In continuing our examination of some of the themes of Dante’s Inferno, we now turn to examine the transformative relationship between Virgil and Dante within the first part of the Divine Comedy. The theme of guide and relationship runs throughout the Divine Comedy. Virgil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Beatrice takes over for Virgil and becomes Dante’s guide to enter in Heaven and guides him through the early circles of Heaven. Beatrice is later replaced by St. Bernard, the great Augustinian philosopher and theologian of Divine Love in the Middle Ages. Love is the theme that unites all of Dante’s guides.
Why did Dante choose Virgil? There are many reasons. Dante is Italian and, therefore, Roman. Virgil was the greatest of the Roman poets. Dante wants to be the greatest of the Italian poets. Virgil comes to know this and remarks to Dante that he is proud while they journey up the mountain of Purgatory. Dante was a lover and love runs through his works. Virgil was the great poet of love. Love is a central theme in all of Virgil’s poetry. Because of this Virgil was regarded as the most Christian of the Greek and Roman poets before Christ. St. Augustine even regarded him as a pre-Christian prophet! The choice of Virgil as the poet of love is also symptomatic of the relationship that the two build through the poem which I will now help to parse out.
Virgil as Dante’s guide has been one of the most commented on and speculated in the literary reception of Divine Comedy. When we first meet Virgil, it is after Dante is unable to ascend the mountain to heaven, blocked by three vicious creatures who deny Dante his path up the mountain. Virgil informs Dante he is to journey with him through Hell before he can begin his ascent up the slopes of Mount Purgatory to Heaven.
The relationship between Dante and Virgil changes dramatically over the course of the poem. Their relationship reaches its consummation in Purgatory as Virgil becomes a sort of father figure for Dante and Dante even calls Virgil father on several occasions, thus sealing their relational development. The emphasis on the relationship between Dante and Virgil is deliberately inserted by Dante to highlight the relational anthropology of Christianity – humans are not simply sociable animals, but deeply relational animals with emotions and desires, and that learning, and trust is often accompanied with others.
Right from the start we see a relationship that is quasi-antagonist in which Dante and Virgil are somewhat estranged. Virgil is serving as the tour guide for the pilgrim Dante and nothing more than that. While Virgil informs Dante of what is before him and Dante, hearing the screams of the reprobate, continues to question Virgil and faints only to awaken with Virgil at his side as they begin their journey into the underworld. The initial depiction of the relationship between the two, though Dante acknowledges Virgil as master out of due respect, is one in which there is a certain disconnect between the two. Virgil is merely talking to Dante and Dante talking to Virgil. They are not so much talking with each other or dependent upon each other at the early stage of the journey through Hell and Purgatory.
Over time, however, this invisible wall between the two starts to dissipate and the two are being brought closer together in friendship and dependence. Not only does Dante need Virgil, Virgil, in some respects, needs Dante too. Furthermore, Virgil takes it upon himself to save Dante from Medusa as they’re about to enter the city of Dis because Virgil doesn’t trust Dante yet. Herein lies another element to their story together: trust. Though the two are growing closer together in friendship to the point that, in Purgatory, their relationship is that of father-son, Virgil doesn’t fully trust Dante as evidenced by his turning Dante around and then covering his eyes with his hands as the demons summon Medusa to block their entry into Dis. It is only through Divine Intervention – Deus ex machina – that the duo can proceed into the walls of the city of Dis.
It is within the walls of Dis (the sixth through ninth circles of Hell) that the relationship between Dante and Virgil most transforms within Inferno. Their relationship also serves as the opposite of the inner most crevices of Hell. Whereas the sixth through ninth circles of Hell are filled with the denial of truth, betrayal, and lack of love, Dante and Virgil stand out within Hell as having truth (as Virgil teaches Dante), friendship and trust (as Dante leans on Virgil to get him through Hell), and love (through the light that is Virgil and the friendship and dependence that is fostered between the two as they descend further into the lair of beast).
In the third bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell there is a transformative moment and expression of self-giving love between the two as Dante comes ever closer to Virgil. As they need to descend the mountain to reach the banks of one of the rivers where Dante wishes to converse with one of the damned souls, the two have a dialogue with each other where Virgil offers to carry the tired pilgrim to the lower bank and Dante responds that he wishes to do whatever that will please Virgil. This is a moment of self-giving and pleasing love between the two which stands as a stark and beautiful dialectical opposite to what the rest of Hell is like:
Who is that one, Master, that angry wretch,
who is writhing more than any of his comrades,”
I asked, “the one licked by a redder flame?”
And he to me, “If you want to be carried down
along that lower bank to where he is,
you can ask him who he is and why he’s there.”
