Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

La Vita Nuova

True love is theological. This is the conclusion one reaches while reading this early work of the writer of the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri wrote La Vita Nuova at the age of twenty-six, shortly after the death of his beloved Beatrice.

On the surface this book is simply a collection of love poetry, displaying all the conventions of courtly love. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy is too overcome with a sense of his own unworthiness to ever speak to girl. Girl dies. The end. However, below the surface, this book is a profound reflection on the nature of love and of how human love can lead us to Divine Love. Indeed, Dante becomes a servant of Divine Love throughout the book as he meditates on Beatrice and mourns for Beatrice. In the quality of perfection which she possesses, a quality that is actually a result of Dante’s love for her, Dante sees an image of salvation itself and gives himself wholeheartedly to it. When, in one poem, Dante writes that the inhabitants of heaven plead for God to call Beatrice to join them, God responds:

My well-beloved, suffer that in peace
Your hope remain, while so My pleasure is,
There where one dwells who dreads the loss of her;
And who in Hell unto the doom’d shall say,
‘I have look’d on that for which God’s chosen pray.’

The Church at the time clearly had some problems with this imagery, and tried to censor Dante’s book by removing from it all the theological language. Gone were the references to salvation and benediction from Beatrice. Gone were the overtones of Dante’s encounter with Beatrice and her friend Joan, wherein Dante saw Joan as John the Baptist, the forerunner, and Beatrice as the Mother of Love. Either Dante did not experience these things, in which case he was an over-amorous young man writing blasphemies, or he did experience an unusual mystical vision which should not be tainted by connection with a mere human. However, Charles Williams, scholar and friend of C. S. Lewis, maintains that Dante’s experience was real and not at all unusual. It was the experience of love that all young men encounter when they meet that one girl for the first time. It is the experience of courtship, the thrill of passion, the agony of waiting to hear from the beloved again. Dante truly saw that human love is an image of Divine Love, and that through faithfulness in love, we may progress to faithfulness to Love. This is all fleshed out more fully in the Divine Comedy, where the love of Beatrice very literally leads Dante to heaven.

For those interested in Dante or in the Divine Comedy, I wholeheartedly recommend a study of La Vita Nuova.

5/5 stars