The Road Of Trials in "The Divine Comedy"
Part 4 of the Hero's Journey series
According to one version of a Chinese folktale, when princess Miaoshan’s father ordered her to marry a wealthy but selfish man, her response took to the form of a question: What good will it do? She could only agree to marriage on the condition that their union would ease the suffering of people as they aged, when they fell ill, and when they or their loved ones died.
Her father pointed out that no marriage could address such problems; she pointed out that a life spent in religious servitude directed towards the good of humanity stood a better chance of it. Like Siddartha Guatama rebelling against his father’s scheming, Miaoshan insisted she did not want a part in the family business of dynastic rule and familial wealth. She was going to make it as a saint.
Miaoshan begged her father for permission to join a temple and become a nun – to dive into the Belly of the Beast – and he acquiesced, only to instruct the monks to make her suffer. Entering the temple to begin her life of piety, Miaoshan was about to face unimaginable tests, temptations, and horrors set against her. She had set off on her Road of Trials.
“It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.”
~ JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
In the Hero’s Journey, the Road of Trials is often the longest and most difficult part of the quest, and rightly so as it is the realm of transformation. It is on this road and against its trials that our hero transitions from duality to unity, from the Ordinary World to Transcendence, from the person she was to the hero she will be. This will not, indeed cannot, happen without her character being both tested and formed by struggle. And Miaoshan certainly struggled.
The princess, now a nun, was forced to work day and night, long after everyone else had gone to bed. Only after her labour could she get the most minimal rest. But she understood that goals as noble and valuable as hers required struggle, because nothing of worth is given freely, so she stuck to her task without complaint. The tale tells us that for her humility and perseverance, she received the help of animals in completing her chores.
The hero, often thought of as a solitary figure of singular greatness, commonly requires the help of mentors and guides, like the wild creatures assisting Miaoshan in her tasks. Even the Lone Ranger was not so alone, with Tonto at his side. In Dante’s Biblically epic The Divine Comedy, the narrator-hero wakes to find himself seemingly alone “in a gloomy wood”, having gone “astray from the direct path”. Full of dread, Dante wanders until he sees a great mountain rising out of this dark valley, and he commits to reaching its peak. He is stopped, however, by three vicious beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. He is ready to retreat when a figure appears to him and announces himself as the Roman poet Virgil.
Sent by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life, Virgil is to be his guide through the “eternal space” of Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven. He is offering Dante his Call to Adventure, inviting him to either stay in this Ordinary World or attempt to ascend to the transcendence of Heaven. To do so, Virgil cautions, means first descending into Hell, the Belly of the Beast. Dante accepts and as “onward [Virgil] moved, [Dante] close his steps pursued”.
Virgil guides our holy hero down into Hell, which is a conical crater caused by the crash of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven. Dante is to reverse the course of Satan’s journey, beginning at his lowly end and ascending from there. As the two great writers journey through the nine realms of Hell, Dante is forced to confront the increasing awfulness of the torments awaiting those who sin. Having glimpsed the brilliant radiance at the top of the mountain, the goal towards which he has set himself, he must first understand the Hell that he is running from before he can truly begin running to that Heaven.
Finally, at the centre of the earth, our hero and his guide come face to faces (he has three) with Lucifer. He is a monstrous giant with three weeping faces, enormous wings “like a bat”, and he chews on sinners in each of his mouths, “distill’d with bloody foam”. Dante must climb up this beastly body along his back to reach a secret entrance to Purgatory. At last in this new land, his Road of Trials takes the form of a deadly climb up a steep mountain.
Why am I climbing this damned mountain? is a question most of us might ask during a scramble up the precipice, implying with it the subordinate question, Why don’t I just give up? There are variations of this we might ask while hyperventilating on the last sweaty leg of a run or putting in another hour at the desk to finish a job. Asked less often is, Why must I struggle at all? Why can’t I simply have what I desire? This is an immature complaint. Most of us innately comprehend some kind of a response, something like, Life is suffering, so I might as well suffer towards a place of less suffering, or something as simple as, Everything comes at a cost.
Nietzsche understood the situation differently. The German philosopher hyperbolically yet kindly enough wished on those “who are of any concern to me” all kinds of “suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities ... [which] can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures”. He is conceptualising here the notion of proving oneself like Daniel emerging from the lion’s den or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walking unharmed through the flames of the king’s furnace. Nietzsche understood life’s hardships as a necessary, life-affirming part of becoming a greater self, some sixty years before Joseph Campbell codified this as the Road of Trials in the Hero’s Journey.
