Reading · Teaching

The Wife of Bath’s Experience

Last week, as Americans and others watched testimonies before the Senate Judiciary Committee pertaining to a Supreme Court nomination, millions of people relived their own moments of traumatic assault and discussed why women fear they won’t be believed. And I taught “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In fact, we were discussing how survivors are treated (and were in the middle ages) at the same moment Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was under oath.

The Wife of Bath is, sadly in some ways, still screamingly relevant.
Her name is Alisoun and she is from Bath. Let’s start there. She is the only pilgrim among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims whose prologue is longer than her tale, because in a very real sense her prologue is her tale.
She begins by establishing the basis for her authority, and it is not the standard. In the medieval period writers based their stories on previously attested, authoritative works.
People who wrote (and read) were overwhelmingly male, educated by studying languages and literature and theology–what Chaucer affectionately refers to as “olde books.”
Alisoun, traveling in a group of mostly men, of clergy and members of the lesser nobility, as well as tradesmen and middle class managers, asserts her voice and her authority and their basis in experience.
Her subject is marriage, or more precisely the relationship between married men and women. Really she’s interested in who has what she calls “maisterie” or “mastery” in the relationship. She has been married five times and is ready for a sixth; she describes herself as being of “five husbands’ schooling.” And she has a lot to say on the subject.
There are several remarkable things happening here. First, Alisoun is claiming authority for herself in an environment where it is both challenged (by the Friar, who tells her to leave off “preaching” and tell a nice story) and sought out (the Pardoner asks for tips, for her to teach him her “practice”—the same word you might use to describe work in law or medicine).
Second, her tale really is biography and a kind of testimony, where she explains how her marriages worked and gives voice to her experiences, some of which we would characterize today as abuse. She enters the masculine, patristic arena as she challenges St. Paul’s doctrine of chastity and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan, where Jesus tells the Samaritan her current husband is not her “real” husband.
Surely God gave us sexual organs, she argues, not just to purge urine, but also to make begetting children pleasurable. How many of the Samaritan’s husbands “counted,” she wonders aloud, and why would Jesus fix a number on marriages? She advocates for gentler rules—for acknowledging that the highest goal is virginity, but that people who do not maintain such austerity can be virtuous too. In a century of plague and a society with an outrageous mortality rate, she advocates for remarriage as a necessity, but also as humane.
When she’s done arguing, she recounts an overview of her first three marriages, but it’s structured as a laundry list of all the anti-feminist ideas circulating among scholars at the time. She knows these stereotypes and biases, and she manages to turn them back on her husbands, gaining mastery—of her husbands and their finances. These are all the accusations she’s had levied at her since she first married at the age of twelve.
The last part of her story recounts her fourth and fifth husbands, one of whom kept a mistress, and the other of whom beat her regularly, but these two were the ones she loved. That was the problem, she deduces.
Chaucer has done something here. He has let a woman speak, validated her experience, and given her a full, flawed, beautiful character. She explains herself on her own terms and enters a discussion that has not been designed for her presence.
We literally haven’t gotten yet to the Tale she tells about a rapist knight whose life is forfeit to the queen and who is rehabilitated when he discovers that all women want authority over their own lives. Today we don’t need to.
What we need to do is hear Dame Alisoun’s story. We need to believe her. We need to learn from her not exactly what she says, but what she shows—that these problems are centuries old, and it’s past time to fix them.
Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.

Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.
Reading · Teaching

Life, a User’s Manual

A friend asked what he said was a Dante question—what are the seven deadly sins, and was that Kevin Spacey movie right.  I started explaining the difference between the Seven Deadlies and the levels of Dante’s Inferno, and it got me thinking about life, the universe, and everything.

