RESURRECTING A CLASSIC FOR CONTEMPORARY READERS
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Classics endure primarily because their stories explore topics and themes which continue to resonate; think Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Austen. And Dante. But what happens when classics, written in the style and cadence of ancient prose, simply don’t appeal to a contemporary audience thirsty for the story today yet unwilling - or unable - to untangle the archaic language of yesterday?
Translations can be equally confusing, especially given they are often straight conversions from, in Dante’s case, 14th century Italian prose into 14th century English prose. Yet these classics deserve to live on. They are ripe for rediscovery and should not be abandoned purely because of a reluctance to decode archaic text. Still, it seems, the modern reader is prepared to reject certain bygone classics for that very reason, despite consensus they are considered pivotal pieces of literature; that they are art in themselves.
So, how then, is today’s bookworm to enjoy classics such as The Divine Comedy without the immediate distraction of deciphering the archaic prose, or constantly referencing a pile of study guides, essays and tutors’ notes? Well, let me tell you…
Having watched a fascinating documentary exploring how Dante’s Inferno had influenced Renaissance artists and transformed their creative depictions of Hell to new, shocking and dramatic portrayals of the punishment of sin, I immediately wanted to familiarise myself with the text. Having dedicated time to doing exactly that - and understanding that not only was the tale a marvellous, whirlwind adventure set against a stunning backdrop but that it’s themes were equally resonant today - I felt an urge to bring the classic poem back to life. This seminal piece of literature was deserving of resurrection in a format that would enable a contemporary audience to become acquainted with it and better understand Inferno is about so much more than the fiery bowl of Hell.
My intention was to write an engaging and absorbing novel so that the modern reader could immerse themselves in Dante’s adventures, which begin as he is plunged, terrified and confused, into The Dark Wood, that gateway to Hell, in the early hours of Good Friday. Key for me in adapting the poetic trilogy was to demystify the prose, but not at the expense of dumbing down. A high-end literary fiction, remaining as close as possible to the original storyline of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, seemed the best way forward. Enter…Beyond The Inferno.
Although it could doubtless be useful as a study guide, especially if read prior to or simultaneously with any exploration of the 14th century poem, I didn’t want Beyond The Inferno to read as a resource material with obvious references to metaphors and similes; casually chucking around quotes that could be used in an essay, or having endless reference notes at the bottom of each page. My intention was for the modern reader to dive deep into the storyline without the endless distraction of unravelling the original poems’ archaic prose, however beautiful it may have been considered at the time.
I wanted to use elegant and eloquent language, in the form of an erudite literary fiction, to bring this seminal classic, ripe for rediscovery, back to life. In this way, the modern reader could avoid devoting their energies to deciphering the ancient prose, rather focus on the incredible tale that unfolds within. Because, in truth, this story is sublime and one that needs keeping alive.
When asked what we know of Inferno, our answer is usually one word: Hell. But, boy, is it about so much more than that. Inferno is set against an apocalyptic backdrop of the phantasmagorical with demons and dragons, behemoths and giants, serpents and she-wolves. There are sadistic ferrymen, soul snatchers, goddesses of vengeance and the cursed crew of the Damned. And Satan. It’s an adult adventure down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole. So why isn’t the modern reader more acquainted with the storyline of this immense and heavyweight classic?
From page one we’re plunged straight into breath-taking escapades and exploits as Dante travels through three realms of the afterlife, while he’s still alive, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, on a quest to save mankind from spiritual destruction. Spurred on by the promise of a reunion with his dead lover, he’s first thrust into the Inferno, a barbaric and torturous cesspit where he witnesses the brutal punishment of sin. He scales the colossal Mountain of Purgatory where he observes penitent sinners atoning so they can spiritually cleanse their souls and, finally, he accompanies the spirits of the Faithful as they bask in a radiant glow of love, bliss and perfection, having ascended to Paradise. Crazy, huh?
The Divine Comedy is a tale of triumph over adversity; of hope over despair, joy over misery, faith over doubt, perfection over brutality. It’s about analysis and reflection, critique and defiance, trauma and courage. It explores spiritual and emotional development, yet unless you happened to study it during your literature class, you’ll only ever know this classic of Dante’s as something 'vaguely connected to Hell'. The reality is, that knowing the cadence and style of writing is nothing less than archaic, it challenges all but the most tenacious of contemporary readers to explore Dante's world and embrace it.
Yet, in truth, this classic deserves to live on. In Beyond The Inferno, an erudite and high-end novelisation, I hope I’ve brought The Divine Comedy back to life to encourage today’s audience to dip their toe into The Dark Wood, like the humble poet back in the 14th century, and see where this adventure takes them. Go take a look – you’ll be surprised what it’s really about.