The First World War is Hell in Ante’s Inferno

When I set out to write a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno, I was certain about one thing: I wouldn’t follow Dante’s division of crimes and their punishments to the letter. Many of the latter are stomach-churningly nasty, while some actions considered sinful by the mediaeval church – suicide, being the obvious example – would nowadays be seen as a tragedy, deserving of pity, not condemnation.
At the same time, Hell in Ante’s Inferno wouldn’t just become a fantasy world but a place modelled on the spirit of Dante’s great poem, with updates to make it more recognisable (and more fun). The Lustful, for instance, instead of whirling on the wind, have to dance forever to cheesy music in the Nightclub of the Living Dead, while the Gluttons undergo a Tantaluslike torment of wandering among stalls serving fast food they are never able to eat.
So much for those being punished for what are, essentially, extremes of human weakness. How would I manage further down, where things get scarier and more serious? A striking aspect of the Inferno is that the deepest circle of Hell isn’t, as you’d expect, the biggest, hottest, fieriest furnace of them all, but a cold, harsh, empty landscape. A frozen lake where souls are imprisoned in ice, scoured by biting winds. It didn’t take me long to update this to an environment whose horrors Dante himself could never have imagined. Change the ice to mud, break the one large lake into thousands of craters brimming over with freezing cold water and you have the most hellish scene ever created by man. As Siegfried Sassoon put it in his searing poem, Memorial Tablet:

I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele)…. so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

So the heart of Hell became, in Ante’s Inferno, a permanent replay of a First World War battlefield – and I was about to send three 12 year-olds into it. It had to be a believable experience (within the confines of fiction) but just as important, it mustn’t cheapen the real suffering borne by the hundreds of thousands who took part in WW1. History books, documentaries and eye-witness accounts (Robert Graves, Sassoon again, Wilfred Owen and others) helped me imagine the scene, but describing what it felt like to be bombarded by different kinds of weapons which my characters couldn’t name and knew nothing about was a serious challenge.
Then I came across an extraordinary, less well-known (to me at any rate) book: The Patriot’s Progress by Henry Williamson. In this fictionalised account of an ordinary Tommy’s experience of trench warfare, the sounds, sights and smells of the Western Front are described as if in real time, with an incredible vividness:

Every soldier, every broken tree-stump, every stake and picket out in front had innumerable shadows blending and quivering, dissolving and recasting themselves elsewhere in sharp outline, dissolving again as new flares, new sprays of flares, hissed and popped and bloomed over the trench. A constellation of golden stars broke above No-man’s-land, followed by rocket-showers of red and green fire-balls. Soon the shriek and flash of whizz-bangs. The heavy rending crash of five-nines. (The Patriot’s Progress, Second Phase, p 69-70)

PIC 13 WW1PIC 12 WW1

Such graphic evocation proved an invaluable resource for recreating the battle of Passchendaele as the lowest circle in Hell (the Devil, in Ante’s Inferno, making cynical use of Sassoon’s insight). A daring, not to say crazy, thing to do in a children’s book. But it works. And in the wealth of material being published now in commemoration of the Great War, I hope Ante’s Inferno offers one way of bringing to life the hardship, pain, suffering and loss experienced by those who fought it, many only a few years older than the readers themselves.

(First published 27th July 2014)

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