Dante begins this Canto “in media res,” without a specific sin or particular set of demonic enforcers or tormentors. Rather, Dante the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, walk between rings, trying to find a way down to the bottom of the universe. In fact, this Canto begins as if the conversation from the last Canto were still in process, with Dante the Pilgrim still blushing as a result of taking Virgil’s chastisement seriously. We read in Canto XXX how Dante listened too intently to the petty debate and wrangling and Virgil gave him a tongue-lashing. In fact, the simile of Achilles’ spear being used to heal the very wound it had made, here is applied to Virgil’s remonstration to Dante the Pilgrim which in turn, made him a better Christian as a result.
1 The same tongue that had stung me
2 so that both my cheeks turned red,
3 had also brought my cure,
4 just as the spear of Achilles and his father --
5 so I have heard it told -- would be the cause
6 first of a painful, then a welcome, gift.
This can apply to each of us as well. Dante the Poet may in fact realize how difficult and even truly painful reading the Commedia might be for some. Due perhaps to the brutal harshness of the images in the Inferno or the austere cleansing in Purgatorio or the lofty numerical calculations of Paradiso, it may pierce the reader time and again. And yet, this pain and woundedness will only lead to a deeper faith, a greater trust in God and a healing of our own wrong turns and self-inflicted wounds. Indeed, my repeated readings of Holy Scripture as well as the reading of Dante’s masterpiece has, in fact, done exactly that for me: wounding and then healing me many times over. Deo Gratias.
As the pair walk toward the pit of Hell, Dante the Poet prepares the way with a variety of descriptions of fierce battles that time and again, began in betrayal or pride or rebellion, but all of which ended in death and despair. Roland and his knights were, to a man, murdered as a result of betrayal. The fact that Roland blew his great horn did not bring Charlemagne back in time to save them. The giants who rebelled against Jove, attempting to overthrow Olympus were defeated and they, themselves, were betrayers their lord and master. The tale of Nimrod trying to build the tower of Babel to reach all the way to heaven showed his disdain toward God and his hubris in doing so. The death by strangulation of Antaeus by Hercules was a fierce battle that yet again shook the earth but ended in defeat. All of these prepare us for the result of the greatest betrayal and battle and defeat of the Medieval world-view: the attempt by Lucifer to overthrow God, and the resulting punishment. We have here betrayers of betrayers, pride upon pride, defeat, death and punishment. Truthfully Dante the Poet expresses here the palpable fear of Dante the Pilgrim in going forward and completing this part of the journey as well as his admirable acceptance of the need to do so.
All of history serves as an example of this rebellion and betrayal. Dante the Poet is nothing if not honest when he prepares us for this great descent by reminding us that in fact, we are all fallen and rebellious sinners. The giants themselves serve as that reminder. This seems especially true to me in the 20th and 21st centuries where humankind has power beyond belief at our disposal: nuclear power to destroy, technological power to observe the farthest reaches of the universe, scientific power to clone and create. And yet, and yet, Dante the Poet has this grim reminder that must be embraced and owned by all of us, even if it is written solely for the giants:
55 For when the power of thought
56 is coupled with ill will and naked force
57 there is no refuge from it for mankind.
The hubris we exhibit these days is parallel indeed to Nimrod building the Tower of Babel or the attack of the giants upon Olympus or, dare we say it, the betrayal by Judas of his Lord or the desire of Satan to overthrow God. In fact, the three giants introduced to us reflect pretty well our current culture in America.
67 'Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi,'
68 the savage mouth, for which no sweeter
69 psalms were fit, began to shout.
70 And, in response, my leader: 'You muddled soul,
71 stick to your horn! Vent yourself with that
72 when rage or other passion takes you.
73 'Search at your neck, you creature of confusion,
74 and you will find the rope that holds the horn
75 aslant your mammoth chest.'
76 Then he to me: 'He is his own accuser.
77 This is Nimrod, because of whose vile plan
78 the world no longer speaks a single tongue.
79 'Let us leave him and not waste our speech,
80 for every language is to him as his
81 to others, and his is understood by none.'
