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Visiting Hell! (and Purgatory/Heaven)

We hear a lot about how school was better in the old days, particularly Catholic schools. I’m not so sure. Last night I was talking with two intelligent, well-educated Catholics who were both unaware that a) Dante’s Inferno was a poem, not prose; and b) the poem continued into Purgatory and Heaven. Of course, I distinguished myself by a horribly wrong explanation of terza rima, so I can’t really talk….

What led me to this was recommending that, as preparation for reading Dante, their teenage sons read Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, which is a prose sequel to Dante. Even though large segments of the work consist of trying to figure out sf explanations for Hell and gleefully sending annoying bits of the seventies and eighties to it, it does have serious religious content. Niven and Pournelle deal with the morality or lack of their own jobs as science fiction writers (I did mention that was their protagonist’s profession?). Beyond that, they also make their protagonist confront the mystery that is God — not just someone with more advanced knowledge and power than us — a sort of super-alien — but Someone infinitely better who loves us still.

But anyway. If you’ve never read Dante, you should. Naturally it would be better to read him in Italian, but probably most of us don’t. (Me, neither.) There are apparently a lot of good translations out right now, both old and new, rhyming and not. I’m very fond of Dorothy L. Sayers’ version, but then, I’m very fond of Sayers period. I didn’t know that Longfellow had translated Dante, but his prose version is online, side by side with the Italian. This will at least give us non-Italian speakers more of an idea — and a better explanation of that terza rima rhyme scheme than I could give!

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