On Dante’s ‘Paradiso’ and How Tolkien Improved His Story

Another week, another dollar.

What I’m reading: I finished Dante’s Paradiso—at last. The poet ascends the spheres of heaven with his guide Beatrice, meeting figures such as Adam, Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter, Mary, and St. John along the way. I have many thoughts and feelings about it, but one surprising moment was in canto 27, where St. Peter rages at the corruption of the church in Dante’s time. His wrath eerily prefigures some of the criticisms Martin Luther would make two centuries later.

I also have a minor quibble with LitCharts, an online resource I’ve been using to help me comprehend Dante. In canto 14, we read the following words from Beatrice who addresses one of the heavenly souls on Dante’s behalf:

Do tell him [i.e., Dante] if that light with which your soul
blossoms will stay with you eternally
even as it is now; and if it stays,
do tell him how, when you are once again
made visible, it will be possible
for you to see such light and not be harmed.

Beatrice is asking, in other words, whether or not the bright radiance of the souls in heaven will persist when they are re-united with their bodies at the bodily resurrection. LitCharts has this to say: “In Dante’s day, Christians didn’t believe that souls would remain eternally disembodied in Heaven, but that, at the Last Judgment, souls would be reunited with their bodies forever.”

The implication of this comment is that few, if any, Christians still hold this view. Which I suppose in some sense is true. Too many Christians are misinformed about heaven, believing it to be an ethereal, disembodied existence. But I also think LitCharts went too far, because there are in fact many contemporary Christians (evangelicals, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics) who still espouse the same ancient biblical view of the bodily resurrection that Dante did. (And for good reason: the New Testament authors were rather explicit on this point. See for instance St. Paul’s extended description of future resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15, and St. John’s portrayal of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21. And of course the bodily resurrection is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, which is still widely used.) How this view has shifted and evolved over the centuries is an interesting question I’m not equipped to answer, but lately I’ve seen joyful acknowledgement of the old truth in books such as Surprised by Hope, by NT Wright; Heaven, by Randy Alcorn; and The Awesome Super Fantastic Forever Party (which, as you can guess by the title, is for kids), by Joni Eareckson Tada. I hope these understandings of an embodied eternity continue to spread in Christian circles.

What I’m writing at work: A bunch of user guides for a major software release happening in April. Some of it is fun, most of it at this point is complex and tedious, requiring extreme attention to detail.

What I’m writing in my spare time: Cf above. I’ve got two essays on the docket, but for now my progress has ground to a halt.

Favorite Quotes: I’m in love with this observation by Robin Sloan on “How the ring got good“:

There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.

It was just revision.

I find this totally inspiring.

You have to understand: Tolkien, among writers of this kind, is revered as THE grand designer. The story goes: he’d worked it all out in advance — invented these languages, plotted out this sprawling legen­darium — so, when he sat down to begin LOTR, it was all there to draw upon.

This is tech­ni­cally true — he HAD worked out the languages and legen­darium years before — but (I have now learned) that story doesn’t capture or explain, in any way at all really, the process of composing these books. It doesn’t tell us how Tolkien came up with the things that actually made them good.

The One Ring is not the only example; they are thick on the page. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, was missing entirely from early drafts. In his place was a ranger hobbit with wooden feet named Trotter.

Ranger hobbit. Wooden feet. Trotter.

And a character as indelible as Galadriel — think of her powerful presiding role — was the product not of some grand architecture, but an errant note: “There is then a sentence, placed within brackets, which is unhappily — since it is probably the first reference my father ever made to Galadriel — only in part decipherable: ‘[?Lord] of Galadrim [?and ?a] Lady and … [?went] to White Council.’

Tolkien discov­ered her on the page, just as we did.

The analogy is clear, and hugely heartening: if Tolkien can find his way to the One Ring in the middle of the fifth draft, so can I, and so can you.

Source: Tolkien’s drafts. Milkwaukeemag.com