• Sara M Schaller

"Awake, Arise, Or Be Forever Fallen": How Dante and Milton Became My Literary Influences

Updated: Feb 21


Dante Alighieri

As I finish up my last semester of grad school, I have been working on writing my thesis, which is essentially my final paper for the program. Since I have spent a lot of time thinking about my current thesis, it reminded me of my first thesis, one I completed during my undergrad degree.


My thesis for undergrad was an inspiring and transformative process for many reasons. It proved to me that I could thoroughly research and extensively write about a topic. Prior to this, most things I had written were about 10 pages max. My thesis turned out to be nearly 40. I know 40 pages is hardly anything when writing a novel, but it was a big accomplishment for me at the time since I was taking three classes and working part-time. I also had two of my professors, each from different disciplines, challenging me throughout the entire process. Their constructive criticism was important to my writing because it pushed me to grow and hone my craft.


The words Dante sees before he enters Hell in Inferno.

The biggest takeaway, though, was the subject matter I wrote about. The topic I chose was the evolution of the devil in literature and art. Yes, I know many of you are probably re-reading that sentence to make sure you comprehended it right. In my defense, I did major in English and Art History and minor in Religious Studies, so the topic very much aligned with my studies (as I will explain further down).


There was more to it than just that, though, because ever since middle school, I was fascinated with angels and conducted all kinds of research on my own. I actually have a whole shelf dedicated to books about angels that I used (and still use) for research. These books helped me with planning out my novel, but they also made me want to learn more. In college, I was able to finally dive deeper into learning about angels, yet I quickly realized that the story of the angels is equally wrapped up with the story of the devil, as he was an angel before he fell.


This element intrigued me because it was something most people, and books, did not discuss, although it had been alluded to, particularly in art. Another component in relation to the origin of the devil was the war in Heaven, which was also not mentioned in great detail. Because of this, I couldn't write about these topics for my thesis since there was not a lot of sources on the material. But I was able to write about a similar subject matter, which turned out to be the evolution of the devil in literature and art. I had wanted to include the angels as well, but my advisors told me that would be too much to cover for a thesis.


So, I stuck with my topic, and began my research by reading The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Inferno was the part I focused on, but I read Purgatory and Paradise too) and Paradise Lost by John Milton. These books turned out to be vital for my thesis because it revealed how the devil was initially described as a monstrous beast by Dante, but was transformed into a sympathetic hero by Milton. This intrigued me further because, why the switch?

Left: Gustave Doré, Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno: The Judecca - Lucifer, c. 1857, wood engraving, Artstor. Right: William Blake, Satan in his Original Glory, c. 1805, ink and watercolor on paper, Tate Museum.

This idea led me to the artwork of Gustave Doré and William Blake. These artists each illustrated The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, and they both followed the same pattern of initially depicting the devil as a monstrous beast and then transforming him into a sympathetic hero. What this made me realize is that literature and art influence and inspire each other, which became a major point of my paper. Some people study literature. Some people study art. When you study them together, you begin to see unknown patterns and connections between them. This is the purpose of a multidisciplinary approach, and I am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to experience this firsthand in college.


However, when the thesis was done, I realized that there was more to explore about this topic, and perhaps not in an academic way. For this reason, both Dante and Milton inspired me to write about the intricacies between Heaven and Hell in my novel. And, this time, I absolutely was going to include the angels because they were the ones I had really wanted to focus on from the beginning. Essentially, the ideas from my thesis became themes for my story, and Dante and Milton became my influences.


I hope the thesis I am currently writing will be just as good as my other one because I truly poured my heart and soul into writing that first thesis and I am proud of the way it turned out. Maybe someday I will post it on here for you all to read.


P.S. My new thesis is not as shocking as the first one.