The Seven Deadlies as most modern folk think of them (including the crazy serial killer Kevin Spacey plays in the film Seven) are Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust, and that list has been in use for centuries, deriving from medieval patristic sources, the earliest of which was probably Pope Gregory I.
As the Middle Ages wore on, penitential handbooks were produced that offered models of the sins growing out of one another (the “concatenation” of sins). Medieval manuscripts show the sins as the fruits of a tree, the root of which, in the Gregorian tradition, was Pride. From pride all other sins proceeded one from another, like fruit on branches. Later medieval authors would argue greed was the root, as the Feudal System crumbled and the working class argued for wages.
Penitential handbooks were like the rules to get to heaven.They explained what kind of penance was appropriate for particular sins.They outlined the seven deadlies and gave corresponding virtues that one could practice to combat a tendency toward sin.
We have a number of different examples of these handbooks with varying specifics, but the point was that we could fight our sinful nature. Sin may damn us, but virtue might save us. The oldest set of virtues were the four Cardinal Virtues (inherited from the classical tradition) of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, plus the three Theological (read: Christian) virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  Penitential handbooks drew out the smaller divisions of these big sins and virtues, and offered solutions almost like a doctor would prescribe a remedy—practice humility if you want to avoid pride, and so forth.
Dante used these sins and virtues to structure his Divine Comedy, but he had more circles to fill and more axes to grind. He made use of those subdivisions in the penitential handbooks (like separating pride in to hypocrisy, fraud, despair, and others), and then he took them even further.
Fraud was the worst for him—a purposeful misuse of our God-given reason. Simple fraud (stealing, seducing, counterfeiting, and others) is punished in the 8th circle, but the 9thcircle, where Satan himself resides, includes treacherous fraud—purposeful, planned deceit of family, of countrymen, of benefactors, of God.  Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise, of course, have corresponding virtues, in probably the most elaborate extension ever of the ideas in those penitential handbooks.
The idea that we can combat the evils of the world and in ourselves remains attractive. And the idea that there are always rules to follow (I think also of Apollo’s Creed, that people should “Know themselves” and have/do “Nothing in excess” as well as the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments–heck, even Little Red Riding Hood’s rules of “Stay on the path,” and “Don’t talk to strangers”) means that we’re pretty consistent about wanting things spelled out for us.
There is comfort in knowing there is a remedy. And there is comfort in knowing that the evils you see have a name. That is old, old power—naming something so you can control it.
As usual, I find we haven’t changed much over the millenia. We still find strength in identifying evil, naming it, and working to undo it. We still work efficiently with rules to follow; it’s just that the rules shift some with new contexts and culture. We still try to improve on certain scales—practice gratitude to be happy (that’s a splinter of humility, by the way); cultivate a practice of generosity by volunteering and donating; practice, defend, and enact justice.
People haven’t changed, really. I find that comforting too.
(I stole the title for this post from Georges Perec’s novel, but I expect it’s been used elsewhere as well; it’s all connected. And the image is a creative project for my Epics class this spring–a pinata depiction of Satan’s head as described by Dante. It was glorious.)

Postmodernism is Medieval, and How My Students Rock

I have often observed that Postmodern literature is very medieval. But this is the first year I have had trouble separating my pride in training up some medieval lit lovers and coaching the next generation of postmodern writers.

Let me back up. Postmodern literature (literature written after World War II—technically the literary movement that follows Modernism) is characterized by a sense of upending the rules of literature. In novels it can mean disregarding or breaking away from the Grand Narrative tradition—telling a story from a different perspective, or out of order, or with a narrator who is self-reflexive to the point of discussing how the book is progressing with the reader. Julian Barnes’s History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters tells the story of the great flood from the perspective of a woodworm. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks up a self-reflexive narrative arc (where the Reader is a character) with ten other narratives– aborted “books” the Reader is trying to read.
Essentially, writing fiction becomes play.
How is Postmodernism medieval then?
Many of the tricks Postmodern authors use–playing with order of events, perspective, and amplifying the treatment of relatively small subjects—are all outlined as tricks to help one write in the blindingly contemporary (c. 1200-1215) Poetria Nova, The New Poetry of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. And Geoffrey says he got his best stuff from the Roman rhetorician, Cicero.
Geoffrey advocates taking a small subject like the love affair of one of the lesser known Trojan princes and telling that story as its own narrative. Something that got maybe four lines in The Iliad turns in to the Old French Romance of Troy, then Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, then William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. This is how medieval authors came up with new material.
It’s also how Postmodernists do the same thing.
It’s also how a significant number of my senior literature students made me particularly proud this quarter.
I taught an Introduction to Folklore class this spring. It had a pretty sweeping scope, from the “depth” text of the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, on which we spent nearly three weeks, to the “breadth” of an anthology of folktales from The Arabian Nights to the 20thcentury. Along the way I have students write an analytical paper, so they can figure out how these tales and conventions work well enough to explain it to others, and then they can choose to write more analyses or to write their own “folk tale,” since they know all about how it works.
What I got in several cases far exceeded my expectations. I got stories that made use not only of the folk motifs we studied in this class, but the literature and conventions some of them studied in other classes with me earlier in their careers. Some reused characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Old Norse myths. Some borrowed scenes from the Odyssey  and Volsunga Saga. One told a tale (including Ovidian characters and fairy tale motifs) using tarot cards, a trope used by Calvino in his Castle of Crossed Destinies. One wrote a fairy tale for her second paper and then an analysis of her own tale for her final paper.  Without my prompting, students took my assignment and ran with it in all manner of cool directions.
I am overjoyed and so very impressed. I am grateful. I am giddy. I am never going to stop giving students creative options. This kind of work means they’re not just learning the stories—they are—but they are also learning techniques, internalizing values, making the literature of the past their own. Nothing gives me more hope for a bright future than students who create boldly, applying what they learn to their own world, and ultimately imagining new worlds.
The kids are going to be ok, everyone. I promise.
(The image is the promotion image from the 2005 Terry Gilliam film The Brothers Grimm, which is also a Postmodern pastiche of multiple fairy tale sources, and this class’s last text.)
Living · Teaching

