An epic poem has several standard features to it. These include that the poem is a narrative on a large scale; that the poem is a story of adventure, usually involving a hero on some kind of quest; that the poem begins in the middle of the action or in medias res; that it contains a link to myth or legend; that battles and perilous journey's are a major part of the action; and that there is a reference to the supernatural, Gods or the underworld. By comparing the poem "The Inferno" to these qualities of an epic, it will be shown that the poem qualifies as an epic poem, meeting every one of these qualities.
Firstly, the poem is a narrative on a large scale. The poem is a narrative on a large scale in three ways. It is an epic in terms of its epic length, being a poem consisting of 34 books. It is also an epic on the scale that Dante travels all over the world, and all over hell. Finally, it is on a large scale because of the significance of Dante's journey. Dante's journey represents his process of coming to understand the way to heaven. His journey allows him to find meaning and gives him the inspiration to write the poem to show other people the way to heaven. This gives the poem a large scale significance. The one area the poem is not consistent with an epic is the time-frame. Unlike many epics, Dante's journey takes place over a period of days. However, while this point is not consistent with all epics, the epic significance of Dante's journey makes up for this.
Secondly, the poem is a story of adventure and involves a quest as its central theme. This is true of "The Inferno." Dante's adventure is his travel through hell, with his quest being to find the way to heaven. Dante realizes he needs to find heaven in the dark forest. The dark forest represents the world of sin and Dante is unable to find his way out of it. He attempts to find it by climbing a mountain, but is unsuccessful. Virgil arrives and offers Dante another path out of the woods. These events in the forest represent Dante's awareness that he needs to find the way to heaven. This is Dante's realizing that there is a problem. This problem is greater than just Dante himself and involves the fact that the whole world has lost its spiritual way. Dante's quest then becomes to understand the way to heaven. At the end of his quest, Dante has not only found the way to heaven for himself but has also found a way to communicate it to the world. Dante's quest then, represents one that brings salvation to the world. Therefore, his quest has an epic meaning attached to it.
Thirdly, an epic poem begins in medias res, or in the middle of the action. This is true of "The Inferno." It begins with Dante in the middle of his life and in the middle of his problems, having lost the way to heaven. The epic opens with Dante in the forest and trying to find a way out. This represents Dante trying to find the good path. Opening with this puts the reader right into the action. There is no introduction or build-up, instead the poem opens with the problem that the remainder of the epic will solve. The character Dante is also in the middle of his life, but his character is only introduced later as the action continues. There is no background on the character given, since this is not so much a poem about Dante but a poem about the spiritual journey he represents. To maintain this focus, the poem opens with the problem. This is consistent with the epic form.
The fourth quality of the epic is that there is a link to myth or legend. This is true of "The Inferno" because of the link to heaven and hell. While the link to heaven and hell does not quite qualify as a myth or legend, in "The Inferno" it takes the place of the myth. The major point is that the myth or legend in an epic, represents something that has greater meaning than usual events. For example, where Greek Gods are used in an epic, the reference to the Gods or a story involving a God, means something significant to people. In "The Inferno," hell itself has a significant meaning. The reader associates certain things with hell and this gives the work new meaning. The reader is able to understand that Dante's journey through hell represents a journey to find spiritual meaning. Heaven and hell have clear spiritual meanings to people. Dante also makes use of many other biblical references throughout the work. The numbers used in the work are significant and represent something biblical The three parts to the work represent the Holy Trinity - the father, the son, and the holy spirit. This use of three reoccurs constantly throughout the work. Another example is in the beginning when Dante climbs the hill and is met by three creatures. There are also three forms of sin. The number nine also recurs, nine being a significant number because it is the square of three. In hell, Dante finds that there are nine levels of hell. Adding the vestibule to the nine levels of hell makes ten levels in all. The number ten is also significant, because it is considered to be a perfect number. The numbers, as well as appearing within the work, also appear as part of the structure of the work. Each chapter has 33 cantos, there are 100 cantos altogether and each canto is made up of stanzas of three lines. This perfect structure mimics the subject of "The Inferno." Since "The Inferno" is written as a means of showing people the way to heaven, it is as if Dante is doing God's work. The structure mimics the perfect structure of God's world. This can be seen both as a sign that Dante is paying respect to God and a sign that the work has greater significance than the average poem. Overall, biblical references and especially the use of heaven and hell are used as myths to create the meaning of the poem. The reader is aware that Dante has not really taken this journey through hell. Instead, it is a mythical journey itself that represents something greater than what it is on the surface. Because heaven and hell have specific spiritual and biblical meanings attached to them, the reader is able to understand the meaning of the poem. Therefore, the use of myth is central to the work, making it qualify as an epic for this characteristic.
The fifth quality of an epic is the inclusion of battles and the involvement of a perilous journey as a major part of the plot. There is no doubt that "The Inferno" qualifies on this point. The journey is the major theme of the work, both for its part in taking up the action and for the significance of its meaning. As noted, the journey represents the path to finding salvation and heaven. On this journey, Dante travels through hell. It is difficult to think of a journey more perilous than a journey through hell. Almost the entire poem consists of Dante's journey through hell, from the top level to the bottom level. Each of the ten levels of hell contains different sinners and so represents a different sin. This varies from the lustful to the gluttonous to the thieves and the traitors. Continuing with the focus on the journey as a spiritual one, this journey though the…