Some thinkers have suggested that to struggle valiantly at a worthwhile task is to live a life of meaning. Obviously, some kinds and some levels of suffering are only Hell, being pointlessly destructive. Suffering without shape – without some sense that I can learn to cope with the weight of this burden and become a better person through it – will only negate life. But when we find a world of difficulty on our shoulders, a weight that demands effort and that strains the fibres of every muscle, and yet we remain standing and do something useful with our Atlantean labour, the question of Why? ceases to make sense. We simply do. We are and we become.
Nietzsche went further still. In The Gay Science, he wondered whether pleasure and displeasure were so entwined that enjoying the most of one necessitated enduring the most of the other. In proposing that suffering and joy were intimately bound together, he concluded that the greatest reward required the greatest suffering – that “whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’”. Nietzsche also wrote of the “last men”, people who seek no excess of pleasure or discomfort and who reject complexity for being the source of both. In escaping any opportunity that might bring pain, they sacrifice every chance of deep joy, never benefiting from “the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet”.
Great works of art touch upon the profound – that which is most meaningful to us. Trivial experience and shallow thinking produce superficial artworks; true and rich experience is gained by the artist who says Yes to life and all that it offers. When the artist chases a dream, he endures nightmares to reach it. When a writer seeks to reveal a truth that can free her reader from some misery, she must go deep into that misery to describe it with lucid honesty. As Dante seeks knowledge of the divine, he must first learn of the profane. And as Princess Miaoshan hopes to heal, she must first suffer.
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
~ John Keats
Miaoshan’s father was furious when he discovered that her chores were not defeating her, so he ramped up his antagonism in a manner that seemed to escalate unreasonably. He tried to burn the temple to the ground – with his daughter inside. But Miaoshan understood that to succeed meant in some measure to suffer, so she pierced her tongue with a needle and spat her own blood into the air above the flames. Her blood became rain that quelled the fire; her pain became a blessing.
At bottom, this is a fundamental conception of the Hero’s Journey as a whole – that out of the quest comes good, from the hardships of the journey come benefits to the hero and her community. At a metaphysical level, we find that from Chaos emerges Order (not separate but entwined) and from duality comes unity. At the level of what our hero must endure on her journey, the Road of Trials is where suffering becomes strength. The writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray once defined such trials as the defining feature of how a hero is born:
“The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge ... The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers ... jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.”
At the gates of Purgatory, Dante meets with an angel who carves the letter P into his forehead seven times, representing the piaghe (wounds) formed by peccati (sins). It will be Dante’s task now to ascend the mountain, passing through seven terraces at which he must purge himself of sin, washing each of the seven P’s from his skin. These tests of redemption, intended to purify his soul before entering Paradise, signify the full breadth of the Road of Trials: It is not narrowly concerned with only testing what our hero already is capable of, it also teaches our hero to be capable of more. The Road tempers our hero’s character like a sword forged in the heat of the bladesmith’s fire. The trials of Purgatory test the soul for what is there, and offer the possibility of rectifying oneself to move on.
But these trials do not seem to pertain to Dante himself, at least not during this journey. Dante at no point has to prove anything in order to have the angel of each terrace remove a P from his forehead so he can continue the ascent. Instead, Dante observes the trials of others. He watches, for instance, the souls of the proud straining with the weight of boulders hung around their necks, some of them trying to learn humility; although Dante himself knows he is guilty of pride (“I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace”) no penance or proof of his worthiness is required. Why is this?
The trials of the road are designed to promote the requisite traits for our hero to attain his specific form of apotheosis, and Dante’s aim is the fullness of knowing God. As such, his journey is about the cultivation of knowledge, both in the general and the specific. In the general, he must learn all he can of the divine and the mundane, of goodness and of evil, and he must be capable of bearing this knowledge. In the specific, Dante must know himself before he can know God, because the fullness he seeks will manifest in the union of his understanding with the true nature of God.
Dante’s apotheosis (elevation to divinity, the culmination of his development) is actually theosis (the union with the divine). His journey through Hell is a warning of the worst possible outcome: He is as likely as anyone to end up forsaken with those souls suffering in Hell. He must confront this truth in order to be properly motivated for the climb up Mount Purgatory; Dante with Virgil is like Scrooge crying out to the Ghost of Christmas Future, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” It is knowledge here that will save his soul.
There is one physical trial our narrator-hero must undergo when he reaches the seventh terrace, around which a wall of fire burns. “O ye spirits purified,” comes a chant from the other side of the fire, “you may not enter by this stair except the fire hath licked you. Through its flames ascend ...” Dante hesitates here, at last having to prove himself with action and finding himself full of doubt. Our hero wavers, until Virgil tells him that his love, Beatrice, is waiting for him beyond these flames. This is enough motivation and Dante passes through, and though he is safe, the trial is terribly painful, enough that when he “felt that cleansing heat’s intensity, [he] would have flung [himself] in boiling glass to quench the burning”.
