Inferno Revealed: From Dante To Dan Brown by Deborah Parker and Mark Parker (book review).

September 18, 2019 | By | Reply More

Bridging the gap between literary criticism aimed at scholars and the readers of mass market fiction of the sort Dan Brown produces isn’t easy. Virtually nothing about Danté’s ‘Inferno’ is accessible by modern standards, not least of all because very few people read epic poetry of any sort, much less those written in medieval Italian. But the ‘Inferno’ has been wildly influential nonetheless, not just as inspiring Brown’s bestselling thriller ‘Inferno’ but in things as diverse the modernist poetry of TS Eliot and the gothic art of Gustave Doré.

Indeed, while not explicitly mentioned in this book, Danté’s descriptions of the cities and circles of Hell are the substrate from which the fictional Hells seen in horror fiction and fantasy role playing games are commonly drawn from, such that many of scenes Danté describes will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played, for example, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ or ‘Diablo’.

So with this in mind, while ‘Inferno Revealed: From Dante To Dan Brown’ is largely aimed at those who’ve enjoyed the Brown’s ‘Inferno’, it would be just as enjoyable to anyone with even the least interest in the origins of the Hells seen in popular culture. What perhaps will surprise some readers is the degree to which Danté used his poem to apply his idea of ‘contrapasso’ on those he knew from his knowledge of Italian history and politics.

His ‘Inferno’ might seem archaic to us, but at the time he was damning his near-contemporaries in ways that made immediate sense to those reading his poem. That core idea of ‘contrapasso’, that the punishment delivered in Hell would mirror or invert the sin performed on Earth, wasn’t a biblical concept, but something in the air at the time of Danté. In a sense the punishments of Hell were not those meted out by God, but chosen by the sinner through their actions or inactions.

Deborah and Mark Parker spend the first half of the book explains each of the episodes that Danté deployed, making the meaning of such scenes clearer to the reader. Where relevant, they do make connections with various scenes in Brown’s ‘Inferno’, but these are not intrusive and easily skipped over by those readers coming to the book independently of Brown’s fiction.

As bona fide scholars, they don’t make the mistake of dumbing down their explanations by trying to compare them with modern events and current celebrities. Instead, they take the time to pick apart Danté’s allusions, giving the history behind the characters mentioned. It’s done with skill, ensuring that while the episodes might well be hundreds of years old, the reasons for Danté’s reactions to them are clear and concise.

The second half of the book takes ‘Inferno’ into the wider artistic world, both at the high end of literature like ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as well as popular culture such as the horror film ‘Se7en’. It’s perhaps this part of the book that is the most interesting, because this sort of investigation of the historical background to contemporary art is not widely done. English Literature graduates might be more or less familiar with some of the territory covered here, but for the more casual reader or film-goer, for that matter, this sort of literary criticism isn’t often aimed at people who read thrillers or watch horror movies.

Overall, the book is a solid read, broad enough to appeal to those who have no interest in Dan Brown’s literary works, while having enough relevance to Brown’s ‘Inferno’ to make an engaging supplement to what was one of the most popular thrillers of recent years. It isn’t exactly a guidebook to Danté’s ‘Inferno’, though, and while the first half of the book broadly follows Danté’s literal descent into Hell, it doesn’t pick up on every single event or allusion along the way.

Similarly, while the authors do a good job of providing thumbnail sketches of the various medieval and mostly Italian figures Danté drew from his recent history, they don’t really go into detail, so more often than not you’ll find yourself skipping to Wikipedia to find out more. The depth of their investigations vary somewhat, too. This is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the way they handle sodomy and usury, punished quite deep down in Danté’s vision of Hell, at the seventh of its nine circles.

Of course, in modern sensibilities, neither homosexuality nor money-lending are crimes, but they were in medieval times and some explanation of this would have been useful. By contrast, the authors seem much happier to handle the less contentious sins such as avarice, simony and treason, all of which get thoroughly inspected and explained.

Definitely a useful book for armchair scholars and one that works well to connect a masterpiece of medieval literature with modern culture. The patchiness of the coverage of each circle of Hell aside, there’s enough detail here to make Danté relevant and interesting, without being so scholarly it’s impenetrable.

Neale Monks

September 2019

(pub: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 244 page indexed small hardback. Price: $22.00 (US), $25.00 (CAN), current UK price is about £ 3.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-137-27906-4)

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