- a textual environment of dense semiosis, in which all infernal denizens are equipped with signs and are sophisticated semiotic players: the sinners have sign-systems that they use to communicate, as do the devils, as of course do the travelers
- an unusually complex narrative line that Dante deploys here for the first time, consisting of an over-arching story-line that is punctuated by a briefer interpolated story
- the over-arching story-line is the story of the travelers Dante and Virgilio who try to enter the city of Dis and are rebuffed by devils; this story-line begins in the last verse of Inferno 7 and concludes with the arrival of the angel in Inferno 9
- this over-arching narrative accommodates an interpolated shorter narrative in which the pilgrim, while traversing the River Styx, is accosted by a wrathful soul: the Florentine magnate Filippo Argenti
- the complex narrative transition of Inferno 8-9 echoes the original transition of Inferno 1-2 while anticipating the even more complex narrative transition of Inferno 16-17
- an Aristotelian template with respect to wrath, begun with the tristi at the end of Inferno 7, is completed by the rabid Filippo Argenti in Inferno 8
- the over-arching story-line of the travelers trying to enter the city of Dis is also an important installment in the ongoing story of Virgilio in the Commedia: the encounter with the devils at the gates of Dis is the first occasion in which Dante-author scripts a fallible role for the guide who thus far has been the “mar di tutto ’l senno” (sea of all wisdom [Inf. 8.7])
 In the last verse of Inferno 7 the travelers come to the foot of a tower: “Venimmo al piè d’una torre al da sezzo” (We came at last upon a tower’s base [Inf. 7.130]). At the beginning of Inferno 8 we learn of an infernal system of communication: we receive the disquieting information that signals have been exchanged between the tower of canto 7 and another watchtower, further off. These are fortified towers of the sort found in Italian cities of the period, and the signals mark the onset of hostilities: those engaged in communicating through signals are hostile to Dante and his guide, and consider the travelers to be trespassers without license to pass through their territory. We do not yet know who the signalers are. They will turn out to be the devils who guard the city of Dis, keeping watch from their fortified towers on the River Styx, which surrounds Dis like a moat around a castle keep.
 Inferno 8 constitutes the first moment in a complex narrative arc. Inferno 8 is part of an extended story-line that begins with the watchtower in the last verse of Inferno 7 and that is not completed until the arrival of the heavenly intercessor toward the end of Inferno 9.
 Inferno 8 contains the encounter with Filippo Argenti, adding to the narrative complexity of the canto. The Filippo Argenti episode constitutes a story enfolded within the longer narrative arc described in the preceding paragraph.
 The narrator comes to the fore in Inferno 8-9. These are canti that feature a “display of the author’s narrative prowess”, as I noted in The Undivine Comedy (p. 69). Accordingly, Dante introduces assertively self-conscious narrative techniques into Inferno 8:
- the narrator’s assertive incipit to Inferno 8: “Io dico, seguitando” (I say, continuing [Inf. 8.1]). The forceful and ex abrupto presence of this opening is such that it gave rise among early commentators to a biographical theory of this canto’s authorship, whereby Dante here resumed writing the Inferno after a long pause (“seguitando”). This fanciful ancient theory, without empirical foundation, has recently been exhumed in order to advance equally fanciful modern biographical theories regarding the composition of Inferno, equally without empirical foundation. When one puts the opening of Inferno 8 into context, instead of treating it like the hidden key to unlock the door of biographical dates, one sees that the entire canto — not simply the opening verses — are self-consciously focused on the author’s narrative art, and that indeed narrative itself is thematized in Inferno 8.
- the self-conscious insertion of a flashback at the beginning of Inferno 8: “assai prima / che noi fossimo al piè de l’alta torre, / li occhi nostri n’andar suso a la cima / per due fiammette che i vedemmo porre / e un’altra da lungi render cenno” (long before / we two had reached the foot of that tall tower, / our eyes had risen upward, toward its summit, / because of two small flames that flickered there, / while still another flame returned their signal [Inf. 8.1-5]).
- the flashback informs us that signals had been exchanged “long before” (“assai prima”) between two towers: these towers are the tower registered in the last verse of Inferno 7 and another tower posited in the opening verses of Inferno 8.
