A Day Off with Dante

Engraving by Gustave Dore

Happy July, everyone!

If you’re not a book nerd, this post will not interest you. I’m a novelist, my friends. 99% of what I do revolves around books. With that said . . .

For over a year now, I have been slowly working my way through Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian. It’s what I do to “relax.” I have read many other Italian classics as well to improve my skills — Il Nome della Rosa, Le Tigri di Mompracem, Il Gattopardo, I Promessi Sposi — but I keep coming back to Dante, because his work is such a foundational part of the Italian language. Back in the early 1300s, Dante wrote the first true classic in the Tuscan dialect, when everybody else thought you had to write in Latin to be a serious author. Dante’s text elevated the daily speech of Tuscany and helped it become the basis for what is now Modern Italian Standard.

It’s also just a cool story. Dante’s hero is a fictional version of himself — Dante. During the worst midlife crisis ever, he finds himself wandering in a dark forest and doesn’t know how he got there or how to go forward. In other words, he is questioning his life choices. He can see Paradise, just at the top of the next hill, but he can’t get there, because Terrible Beasties keep blocking his path. Then, when all hope is lost, he meets the ghost of his favorite author, the Roman poet Virgil, who wrote The Aeneid. After a few moments of shameless fanboying, Dante asks if Virgil can help him out. Virgil says, “Yeah, about it . . . to get back to your life, you’re going to need to go through Hell. Literally. Then up to Purgatory and into Paradise. You have to see the entire Afterlife. And keep good notes. Because you’ll have to write all this down for your peeps back home.” And so the adventure begins.

There’s another thing I appreciate about The Divine Comedy. People often says that books can’t have pop culture references, because in ten years, they’ll seem dated and nobody will understand them. The Divine Comedy is steeped in the pop culture of 1300 C.E. Even Dante experts can’t identify all the people Dante is talking about, but we have to assume that in 1300, his readers knew exactly who he meant. It doesn’t matter. The story is still timeless, because it has great visuals, great characters and beautiful writing.

Below is my own translation of Canto I (chapter one) of Dante’s Inferno. The translation process is hugely difficult, but it also helps me test my knowledge of both Italian and English. What does this word really mean in this sentence? What did it mean in 1300, as opposed to modern Italy? How do I make each line clear and interesting, but still keep some of Dante’s style and voice? No translation can really capture the spirit of the original, but I took a stab at it. If you’re interested, let’s go to Hell!

L’Inferno, Canto Primo

Translated by Rick Riordan


Midway through the journey of my life

I found myself in a dark wilderness,

The way forward unclear.


To even speak of it is such a hard thing —

That wasteland forest, impassable and unyielding —

Just thinking of it renews my fear!


It is intensely bitter — death is hardly more so —

But to process the good that I discovered there

I will speak of the other things I experienced.


How I got there, I don’t really know how to relate,

I was so filled with sleep at the point

Where I strayed from the true path.


But at last I reached the foot of a hill

Where that lowland ended

Which had afflicted my heart with such terror.


I looked up, and I saw the hill’s shoulders

Newly dressed in the rays of the sun

That guides others rightly through every backstreet.


At that moment, the fear was somewhat stilled

in the lake of my heart, which had persisted through

The night that I passed in such pity.


And like one who, with labored breathing,

Emerges from the sea onto the shore,

Then turns and stares at the dangerous waters,


So my mind, still fugitive,

Turned back to regard the passage

That no living person had ever left behind.


Once I had briefly rested my weary body,

I resumed my journey up the deserted slope,

keeping my weight firmly planted on my back foot.


And there he was, barely at the start of the ascent:

A leopard, light-footed and swift,

covered with speckled fur.


He would not let me out of his sight.

Rather, he so impeded my way

That I turned back more times than I went forward.


It was time for the start of the morning

And the sun rose along with those stars

That had been with it when Divine Love


First put into motion those beautiful things.

This gave me cause for some hope,

Despite the fierce beast with the mottled pelt —


That time of day, that sweet season —

Yet not so much that I wasn’t stricken with fear

When before me materialized the face of a lion.


This one appeared ready to move against me,

With his head high and with such ravenous hunger

That the air seemed to tremble around him.


Then came a she-wolf, whose leanness

Seemed to convey all the yearnings

Of the many peoples she had reduced to lives of misery.


