A Role Of Allegory in The Faerie Queene
How is the condemnation of moral duplicity in Book I of the Faerie Queene compatible with the duplicity or multiplicity of meaning that allegory requires?
In answering the above question, it is necessary to focus on the function of duplicity/multiplicity in the two contexts presented. In the moral context, duplicity is equivalent with dishonesty, it involves purporting to be one thing whilst being another; it is a necessary deceit. In contrast, multiplicity in allegory involves an affirmation of truth’s power and its ability to penetrate through boundaries of meaning. In other words, the many levels and meanings of allegory reflect the same truth in different ways, while the many differences in character of the morally deceptive reveal an inconstancy as they challenge truth (in the integrity of the character). Thus the relationship to truth in the case of the morally duplicitous is one of negation whilst that of the aesthetically duplicitous (allegory) is one of confirmation. In my essay I intend to explore these processes of negation and confirmation in relation to Spenser’s Faierie Queene Book I as I explain how allegorical ideologies are employed to create a certain kind of knight and a certain kind of reader that can attain the true whilst learning to recognise and avoid the false.
First it may be beneficial to examine the nature of truth as presented in the Fairie Queen in its characteristics of worth, vulnerability, power and simplicity. C.S. Lewis has stated that ‘the first thing we notice about the Spenserian images of good is their veiled, mysterious, even hidden character’ and indeed Una, representing Truth, is veiled throughout only relinquishing her coverings on two occasions; that is, when the Red Cross Knight is finally betrothed to her in Canto 12 and when she is by herself ‘farre from all mens sight’ (3:4). Truth must remain veiled at all other times because it is a valuable prize and therefore vulnerable to exploitation. This is epitomised in the image of Una’s virginity, ‘that stubborn forte’ (6:3) which can only be gained access to through commitment on the seekers part, the kind of commitment that Arthur displays in his search for his Queen ‘To seeke her out with labour, and long tyne, / And never vow to rest, till her I find.’ (9:15) Like the House of Holiness, Una’s ‘gates’ remain closed to passers by, and so she remains veiled throughout for risk of being raped for her beauty by dangerous characters such as Sans Loy and Archimago. This confirms one of the theories of allegory prevalent in the Renaissance, that allegory conceals ideas from the vulgar and reveals them only to the deserving’ Therefore, it is only once the Red Cross Knight has declared his intention as Arthur did, to fulfil the quest, returning to ‘that great Faierie Queen’ (2:18) and so proving himself a true knight, that Una appears to him without her veil and cloak.
When Una eventually does unveil herself, the blinding power of her beauty is evoked in the stanza beginning ‘The blazing brightnesse of her beauties beame’(12:23), with the plosive ‘B’s and long vowels sounds resonating with the meaning. Truth cannot be seen by the fainthearted and so if it is to have any appearance amongst the common people it must wear a veil as Moses did in the Old Testament after he had been with God.
The second purpose of allegory that River’s highlights is significant here. He essential power of truth is very hard to enunciate and through allegory we can find ‘a means of saying things that would otherwise be inexpressible’. In the same way that Una’s ‘great grief will not be tould, ? And can more easily be thought’ (7:41), huge concepts such as truth cannot be conveyed directly and simply, for if they were they would blind the reader. Biblical parallels seem especially apt to this question. Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (italics mine) and yet spoke in parables as a means of conveying profound truths. Similarly, the book of Revelation, which in its very name claims to make clear, is undoubtedly the most obscure book in the bible through its use of symbolism and apocolyptic techniques. In both cases truth is ‘filtered’ through a screen as ‘obscurity is paradoxically a means of achieving clarity’.
Allegory is just one of many techniques of defamiliarisation that are used in literature, as it promises to show the world in a new light and so it should not be surprising that the concepts percieved to be most important and powerful, such as truth, should be the most elusive being pinned down and consequently require the most obscurity to be expressed. It can be noted that Spenser’s use of archaic language is just another means of ‘making strange’ that enables the truth to be seen anew.
The final characteristic of truth that I would like to discuss here is simplicity and naturalness. In contrast to Duessa ‘in garments gilt,/ And gorgeous gold arayd’ (5:26), Una enters humbly like Jesus ‘Upon a lowly Asse’ (1:4) and ‘Under a vele, that wimpled was full low,’. Duplicity must display itself and captivate with shows (as exemplified by Duessa being set upon a seven-headed beast ‘for more aw and dread’ (7:18)), but truth conceals its splendour and through ‘simple truth’(3:6 italics mine) is able to tame the lion. The naturalness of truth ministers best to those who are most natural. Thus the lion and the fauns, although they be ‘A rude, misshapen monstrous rablement’ (6:8) recognise Una’s beauty and goodness and respond accordingly. Simple creatures are seen to have a keener discernment than men as they not only identify the goodness of Una, but also the evil nature of Duessa and despite her cloudy covering in Canto 5, the animals recognise her, barking, howling and hooting in warning to mankind.
