culture Dante

The Power of Storytelling

6:00:00 AMJoseph Anderson

“When he, whoever of the gods it was, had thus arranged in order and resolved that chaotic mass, and reduced it, thus resolved, to cosmic parts, he first molded the Earth into the form of a mighty ball so that it might be of like form on every side … And, that no region might be without its own forms of animate life, the stars and divine forms occupied the floor of heaven, the sea fell to the shining fishes for their home, Earth received the beasts, and the mobile air the birds … Then Man was born:… though all other animals are prone, and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to Man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.” 

When we grew up, fairytales and stories were always on our minds. We've always been looking up, dreaming about how things could be, or maybe just seeing what really is there. As children, we are philosophers because we know wonder. And part of this wonder is experienced in the telling and retelling of myths. 

Great poets and playwrights throughout history understood this an incorporated myth into their discussion of truth. Though this goes back to the beginning of time, such people that stand out in the Christian tradition are writers like Dante, CS Lewis, Milton among many others. But I'd like to focus on Dante's epic story of his own fictional experiences in hell, purgatory and eventually heaven. In particular I'd like to compare his Inferno to a recent animated film series that shows that even in the mainstream Dante's work has influence.

Dante must have known that the imagination was the best way to reach out to people. His work Inferno uses the epic form to show symbolic truths about the faith and about heaven. Though there are plenty of people who love philosophy, theology and the sciences, the common man loves stories. It's an inherent part of who we are and the first way through which we learn. 

One contemporary expression of wonder found in storytelling is the cartoon mini series "Over the Garden Wall." "Over the Garden Wall" is the story of two brothers who mysteriously find their way into the woods. They want to find their way back but they don't know the direction. And, like the she-wolf that chases Dante in the opening lines of the Inferno, the two boys must also face a man eating wolf that has been made evil by eating a black turtle. The boys continue on their journey and run into a bird named Beatrice who wants to help them find their way to a witch who she says can save them. So the boys go on a series of adventures, and each episode is a different lesson involving a different set of folks who are in one way or another trapped in some in-between phase. All the while, however, the boys are pursued by the beast, some dark creature who is after them for an unknown purpose. 

In the way that people grow through choices, we often best learn lessons from illustrations. Ancient philosophers like Plato knew the power of storytelling in conveying philosophical truths. That's why his work is so much more fun to read than Aristotle's. Because wonder is experienced so much in stories, we must not ever underestimate their power to enlighten human experience, and give hope to the generations.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”-GK Chesterton

1: Ovid, The Metamorphoses.

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