Dante's Inferno Canto 31: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Dante and Virgil have traveled through eight Circles of Hell. Now, they stand at the mouth of the Ninth and final circle. This lesson will cover Canto 31, the descent into the Ninth Circle of Dante's Inferno.

On Translations

Dante's Inferno has sparked people's imagination for hundreds of years. It is no wonder, then, that there are also hundreds of translations in pretty much every language floating around out there. But even translations in the same language aren't all the same. Some translators went for a more literal translation, going word by word. Others tried to keep Dante's poetry intact, using synonyms or similar images to get the right flow. Still, others chose a middle road, keeping as much of the original feel as possible.

For this lesson, we will use the translation by Allen Mandelbaum. So if your version doesn't quite match, don't worry. Go with the translation that speaks to you.

Canto 31 Summary

Darkness

At the start of the canto, Dante is still smarting over the tongue lashing Virgil gave him at the end of the previous canto. However, Virgil soothed Dante's wounded ego as quickly as he harmed it.

The travelers continue on in a gloom that Dante describes as ''less than night and less than day'' when they hear a terrific bugle blast ''so strong, it would have made a thunder clap/ seem faint.'' The loud sound frightens Dante, and he looks around for the source.

Ahead in the gloom, he believes he can see several tall towers. Maybe it is another city like Dis, which they saw in the Sixth Circle. But Virgil tells him, ''I'd have you know they are not towers, but giants,/and from the navel downward, all of them/ are in the central pit, at the embankment.''

They continue toward the pit, and Dante finally makes out the giants. They are terrifying! ''Surely when she gave up the art of making/ such creates, Nature acted well indeed,/ depriving Mars of instruments like these,'' Dante writes about the hulking figures. Though elephants and whales may still exist, it is better that huge humans with the capacity for evil to wreak havoc on the world no longer exist.

The Giants

The Giants
inferno

The first giant the travelers come to is Nimrod. If that name sounds like a familiar elementary school insult, you are partially correct. The figure in front of the travelers is the root of that insult. In life, the giant was the biblical King Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel. Now in Hell, he is incapable of coherent speech. It was his horn which frightened Dante.

Rather than waste time on the gibberish speaking giant, they continue to the left around the ring. Soon, they come upon a bigger and fiercer giant. ''His left arm was bent/ behind him and his right was bent in front,'' and he is wrapped in heavy chains.

Virgil explains this is Ephialtes who, ''in his arrogance had tested/ his force against the force of highest Jove.'' Virgil is referring to the mythological uprising of the giants against the Olympian gods. Ephialtes and his brothers, who are also in Hell, tried to overthrow Jove, and are now being punished in Hell for their treachery. Dante expresses his desire to see another of these traitors, Briareus, but is told he is a bit further on than they are going. Instead, they move on to Antaeus who will help them descend into the Ninth Circle.

The Descent

As they are speaking, Ephialtes begins to shake and struggle against the chains, frightening Dante. They hurry on.

Unlike his brother Ephialtes, Antaeus is not chained. And unlike Nimrod, he can speak. He doesn't, but Virgil says he is capable. Virgil asks the giant to put them down in the circle below. ''Don't send us on to Tityus or Typhon,'' Virgil says, ''This man can give you what is longed for hereā€¦ He still can bring you fame within the world,/ for he's alive and still expects long life,/ unless grace summons him before his time.''

Antaeus wordlessly reaches down and takes Virgil in his hand. Virgil grabs Dante and so they descend into Cocytus. Once the travelers are gently deposited, Antaeus rights himself.

Antaeus lowering Dante and Virgil
dante

A Little More on Giants

That's the long and short of it, but let's take a closer look at the main characters of Canto 31.

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