“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”

“…to get a little conversation, drink a little red wine…”

I doubted, briefly, à moitié fou, that Louisiana was the most medievalist place in America. Yes, the state is home to the shrine to a French saint, an assortment of monsters and patrons, the castellated capitol that horrified Twain, the medievalist banks of the old Pontchartrain, even the statue of an infamous fictional medievalist—but surely c’est tout?

Au contraire. On a sunny Sunday in October—yesterday, in fact—twenty Cajun knights rode into an industrial park 175 miles northwest of New Orleans, bearing the past beneath perfect blue skies.

Welcome to the Louisiana Tournoi de la Ville Platte, held in the seat of Evangeline Parish on the closing day of the Louisiana Cotton Festival. Across three rounds, twenty competitors—the Knights of Cotton—run a semicircular course, using a lance to snag rings hanging from posts that stand for the seven enemies of cotton: Flood, Drought, Silk, Boll Weevil, Boll Worm, Rayon, Nylon, and Silk.

Each run takes between 12 and 20 seconds, and each lanced ring knocks 10 points off a starting score of 210. Officials average each rider’s time, multiply it by 5, then divide it by 3, and then add it to the ring score. The competitor with the lowest score wins.

What’s fascinating about the Tournoi is that it evolved independent of other recent medievalist traditions that look so much like it. The Tournoi is no Renaissance festival, nor is there the slightest whiff of historical reenactment or genre-fiction whimsy. Instead, it’s a hyper-local sporting event, complete with country music, color commentary on the radio, and tailgating.

If you show up in a car rather than a truck, and without a tent, a grill, and beverages, everyone will spot you as the lone out-of-towner.

According to the Tournoi’s web site, the first mayor of Ville Platte brought the ring joust to town in the early 19th century. The sport enjoyed a 90-year run, then locals revived it after World War II.

As documented by Esther J. Crooks and Ruth W. Crooks in their 1936 book The Ring Tournament in the United States, chivalric contests based on medieval tournaments once drew thousands of spectators. After the Civil War, mayors from Virginia to Mississippi counted on guest appearances by Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and other big-name vets to raise money for widows, orphans, and monuments to the dead. The Crookses cite a strong interest in the sport in Cajun country, where the Acadians had a tradition of breeding saddle horses and ponies dating to at least the mid-18th century.

Ville Platte, in most regards a deeply traditional town, seems indifferent to the old Southern obsession with the Middle Ages that birthed the Tournoi. Modern medievalism often comes bundled with anxiety about “authenticity”; the Tournoi just shrugs. Behold: a four-wheeler smoothing the track with a giant rake ballasted by an idle knight—a medieval Cajun zamboni.

You can see jousting at Renaissance fairs, and there’s even a National Jousting Association, but the good people of Ville Platte ride on regardless. Adapting a medieval tournament to modern sports culture, they rest in shady pavilions and wear t-shirts in the color of their favorite knight, keeping both eyes on the ring-joust even as they keep one ear on radios blaring the Saints game. When you ask them if anyone ever brings in a “ringer” from outside, they laugh. “No one outside of here does this!” insisted a friendly man parked next to us, burgers ablaze on his grill. “If anyone does this, I’d sure like to know.”

“Catch the mist, catch the myth…”

Mark Twain was beguiled by medieval minds. Most Americans remember his satiric use of medieval spolia in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain returned to the Middle Ages with telling regularity. He celebrated the jubilee of Queen Victoria by writing in the voice of a noble at a 1415 Agincourt victory parade, and he considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books. Like many late 19th-century Americans, even non-Catholics, Twain was obsessed with the French saint, finding “no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character” and calling her “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Later, Twain taught his children medieval English history by linking pictures to pathways in his yard, and he even journeyed to Bayreuth, where his only mild appreciation of Wagner’s Tannhauser and Parsifal made him feel “like a heretic in heaven,” even as he declared the pilgrimage “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

As Twain knocked around Europe, he sometimes grumbled when the Middle Ages intruded on his vision of a more rational world. In Switzerland, after hearing a tale about a skeleton who testified in a medieval trial, he spat that it spoke of “a time so remote, so far back toward the beginning of original idiocy, that the difference between a bench of judges and a basket of vegetables was as yet so slight that we may say with all confidence that it didn’t really exist.” Still, even Sam Clemens, hostile to notions of nobility, could get swept up in the romanticism of Europe’s medieval past, provided it stayed on the far side of the Atlantic.