Once More to Graduation

This weekend ended my sixteenth year at my current position. That’s a lot of graduations, really, but I never get tired of it.

I never get tired of seeing people reach their goals, sometimes after many years, and so all the more richly appreciated. I never get tired of families shouting the names of their young folks (and some not as young) as they cross the stage. I never get tired of hearing the stories of graduates as they thank their families and loved ones for helping them get there.
Ok, I’m a sap. But it’s the best day of the academic year.
In a very real sense, it’s the reason we do our jobs. It’s the reason the university exists—to give students a solid foundation in learning that they can apply the rest of their lives. To open the doors to the universe and see where they will go.
This weekend’s graduation was spectacular again—so many wonderful students crossed that platform; so many hands to shake, so many wishes to share.
And then there was one more.
All weekend long, there was commencement after commencement, from Friday evening through Sunday evening. The one I attended was Sunday afternoon. But I was back this morning, because in the most ruthlessly, beautifully efficient use of resources, the high school my kids attend–which happens to be annexed to my university campus–used the still-erected stage and already-wired sound system for their own graduation. And my oldest child marched down that aisle.
His hat didn’t fit and kept sliding to one side. His medal was twisted around to reveal a 20-sided die from Dungeons and Dragons taped to the back, as if that were his award. He looked uncomfortable, but also excited, anticipating. He was perfect.
I just sort of assumed my graduation stance and cried. I kept seeing him as a baby, as a kindergartner, as a miserable middle-schooler, and none of that fit with the vision of the tall, handsome young man he was walking down from the stage, diploma in one hand, doofy, ill-fitting hat in the other. He didn’t care about the hat. He was over it–moving on. He was happy.
That’s why graduations are great. No matter what happened on the way, they are crystalline moments where we get to pause and just be happy. Yes, tomorrow will bring more work, and we’ll have to set new goals and carry on. But to pause and recognize good work, to be content for a moment and celebrate success with those who have the most vested interest in your happiness, to breathe in a sweet breath of completion and accomplishment and not worry about what comes next for a little while: that’s worth a lot.
And to share in that feeling with hundreds of people at the same time—that’s some powerful magic.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018. We’re ready for you.
Reading · Teaching

Slow Reading: How What We Read Becomes Who We Are

I went to my annual conference last week. I have spent twenty-two long weekends in May in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the biggest annual international medieval conference in North America. Coming from the West coast, I always think it should take me half a day, and the last few years it has taken upwards of 16 hours. This time I pretty much decided I’ve had a good run, but I don’t have time for the chaos of travel.

So it was important that I got good stuff out of what might be my last run. So the universe obliged me. This time I came home thinking big thoughts about Slow Reading.
As my university converts from a quarter schedule to semesters starting in the fall, we are all thinking about how our courses will change. Mostly, as a literature instructor, I’m looking forward to adding some texts back in to my syllabus. I certainly took things out when I moved from fifteen-week semesters to ten-week quarters.
But as I think about my Chaucer class, and as I met with Chaucerians and other folks who teach literature (I went to a particularly great session on teaching literature in translation), I think I won’t add text so much as add depth. I’m going to embrace, model, and flex my Slow Reading skills.
My session was a workshop on pronouncing Chaucer’s Middle English. We spent 90 minutes on 220 lines of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. It was awesome.
With that much time, you can figure out what everything means, then figure out how reading it different ways changes that meaning. You can talk about performance issues—tone, pacing, what words you stress or scumble, and what all that does to build an understanding of the character.
I’m just getting my head in to this mode, but since a recent article tripped across my social media feed reminding us that “slow reading” helps us think deeper and cultivate empathy, I started a list of things I want our slow reading to do.
Here’s the preliminary list.
Slow Reading is:

Knowing what every word means and does;
Looking at connotations in double entendres;
Understanding the context of the work;
Reading with attention to sound and visual rhyme;
Reading for musicality;
Reading for voice/persona;
Knowing your language;
Knowing your lit;
Knowing your history;
Knowing your shit.