1.-Nimrod babbles nonsense as a result of God dividing humanity into different language families. Nimrod speaks but no one now can understand him. And yet, he does not stop speaking even though he makes no sense at all to anyone else. Why am I reminded of the last few presidential campaigns, the mega-church preachers and outspoken celebrities? We are rife with “muddled souls” who speak nonstop but communicate nothing.
84 we found the next one, bigger and more savage.
85 Now who had plied his craft to bind him so
86 I cannot say, but his right arm
87 was bound behind him, the other one in front,
88 by chains that from the neck down held him fixed.
89 They wound five times around his bulk
90 on the part of him that we could see.
91 'This prideful spirit chose to test his strength
92 against almighty Jove,' my leader said,
93 'and this is his reward.
94 'He is Ephialtes. He joined the great assault
95 when giants put the gods in fear.
96 Those arms he brandished he can move no more.'
106 Never did mighty earthquake shake a tower
107 with such great speed and force
108 as Ephialtes shook himself at that.
109 Then more than ever I was afraid of dying:
110 my fear alone would have sufficed to bring it on,
111 had I not noted how tightly he was bound.
2.-Ephialtes incarnates violence and impotent fury. There are chains that bind him, and yet all he knows is power and hate even though they are no longer tools to be used in any productive way. Why am I reminded of the continuing responses to 9-11 and the nonstop actions of violence upon violence, hatred toward hatred? And yet, it all seems to result in impotent fury alone, achieving nothing, frightening all.
112 Going farther on, we came upon Antaeus…
122 …pray set us down, do not disdain to do so,
123 upon Cocytus, shackled by the cold.
124 'Don't make us go to Tityus or Typhon.
125 This man can give what everyone here longs for.
126 Therefore bend down and do not curl your lip.
127 'He still can make you famous in the world,
128 because he lives, and hopes for years of living,
129 if Grace does not recall him sooner than his time.'
3.-Antaeus will do nothing unless it will serve his pride and his own personal vanity. Here is a mirror indeed of this culture, the ‘lessons’ found at every level of education, faith, political power and private life. It is now, more than ever, ALL ABOUT US. We need to know ‘what is in it for us’ before we act or sacrifice or vote or make any move of caring presence.
There are a few final points I wish to make here. One is the care and subtlety with which Dante the Poet shows the importance of this momentous point of their journey. It is found as the giants slowly appear out of the mist, ominously looming overhead. It is found, as I noted above, in the nonstop examples of death and battle and betrayal. But it is also found in the gentle and loving trust Dante the Pilgrim has for his guide and the reciprocation found in Virgil. This Canto is one of the very few times we find the name of the guide used, as opposed to “my master.” We will see it again at the end of the Purgatorio when Virgil leaves Dante the Pilgrim, and he calls out for Virgil in three successive verses: a heartrending cry similar to David's wail at the death of Absalom and the successive use of his son's name. And it is here, as in the descent of Geryon with Virgil embracing Dante the Pilgrim to keep him safe, do we see Virgil taking him by the hand and protecting his charge. It is a moment which reminds me of Samwise Gamgee holding Frodo’s hand while his master sleeps, or hoisting Frodo on his back to carry him up the last few steps on Mount Doom.
133 Virgil, when he felt himself secured, said:
134 'Here, let me take hold of you!'
135 Then he made a single bundle of himself and me.
They are close to the very bottom of the universe, just a moment away. Dante the Pilgrim has experienced uncertainty, fear, resolution and then new fear time and again in this journey but this Canto exemplifies it. Remonstration led to Recovery; Towers became Giants; Horn Blasts reminds one of Massacres; Titanic Power suggests Earthquakes and on and on. Even in the chosen vessel of Antaeus we find this paradoxical reaction of fear and yet, ultimately gentleness.
136 As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
137 from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
138 passes over and it seems to lean the more,
139 thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
140 as I watched him bend -- that was indeed a time
141 I wished that I had gone another road.
142 Even so, he set us gently on the bottom
143 that swallows Lucifer with Judas.
Here, at the bottom of all creation in the midst of ultimate evil, these first steps on the ice of Hell begin with an unexpected act of gentle release by a giant of enormous power. They are still on the right road, whether they are filled with fear and uncertainty or not. And they discover that there will still be signs that Grace has not left them bereft, even in the darkest of places.