Purgatory Canto III (Ante-Purgatory: the Late-Repentants; the base of the mountain: the Excommunicates)
As the souls scatter, Dante draws close to Virgil because of their special connection. Dante feels like Virgil is his conscience. They run together towards the mountain.
As they slow down, Dante focuses on the mountain before them.
Dante describes the way the sun shines on his body. He then freaks out when he sees that he—and only he—casts a shadow on the ground. Virgil doesn’t. Guess why?
Dante’s not as smart as you because Virgil must remind him that he (Dante) is still alive and has a body, whereas Virgil’s body is long gone, buried in Naples.
Virgil goes on to praise the Lord, saying that lowly man cannot hope to understand His divine ways. He pleads for man to attempt to answer only the what, not the why, of God’s ways. Those who try to answer the why—like Aristotle and Plato—always fail. This is really depressing to Virgil (being so much like Aristotle and Plato—all three being condemned to Hell’s Limbo), so he hangs his head.
By this time, they’ve reached the foot of the mountain and figured out it’s quite steep. Virgil remarks that it’ll be hard to find a place where a creature without wings can climb it. Great.
As Virgil studies the slope, Dante spies a group of souls approaching them very slowly from the left.
Dante tells Virgil to look up and ask these guys for advice, since he seems at a loss. Interesting—Dante is getting bossy!
But Virgil happily agrees and even tells Dante to have hope.
They don’t get very close to the souls before the group huddles against the wall of the mountain and freeze there.
Virgil speaks nicely to them, asking eloquently if they know of a gentler slope on the mountain that can be climbed.
These spirits, “favoured by good fortune,” are rather timid and approach our heroes like a flock of sheep, with those in the back following the movements of those ahead without knowing why. When the sheep-like souls to Dante’s right see that he casts a shadow, they stop dead and back up a little. Yes, a shadow is a big deal.
Virgil is tired of all this fuss and he tells the souls straight up that yes, Dante has a shadow. Yes, Dante is alive. And yes, he’s virtuous enough to be here in Purgatory.
This convinces the flock. They gesture for our heroes to come forward.
One of the souls taps Dante on the shoulder and asks our narrator if he recognizes him. This soul is blond and handsome and princely, but one of his eyebrows is cut in half. Dante says, nope, never seen you before.
So the blond guy, smiling, points out his massive chest wound to Dante.
He proceeds to introduce himself as Manfred, grandson of the Empress Constance. He requests that when Dante gets back to the living world, he visit Manfred’s daughter to give her news that her father is in Purgatory, not Hell.
Manfred’s story: At the battle of Benevento, he received two fatal wounds. Right before dying, Manfred repented of all his sins and gave himself completely to the merciful God. Unfortunately, his enemy was Pope Clement IV and he excommunicated him after death. So this Pope's man dug up Manfred’s body—originally buried at Benevento—to move it outside papal territory.
But, here’s the rub: Manfred snubs the Pope’s authority, claiming (from first hand experience) that God forgives everyone who repents—in spite of the Pope’s sentence. (You might want to dog-ear this passage because it’s really important.)
There is a catch, of course. These penitent souls aren’t just granted a free ticket to Purgatory. If they have died with hearts set against the Church, they must wait for thirty times the length of their sin to actually start climbing the mountain of Purgatory. Yes, they’ve got to twiddle their thumbs on the island’s shores all that time. However, they can shorten that wait if they receive prayers from living souls.
Manfred asks Dante to take his message to his daughter Constance so that she can pray for him.