Recapping Dante: Canto 8, or High Drama


Arts & Culture

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Crossing the Styx, illustration by Gustave Doré, 1861.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

Canto 8 is perhaps the most exciting we have encountered so far. The story alone is a harrowing prelude to a great adventure: it’s like the first few minutes of a Bond movie, right before the theme song and titles start rolling. Canto 8 ends just as Dante and Virgil arrive at the edge of the Styx, where the wrathful are punished. Dante spots two towers (not to be confused with those from Lord of the Rings). These towers appear to be communicating with one another—as one launches a flame into the air, the other responds. A curious Dante asks Virgil what this signifies, and Virgil doesn’t really address his question. By now Dante has learned not to press such an issue, and knows that if he allows himself to get derailed by a mystery like two flaming towers, he’ll never get anywhere.

Phlegyas, who operates the little stygian skiff, arrives at the bank of the river. As noted in canto 7, the wrathful sinners are here hurled into the muddy Styx and are left to bob there as punishment; indeed, the Hollanders point out that Phlegyas’s job probably isn’t to carry sinners from one side to the other—like Charon—but rather to keep the sinners in the mud. As he arrives and greets Dante and Virgil, Phlegyas seems thrilled to have a fresh pair of sinners to toy with, but Virgil takes particular pleasure in announcing that he and Dante are, in fact, on a quest and as such are exempt from the punishments of hell. Phlegyas is as disappointed as “one who learns of a deceitful plot.”

As they cross the river, Dante is startled by the appearance a sinner who bobs to the surface. Having recognized the sinner, Dante shouts at him; Virgil shoves him back into the river. The sinner, who we later learn is Filippo Argenti, was one of Dante’s Florentine enemies. As we have already seen, Dante likes to condemn to damnation anyone who ever wronged him, and so, at the very least, his enemies have been suffering in hell for the last seven hundred years. This interaction with Argenti is also interesting because Dante, who has heretofore shown a lot of compassion for sinners, condemns him to the Styx without compunction.

Finally Dante and Virgil reach the other side, and stand before the gates of the City of Dis. Virgil has already pulled the divine-quest card once, and, hoping it works again, confronts the demons who are guarding the gates. This time, however, it doesn’t fly. The demons don’t want to let them pass, which makes sense because, after all, why should employees of the underworld obey divine law? Doesn’t hell operate on some level of its own? Or is it simply like the trash room of a great corporate building—full of filth and out of sight, but ultimately still subject to company rules and regulations?

Dante, upon being denied entry, says something peculiar. “Reader, how could I not lose heart at the sound of these accursèd words?” Earlier we encountered Dante the protagonist, the narrator, and now we have Dante the poet? What we have is a Dante within a Dante within a Dante. Is the address to the reader a way of saying, “Last time, sure, I was scared, but now I’m really, really scared”?

Virgil goes to sort out the demons and unconvincingly tells Dante not to be afraid and that it’s going to be okay, sort of like a parent comforting a child in a burning building with firefighters an hour away. He tries to reason with the guards, but they won’t have any of it, and don’t seem to care at all. The canto ends as the two stand glumly across the Styx before the City of Dis, waiting to learn whether they will be able to move forward, or whether Dante, the timorous Florentine, will have to retrace his steps and travel backwards through hell on his own.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.