It doesn’t come as a surprise that a growing number of today’s bestselling books were originally written as fanfiction. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James was originally Twilight fanfiction, The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare was based on the Harry Potter novels, and After by Anna Todd was first published on Wattpad in the #OneDirection category. But writing fanfiction hasn’t always been a practice reserved for contemporary authors of beach reads and YA novels. Did you know that one of the greatest literary works of all time, Dante’s La Divina Commedia, written over 700 years ago, was actually a “Rated M for Mature” three-part fanfiction?
Dante Alighieri was without a doubt a superfan of Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who lived more than a thousand years before him. Apparently, Dante wanted nothing more than to be best buds with his favorite celebrity author, because Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy revolves around the two of them gallivanting together through the Nine Circles of Hell.
Though Dante perhaps gets carried away with the idea of living out his fantasy through this fictional account, his use of The Aeneid, the Bible, and the classics to drive his poetic narrative makes this fanfic one of incomparable integrity.
In The Aeneid, Virgil masterfully wrote about how the fall of Troy led to the legendary establishment of Rome. Dante re-imagined this into an equally epic journey through Hell and Purgatory towards Heaven, dividing La Divina Commedia into three corresponding sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
Dante’s depiction of the landscape of Hell draws direct reference from the Bible. In accordance with the Final Judgement, Dante establishes that damnation is a “second death.” He frames Inferno with the explanation, “There you shall see the ancient spirits tried in endless pain, and hear their lamentation as each bemoans the second death of souls,” a direct reference to the chapter in the Book of Revelation in which the Apostle John writes, “Then everyone was judged by what they had done. Afterwards, death and its kingdom were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
The protagonist of La Divina Commedia is a simulacrum of the author himself. Inferno opens with Dante wandering around an obscure forest, lost and unsure of how he got there. His adventure promptly begins as he finds himself in imminent danger, having encountered three beasts. The leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf — biblical figures taken from the Book of Jeremiah — represent lust, pride, and avarice, respectively.
Dante gives his character a love interest, Beatrice, based on his deceased childhood crush, a Florentine woman whom Dante used to admire from afar. Being a symbol of Divine Love, Beatrice is moved by the Virgin Mary and Saint Lucia to send the ghost of Virgil to ensure Dante’s safety.
In the nick of time, Virgil shows up to rescue whump!Dante from the three beasts. Virgil immediately assumes the position of Dante’s protector and mentor as they embark upon a guided tour of the underworld. Throughout their journey, Virgil protects Dante against every potential threat, from shielding his eyes from Medusa’s detrimental gaze, to swiftly transporting him away from the pursuit of the agitated Malebranche demons.
After crossing the river Acheron, Virgil leads Dante to Limbo, the first circle of Hell containing the souls of virtuous pagans, the unbaptized, and apparently Dante’s #WishFulfillment. Dante and Virgil encounter the four poets, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. Their warm welcome conveniently feeds Dante’s ego, and he recounts “they honored me far beyond courtesy, for they included me in their own number, making me sixth in that high company.” The group of illustrious poets, which now includes Dante, travel to the base of a castle housing the wisest and most heroic men of antiquity, including Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar, and the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Dante prefaces the dark reality of damnation through the inscription written on the gates of Hell, which reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Upon entering, Dante and Virgil hear the anguished screams of the uncommitted. Each circle of Hell is characterized by a unique form of torment, as dictated by the law of contrappasso. Dangerous beasts, demons, and fallen angels guard terrifying realms of eternal misery, including a river of boiling blood and fire, a desert that continuously rains fire, a lake of boiling tar, and a chasm of violent serpents.
The Wood of the Suicides comprises the second ring of the seventh circle of Hell. Once Dante and Virgil make it across the river Phlegethon, they find themselves in a forest of thorny, deformed trees that used to be people. These are the souls of those who committed violence against themselves. Since they refused life, they no longer retain any semblance of the human form, and thus, their leaves and bleeding branches are rendered food for the Harpies, based on Book III of The Aeneid.
As a proud Roman, Dante held a strong sense of ancestral resentment towards Greek heroes, especially those involved in the Trojan War. Among the Greeks that Dante resented, and therefore placed in Hell in La Divina Commedia, were Alexander the Great, Tiresias the prophet of Apollo, and Jason the hero of the Argonauts. Most notably, Odysseus, Diomedes, and the person who let the Trojan Horse into Troy are subjected to a miserable eternity burning in the eighth circle. Dante’s animosity towards the Greeks is only rivaled by his animosity towards corrupt politicians, who reside in a lake of tar guarded by the Malebranche. But it’s in the final, innermost circle of Hell where Dante and Virgil find Satan, whose three heads are feasting on the souls of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Dante is able to satisfy his vengeful sentiments by means of placing these individuals in Hell, thereby making Inferno the ultimate #RevengeFic.
As much as Dante is the father of modern Italian, he’s also clearly the father of modern fanfiction. Dante proves that drawing inspiration from personal life experiences and other authors (like Virgil), building upon the stories that make up literature and history (like Roman antiquity), and writing across different genres (or #tags), can produce a masterpiece — in Dante’s case the pre-eminent work of Italian literature. The next time you’re about to roll your eyes at fanfiction, remember that one of the greatest ones of all time was written by none other than the esteemed Dante Alighieri.