Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Original Fantasy

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Matthew 16:18-19, The King James Version

"And when we reached the first step of the stair
It was white marble, polished to such gloss
That, even as I am, I saw me there;
And dyed more dark than perse the second was -
A calcined stone, rugged and rough in grain,
And it was cracked both lengthways and across;
The third step, piled upon the other twain,
Seemed all of porphyry that flamed and shone
Redder than bright blood spurting from a vein,
And this, God's Angel held both feet upon,
And on the threshold of the door he sate,
And that seemed made of adamantine stone."

Canto XI:94-104, Dante's Divine Comedy, Purgatory; translated by Dorothy Leigh Sayers

Begging the reader's indulgence, I wish to give a small 'geography' lesson.

Film and everyday culture has traditionally proposed that, within catholicism, that moments after passing away the first thing that you'll find yourself facing is the Gate of St. Peter, described above by Dante.  Naturally, this is all folk tales and fun, so we have made much mock of it in the last century.  Some depict an endless line at the gate; others the possibility that 'failing' at the gate involves a trap door and so you're dropped into the other realm in a wonderfully comic shock. It has long been a western notion that there's a conversation that you're bound to have with St. Peter when the time comes, where you'll explain your actions, give Peter and God a good talking to about the mistakes they've made or simply moon the bastard for all the crap you've had to endure.  But you don't have to worry about any of this if you happen to be an expert in parkour - because then you'll just leap the fence.

If we adopted the world of seven centuries ago, however, the time of Dante, you might be surprised to find yourself nowhere near a gate, but in fact at the mouth of a river - an earthly river, in fact.  The souls of the good were supposed to gather at the mouth of the Tiber, below Rome, at the infamous port of Ostia . . . at one time, the busiest port in the world, this being where grain was unloaded from Egypt to feed the enormous population of Rome.

This assumes that you've been a good and repentant Christian; if you haven't been, you'll find yourself on the banks of the River Acheron, waiting for the Demon Charon to ship you over into hell - and meanwhile you'll be pestered by clouds of stinging gnats.  But let's be generous.  Let's assume you've at least - as many say they will - repent at the very last moment, on your deathbed.

So there you are in Ostia, with all the other shades that have died.  You haven't any substance any more, your 'body' does not cast a shadow and there's not very much to do except speak to some of the others who are also waiting there.  You might, if asked, take up an instrument (which you'll be surprised to discover you still possess, if you're a musician), but for the most part you're too anxious for that.

You're waiting for an angelic pilot who will return with a boat that will take you completely to the other side of the world, the antipode of Ostia.  This turns out to be quite seriously in the middle of nowhere, a long, long way east of New Zealand, a lucky call for a church and Dante who did not live in a world where New Zealand or Australia were known to western Scholars.

That's 41.74 S, 167.76 W

Finally, the angel shows up - and takes hundreds with him, but not you.  Then this happens again and again.  The decision-making process does not seem based on first-come, first-serve.  You begin to realize that the leaving it off until the last minute idea seems not to be working that well.

Don't misunderstand me.  There's a reason why, on this blog, I spell it 'gawd' and not 'god.'  I'm a sinful bastard, quite ready to pay my coin to Charon and let havoc progress from there.  All I'm suggesting is that there was a rhyme and reason the manner in which mythical constructs are built - and be reassured, there is no more complicated and complex fantasy landscape than that of hell, purgatory and paradise.  And here Dante codified it all up for us.

At last, you get a ride.  The angel wills the boat around the world at unbelievable speeds (not being limited by physics) and you find yourself at the shore of purgatory.  And there, no, I'm very sorry, you do not see a gate.

What you see is a beach and a lot of reeds and a fellow who doesn't even happen to be a Christian. This is Cato of Utica, called the 'younger' to separate him from his great-grandfather.  Cato is 49, impatient, stern and anxious to get you off the beach and on your way, since there are others coming.  No, he isn't here to listen to complaints.  He speaks and you find yourself jumping at his tone, hurrying on your way up to the first terrace of ante-Purgatory.

Yes, that's right, you're not even in Purgatory proper, yet.  You're lucky, though, for the first terrace - the worst - is for those who were once part of the church but were excommunicated.  These poor schmucks have to spend 30 years for every year of falling away from the church wandering endlessly about the terrace . . . wandering, wandering, wandering.  Not you, however.  You're not of their breed, so you climb your way up through the nooks and crannies to the second terrace - and there, you learn you are among the indolent.