I pondered Twain’s medievalism last week while passing through Baton Rouge, a city he knew from his riverboat days. In Chapter 40 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain revisits the city, alive with magnolia blossoms: “For we were in the absolute South now—no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” Like Twain, I found “a tropical sun overhead and a tropical swelter in the air,” and one of his more memorable rants still hanging in the August haze:

And at this point, also, begins the pilot’s paradise: a wide river hence to New Orleans, abundance of water from shore to shore, and no bars, snags, sawyers, or wrecks in his road.

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[. . .]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

* * *

That’s Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, designed in a “castellated Gothic” style by New York-born James Harrison Dakin in 1847 and open for business (albeit 400 percent over-budget) by 1850. The designer of several neo-Gothic churches and college buildings, Dakin hated the idea of another derivative neoclassical statehouse and opted for a Capitol with “a decided distinctive, classic, and commanding character.”

Since the Civil War, the Old State Capitol, occupied and almost accidentally burned down by Union troops, has been stuck in a cycle of abandonment, decay, destruction, renovation, and rebirth. Although Twain recalled a “whitewashed castle,” Louisianans who picked up Life on the Mississippi between 1883 and 1902 knew a bolder folly, painted red and festooned with iron turrets that even I find excessive.

The people of Louisiana appear to have adored the Old State Capitol, but one political giant shared Twain’s hatred of the place: Huey Long. As governor, Long left the building’s fire insurance unrenewed, believing—perhaps hoping—that “it was about to fall down, and there was nothing left to patch,” according to Carol K. Haase. “He said there wasn’t another building in the whole country that was such a disgrace and that he wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars for the whole thing.”

By 1932, a new capitol, an art-deco skyscraper, loomed over Baton Rouge. Twain would have been pleased. Infuriated by the stubborn Southern medievalism exemplified by plantation owners’ obsession with the works of Sir Walter Scott—more on that in a future post!—he wanted to see Americans spell out their culture in a homegrown, progressive idiom, shorn of courtiers and kings. After sighting the emperor’s daughter-in-law in Bavaria in 1891, Twain found her beautiful, kind, and humane, which troubled him all the more. “There are many kinds of princesses,” he sighed, “but this kind is the most harmful of all, for wherever they go they reconcile people to monarchy and set back the clock of progress.”

Browsing Life on the Mississippi and The Complete Essays in recent days, I’ve been impressed by the breadth of Twain’s knowledge and insistent rationality—but I’m also struck by also by how badly he misjudged the grip of medievalism on the American mind. Even as Twain mocked, in that same chapter of Life on the Mississippi, an advertisement for a Tennessee finishing school that played up its “resemblance to the old castles of song and story, with its towers, turreted walls, and ivy-mantled porches,” the United States was on the verge of a 40-year “collegiate Gothic” building binge that makes Twain seem far from prescient about his era and the culture of the century since. Were Twain to hear my four-year-old niece swooning over the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, he’d be despondent. “It’s like a real castle, where princesses live,” she gushed to an amazed friend. “I wish I could go back tomorrow. I wish I lived there.”

Like many Americans, Twain wandered the medieval world of his own imagination; it’s both humanizing and absurd that he thought he could write new lives for saints and kings without stirring the waves of medievalism that ceaselessly lap at American shores. His ambivalence also shows that you don’t need to like the Middle Ages to be a medievalist, as long as you fancy yourself that rare, rational aesthete who can thrill to monarchical pageantry without endorsing monarchies themselves. “One can enjoy a rainbow,” Twain claimed, suppressing a romantic twinge, “without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.”

“…to holes of their own making in the cracks within the walls…”

For four years, “Quid Plura?” has chased medievalist echoes in New Orleans—the statue of Ignatius Reilly, a shrine to a French saint, the glitter of Joan of Arc—as well as medieval-ish statuary in Cajun country and miscellaneous medievalism on the North Shore.

Yes, here there be saints—but where are the medieval monsters?

Earlier this week, on a hot afternoon, we sought to answer that question by turning to someone who slays them.

What say you, heroically-abdomened St. George in a hotel courtyard just outside the French Quarter?

George points west, so we’re off to the 16th Ward, where the beasts atop Tilton Memorial Hall at Tulane are timelessly monstrous rather than strictly medieval…

…but the alley behind the building hides a clutch of caudophagic dragons.

Heeding the call of the neo-Gothic, we take the streetcar east into Ward 12 and trudge down to the impressive St. Stephen Church on Napoleon Avenue…

…and when we look up…

…the neo-medieval mocks us.

Yet we cling to the hope of grotesquerie, just as two miles to the east, on Jackson Avenue in Ward 10, something clings to the side of a gutted 19th-century synagogue…

…a creature not quite medieval…

…but poised to petrify your inner ten-year-old.

