complete the pilgrim has spiritually progressed. He has come to understand the nature of sin, to harden his heart against sinners; has learned that spirituality is a robust emotion and that good has to be actively sought after and that good has to be actively sought after and that sin and sinners have to be actively repelled.
Virgil is a Roman poet, who wrote the "Aeneid" and the "Fourth Eclogue". The reasons for Dante's selection of Virgil as the pilgrim's guide are several: Virgil was a poet and Italian; in the "Aeneid" is recounted the hero's decent into Hell. In the Middle Ages, Virgil was considered a prophet, a judgement stemming from the interpretation of some obscure lines in the "Fourth Eclogue" as foretelling the coming of Christ. In this regard Dante saw Virgil as a sort of mediator between Imperial and Apostolic Rome.
In "The Divine Comedy" Virgil is assigned the role of Reason or Human Wisdom, the means through which man will come to an understanding of the nature of sin. With Virgil or Reason as his guide, Dante the pilgrim will come to an understanding of sin on his journey through Hell.
Virgil has a versatile character. He is not always ‘Human Reason’, he can shift roles. There are moments when he is merely a traveling companion of the pilgrim or simply Virgil, the great poet of antiquity. There is even a time when he is unreasonable, during the mysterious medieval drama in front of the gates of Dis (Canto IX).
Mostly, the role of Virgil is that of the pilgrim's guide and teacher. He plays this role with aplomb and makes an effective and a severe teacher. He expects his student to be strong and clear-headed. He has no patience with weakness or misdirected emotions. He expects Dante to be spiritually strong and look beyond appearances and see the true nature of sin and sinners and feel abhorrence for both. He is easily angered by any display of weakness on the pilgrim's part. But if the latter shows true repentance or learns his lessons well, Virgil is free with praise and encouragement.
And yet Virgil is not always omniscient: sometimes he too is taken in by lies and is almost a weaker figure than the pilgrim in certain situations. In Canto XXI he belittles the pilgrim's fear when he is suspicious of the Malebranche. And in XXIII he waits for his warning before grabbling him up and sliding into the next Bolgia. Virgil's failure to cope with the lies perhaps indicates Reason's inability immediately to recognize fraud. It should also be noted that Virgil's escape from the lying devil's of the sixth Bolgia is instinctive and not reasoned.
In the final analysis though, Virgil carries out his role as the guide and meter with aplomb and proves a fine teacher.