- the author’s re-assertion of narrative control in verse 64. He inserts the authorially preemptive verse, “Quivi il lasciammo, che più non ne narro” (We left him there; I tell no more of him [Inf. 8.64]).
- the narrator’s first address to the reader. In Inferno 8 we encounter the first example of one of the most significant authorial tropes of the Commedia, discussed in classic essays by Auerbach and Spitzer (for my analysis of the analyses of Auerbach and Spitzer, see The Undivine Comedy, p. 14). Here Dante speaks directly to the reader: “Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai / nel suon de le parole maladette, / ché non credetti ritornarci mai” (Consider, reader, my dismay before / the sound of those abominable words: / returning here seemed so impossible [Inf. 8.94-6]).
- the narrator’s creation of suspense at the end of Inferno 8. Using the future tense and the little adverb “già” (already), which — as we shall see — is a potent tool in his narrative arsenal for generating suspense, Dante ends this canto in medias res as the travelers await the arrival of the being who will save them from the devils and open the gate of Dis.
 Filippo Argenti, from the magnate Florentine family of the Adimari, is one of the wrathful souls whom Dante sees in Inferno 8. The wrathful belong to the fifth circle, and are in the River Styx. Dante traverses the Styx in the boat of Phlegiàs (as earlier he had traversed Acheron in Charon’s boat).
 The result is a nautical sequence that functions as anticipation of the more extended nautical sequence that involves Geryon: Inferno 8-9 echoes the original transition of Inferno 1-2 while anticipating the transition of Inferno 16-17.
 While in Phlegiàs’ boat, Dante participates in a bitterly wrathful exchange of insults with Filippo Argenti, provoking the question as to whether the pilgrim in some way participates in or mirrors the sin that he is witnessing. The bitter altercation between Dante and Filippo Argenti anticipates other moments of heightened dialogue in the Inferno.
 According to the Aristotelian template that I suggest at the end of the Commento on Inferno 7, the pilgrim here models righteous anger, the virtuous midpoint between the sad melancholics and the rabid wrathful:
melancholic tristitia ⇤⇤⇤⇤ righteous anger ⇥⇥⇥⇥ rabid wrath
 Other examples of righteous anger may be found in the Commedia. For instance, in Purgatorio 8 the narrator refers to the measured and righteous anger that inflames Nino Visconti: “quel dritto zelo / che misuratamente in core avvampa” (that forthright zeal which, / in measured fashion flames within the heart [Purg. 8.83-4]).
 However, this incipient Dantean version of an Aristotelian wrath-spectrum, with two negative extremes and a positive mean, cohabits with the Christian system in which virtue and vice stand as polar opposites. Hence the Beatitude that signals the pilgrim’s departure from Purgatorio’s terrace of wrath is rewritten by Dante to include the idea of “ira mala”, but this “evil wrath” is positioned as the vicious opposite of the virtuous peace-makers in the Beatitude: “Beati / pacifici, che son sanz’ ira mala!” (Beati / pacifici, who are without evil wrath [Purg. 17.68–69]).
 Virgilio’s strong endorsement of the pilgrim’s punitive behavior toward Filippo Argenti includes his praising the pilgrim for his disdain, addressing Dante as “Alma sdegnosa” (“Indignant soul” [Inf. 8.44]). This approbation, and the association of disdain with the angel who will arrive in Inferno 9 and of whom Dante writes “Ahi quanto mi parea pien di disdegno!” (How full of high disdain he seemed to me! [Inf. 9.88]), underscores that the pilgrim is here performing righteous anger. He is performing what will be called, in the language of Purgatorio 8, “quel dritto zelo / che misuratamente in core avvampa” (that forthright zeal which, / in measured fashion flames within the heart [Purg. 8.83-4]).
 Virgilio’s somewhat over-the-top expression of approbation for Dante’s behavior, which includes his inflated evangelical language “benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse” (blessed is she who bore you in her womb [Inf. 8.45]), suggests that the pagan poet is carefully aligning himself with Christian values, showing his distance from the sinners and his endorsement of divine judgment. By the same token, however (as we shall see in the next canto and as discussed in Dante’s Poets, pp. 207-8), Virgilio’s performance of Christian values in this episode only highlights his subsequent pagan failure in Inferno 9.