“In my blue heaven, there’s a bottle of Pontchartrain…”

I’ve never known what alligators dream. Apparently, it’s simple: “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”


When George leans back and waives his wyrmbent blade,
When golden Joan rolls up her banns of war,
When late Ignatius lutes his last crusade,
When Roch counts no more crutches by the door,
Then daub our brow with dust—but not today,
As saints salaam to every passing king
And all our sins are snatched and strewn away
Like bright, beloved beads that slip their string.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“…irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht.”

Yes, we have heard the glory of the pilgrims, how those dour chorophobes subdued their neighbors and performed bold agricultural deeds—but when you’re unaccustomed to hot Novembers and the flapping of turkeys toward Valhalla fails to drown out football, you roam the strands of bleak retention ponds with a seven-year-old looking for grass snakes and fish.

In the mud, behind ferns and broken boughs, rests a sleeping stone baby.

One of you raises the obvious point: “If we get too close, will its eyes snap open?” (Unanimity. Two steps back.)

“How’d he get here?”

“I don’t know, man. I imagine it’s a mystery.”

“Did people put him here?”

“Maybe he just washed up on the shore, like a king in a famous old legend.”

“Wait, what legend?”

“You’ve heard of the Vikings, right? One of their very first kings.”

“Who? What was his name?”

“Well, nobody knows where he came from, or where he went when his ship sailed away, but I heard that his tribe called him Scyld…

Then you find that some stories don’t really need snow, and you’re thankful for more than just turkey and pie as you rest in the bayou, wide-eyed at sunset, surrounded by monsters and kings.

“Card sharks and blues harps and dolphins who leap…”

…and so a new week dawns in small-town Louisiana, where by all accounts, medievalism is dead, I tell you. Dead!

There are certainly no traces of it at this castle in New Orleans.

Nor in the suburbs.

Nor as we pass through a hamlet that every medievalist knows was named for the patron saint of, um…

Isn’t there anyone who knows what medievalism is all about?

Help me, O gigantic new relief of St. Anselm of Canterbury at the local Catholic church!

Whither medievalism? On the long, lonely interstate?

Won’t somebody give me a sign?

Won’t somebody give me another sign?

“Before you were born, dude, when life was great…”

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring crawfish, bearded with moss…

“But Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “it’s been ages since you reaffirmed your obsession with literary and quasi-medieval statuary!” Indeed, the greatest truths are often the most lamentable. So look who reared his head (and a fragment of torso) today along the bayou in St. Martinville, Louisiana: None other than “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow, author of Evangeline, the epic poem that made Cajun history hip.

In St. Martinville, Longfellow keeps watchs over the “Evangeline Oak,” which offers ample shade just down the road from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site and a few paces from the lovely Acadian Memorial and Museum.

A block away, in the cemetery of the “mother church” of the Cajuns, is Evangeline herself, looking more sanguine than I’d be after decades of roaming North America in the name of deathless love. As bestsellers go, the poem that bears Evangeline’s name was the Twilight of yesteryear, but these days she gets fewer visitors.

St. Martinville boasts a population of 6,989, but half of those residents appear to be statues. In front of the church stands A.M. Jan, the 19th-century pastor, on a pedestal that tells his story in Latin.

Also honored in the town square is this dapper Attakapa Indian. He’s been here since 1961.

The interior of the church—”it is just the same as when it was built,” a plaque insists, “having been repaired but not changed”—is naturally full of old statues, too many to name.

But let’s not overlook two “Quid Plura?” favorites:

Noah’s wife…

…and our old pal from New Orleans, St. Roch.

Mais où est le patron?

Aha! Here’s St. Martin of Tours, inventing the word “chapel” in front of the old presbytère.

Alas, my camera fizzled before I could get a picture of St. Martinville’s one truly unmissable statue, which depicts Charlemagne engaged in mortal combat with a giant crawfish. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it, but trust me, dear reader: It was awesome.

“It’s a long way to Harlan, it’s a long way to Hazard…”

Dró djarfliga dáðrakkr Þórr
orm eitrfán upp at borði
Hamri kníði háfjall skarar
ofljótt ofan úlfs hnitbróður.

Hreingálkn hrutu, en hölkn þutu,
fór in forna fold öll saman
Søkðiz síðan sá fiskr í mar.

Then very bravely Thor, the courageous one,
pulled the gleaming serpent up on board.
With his hammer he struck the head
violently, from above, of the wolf’s hideous brother.

The sea-wolf shrieked and the underwater rocks re-echoed,
all the ancient earth was collapsing…
Then the fish sank into the sea.