Dante – the man of the moment?

Suddenly Dante is everywhere. From the lofty realms of academic study, the great Italian poet is about to descend into the murky underworld of the thriller, in the form of Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Inferno. By a happy stroke of timing, anyone inspired by this book to turn to the source material can bury themselves in Clive James’s new verse translation of the whole Divine Comedy, to be published, like Brown’s Inferno, in May. And for a deliciously irreverent – but impressively accurate – version of Dante’s Hell, look no further than the cartoon version by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson.

Some might find such modern treatments of Dante shocking. But anything that brings him to a wider audience must surely be a good thing. After all, as well as being a great poet, he is a stonkingly good story teller. My first reaction on reading the Inferno was to wonder why, given the marvellous retellings by top writers of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, the Morte D’Arthur and other world epics for young people, no one has ever produced one drawn from Dante’s most famous work. Even Paradise Lost – not usually thought of as suitable for children – has been skilfully reinterpreted for them by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials trilogy.

So why not the Inferno? A scary story in which the hero, Dante, is guided by Virgil through ever darker circles of Hell, having to deal with Charon, Cerberus, Harpies, Minotaur, Furies – how could that not make a brilliant children’s book? Is Dante just thought to be too difficult for a child to understand?

Only one thing to do: I had to write it myself. Dante became 12 year-old Ante, and her journey through Hell, Ante’s Inferno. On the run from her enemy, Florence, who makes her life a misery, Ante causes an accident that plunges them both into the Underworld. There they meet Gil (Virgil), a mysterious boy who died 100 years before the story begins, and the three of them journey to the bottom of Hell to resolve the riddle of Gil’s death. His classical education makes Gil the perfect guide to Hades with all its mythical creatures. Until, that is, the group is separated and things go disastrously wrong….

An exciting story unfolds, full of dark passages and tunnels, blood-sucking monsters and rivers of fire and ice. Children have lapped it up, proving that it is possible to create a gripping version of Dante’s Inferno for young people (and older ones) without cheapening the original. Anyone doubting this should see the reactions of the 9 – 13 year-olds I talk to in schools about why I wrote the book. None of them has heard of Dante before. All are fascinated by the idea of someone dreaming up a carefully ordered Hell largely structured on something they recognise – the Hades of Greek myth.

In his Inferno, Dan Brown has promised ‘to take readers on a journey deep into this mysterious realm, a landscape of codes, symbols, and more than a few secret passageways.’ We’ll have to wait until publication on 14th May to find out exactly how he does it but one thing we can be sure of: the book will be a fast-paced, page-turning, hold-your-breath kind of read like all his others. It will bring Dante to the attention of millions of adults who may never even have heard of him, just as Ante’s Inferno introduces children to a masterpiece no one has offered them before. If later, some of them are inspired to tackle The Divine Comedy – as hopefully some of Dan Brown’s and Emerson’s and Jackson’s readers will be – so much the better. Clive James’s is the latest in a long line of translations ready and waiting for them.

(First published 30 April, 2013)PIC 2 Dante portrait

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