I was flipping through The Inferno again when I came upon this passage:
In the dark pit beneath the giants' feet,
But lower far than they, and I did gaze
Still on the lofty battlement, a voice
Bespake me thus: "Look how thou walkest. Take
Good heed, thy soles do tread not on the heads
Of thy poor brethren." Thereupon I turn'd,
And saw before and underneath my feet
A lake, whose frozen surface liker seem'd
To glass than water. Not so thick a veil
In winter e'er hath Austrian Danube spread
O'er his still course, nor Tanais far remote
Under the chilling sky. Roll'd o'er that mass
Had Tabernich or Pietrapana fallen,
Not e'en its rim had creak'd. As peeps the frog
Croaking above the wave, what time in dreams
The village gleaner oft pursues her toil,
So, to where modest shame appears, thus low
Blue pinch'd and shrined in ice the spirits stood,
Moving their teeth in shrill note like the stork.
His face each downward held; their mouth the cold,
Their eyes express'd the dolour of their heart.
And it occurred to me— perhaps the characters that populate The Inferno are less the individuals and more the environments themselves. That is, I'm right to think that The Inferno has no plot or character development, that's indisputable. But perhaps in looking for plot and character development I've given the book short shrift. What Dante has created is not a litany of tortures but a landscape of them. Often enough this is literally true, as with the ice above or the suicides who are turned into trees. But in general terms, the souls of the damned are the scenery, they are what Dante walks through as he makes his way down the pit of Hell.
Dante is a world-builder. He may even be the greatest world-builder. His Hell is not merely occupied by the damned but by centaurs, harpies, giants and monsters. Hell is a magical place. Much more than fire and brimstone, it has scope and nuance and dimension; each individual section has its own personalty, is its own horrific charm. Which is all why it's believable, and that is what's astonishing about The Inferno. Dante makes us believe in Hell.
I admit that I felt kind of insecure about the Reading Versus Watching I put up yesterday, that I had been too dismissive of Dante and so had made myself look like a boob. Which was why I was flipping through The Inferno again. But I have to admit that the passage quoted above is breathtaking, and I have a tendency in general to place less value on description and setting than on plot and character. Which perhaps makes me a bad person to evaluate The Inferno, whose brilliance is exactly in its description and setting and language.