 After Filippo Argenti is attacked by other sinners, Dante and Virgilio approach the city of Dis, whose skyline is notable for its fiery mosques:
E io: “Maestro, già le sue meschite là entro certe ne la valle cerno, vermiglie come se di foco uscite fossero”. (Inf. 8.70-73)
I said: “I can already see distinctly— master—the mosques that gleam within the valley, as crimson as if they had just been drawn out of the fire”.
 The reference to the mosques — “meschite” of Inf. 8.70 — of the diabolic city constitute one of the most negative characterizations of Islam in the Commedia: the characteristics of the infernal city of Dis are the characteristics of a Muslim city. Here is the note of a fourteenth-century commentator, Francesco da Buti, on the word “meschita”, which he describes as “a Saracen word”:
S’intende: Maestro; cioè Virgilio, lo quale chiama in più nomi simili e convenienti a lui, come appare nel processo del libro. già le sue meschite; cioè torri, o campanili della città predetta. Meschita è vocabolo sarainesco, et è luogo ove li Saracini vanno ad adorare; e perché quelli luoghi ànno torri a modo di campanili ove montano li sacerdoti loro a chiamare lo popolo che vada ad adorare Idio, però l’autore chiama le torre di Dite meschite. (Francesco da Buti, Commento all’Inferno, cited from the Dartmouth Dante Project)
Meschita is a Saracen word, and it refers to the place where Saracens go to pray; and because those places have towers (similar to our bell-towers) where their priests climb to call the people to prayer, therefore the author calls the towers of Dis meschite.
 Inferno 8’s association of mosques with devils anticipates Dante’s negative treatment of Mohammed in Inferno 28 and should be compared to the positive treatment, for instance, of Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna, who reside in Limbo (Inf. 4.129 and 134-144). The presence of the Muslim virtuous pagans in Limbo is discussed in the Commento on Inferno 4.
 As noted previously, the entire episode between Dante and Filippo Argenti takes place within the ongoing narrative arc, which extends into Inferno 9, about the travelers’ attempts, initially thwarted, to enter the city of Dis. To that story Dante now returns his attention.
 When Dante and Virgilio disembark in front of the gates of Dis, Virgilio for the first time deals with infernal guardians whom he cannot dominate. The mythological creatures whom he had encountered thus far were easily subdued. They are from his own, pagan, world, and his knowledge has been sufficient to allow him to control them.
 But now, faced with the determined resistance of Christian devils, Virgilio for the first time shows his limits and is unable to get license to pass. This encounter with the devils is the first such encounter in the poem and it is an important installment in another, even longer, narrative arc. I refer to the unfolding story that tells of Virgilio’s strengths and limitations in the role of Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory — one of the great overarching narratives of the Commedia.
 In the episode at the gates of Dis, Dante-poet for the first time underscores the limitations of Virgilio as a guide. This will be a key topic in the next canto, and indeed going forward in Inferno.
 Chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets argues that Dante constructs a special bivalent plot for his character Virgilio, and that it can be summed up thus: on the one hand, the narrator of Inferno creates situations that undercut his guide’s intellectual authority; simultaneously, on the other hand, the narrator scripts ever-increasing affective ties between the pilgrim and Virgilio. In other words, the affection between Dante-pilgrim and his guide Virgilio becomes ever stronger and is ever more clearly expressed. By the time Virgilio leaves Dante in Purgatorio 30 he has become “Virgilio dolcissimo patre” (Virgilio, sweetest father [Purg. 30.50]).
 In this way, Dante-poet creates a poignant, dynamic, and tension-filled plot-line at the heart of the Commedia, one that will culminate in the pilgrim’s experience of profound loss.
 The undermining of Virgilio’s authority is a key plot element of Inferno:
Despite Vergil’s very real preeminence in the first canticle, he is not immune from an implicit critique even within its bounds; in other words, he does not lose his authority all at once, at the beginning of the Purgatorio when Cato rebukes him, but in a more subtle fashion, step by step from the moment he enters the poem. When Vergil arrives an hourglass is set, and the grains of sand fall one by one until, in Purgatorio XXX, the glass is empty. (Dante’s Poets, p. 202)
 The encounter with the devils at the gate of Dis in Inferno 8 is thus a first installment in Dante-poet’s construction of a plot designed to undermine Virgilio’s authority and demonstrate his fallibility. The writer of the Commedia undermines the authority of the guide whom he chose, while simultaneously making sure that the pilgrim’s love for his guide grows stronger and more evident: the analysis of this narrative, scripted by Dante-poet as a key plot-line of the Commedia, will be one of the recurring thematic emphases of this commentary.