Why does Dante have this physical test when his journey has been one of the intellect and emotions? I think it is because inert knowledge is only partial knowledge. Ideas motivate behaviours and, conversely, action fulfils the full potential of knowledge. In some important sense, knowledge does not have existence until it is manifest in reality. Contained only in the mind, knowledge is like one of the shades that haunt the constrained realms of Hell and Purgatory, awaiting release into the fullness of reality. By passing through the flames, Dante has manifest as action the knowledge he has garnered so far on his journey. His Road of Trials has tested who he already is and informed him who he ought to be, and then has helped him to become that. Like the sword prepared for battle, the fire has forged our hero.
Dante seeks the highest knowledge and union with his god – so he must first be able to endure knowledge of all that is lowly and sinful beneath the holy and demonstrate his worthiness. Princess Miaoshan wants to be a healer and priest, so she must learn the qualities requisite for those roles, traits of patience and compassion, which she will learn at great cost to herself. She will need to be patient in the face of trying ordeals and show compassion to those who try to harm her. Dante’s are a very different kind of trial from the hardships of Miaoshan, but each kind are appropriate to the journey each hero is on. The Road of Trials takes many forms.
Returning to Miaoshan’s story, we find that her Road of Trials was neither short nor easily travelled. Terrified and furious in equal measure at his failure to burn his daughter alive, Miaoshan’s father ordered that she be put to death. In the public square, the executioner did his best, bound as he was to obey the king’s command, but his axe shattered impotently against her unharmed neck. His sword scattered like dandelion seeds in a breeze around her throat. His arrows swerved like sparrows past her patient body. Finally, desperately, the executioner tried to strangle Miaoshan.
As she politely endured the painless and ineffective attempt on her life, Miaoshan considered the brutality coming the executioner’s way if he failed her father. She also knew that the good life required sacrifice. So Miaoshan forgave the executioner, voluntarily adopted the massive karmic guilt for what he was about to do, so that he would be blameless, and she allowed herself to die.
“To tame the lion that is will is a burden and a blessing; most just let desire run its course.”
~ Eidola, The Comfort We Find in Our Vices
It should be addressed that at any point up to her death, Miaoshan could have avoided further suffering. She could have given up the struggle and returned to a peaceful, wealthy life in her Ordinary World, by conceding to her father’s wish that she marry the rich but uncaring man. And who could blame her, really, for doing so if she had? There were plenty of reasons to say no to further trials and to give in to the enticements of ease and pleasure. The Road of Trials always offers the hero temptations.
Gilgamesh, the legendary Sumerian king and unlikely hero of the Mesopotamian epic, travelled to find the source of immortality, evading lions and scorpion men before reaching the great sea that surrounds the world. At the edge of the waters, he met the goddess Ishtar. Not liking the look of this interloper, she closed the gates that would have allowed him to pass through to the next stage of his quest. Desperate, he told her his story in the hope of convincing her to let him pass. Instead, she said, “Gilgamesh, why do you run about this way? You will never find the life you seek.” She then tried to persuade him of a less difficult path.
Fill your belly, Gilgamesh; day and night, enjoy yourself; every day, relax with some pleasant hobby. Day and night, be frolicsome and gay; let your clothes be handsome, your hair shampooed, your body bathed.
This invitation to hedonism from Ishtar was itself a test on the Road of Trials, one that we each face every time we discover an opportunity to pursue meaning and become a hero or stay at home in comfort and apathy. Dante wakes to the dark forest that is this poem’s Ordinary World, representative of the confusion and uncertainty about one’s direction common to many in the “midway” of one’s life. Soon after, he is confronted by three beasts that correspond (unsurprisingly for a poem based on, steeped in, and contributing to Christian theology) to the symbolic animals of Jeremiah 5:6:
“A lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goes out there shall be torn in pieces.”
There are disputes – amongst the type of person like myself who argue about the words in stories of long dead writers – about exactly what these beasts represent in the The Divine Comedy; what is important here is that whatever specific sins or levels of Hell they might signify, they undoubtedly present a challenge to Dante’s progress. They confront him with a choice: risk his life trying to get past them, or simply return to the forest. It may have been a dark, confusing place, but better that than dying in the jaws of these animals.
