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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO XXI

Summary

The two poets reach the bridge over the fifth bolgia. They've been talking on their way here but Dante the poet does not wish to add the subject matter of their conversation to the "Divine Comedy". From the bridge the pilgrim can hear sounds of lamentations and notices that the bolgia is dark with tar. He compares the hot tar of this bolgia to the one found in the Venetian Shipyards where it is kept hot all winter and used to strengthen ships. He describes the activity at the shipyard.

The tar in the bolgia, covers the bank with residue, and rising from its surface are air bubbles. Suddenly Virgil draws him away with a shouted warning. Turning back the pilgrim sees a black devil chasing them. The devil is bearing a sinner across his shoulders and he (devil) has a frightening face and wings on his back. Instead of hands the devil bears claws. He deposits the sinner ("one of Santa Zita's edlers") with the other devils (Malekranche) with instructions to put him in the hot tar. He adds that he will be back with more sinners from the city (Lucca). He says the city is full of grafters except for a man named Bonturo. He adds that in that city (Lucca) money can be used to bribe and thus open all doors. After flinging the sinner in the tar he leaves hurriedly to get more sinners. When the sinner floats to the surface the other devils mock him and threaten him with their grappling hooks. The push him deep with their hooks. Dante compares this action to that of scullery boys who push the meat into the gravy with their forks.


Virgil and the pilgrim hide behind rocks to avoid being seen by the devils. Virgil advises him not to be afraid of the devils and their words for Virgil knows how to handle this situation, having encountered it before. Virgil, alone, crosses over to the sixth bank. On seeing him the devils chase him like dogs chase a tramp. They block his (Virgil's) path with their pitchforks. Virgil asks for a parley with one of them. They send Malacoda to him. Virgil tells Malacoda about the special nature of their (Virgil and Dante's) journey. On hearing that Virgil and Dante travel under God's protection the devils abstain from their intended attack. Virgil calls Dante out from hiding and Dante joins his guide, still afraid of being attacked. He compares his fears to that felt by soldiers who leave the Caprona Castle. Even though a truce was declared these soldiers were frightened to be passing through their enemy. Dante stands close to his guide. The devils are about to attack him but are stopped by Malacoda.

Malacoda informs them that the bridges across the sixth bolgia are broken and unpassable. But there is another bridge further on. He adds that in 5 hours time it will be

1266 years and a day since these bridges fell. He says he is sending some of his devils there to take a look at the sinners and ensure they stay in the tar. He asks the poets to accompany these devils and assures them that his devils will not attack them. He assigns Barbariccia as the captain of the squad consisting of Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiancane, Earfarello and Rubicante. He tells them to take a look at the tar and ensure that the two poets reach the bridge safely.

Dante is unhappy with this turn of events. He pleads with Virgil to go on without any escort. He says that he doesn't trust the devils and believes that they mean the two poets harm. Virgil says that the devil's anger is directed at the sinners and Dante need have no fear. Before leaving the devils give their captain a salute by blowing air through their mouths and their backsides. Then they turn left to continue their journey accompanied by the two poets.

Notes

Dante introduces the Canto by comparing the fifth bolgia with a Venetian shipyard. The shipyard at Venice was constructed in the year1104 and during Dante's time it was the most renowned one in Europe. The comparison serves a purpose--it introduces an image of activity and bustling in a shipyard where dark pitch is used. A similar kind of pitch covers the fifth Bolgia. The energy and action associated with a shipyard is meant to prepare the readers for the tension and drama that occur in this Canto. For the guardians of this bolgia are devils called the "Malebranche". Translated the word means "evil claws". And true to their names these devils have claws instead of hands.

The devils suggest danger and this is amply proved when Virgil draws the pilgrim hastily away and hides him from detection. One of the devils comes bearing a sinner around his shoulders whom he refers to as "One of Santa Zita's elders". Santa Zita was the patron saint of the city of Lucca. And by "elders" the devil means one of the city's government officials. His words reveal that the sinner is a crook and that Lucca is full of many like him. The devil says that all these government officials are grafters except "Bonturo". This reference to Bonturo is made in a mocking tone. For Bonturo Bati was the most corrupt of them all. Thus the sinners being punished in this bolgia are "grafters". Grafters are corrupt public officials. They make profit by corrupt means taking advantage of their government / public positions. The devil's statement "You can change a 'no' to a 'yes' for cash in Lucca" means that the city's public officials can be bribed to agree to anything (e.g.) granting permission, licenses etc.

