There are some difficult hikes out here in our country for the average day trekker, of which the Timberline Trail in Oregon seems to be the toughest. It features several places where you can fall, drown, or create a landslide. And it probably doesn’t hold a candle to hiking in Hell.
Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Inferno is a literal trip into the abode of Satan, as seen through the eyes of a relatively good person who is just passing through. He has as his guide an angelic figure (in the form of the poet Virgil), which is helpful in many situations, such as when you forgot to renew OnStar or when you need the opposing quarterback to break his leg, but is especially so when meandering the streets of the condemned. It is not quite so easy to pull over and ask for directions when the guy in the gas station is having his liver eaten out by a murder of crows.
The Inferno is an express elevator into a kind of terrible imagery that even Stephen King can’t touch. It’s palpably discomforting to read, containing scenes that are at the very least disturbing, are often disgusting, and almost always laced with symbolism. That the poem presents this from a relatively religious perspective is what saves it from devolving into a bad Saw sequel (which begs the question, are there good Saw sequels?)
Apart from the sinners and the occasional scary animal, The Inferno is populated by monsters and malformed creatures of myth: Minotaurs, ghastly ferrymen, leathery bat-like infestations. It’s like Halloween at Universal Studios, without the E.T. Ride to take the edge off. While they do not directly menace the hero (Dante, playing the role of the journeyman), they do unspeakable acts to the sinners caught in their snares, including immersing them in a river of boiling blood, burning off their feet, melding their bodies onto giant insects, and turning classic Mel Brooks comedies into musicals.
The plot is of the allegorical kind, meant to represent man’s trek towards God. The Inferno begins that journey with a downward spiral into sin until finally arriving at the darkest corner of the Abyss. If this seems like a bit of a downer story, it is only because The Inferno is Part 1 of a larger work known as the Divine Comedy, which continues the story into purgatory and finally into Heaven. Perhaps the entire work should have been part of this Adventure series, but The Inferno has the most dramatic hero’s journey, and so stands alone.
You’ll find many of the popular trademarks of Hell here, including the Nine Circles, each of which maps to a particular Care Bear. Or maybe to a particular type of deadly sin, I forget. It is said that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, but that doesn’t stop Dante frame ranking them. As he heads down the circles, the sins get progressively worse. Listening to Air Supply puts you at around Level 2. Treachery and genocide somewhat lower.
At the very bottom is the giant, hairy figure of Satan, his lower half encased in ice, while his three mouths chow down on history’s greatest betrayers, such as Brutus, Judas, and Hitler – which is totally weird, since The Inferno was written in 1308. Satan himself is the escape route, as Virgil instructs Dante to climb down Satan’s hairy back and into a hole in the ice, whereby they pass through the center of the earth. After the momentary disorientation of a switch in gravity, they then proceed on to Purgatory.
And so you also have survived the 9th circle of our countdown of the 100 Most Extraordinary Adventures (in any medium). When next we meet, it shall be for #89…