In fact, to many of us at most times in our ordinary lives, there isn’t really a choice here. These three beasts are the immutable danger that keeps us where we are without considering the foolish hope that we might get past them without being eaten. It is only when Virgil appears to Dante to show him a route to the mountaintop that our hero now has a real choice. This choice is still difficult, still promising danger and risk of defeat, but it is not the untamed and untameable threat of the wild beasts. Virgil offers a path, as well as a method for overcoming its trials. The Hero’s Journey is not only an invitation to confront evil, it is a manner in which to overcome it. The Road of Trials, it must be remembered, is two things – yes, it contains tests and threats and temptations, but it is also a road. It is way of navigating those trials.
A common rendering of James 1:12 (as found in the popular English Standard Version) has it that “blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life”. But the King James Version offers us more specifically, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation”. All of our trials on the road must be overcome, and it is temptation that is the most foundational of tests. Trials that conquer the hero do so by either destroying or defeating her; defeat manifests as keeping the hero from continuing on her path, turning her away from the road and back to her Ordinary World. As such, every trial is a temptation not to suffer but to give up. Our hero, however, continues to strive, to seek, to find; she will not yield.
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
~ Mary Shelley
Weighed down by the negative karma she had taken on from her executioner, Miaoshan descended to the underworld. This was a labyrinthine underworld with perhaps as many as ten “courts” in which the soul was judged and tortured. It was a place representative of the Chaos that Miaoshan abhorred, a realm of misery and suffering antithetical to the Order of blessing and harmony she sought in life. Miaoshan came face to face with the abject horror of those souls confined and tortured in the underworld. She heard their wailing, saw their suffering, and felt their sorrow.
Up to this point in her story, Miaoshan had faced her own struggles; she was now presented for the first time with the reality of the abstract idea she had longed to counter – the pain of a broken world. Here, she would either fall on the Road of Trials or reach its end. Miaoshan acted decisively. She released all of the karma accumulated throughout her life for all the good she had done, for the struggles she had undertaken willingly, the suffering she had endured, and the sacrifices she had made. She offered it up on behalf of the suffering souls around her, freeing them into the world and turning this hellish realm into a paradise.
The hero’s Ordinary World is a place in which a sense of Order is maintained or is lacking; her Call to Adventure is one that promises to reinstate that Order when it is lost or correct it to what she believes Order ought to be; this will always force her into a confrontation with Chaos. The more Order you seek, the more Chaos you must endure. Embedded in world mythologies is the ubiquitous notion of Chaoskampf, the “struggle against chaos”, and is represented most commonly by the hero who pursues and engages in battle with a chaos monster. It appears in Greek mythology as Heracles slaying Poseidon’s sea-monster, in Lost as Jack fighting against the Man in Black (the “Smoke Monster”), in The Hobbit with Bard shooting Smaug out of the sky, and Siddartha Guatama vanquishing the Lord of Death before becoming the Buddha.
At this point in the journey, the hero conceptualises Chaos as that which negates the Order she desires. We will later see (and she will later discover) that this is an incomplete understanding of Chaos and Order perpetuating a false dichotomy between the two. Her Hero’s Journey is her first confrontation with Chaos. The hero turns what is unfamiliar into a dragon to be conquered. The most important step along the Road of Trials is the discovery that, as James Baldwin put it, “the Devil has many faces, all of them one’s own”. In order to defeat a dragon, our hero must become to some degree a dragon.
Dante is forced to accept that he is as prone as anyone else to the sins of those whom he witnesses on his journey. Like an alcoholic having to first admit the problem, Dante must come face to face with his fallen nature before he can transcend it. Likewise, Miaoshan not only endures suffering on her journey, she must inflict it too. She manages to restrict it to herself, but she still has to pierce a tongue to draw blood and consent to the death of a human on her path towards healing suffering. It is this confrontation with the other that leads to the confrontation with ourselves and to the knowledge that Chaos is not only out there – it resides in here.
The tale of Miaoshan goes on to tell us that the ruler of the underworld became desperate to spare his kingdom its utter annihilation, so to preserve it before Miaoshan turned it into a true paradise, he sent her back to Earth. Returned to life, she found her way to the top of Fragrant Mountain, where she was at last able to pursue her meditation. This is not the end of her story, and we will return to Miaoshan later. She is one of the more impressive and, sadly, unsung heroes of world mythology, and she still has much to tell us.
For now, we have reached the final act of the three-act Hero’s Journey. We have come out of duality, confronted chaos and conquered evil, and finally we have reached The Temple.
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• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
• The Divine Comedy, Dante (1320)
• The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the ring, JRR Tolkien (1954)
• John Keats, in a letter to his brother, George, 21st April 1819
• Degenerattera, Eidola (2015)
• Epic of Gilgamesh, Anonymous (circa 2100 BC)
• Frankenstein (preface to 1831 edition), Mary Shelley (1823)
• A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)