 Dante describes the guardians of the walls of Dis as “da ciel piovuti” — “rained from heaven” (Inf. 8.83) — thus reminding us that devils were once angels. They fell from heaven when they followed the rebellious Lucifer. This history was evoked in Inferno 3, for the vestibule of Hell houses the cowardly angels who did not take sides during Lucifer’s rebellion: “quel cattivo coro / de li angeli che non furon ribelli / né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro” (the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels /nor faithful to their God, but for themselves [Inf. 3.37-9]).
 The language of Inferno 3 tells us of three categories of angels: 1) angels who were rebellious to God, 2) angels who were faithful to God, and 3) coward angels, who were only for themselves. Using these categories, we realize that the pilgrim and Virgilio are now negotiating with angeli che furon ribelli a Dio: angels who were rebels to God. This is a class of being utterly alien to Virgilio.
 The devils challenge the pilgrim’s right to undertake this journey. He, as a living man, should not be in the realm of the dead: “Chi è costui che sanza morte / va per lo regno de la morta gente?” (Who is this that without death / goes through the kingdom of the people dead? [Inf. 8.84-5]). The devils seem not to know that the pilgrim has been issued a passport by the Highest Authority, than Whom there is none higher. After all, they have not had the advantage of reading Inferno 2!
 Their speech, however, is very attuned to the lexicon and thematics of Inferno 2. The devils seem to know all the buttons to push to reawaken the fear that the pilgrim experienced in that preliminary canto. They seek to separate the pilgrim from his guide, instructing Virgilio to remain with them while the pilgrim returns back alone — “solo” — along the path by which they have come, which they call the “folle strada” or “mad pathway”: “Sol si ritorni per la folle strada: / pruovi, se sa; ché tu qui rimarrai” (Let him return alone by his mad road; Try, if he can; for thou shalt remain here [Inf. 8.91]). The injunction to the pilgrim to go back alone (“Sol si ritorni”) echoes the opening of Inferno 2, where the narrator describes his past self on the threshold of Hell as “io sol uno” (I myself alone [Inf. 2.3]). With their use of the thematically-laden adjective “folle” (“la folle strada”), the devils echo the pilgrim’s fear of illegitimacy and trespass from Inferno 2, as expressed in the verse “temo che la venuta non sia folle” (I fear my venture may be wild and mad [Inf. 2.35]).
 The dilemma of being blocked by the devils, unable to proceed on his voyage through Hell, provokes the poet’s first address to the reader, in which he articulates his fear at never returning to the world of the living:
Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai nel suon de le parole maladette, ché non credetti ritornarci mai. (Inf. 8.94-96)
Consider, reader, my dismay before the sound of those abominable words: returning here seemed so impossible.
 The author’s first-person and present-tense intervention signals a moment of unusual significance. And, indeed, the pilgrim, who has lost his bearings altogether, begs Virgilio to give up on their journey so that they can retrace their steps together: “ritroviam l’orme nostre insieme ratto” (let us retrace our steps together, quickly [Inf. 8.102]). However, Virgilio insists, correctly, that their journey has been vouchsafed by Such A One — “da tal” — that it cannot be impeded: “ché ’l nostro passo / non ci può tòrre alcun: da tal n’è dato” (no one can hinder / our passage; One so great has granted it [Inf. 8.104-5]).
 The drama continues to play out: Virgilio goes off to negotiate with the devils, but they shut the gate in his face, causing him to return to Dante with his confidence shaken. Virgilio, however, regroups. He reminds himself and his charge of the conquest that he witnessed first-hand as an inhabitant of Limbo: the conquest of Christ over Hell. The devils are as insolent now, he says, as they were once before when they attempted to block the entrance to “a less secret gate” (“men segreta porta” [Inf. 8.125]).
 This reference to the devils’ attempt to block “a less secret gate” is a reference to the Harrowing of Hell. Let us unpack. The “secret gate” is the gate of Dis, where the travelers are now, which is “secret” because it is deep inside Hell. The “less secret gate” is the gate of Hell itself (depicted by Dante in Inferno 3), a gate that was thrown wide open by Christ when he entered Hell. As Virgilio underscores, the gate of Hell still now remains open, a clear sign of the devils’ impotence: “la qual sanza serrame ancor si trova” (a gate that is still without its bolts [Inf. 8.126]). In other words, the devils failed to block Christ’s entrance into Hell, in the past, and the devils will fail now.
