The Inferno: Novel Summary: Canto 21-22

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In the Fifth Bolgia, Dante sees boiling pitch. Dante looks at it so intently that he doesn't see the black devil coming toward them, and Virgil has to call a warning and pull Dante toward him. The devil is carrying a town official from Lucca, and calls out to another devil to throw the official into the pitch, while he goes back for more: they are all grafters there. Virgil tells Dante to hide, and goes out across the bridge to deal with the demons. They want to attack, but when the leader hears that his and Dante's journey is divinely willed, he orders the rest to let them pass. Virgil calls out to Dante to come, telling him he's safe, but Dante has his doubts. For good reason. They all have hooks, which they use to catch sinners and plunge them deeper into the pitch, and as Dante goes by, one wants to give Dante a little jab on his butt, and another cheers him on. The leader restrains them, and tells Virgil that here the bridge over the next bolgia is broken, but there's another unbroken bridge, and he'll send an escort of devils along to take them to it. Dante begs Virgil not to accept the escort-he'd feel much safer with just Virgil, given the way the devils are looking at him, but Virgil tells him they're just glaring at the souls in the pitch, and he should have no fear. So the group sets out, each devil saluting the captain by sticking out his tongue; he acknowledges their salutes by making a trumpet of his ass.
Dante has seen many military maneuvers, he tells us, and heard all sorts of signals, but never from a trumpet like that! As they move on with their strange escort, Dante keeps his eyes on the pitch. Occasionally he sees the back of a sinner who has jumped out of the pitch like a dolphin for some relief from the pitch, and then he sees a group of sinners lying half out with their heads on the bank. One doesn't get back in quickly enough and is caught by one of the devils. They are about to rip him apart, but they allow Virgil to question him first, to satisfy Dante's curiosity about who he is and who his companions are. He answers at great length, naming several famous grafters in high position. He then offers to bring some Florentines for Dante to talk to. If the devils will just draw back out of sight, he'll whistle, the signal the souls here use to let each other know when the coast is clear. The devils are suspicious, but he convinces them he just wants to have the fun of getting his friends in trouble, and they withdraw. Instantly he dives, pursued in vain by the devil who decided for trusting him, and then another devil in rage flies after the first, attacks him, and they both end up in the pitch. While the others are trying to get them out, Dante and Virgil move on.
Since Dante was accused of graft (or barratry, to use the more technical term) by the Blacks who took over Florence, condemning him to banishment on pain of death when he did not come back to stand trial, these cantos are generally interpreted as a farcical account of the way Dante's accusers tried to destroy him by getting him to come back to Florence and stand trial, and then tried to destroy his good name. Certainly these two cantos are grimly humorous, and they suggest Dante's contempt for those who go in for subsurface dealings. Also, if Virgil on one level stands for Dante's conscience, then it makes sense that Virgil would have been convinced that Dante was in no danger-after all, he was innocent-but a clear conscience isn't always enough. Sometimes one has to run.

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