Ok, I got a bit carried away at the end. It’s a work in progress. But it’s important, and I’ll keep thinking about it and working on it. This is how the words become a part of us. Skimming doesn’t do it. We need to read some things really deeply and let them change us. We cannot overstress the importance of the process of reading.
I’m starting to get really excited about semesters.
(The article I was referencing above is “Reading Literature Makes us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul, published in Time, and available here:
Living · Teaching

A Post for Teacher Appreciation Week: In Praise of Teachers

I didn’t plan on these two weeks going together, but I like that they do. This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, so my Facebook memories are full of notes about my favorite teachers from my childhood and my kids’ childhood. Ok, I’ll bite. Last week I was singing praise for students, but of course, it’s all connected.

I was a pretty good student. I liked learning stuff. I wanted to be smart. But I didn’t want to be too smart. I didn’t want to be The Smart Girl. First, I knew they didn’t have many friends, and second, I really didn’t think I was Smart, not with a capital S. I kept high grades, but not straight A’s. (If Mom-Alison knew Kid-Alison, we’d have a talk, by the way, but we didn’t, not for years.)

Third grade was a banner year. It was the only year until grad school, probably, that I got straight As all year long. And the reason was Mrs. Jeanne Mayer.
Mrs. Mayer made us buy a composition book. We brought it in every day, and we copied down the Riddle of the Day and the answer to yesterday’s riddle upside down underneath it. This was brilliant. I learned to write clearly; she explained that we’d want to keep it, so we should do our best. Eight-year old me bought that, hook, line, and sinker. In fact, I still have it. I doubt she meant us to keep it that long.

As a mom I learned what a big deal 3rd grade was. It’s the last real primary year, the bridge to “upper grades,” and a crunch year, making sure kids have mastered their multiplication tables and have “learned to read” (so they can “read to learn” in 4-6). As a child, I felt none of this.I thought 3rd grade was a blast.

We learned cursive that year, and this was the most painless practice I ever did. They were dorky jokes, but I loved it. I looked forward to hearing the answer the next day. It started our day, so we always started out laughing, and I learned school was fun.
That was huge.
I got straight A’s that year because I couldn’t bear to do less than that for her. There was a group of us who got to go out for pizza at the end of the year with the vice principal, so I wasn’t the smart girl; I was one of several.
But that wasn’t the carrot for me. I did it for Mrs Mayer.
She was kind and funny and smart and wanted us to learn how to be good people as well as good students, and in her class those overlapped considerably. From that point on, I loved school, and I kept loving school.
When I went to grad school, it wasn’t because I had a Brilliant Plan in place; it was because I couldn’t bear to stop taking classes. When I decided on a career, I found one that took that in to account—as an educator, part of my job is to keep learning, and it was the only way I could figure to get paid to keep going to class. And in a very real way, I owe the flicking of that switch in my brain to Jeanne Mayer.
So here’s to teachers! For the hard work they do shaping humans, flicking switches, lighting fires in minds and hearts. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. Hug a teacher, y’all.
(And there’s a “Reflections” shot of me as a third-grader. The 70s were hard on all of us.)

