The story opens with Dante experiencing a mid-life crisis. Kind of. When describing his mid-life crisis, he uses ambiguous pronouns, saying "our life’s way." More on that later. Basically, he has strayed from his path and finds himself lost in a dark wood. Creepy.
Yeah, it’s so creepy that "death could hardly be more severe!" (Yes, exclamation point included.) Foreshadowing, anyone?
Dante is confused about how he got into such a no-man's land. He was "full of sleep" when he strayed from the true path. Now he’s at the bottom of some hill.
Dante’s gaze wanders up the hill and he finds the summit all beautifully lit up like Christmas lights by the sun, a real contrast to the dark wood he’s stuck in. Predictably, his heart lifts at this sight.
We learn he’s just endured a "night of sorrow." In an elaborate metaphor, Dante compares himself to a shipwrecked swimmer who has just found land and, safe on the beach, turns back to look at the frightening waves. In Dante’s fancy language, he’s just endured "the pass / that never has let any man survive."
Wearily, our hero starts climbing the hill (towards the light), but lo and behold suddenly a sinister beast appears to block his way. Actually, it’s just a leopard.
Dante backs away from the big, bad leopard. He notices that day has dawned and that lifts his spirits a little.
Until he’s faced with a ferocious lion. And then a hungry she-wolf.
Dante screams and runs back down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill, Dante runs into a ghost. He promptly crumples into a fetal position and begs for mercy.
But this is a gabby ghost. The ghost starts talking about where he’s from (Mantua), when he was born (during Emperor Augustus’ reign), and what he was (a poet).
Dante suddenly isn't so scared anymore. In fact, he recognizes the ghost.
It’s the famous Roman poet Virgil, who is Dante’s inspiration and all-time favorite idol.
Dante says something like: "I’ve totally read everything you wrote and when I write I try to be just like you. So could you please make that scary wolf-thingy go away?" (But in more formal epic-like speak.)
Virgil is all stern and says, in his wise listen-to-me-or-else way, that Dante must take another path because the she-wolf is always hungry (she’ll eat you) and always interested in sex (she’ll fornicate with you). But never fear, in the end the good Greyhound will come and kill her and send her back to Hell and restore Italy to its rightful glory.
Translation: the she-wolf is a symbol of greed, the defining quality of Florence, at least to Dante. The Greyhound symbolizes Italy’s redeemer, though scholars can’t decide exactly whom it represents. So, basically, the Greyhound will come and kill the greed of Florence and everything will be good again.
Virgil’s point? Hey, Dante, you should entrust your life to me while I take you on a journey through Hell and Purgatory and maybe even Heaven (if you’re worthy).