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The Descent into Hell (Penguin Epics) by…
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The Descent into Hell (Penguin Epics)

by Dante Alighieri

Other authors: Dorothy L. Sayers (Translator)

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Descent into Hell is an excerpt from Dante's Alighieri's legendary Divine Comedy. It comprises most of the first portion of that masterpiece, Inferno. The Penguin Epics edition is an absolutely glorious translation by Dorothy Sayers from her broader 1949 Divine Comedy translation. This is the 18th book in the Penguin Epics collection and is by far the most sparkling translation.

Descent into Hell is a small 130 page work in the poetic style known as terza rima which Dante arguably created. It makes for a great flow as sentences and ideas converge through the narrative keeping up an engaging beat. Dorothy Sayers has transferred the style to English so expertly it is hard to believe possible. English is nowhere near as easy a language as Italian for the three-line rhyme to be kept up over long periods given the much smaller number of potential rhyming pairs. The translation keeps the sentence structure intact giving the right number of beats for each line. Quite a remarkable achievement.

The quality of Dante's original is of course legendary and has had a major influence on popular culture. It stands the test of time. His tale of a journey through the nine circles of hell is a magnificent 14th century work that stands comparison with anything written since. Compared to the other Penguin Epics it is at times a class apart. The richness of the world Dante develops and the quality of both narrative and character development are outstanding. Brief interactions with hell's denizens are all that is needed to both tell their story and expand upon the role of Christian morality in defining the values of the societies it inhabits.

Probably most interesting of all is the huge range of well-known characters from history who appear as part of the journey. Their existence is also a brilliant deconstruction of some of the irrationality of the Christian belief system. The virtuous pagans for instance who are encountered early on and who embody some of the finest values Europe holds dear spend eternity in the outer ring of hell because they existed before Christianity did. Through no fault of their own great figues from ancient Greece are excluded from heaven because Christianity had not been invented when they died. The explicit depiction of this is Dante's guide Virgil, the great Roman poet who falls short because of the time in which he lived. It is a withering but well disguised critique of Christian value that have nothing at all to do with morality.

Great lovers appear in the second ring of hell. People who inhabit some of the epic tales of human love are sinners in the Christian world and so find themselves tortured for eternity as a result of being in love. The conversation Dante describes with an Italian called Francesca di Rimini is a beautiful exposition of the cruelty of the Christian belief system when compared with the beauty of love. There is so much pathos directed towards these lovers that Dante himself expresses sorrow at their outcome. It must have been so brave for Dante to have been so explicit in a turbulent century.

Inhabitants of the lower circles are decreasingly sympathetic creatures. Dante categorises the various sinners by their cardinal sin and ranks those sins in terms of their dastardlyness. The worst punishments are those for whom treachery was the sin. The final sinner being Judas with beyond him only Satan existing as a worse example of immorality.

Along the way there are many greats from history. The Inferno contains so many who would be familiar from great works of antiquity. The re-imagining of morality by the 14th century also helps to cast some who were treated as heroes of their time into hell. Odysseus (Ulysees) for instance was a monster but was a celebrated hero in Homer's great Odyssey. He finds himself in Dante's hell because of his deception at Troy rather than his massacre of many who did not deserve it in particular on his return home from his journey.

Others appear and do so because of the myth that developed around them. It is hilarious to read a reference to Michael Scott who after his death had become mythologised as a wizard because of his interest and capability with technology far beyond his contemporaries.

Naturally the Prophet Mohammad appears in one of the lower circles of hell for being a schismatic. This was not necessarily an anti-Islam stance just the natural conclusion of the monothestic belief system that cannot accept other versions as equal. Saladin on the other hand is a heroic figure and appears in the first circle (Limbo) - Islam is clearly not the issue at stake and Saladin's virtues were clearly acceptable to Dante.

It is harder to follow the stories of many of the near contemporary Italians Dante mentions so additional research is necessary to unpick their stories. The Penguin Epics version offers no commentary so no additional analysis is available in the book. For most of the characters this should pose no problem but for local Italians of various persuasions it is a bit of an issue.

Interestingly the ninth (lowest) circle is divided into four sub-categories. It is not truly nine levels but Dante actually describes twelve.

Dante's descriptions all the way through are stunning. His depiction of the worlds of hell is absolutely mind-blowing. The full Divine Comedy is one of the great works of literature ever produced. The version offered here is a truly incredible translation of most of the first part, Inferno. For those with the Penguin Epics collection it has to be a prized part of that group. Absolutely excellent. ( )
  Malarchy | Sep 19, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alighieri, DanteAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sayers, Dorothy L.Translatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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Descent into Hell is an excerpt from Dante's Divine Comedy, apparently selected and translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and consisting of most of the first part of Inferno. Please distinguish between it and the complete Work. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141026421, Paperback)

Many have made the journey. None have ever returned. Wandering through a dark forest, Dante finds himself at the gates to the underworld. Despite his terror, he dares to enter the Circles of Hell, where the damned lie in torment. As he descends deeper, he encounters wild-eyed sinners, sees the three-headed, howling hound Cerberus, and meets a long-dead prophet who foretells Dante's destiny. He passes through realms of fire and ice, and at last reaches the frozen heart of Hell where the hideous Satan, greatest of all the damned, lies in wait.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 10 Jun 2016 22:28:59 -0400)

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