It Takes Twenty (or Thirty) to Tango–In Praise of Students

I teach two classes in the morning and then have office hours, and do another class in the afternoon.
Last Friday I was dead tired, and as I slouched in my office before dragging myself to the last class of the week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it. It’s a General Education class (so a mix of English majors and lots of other folks) on folklore and fairy tales, and for that particular meeting, we read two essays on how folktales work. There was no magic or jokes inherent in the text to help me. I figured I’d do my best to lead to them through the essays they read for class, and let them go a few minutes early. There are some perks to university teaching, and I am grateful.
We went over time.
Not because I’m a good teacher; I was not on my game Friday. Because I have amazing students.
I think students place too much emphasis on the instructor when it comes to thinking about how successful a class is. I often hear them in the hall (or in my office) gushing about their favorite classes, and how fantastic the professor was.
To every student who ever thought your class was awesome (or terrible) because of the professor—I charge you to think about the rest of the humans in that class. The best planned class falls flat if the students don’t come to the party. And the best students can lift a peaky prof right out of the doldrums.
We started with an essay by folklorist Alan Dundes that describes how folklore differs from authored literature. They loved his grouchy attitude, and when I gave them a bit of context and biography, they loved him even more. They defended his defensiveness, sympathizing with his marginalization by more traditional, ivory tower, literary scholars. They kind of loved his personality as they saw it filtered through his argument. And they came up with the longest, subtlest list of distinctions between folk and literary tales we’ve ever produced, in all the years I’ve taught this class.
I love my job.
I love that every class is different, composed of entirely different humans, with different experiences and backgrounds, in a different mix each time. I always have certain things I want to cover, certain things I want to say, but if I’m honest a huge chunk of each class session is pretty unscripted. I react to what they like and know (and don’t know and don’t like), and we talk about what needs understanding until the time is up.
Whenever students ask what they missed, I refer them to another student for notes. I can and do sometimes supply an outline for what I wanted to accomplish, but I only take in a page of notes on any given day, and it’s only a starting point. It only scratches the surface of what we end up doing and thinking and learning.
My favorite thing to write in letters of recommendation for former students is that they “contributed substantively to the success of the class.” They did. Without them, I’d just be a reader.
Reading · Teaching

Beginning Dante, or Reading our Way to Paradise

I’m teaching Dante again.

I teach the Infernoin my Epics class, after we have read Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It works beautifully, since we first encounter the Greek version of the aftermath of the Trojan War, then the Trojan/Roman; then we get to Dante, and he puts lots of those characters in his afterlife. Odysseus goes to Hades. So does Aeneas. It’s kind of a thing.
But nothing prepares them, really, for Dante.
The Type Scene of the Underworld Journey (Greek katabasis) is present in most epics, really.  The hero crosses over—literally dies—and brings back otherworldly knowledge to help his people. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Odin, Vainamoinen, Gandalf—so many heroes go and come back, and it’s a dramatic event in their storied lives.
But for Dante it’s the whole work.
For one canto at the beginning, poor Dante is lost, halfway through his life, wandering and trying to get somewhere, but he can’t do it alone. We can all relate to this. And it’s how he hooks us. Then his favorite poet appears, a literary and spiritual guide—Virgil, the Roman author of The Aeneid—and he offers to lead Dante along his edifying journey for as long as he can.
Dante the poet has a poet laureate lead him. Who would be our guide, we wonder? Someone whom we revere; someone who led us by example before they passed on. But before we can get too bogged down in thought, the journey begins.
Dante journeys to Limbo where he sees the spirits of Homer and other classical authors. This is where Virgil has been called from and where he will return when Dante’s tour is over. And we are introduced to Dante’s method and his mania at one stroke. He can put anyone who ever lived—real or literary—in the place he sees fit. It is a hugely ambitious task and a minor miracle that he completed it. So I guess it wasn’t mania—just drive.
The first sinners Dante encounters are the Lustful, and it’s one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. I spend a good deal of time on Canto V of the Inferno, unpacking it and reading it carefully with my students. One of Dante’s techniques is to have a soul tell her story (in this case, Francesca da Rimini, who had an affair with her brother-in-law), so he can understand the sin or virtue through a firsthand witness.
Francesca tells of how ill she was treated—trapped in a loveless marriage, she found what she thought was love just a little left of legal. And she first committed adultery at the instigation of a book. She calls the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere a “Galeotto” or go-between. It is after they read together the salacious details of the royal affair that brings down Camelot that Paolo first kisses Francesca.
Dante faints at this moment, and some read it as guilt. He, too, has loved where he should not have.
But I think it’s something else entirely. In an age where books are copied by hand, they can get miscopied very easily.  And in the case of Francesca and Paolo, they didn’t read thoroughly—they stopped before the lovers’ consequences were realized, so were tempted in to the same sin.
As Dante begins to tell of countless sinners and sins, he feels the weight of his responsibility and collapses under it. What if his text inadvertently–through sloppy copying or sloppy reading–leads others to Hell?
And so my students and I start another ambitious task—that of reading judiciously—with the hopes of making it to Paradise.