Dante’s Commedia has been compared to a magnificent medieval cathedral, with certain levels of the epic poem being parallel to parts of a great cathedral. The tips of the towering spires reveal the distant heights of heaven and the dank darkness of the crypts echo the depths of hell. If this is but a shallow reflection of the Commedia, it still works at least for these two cantos: here are the gargoyles of the great structure.
While gargoyles were originally meant to simply be ornamental waterspouts, they quickly evolved into means of communication and symbols of either protection or ridicule. Hence we have frightening figures that are supposed to protect the church or ridiculous figures that parody the power that built the edifice in the first place. I have been privileged to study at both Princeton University in America and Oxford University in England, both of which are loaded with gargoyles! And both institutions have examples of this rich iconography, including the humorous and frightening. This is what we have in these two continuous cantos: humorous and frightening gargoyles.
Dante surely was aware that unending despair and darkness would soon weigh down many readers of the Inferno, hence this odd vignette of flying ferocity that are easily fooled. They remind me at some level of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph in Shakespeare’s history plays: in charge of maintaining order but not that reliable and easily tricked. Dante’s parody of military order and control is fiercely relevant in that he admits that he himself has witnessed frightened prisoners marched through the phalanx of conquering soldiers. Surely he had seen excesses of violence as well as foolish commanders that had risen far above their capacity to safely guide and guard their rank and file. Here we have the same, and Dante the Pilgrim is unsure that they should be in the care of these angry, bumbling soldiers. It turns out he was right, at least at one level.
Surely C. S. Lewis, lover of all things Dante, used this section to come up with the name ‘Screwtape’ and ‘Wormwood’ for his classic “Screwtape Letters.” Robert Hollander comments:
Dante's pleasure in developing nomi parlanti (names that bespeak the quality of their possessors) is evident here. His playful naming is based on the aggressive bestial characteristics of these creatures… English approximations of some of these names in parentheses): Barbariccia (Curlybeard -- XXII.29), Graffiacane (Scratchdog -- 34), Rubicante (Redface -- 40), Cirïatto (Swineface -- 55), Libicocco (70), Draghignazzo (Vile Dragon -- 73), Farfarello (94), Cagnazzo (Low hound -- 106)…
To come across the image of these sinners like frogs, hidden in the pond with just their snouts out of the muck is funny, until one sees what happens when one of the ‘frogs’ is caught: chunks of living flesh torn from his arm. Then, suddenly the tables are turned as the caught tricks the captors, and two of them fall into the boiling pitch taking chunks out of each other. The rapid fire action and brilliant imagery indeed helps relieve some of the austere and close air that went before, and impels us forward into the worst place of all, down into the well of fraud and betrayal where ultimate evil awaits. That will be no laughing matter.