 In his pointed reference to a less secret gate that is still unlocked, Virgilio is recalling a specific time already referenced in Inferno 4. Virgilio, as a resident of Limbo, witnessed the Harrowing of Hell. He saw the gate of Hell swung open by an all-powerful Christ, Who entered and liberated the biblical worthies, as Virgilio told us: “ci vidi venire un possente, / con segno di vittoria coronato” (I saw hither come a Mighty One, / with sign of victory incoronate [Inf. 4.53-54]).
 Dante is here adding to the density of his Virgilio story-line: he is constructing a pre-history for his character Virgilio, one that Virgilio will share as the journey proceeds. We note the deeply personalized and idiosyncratic nature of the pre-history that Dante creates for his deeply personal and idiosyncratic character, Virgilio: the pre-history that Dante creates for Virgilio is profoundly dependent on Virgilio being a dweller in Limbo.
 Never before (or since) has there been an avatar of the Roman poet Vergil who could claim to have witnessed the Harrowing of Hell, because never before (or since) has there been a figuration of Limbo that conceptualizes it as the dwelling of virtuous pagans.
 Inferno 8 ends by signalling a transition that does not occur immediately, leaving (for the first time in the diegesis of the Commedia) a canto suspended: in medias res.
 From Virgilio’s memory of the arrival in Hell of the “powerful one, crowned with sign of victory” (Inf. 4.53-54), Who flung open the very gate of Hell, we move to Virgilio’s assertion that there will arrive a being who will open the more secret gate of Dis: “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (the one who will lay open this realm for us [Inf. 8.130]). We thus move from Virgilio’s memory of a past conquest of Hell to his confident assertion regarding a future conquest of Hell. Moreover, he is confident that the event will take place in the immediate future, because The One (”tal”) who will fling open the gate is already on his way.
 Virgilio and Dante now wait, an unprecedented activity in the unfolding diegesis of the Inferno. Their waiting is suspenseful, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to witness Dante poet create suspense in his overdetermined plot.
 In Inferno 8’s final verses, Virgilio’s words are projected forward, as he uses the future tense and the telling adverb “già” — “already” — to peer into the future: “e già di qua da lei discende l’erta . . . tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (and already on this side of the gate of Hell there descends down the steep path the one who will unlock this realm for us [Inf. 8.128 and 130]).
 The adverb già is a potent tool in Dante’s narrative arsenal for generating suspense (see the discussion of già in the Commento on Inferno 23). In this way, using già and the future tense of the verb essere (”fia”), Virgilio forecasts the imminent arrival of the mysterious being who will unlock the gate:
e già di qua da lei discende l’erta, passando per li cerchi sanza scorta, tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta. (Inf. 8.128-30)
and now, already well within that gate, down the steep path and across the circles without escort the one who will unlock this realm for us.
 Significantly, “the one” who has such power as to cast open the gate (“tal” in verse 130 is glossed by Chiavacci Leonardi thus: “qualcuno tale che, cioè che ha tanto potere da”) is unnamed. Here we have another potent authorial bid to build suspense. Moreover, the one who will come down the steep path to help the travelers needs no guide or escort: he (the gate will be opened “per lui”, “by him”) passes “per li cerchi sanza scorta” (across the circles without escort [Inf. 8.129]). In Virgilio’s conjuring, this being moves unimpeded; no one can stop him, and he needs no escort.
 The next canto will reveal the cause of this being’s potency: he is “sent from heaven”, “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). In other words, the travelers now await the arrival of an angel. (I gender this angel male because Dante clearly uses the masculine: “per lui” in Inferno 8.130 and ”messo” in Inferno 9.85.)
 But where is this heavenly being? In a narrative first-time occurrence, and in another sign of the narratological complexity of this canto — its beginning looks backward (via flashback) and its ending looks forward (via suspense) — Inferno 8 concludes in medias res.
 The last verse of Inferno 8 leaves our travelers literally suspended, in the middle of a plot development that is not yet near resolution.