An image that ties together these themes effectively, is that of the diamond box that Arthur gives to the Red Crosse Knight:
Prince Arthur gave a boxe of diamond sure,
Embossed with gold and gorgeous ornament,
Wherein were closd few drops of liquor pure
Of wondrous worth, and virtue excellent. (9:19)
This gift is a helpful metaphor for the depiction of truth and goodness within the allegory. The liquid is valuable ‘Of wondrous worth’; vulnerable, as expressed by the delicate description ‘a few drops of liquor pure’ and this phrase also expresses its simplicity, especially when compared to the previous line which is swollen with ‘O’s depicting the splendour of the box. The box is like the covering of the allegory, protective and transparent, its ornamentation embellishing (confirming) rather than detracting from what lies within; it is the necessary container of its precious contents.
Ultimately Spenser is trying to create in his epic romance the kind of knight and the kind of reader who will appreciate the precious nature of his allegory’s contents, ‘The general end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline’. It is quite frustrating therefore, to witness how easily the Knight is taken in by the deceptions of the various characters throughout the poem, where the cause is seen to be his naivety, as expressed in his first encounter with Duessa:
Her doutfull words made that redoubted knight
Suspect her truth: yet since no untruth he knew
Her fawning love with fowle disdainefull spight
He would not shend. (1:53 italics mine)
The moral Spenser seems to be advocating here, is that his reader must not be naive, he must treat the important matters discussed seriously, learning from the ‘untruth’ he encounters to be cautious. The reader, like the Knight, must pursue wisdom, for the allegory is not a naive form.
Discernment is a characteristic that both Knight and reader must seek at all costs and is exemplified by Prince Arthur who when confronted by Ignorance ‘ghest his nature by his countenance, / And calmd his wrath with goodly temperance.’ (8:34) The Red Cross Knight keeps falling under deception however, until Fidelia in the House of Holiness, ‘that knight so much agraste / That she him taught celestiall discipline / And opened his dull eyes, that light mote in them shine.’ (10:18) Thus understanding comes from a desire for truth, a commitment to knock at the gate of Holinesse in the first place, but also it is a gift of grace that is bestowed upon the Knight.
The reader is shown a similar grace in Spenser’s statement of intent, which brings light to our ‘dull eyes’, and this is another argument for the compatibility of style and content. Spenser informs the reader that he is creating ‘a continued Allegory, or darke conceit’, and in his opening letter and throughout the poem he proceeds to explain fairly clearly the relationship between his characters and their symbolic significance. There is no trickery here, he may be using a duplicitous form, but within that, there are clear signposts to enable the reader to discern what is happening. For example ‘Duessa’ is double in nature, as the embodiment of Deceit; Una is pure and single-minded as Truth, and the narrator lets us know that his namings are trustworthy, for he states in his description of Ignorance, ‘His name Ignaro did his nature right aread.’ (8:31) This may all be very well when the characters appear undisguised, in their true nature, but what about when they are pretending to be someone else? However, even here Spenser does not leave his reader or his Knight without aid, for he uses the mechanics of verse to expose the imposters every time.
The most obvious case is in Canto 12 when Archimago sends a message to claim Duessa’s betrothal (under the name of Fidessa) to the Red Cross Knight. The message may be signed off Fidessa, but the running of the alexandrine into 13 syllables (which occurs nowhere else in the text) highlights a disunity with the rest of the verse. A true ‘Fidessa’ (name derived from faithful) would have been faithful to the 12 syllables and her transgression of meter singles her out as having no place or claim here.
Another, more widely employed technique, is the reversal of word order as a confirmation of deceit. Thus when Fradubio is describing his encounter with Duessa he tells how,
Me chaunced of a knight encountered bee,
That had a like faire Lady by his syde,
Like a faire Lady, but did fowle Duessa hyde.’ (2:35)
Then again, in stanzas 44-45 the Knight experiences Duessa’s guile through reversal of ‘found’ and ‘fear’ in the word order:
Then turning to his lady, dead with fear her found. 44
Her seeming dead he found with feigned fear, 45
The effect of bridging the stanza heightens her falseness as the 10 syllable line of stanza 45 fails to attain the 12 syllables of its predecessor and the ‘seeming dead’ becomes an unconvincing imitation that we would expect even the Knight to recognize. The Knight, however, as I have mentioned is naive at the outset and so is undergoing a process of ‘becoming’ throughout his quest. Here is where I would like to suggest that the allegory and its multiple meanings, instead of being at odds with a condemnation of moral inconstancy, could actually play a part in what I term the ‘sanctification’ of the Knight.
I propose that the unavoidable duplicity of allegory creates a framework from which the Knight must escape (through his trials) and this is how he is offered the possibility of perfection. As a character who represents holiness and yet is not fully holy (as evidenced by his falling into temptation and despair) he is in a position of constantly striving as he undergoes a process of ‘becoming’ holy. Caught between opposing forces of flesh and spirit and similarly trapped between at least two levels of allegory, he must attempt to become unified with his self, his imperfect knightly nature driving for the holiness he represents. Thus his fighting is not only against dragons and Saracens, but the very duplicity of allegory that splits him form himself and the abstract quality of holiness that he functions as. This tension finds expression in the verse form with the extra two syllables at the end of the 9 line stanza straining forward as he tries to attain his goal:
Full jolly knight he seemed, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.’ (1:1)
And as the first alexandrine leans forward, he begins his quest on the road to becoming a ‘full jolly knight’ (italics mine) and not only one that ‘seemd’.
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