The Inferno: Novel Summary: Canto 14-15
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Dante and Virgil emerge from the wood to see a plain of dry and barren sand, where souls, some lying, some sitting, some continually moving, try in vain to escape an endless rain of flakes of fire. First they hear the proud Capaneus boasting as he lies in torment on the sand that he does not weep to show that Jove cannot subdue him. Virgil tells Capaneus that his pride is in fact the worst part of his punishment. Then they see a great stream coming out of the wood, and Virgil explains that its source is the weeping of a giant Old Man who stands in a mountain in Crete. His head is gold, his chest and arms are silver, the rest of his torso is brass, and his legs are iron, except that one foot is clay. Below the head a crack begins that drips tears, and from those tears come all the rivers that torment the souls in Hell. Dante and Virgil are able to cross the burning sands by staying close to the stream.
On the way they meet a band of those who are continually moving, among them one Dante knows, Brunetto Latini. Dante greets him with reverence. Brunetto obscurely foretells the perils that are waiting for Dante, and encourages him to scorn those who attack him. Dante speaks of his gratitude to Brunetto for teaching him the way to immortal fame. Brunetto must leave to rejoin the group he is with, and Dante sees him run ahead, and thinks he looks like a winning runner.
One blasphemer speaks for all, in Capaneus. To reject and defy the supreme power in the universe, however one conceives of it, may sound impressive, but it is absurd. The Old Man of Crete embodies the tragedy of human history, his head of gold symbolizing the world before the Fall, his foot of clay the corrupt papacy of Dante's own day. Those who move around on the sand are the sodomites, and here again Dante the narrator shows Dante the pilgrim respecting deeply someone whose corruption is indicated by his place in Hell. Dante shares the beliefs of his age about the order of nature as created by God and sinned against by those who engage in a kind of sexuality that cannot lead to the conception of a child. The sterility of all kinds of violence against God and nature is imaged in the burning sand.