The devil throws the grifter in the hot pitch and when the sinner tries to surface the other devils ensure (with their grappling hooks) that he stays submerged. This is the punishment meted out to the grafters in Hell. They boil for eternity in hot tar, unable to escape. Coming up for respite on the surface means being attacked by the fearsome devils and their hooks. There is no escape for these men who defiled the trust placed in them by the public and demeaned the sanctity of their offices by taking bribes and cheating.

When the sinner floats on the surface, with his arms outstretched the devils mock him by saying. "You shouldn't imitate the Holy Face!" This reference can be explained by the fact that "Holy Face" was the name of a wooden crucifix in Lucca. Another remark addressed to the sinner is that "The swimming's different here from in the Serchio!" Serchio is a river near Lucca and people swam in it for pleasure. But the souls in the pitch are in the hot viscous fluid for punishment. The crucifixion image (floating on the back, with arms outstretched) used in connection with swimming for pleasure (as in Serchio, where people often floated on their backs) is an example of the grotesque humor that is the characteristic of this Canto. She same grim humor is revealed when Dante compares the devils with scullery boys trying to keep the meat (here, the sinners) down in the hot gravy. It is obvious that the devils take a wicked pleasure in tormenting the sinners.

Virgil, no doubt from previous experience, is cautious in dealing with the Malebranche. Therefore he advises the pilgrim to stay hidden while he goes alone to approach the Malebranche. The events that soon follow show the wisdom of his caution. As soon as they see him the devils set upon him with the same vicious excitement exhibited by dogs that surround a helpless tramp. Virgil knows that to lose his cod will do no good. So he shows a cod front and boldly asks to speak to their leader before they attack him. His words "then decide if you still care to grapple" contain a hidden warning: what he has to say will prove to them that it is unwise to attack him.

Malacoda, the captain of the Malebranche steps forward. Virgil addresses him calmly, in a tone of cool reason. He says a journey such as this would have been impossibly difficult without God's consent The words act like magic and Malacoda tells his fellow devils to keep their hands off Virgil. It is clear that God's name is as potent before these wild devils as anywhere else in Hell. They submit before the will of God. Reassured, Virgil asks the pilgrim to come out from his hiding place. The pilgrim does so, but he is not as assured as Virgil of the devil's submission. He notices their instinctive move towards him and compares the fear he experiences to the one experienced by soldiers during the siege of Caprana, a fortress on the Arno River near Pisa. Gruelfs soldiers from Lucca and Florence attacked Caprona. The Pisan soldiers surrendered and this resulted in a truce. Under the condition of this truce the Pisan soldiers came out of the fortress and passed through the ranks of the enemy soldiers. Despite the truce their fear was great and visible. Dante's mistrust is proved correct when one of the devils, Scarmiglione, cheered by others is about to attack him. Only a warning word from Malacoda stops Dante from the bloodthirsty devil.

Malacoda tells Virgil that the next bridge is broken and so they'll have to travel further to another bridge. He adds that the ruined bridge fall about 1266 years ago. He adds that in five more hours it'll be 1266 years and a day since the bridge crumpled. Christ's death on Good Friday (A.D. 34) would in 5 hours according to Malacoda) have occurred in 1266 years ago yesterday - "today" being the morning of Holy Saturday, 1300. The earthquake that occurred after Christís crucifixion shattered the bridge.

Malacoda says he will send some of the devils with the two travelers to the next bridge. The devilsí duty will be to keep an eye on any sinner who surfaces on the pitch. He assures the poets that the devils will not harm them. He assigning some of his devils and makes Barbaricca the captain of this squad. He repeats again that the devils are to inspect the tar and reiterates that the poets can safely cross the next bridge. Despite his promises the pilgrim is uneasy. He clearly does not trust this evil bunch and begs his guide that they move off without this infernal escort. He points out to devils who are grinding their teeth and winking at one another and tells Virgil that the devils clearly mean them some harm. He is surprised that the usually observant and perceptive Virgil suspects nothing. Virgil's reply confirms his lack of suspicion. He tells his ward that the devil's mischief is aimed at the sinners.

Before they set off on their journey the devils give their captain Malacoda a double salute. They make a "farting" noise from their mouth and blow from their "ass-hole". Thus the Canto ends on a vulgar but a comical note. This underlines the quintessentially farcical nature of this Bolgia, so different from the rest of the "Inferno".

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