That is, you've waiting your whole life to get your shit together - and lucky for you, you did at least manage to do so before you died (you're not in hell forever, right?).  Unfortunately for you, however, a great mood of melancholy overcomes you and you flop onto your ass, your arms resting on your knees.  You are tired, oh so tired.  The sun is terribly hot.  Slowly, you crawl away, getting behind one of the great rocks on the terrace, where you find some shade - and there you pant, languorous, up to doing very little.  After a time, the sun moves and you do too, keeping in the rock's shade, waiting for the sun to set.

And this you do for the number of years that you have lived your life up until the moment of your death.  Twenty years, fifty years, eighty years.  Lax, winded, lolling, prostrate, disabled . . . and waiting.  Waiting with nothing to do and only other helplessly tired, formless souls to keep you company, all of you too tired to do more than contemplate your state.

Here you stay, waiting for the long years of your life to pass, until finally, after all that, you may yet get to see the gate described at the top of this post.

Here, too, I leave you, to think about Appendix N, and the contents thereof - a lot of cheesy, second-rate writers of the last century or so, whose context was so distantly remote from the time in which your characters live that their characters might as well be space cowboys.

I can't honestly recommend Dante.  He is a bitch to read, entirely because he is so far removed from our present experience, even our ideas about life and death.  I cannot manage him without notes and a lot of patience - that I don't suppose most have, unless they've adapted themselves to the understanding that there is a great deal to be gained in working hard for hard-to-acquire knowledge.  If you have not tried Dante yet; or if you have tried Dante and failed to get through (as I did, disastrously, my first three times), then I don't imagine you're going to take me seriously if I say, "read this."

After all, it's good to have a strong understanding of 13th century Italian history.  It's good to have a solid grounding in Greek and Roman literature, plus history.  It's good to have more than a passing comprehension of the church that once ran the western world.  Before I could, in all good conscience, recommend Dante, I would first tell you to read all of that.

This isn't easy.  This takes commitment.  You've gotta want it.

Then again, you've already got your whole life to sit around on your ass once, don't you?


Tim said...

I started Dante shortly before a trip to Sicily in the spring: I read Inferno relatively quickly and then slogged through Purgatorio before stopping at Paradiso. I find it amusing that I enjoyed Hell the most.
This was after reading The Odyssey and The Aeneid in the winter, which helped clarify a lot of what Dante was alluding to and building on.
One B&B was run by a cinema and philosophy graduate (yay, employment in the humanities) who had an enormous copy of Dante in Italian with beautiful illustrations (taken from engravings, I think) which was an awesome end-of-trip highlight.

It's a really fascinating book, and you raise an excellent point that it's far better D&D source material than any post-Tolkien rip-off. You're probably better off reading what inspired Tolkien himself: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Beowulf. Most of this stuff is online for free now anyway. If you're using a book which was inspired by Lord of the Rings, you are going to have a very confused fantasy world: you've got this book, the Lord of the Rings, Sir Gawain (among hundreds of others), the Arthurian legends which inspired Sir Gawain, the Christian imagery interwoven into Sir Gawain, the Germanic heroic imagery in Sir Gawain... I mean, the story even starts by situating itself in the Roman mythological timeline with the Fall of Troy and Britain's legendary founder, Brutus of Troy. All that stuff is piled up in a giant "fantasy" (it's more nuanced than that, but anyway...) world. Which you should really check out.

Jomo Rising said...

At UC Davis I had an Medievals instructor that admitted to having a "love affair with Dante." She taught classes just on him. That is commitment. Alexis has talked about loving D&D. He is committed and teaches many of us.

I love the game too, however I've had commitment issues in the past. Making up for it now as the want is feeding the love.

James said...

I really enjoy Dante, and, if one were so inclined, highly recommend John Ciardi's translation. I find it among the easiest to read, and he does a great job with footnotes at the end of each Canto explaining the various mythological and political references, allusions and allegories.

It also probably helps to be extremely well-versed in Greek and Roman mythology and epics, since he is very free about incorporating Greek and Roman mythology into his epic (though, in fairness, this may be just a trait he picked up from being Christian, especially Catholic, whose single greatest ability was to coop the holidays and festivities of others).

Eric said...

I've liked the Divine Comedy ever since I picked up the Dorothy Sayers translation. EDIT: Which I see you're quoting from here.