And I, “My pleasure is what pleases you:
You are my lord, you know that from your will
I will not swerve. You even know my thoughts. (Canto XIX, 31-39)
And so, it is that their relational transformation comes to the fore. Dante trusts Virgil and Virgil trusts Dante and is willing to help Dante more than just teach or instruct Dante (intellectually). They are being bonded closer together in the flesh. This also reflects an important idea within Christian anthropology that we are more than just our souls. We are body and soul; the joys of the soul are also to be the joys of the body and vice-versa. Which is why the harm of the soul becomes the harm of the body and the harm of the body the harm of the soul also in Christian thinking. There is a unity between the two. Friends who are brought together at the intellectual or spiritual level will also be brought together in the bodily level, sharing and helping one another in each other’s physical trials and pains as evidenced by Virgil offering to help the beleaguered and exhausted Dante to the bank to have a conversation with Pope Nicholas III (the damned soul).
The end of the nineteenth canto highlights the transformative self-giving friendship and trust fostered by Dante and Virgil and that this friendship and love that is accompanied with it is the only light in Hell. Their love will allow them to persevere through Hell itself. Love conquers all things. This is not only a Christian belief, it is also reflective of Virgil who, in his collection of short poems – the Eclogues – declared the very same: omnia vincit amor (love conquers all). As Dante describes as they proceed through Hell:
Then he took hold of me with both his arms,
And when he had me firm against his breast,
He climbed back up the path he had come down.
He did not tire of the weight clasped tight to him,
But brought me to the top of the bridge’s arch,
The one that joins the fourth bank to the fifth.
And here he gently set his burden down—
Gently, for the ridge, so steep and rugged,
Would have been hard even for goats to cross.
From there another valley opened to me. (Canto XIX, 124-133)
There is no more fear in Dante turning to Virgil for help as there was before in the earlier cantos. Whatever concerns Dante had had have now been overcome. Virgil, as depicted by Dante, takes tender care of him as they journey and places him gently down on a patch of ground that would be dangerous even to goats. Furthermore, as they continue their journey (in Canto XXI) Virgil opens up to Dante further to describe his family and homeland to him – a further reflection of the trust growing between the two.
As the two get closer to the ninth circle as they journey through the other bolgias in the eighth circle, it becomes clear to the reader that the two need each other more than they had in the previous circles of Hell. Virgil opens himself up to Dante, picking him up, and journeying down the rocks (Canto XXIV), Virgil offers consolation and fortitude to a weakened Dante to overcome his fears, and finally the ultimate moment of the sealing of their relationship transformed inside Inferno is completed when a disgruntled Virgil (over Dante’s dallying) forgives him (Canto XXX). This is the only moment of forgiveness, pardon, and repentance within Hell. This is precisely what Hell lacks, and this moment of forgiveness and final consummation of love and trust between Dante and Virgil is what was needed for them to proceed into the ninth and final circle of Hell where the traitors are located. In this moment Dante and Virgil are truly brought together as a united party – they need each other to make it through the ninth and final circle of Hell.
Within the Inferno the relationship between Dante and Virgil is an important one. As mentioned, Dante uses their relationship to contrast the good with the bad, between what is ideal and what was rejected in earthly life therefore meriting for the soul their predicaments in Hell. Hell is a loveless and truthless place. Dante and Virgil’s relationship becomes one of love and trust as they journey through Hell. As such, Hell is dark and frozen place because the lack of love and light brings only destruction and separation. But as the two make their journey through Hell, they are brought together through their love and the light that shone forth from this transformative relationship. Hell is a place where no forgiveness is offered, but Virgil comes to forgive Dante and they can enter the ninth circle of Hell.
The relationship between the two was deliberately constructed by Dante to mirror the ideal of human life and, in showing it play out in Hell, did so in stark contrast with what the consequences of lack of love, truth, and friendship does to people and society (represented by the souls in Hell and the discombobulated and dying city that is Dis). To this end I must inform you that, if you have not picked it up already, or not made aware in earlier readings, that the entire journey through Hell to Heaven is one of love, beauty, and truth. Hell is loveless, ugly, and without any truth running through it. It is Dante and Virgil who are the only reflections of love, beauty, and truth as seen in their relationship. As they journey up Purgatory this is transformed further to father and son relationship before Virgil departs and passes Dante on to Beatrice who is an even greater embodiment of love, beauty, and truth than Dante and then begins to guide Dante through Heaven which is the culmination of all that is loving (good), beautiful (beauty), and truthful (truth).
You can read my literary essay concerning the love between Dante and Virgil here: Learning to Love Again: Dante’s Descent in “The Inferno”