Guide and Traveler

photo from Wikipedia

A commentary on Guide and Traveler from the Inferno, Book 1 of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

In Dante’s Inferno Canto VIII, Dante and his guide, Virgil, cross the River Styx leaving the Fifth Circle of Hell behind. Upon reaching the far shore, they are met by rebel angels who suggest Dante return from whence he came “if he can” and that Virgil remain behind in hell. This possibility terrifies Dante, but Virgil reassures Dante that he will not forsake him. The canto ends with the rebel angels slamming shut the gates in the Wall of Dis. However, Virgil reassures Dante that they will be unlocked for them.

The rebel angels’ invitation to Virgil to desert Dante is a significant point in this canto. The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep-felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate the question that without Virgil could he continue, could he return? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil “returning…seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

“Forget your fear, no one can hinder/Our passage; One so great has granted it./…feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I/Will not abandon you in this low world.”

There is a two-way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on such a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. He should not falter in his determination to gain the journey’s end nor should he hinder the guide. In great measure, he should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante: “You—though I am vexed–/Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.”

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly.

What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

Whether the journey is through the Inferno, up the corporate ladder (and down again), through the maze of parenting, or, generally, just getting through life, the images Dante works with in this canto all hit the mark (or, at least, since this is a personal reflection, they hit my mark). I do not envy Dante his journey, but I am envious of his guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey without a guide nor can we return, it is no wonder that so many of us fail for lack of one.

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