This one evoked within me such dread,

With the horror that radiated from her visage,

That I lost all hope of reaching the hilltop.


Just like one who buys everything with delight,

Until the time comes when he loses it all,

And in his every thought can only weep and regret,


So did that restless beast make me feel,

Advancing against me, little by little

Pushing me back down to where the sun was blotted out.


 While I blundered through that lowly place,

Before my eyes, a figure presented itself,

Which for a long, silent moment appeared indistinct.


When I saw him in that vast wasteland,

I cried out to him: “Have mercy on me,

whatever you may be: spirit or living man!”


“Not a man,” he answered me. “Though once I was.

My parents were from Lombardy,

Both natives of Mantua.


I was born under Julius, though late,

And lived in Rome under the good Augustus,

In the age of the false and lying gods.


A poet, I crafted an epic of that righteous

Son of Anchises who came from Troy

After proud Ilion was reduced to ashes.


But you: Why do you take such pains to turn back?

Why do you not climb that beloved mountain

Which is the origin and cause of all happiness?”


“One moment. Are you that Virgil, that wellspring

which spilled forth such a wide river of language?”

I asked him with a dumbfounded expression.


“Oh, source of light and inspiration for all other poets,

May you find me worthy of the long commitment and the great love

Which I have applied to studying your works!


You are my teacher and my author,

You alone are the one from whom I derived

The beautiful style that has brought me honor.


Look: there is the beast which made me turn back.

Save me from her, renowned sage,

For she makes my blood and my pulse tremble.”


“You will need to take a different journey,”

He replied when he saw me in tears,

“If you want to save yourself from this savage place.


For that beast, of which you lament,

Never lets anyone cross her path

But obstructs their passage so as to eventually kill them.


She has a nature so malignant and wretched

That she can never satisfy her greedy appetite,

And after each meal, she is hungrier than before.


Many are the brutish who make her their bride,

And still more will there be, until at last the Greyhound

Arises, who shall cause her to die with great pains.


He shall feed neither upon land nor riches,

But upon wisdom, love and virtue.

And his birthplace shall be between folds of simple felt.


He will be the salvation of humbled Italy,

For which the maiden Camilla died,

And Euryalus, and Turnus, and Nisus of their wounds.


He will hunt her through every village

Until he has driven her back into Hell,

Where Envy first parted with her.


As for me, regarding your situation, I think and judge it best

That you follow me, and I will be your guide,

And lead you out of here, through an eternal place


Where you will hear the wailing of the hopeless,

And see the ancient mournful spirits

That each pleads for a second death.


And you will see others who are content

Within the fire, because they hope to join,

Whenever that may be, the blessed folk.


But to those blessed, should you wish to ascend —

That will require a soul more worthy than I.

I will leave you with her upon my departure,


Because that Emperor who reigns above,

Since I was disobedient to his law,

Does not wish that through me, any should enter his city.


In all places he reigns, and there he governs,

There is his city and his seat of power,

Oh, happy are those whom he elects to live there!”


And I to him: “Poet, I ask you again,

By that God whom you did not know,

So that I may flee from this evil, and worse:


Lead me to where you just spoke of,

So that I may see the gates of Saint Peter,

And those whom you describe as so sorrowful.”


So he set off, and I kept close behind.

Dante: Been there, done that, wrote the guidebook.

One last thought I will leave you with: Dante and Virgil are a really interesting team. Both are poets, though they lived centuries apart. They clearly love and admire each other, and they go through many terrifying experiences as they navigate Hell and then climb the Mountain of Purgatory. Their relationship is made more poignant by the fact that Virgil can never go to Paradise. He lived before Christ, so in Dante’s world view, he is damned through no fault of his own — he is a ‘virtuous pagan’ who has to stay in Limbo forever. Eventually, Dante will have to leave him and go on to Heaven in the company of his old childhood crush Beatrice. (It’s complicated.) With all this in mind, why hasn’t anyone yet given The Divine Comedy the Song of Achilles treatment? There is a heartbreaking love story to be explored between Dante and Virgil, two star-crossed lovers who literally go through Hell together and discover a bond that transcends the centuries through poetry. I’ll just leave that idea here for anyone skilled and bold enough to try it. It’s certainly a book I would read!

And now, it’s back to TV land. I’m off for another exciting day of production. I think we may be meeting the Minotaur today (who, by the way, also makes an appearance in The Divine Comedy).


Rick Riordan