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Dante - Date Unknown, Click To Enlarge

Dante
(My complete GMD bio/commentary is here).
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Dante Alighieri, better known as simply Dante, is recognized to the world through mainly one work--The Divine Comedy. A tragedy is a play that ends in just that--tragedy--of a main character. A comedy is the opposite and may start off with a main character in dire straights, but by the play's end he will come round to a happy ending. Dante's play is split into three sections. The first is Hell, followed by Purgatory, and then Paradise. The story takes place within a vision.

For inexplicable reasons, Dante's Comedy has for centuries been focused on for it's beginning section in the inferno. The main character in the story is Dante himself who, while in this visionary state, starts off in the nine circles of hell. This may to a small degree represent the sinful stage in his own life. But with the aid of heaven-sent guides, he eventually works his way to Purgatory and then finally to Paradise. The theme is quite simple really. It's that of sin and redemption. While critics and teachers have for many years given greater attention to the opening section in hell, this is easily the worst that the Comedy has to offer. Not only is the opening inferior by way of its storyline, but it's very poorly written compared to what comes after. Dante can't seem to keep his ideas straight as to how someone in hell should be able to act. For instance some of the departed shades who live here may one moment be able to grab hold of Dante and in the next scene their hands go right through him. It also appears that he allowed himself a certain amount of spite in the inferno. Many of the people he comes upon here are his real life enemies.

The ending section in Paradise is by far the central piece of the Comedy. And it's here that George MacDonald took great notice. The two most important places to look for Dante's influence in MacDonald's work is in the children's novel--At The Back of the North Wind-- and in his last great fantasy for adults--Lilith. Some of the associations between the Comedy and Lilith are quite obvious such as the appearance of the golden cock of the universe. But we may also perhaps think of Mr. Vane's relationship to Adam (Mr. Raven) as being very similar to that between Dante and Virgil where both Mr. Vane and Dante are on a spiritual pilgrimage and are aided by Virgil and Adam as their primary guides. There are also the secondary guides to consider, both of them women. For Dante this would have been Beatrice and for Mr. Vane--Mara. Both Mr. Vane and Dante will eventually end up in heaven but then will find themselves back on Earth at the end, the entire journey seemingly something that took place in an unconscious sleep-like state. (We aren't told specifically that Dante is back in his natural bodily state, but we may assume this as his vision simply ends).

In At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald said of Dante that, "...his books will last as long as there are enough men in the world worthy of having them...." The Comedy portrays people passing through a great wall of intense fire in order to reach Paradise. It's a "refining fire", a term George MacDonald would use many times in his sermons. Little Diamond in the North Wind story however, would pass through the lady North Wind as cold as ice. Here's the scene that describes Diamond's journey to that heavenly Paradise. It also includes some talk related to the poem Kilmeny which is discussed in the James Hogg portion of this website.

I HAVE now come to the most difficult part of my story. And why? Because I do not know enough about it. And why should I not know as much about this part as about any other part? For of course I could know nothing about the story except Diamond had told it; and why should not Diamond tell about the country at the back of the north wind, as well as about his adventures in getting there? Because, when he came back, he had forgotten a great deal, and what he did remember was very hard to tell. Things there are so different from things here! The people there do not speak the same language for one thing. Indeed, Diamond insisted that there they do not speak at all. I do not think he was right, but it may well have appeared so to Diamond. The fact is, we have different reports of the place from the most trustworthy people. Therefore we are bound to believe that it appears somewhat different to different people. All, however, agree in a general way about it.

I will tell you something of what two very different people have reported, both of whom knew more about it, I believe, than Herodotus. One of them speaks from his own experience, for he visited the country; the other from the testimony of a young peasant girl who came back from it for a month's visit to her friends. The former was a great Italian of noble family, who died more than five hundred years ago; the latter a Scotch shepherd who died not forty years ago.

The Italian, then, informs us that he had to enter that country through a fire so hot that he would have thrown himself into boiling glass to cool himself. This was not Diamond's experience, but then Durante--that was the name of the Italian, and it means Lasting, for his books will last as long as there are enough men in the world worthy of having them--Durante was an elderly man, and Diamond was a little boy, and so their experience must be a little different. The peasant girl, on the other hand, fell fast asleep in a wood, and woke in the same country.

 

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