Almighty Damsels and Superfluous Knights: The Unnecessary Masculine in The Faerie Queene, Books I & III
Now now Sir knight, shew what ye bee, Add faith vnto your force, and be not faint: Strangle her, els she sure will strangle thee.
Feminist reading of The Faerie Queene is problematical. Beyond its sheer size, for every symbol of truth there is a false duplicate; for every goddess, a hag, for every chaste virgin, a figure of promiscuity. What remains consistent, however, is that both Books I and III, however romances traditionally feature heroic knights and distressed damsels, burst with female characters who overwhelmingly outsmart their male counterparts. How the allegory develops from book to book is much discussed, but less attention is paid to how choice and use of allegory transforms gender representation, revealing much about Spenser’s feminine uncertainties.
Una: Submissive and Wise
In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’, Spenser declares his aim to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline’ and the opening of ‘Lo I the man’, clearly identifies the narrator’s gender. He calls his muse ‘her’, cementing gender relations; men lead, women follow. In Watts’s painting, Redcrosse straddles an elaborately dressed steed while Una crouches meekly on a donkey. Yet when the duo face their first challenge, Una’s innocence evaporates as she warns him not to go into the cave, ‘Yea but (quoth she) the perill of this place / I better wot then you, though nowe too late’. Yet Redcrosse refuses to listen: ‘But full of fire and greedy hardiment, / The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide’. As matters escalate, Una instructs Redcrosse: ‘Add faith vnto your force, and be not faint: / Strangle her, els she sure will strangle thee’. Padelford argues: ‘Had it not been for Prince Arthur, Heavenly Grace, he would have lost his life. Only at the end of a severe course of training is he able to do what he thinks himself able to do’. The failure to mention Una is baffling; when he is almost persuaded to take his own life by Errour, she again intervenes: ‘Out of his hand she snatcht the cursed knife, / and threw it to the ground, enraged rife’. As Gless states, ‘So dangerous a temptation demands exceptional aid, and Red Cross here receives it from Una’, as he does in almost every situation. Nevertheless, following the encounter with Errour, Una recedes into a submissive role, remaining silent while singular pronouns (‘that path he kept […] forward on his way […] he passed forth’) displace the plurals earlier suggesting shared venture (‘foorth they passe […] they thus beguile […] some end they finde’). Gless claims, ‘because Error has been subdued, it appears the wandering wood can no longer perplex [Redcross]’; Una’s part in victory has been forgotten as she recedes. Even during the final battle Redcrosse relies on deity in the form of the well and tree of life to defeat the dragon. Whether Una attributes victory to Redcrosse or Christ is ambiguous: ‘Then God she praysd, and thankt her faithfull knight, / That had atchieude so great a conquest by his might’. When Una’s father demands the truth, it appears that Redcrosse neglected to mention Fidessa/Duessa in the account he had previously given; as A. C. Hamilton suggests, Red Crosse ‘is not yet wedded to Truth’. As the allegorical ‘embodiment of truth for a theologically faltering knight’, it is unsurprising that Una takes this leading role; what is illuminating is that ‘truth’ is represented in a female body, to what extent she carries him, and that his journey to truth is incomplete by the book’s end.
Duessa: Evil and Astute
Duessa, the evil witch, is swiftly established as Una’s counterpart; ‘Una’, Latin for ‘one’, contrasts with her name. Where Una’s ‘truth’ is transparent, Duessa is more than she seems. ‘A goodly Lady clad in scarlot red’, she closely resembles the Whore of Babylon, Revelation’s ‘woman sit[ting] upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns’, to be feared and abhored. The opposite of Una, she nevertheless shares her ability to shape events through acumen; the encounter with Fradubio reveals Duessa’s wickedness and the idiocy of men. He states, ‘Thens forth I tooke Duessa for my Dame’; even after she turned his lady into a tree, he still engaged with her until he saw her fuller self and tried to flee. When describing his vision, Fradubio equivocates:
Her neather partes misshapen, monstruous, Were hidd in water, that I could not see, But they did seeme more foule and hideous, Then womans shape man would beleeue to bee.
As Gough argues: ‘In most Italian epic-romances, it is the beauty of the temptress that is an illusion; the hag’s hidden ugliness is presented as the truth. Fradubio’s confused and confusing language, however, suggests that Duessa’s seeming hideousness, not just her beauty, may result from a kind of self-blindness on the part of the knight who views her.’ As an allegory for the corruption of the Catholic Church, she is one whom Redcrosse must defeat, yet consistently hoodwinks him. He does not recognise her falseness until she is physically stripped:
Of fowle Duessa, when her borrowed light Is laid away, and counterfesaunce knowne. Thus when they had the witch disrobed quight And all her filthy feature open showne, They let her goe at will, and wander waies vnknowne. As with Una, Duessa’s authoritative presence has a direct impact on how Redcrosse is perceived; women exhibit authority, albeit in different ways, underlining a lack of male astuteness.
Florimell: Lusted and Strong
In Book I, while Una and Duessa display mental strength, physical strength is firmly attributed to male characters; in Book III these archetypes blur with Florimell and Britomart. When Prince Arthur and Guyon start in pursuit of the former they ‘follow beauties chace’; an allegory for beauty, she is so lovely that, seeing her, Arthur forgets the vision of the Faerie Queene. It might then be expected that Florimell would be a static character, to be admired and lusted for, so her actions become even more potent in contrast to her allegory. She displays physical strength, able to outrun both her pursuer and knights trying to save her; ‘But nothing might relent her hasty flight’. Ironically, only Florimell, the intended victim, remains unscathed; in his pursuit Timias is injured by the would-be rapist and subsequently kills him and his friends. The role of ‘victim’ is reversed through her resilience and intended violence transferred to men. Benson argues that Spenser praises the feminine, critiquing the supposed inferiority other literature of the time may have enforced: ‘Rather than being a mere abstraction, a prop to male order, or a useful tool for literary exposition, the feminine is an essential principle in the grand scheme of The Faerie Queene; it represents an alternate order’. Florimell never loses femininity or beauty, despite actions sliding into masculinity; Allston depicts her fleeing on her horse, hair flowing, angelic and serene. Her escapes are astonishingly consistent; she outruns the beast conjured by the hag and to save herself abandons her horse for a fisherman’s boat: ‘As shee arriued on the roring shore / In minde to leape into the mighty maine / A little bote lay houing her before. The beast kills her horse; but again, she has escaped, leaving a trail of violence. It matters that Florimell is presented as weak, consistently threatened by more powerful and menacing beings; her wisdom and strength in escaping situations cements her as the embodiment of female resilience in the ironic framework of a damsel in distress; her ability to leave devastation in her wake borders on the comical.
Britomart: A Helpless Maiden and Fierce Warrior
To Ralegh, Spenser described his love of Britomart as an ‘accident’, not an ‘intendment’ of the poem; that she models both knighthood and womanhood complicates feminist readings. As Gregerson argues: ‘When Britomart sets forth in male disguise, […] she enters a realm of considerable sexual ambiguity. Her achievement will be to hand herself over to Arthegall and to sexual generation, but her progress will expose boundaries and the ideologies of gender to considerable strain.’ Britomart initially symbolises complete authority, as she easily unseats Sir Guyon, but her invulnerability is questioned when she is wounded by Malecasta’s knights. She suffers rapid downfall and the second canto describes a young innocent maiden — a remarkable contrast with the first. Villeponteaux claims: ‘Spenser is never entirely comfortable with the warfaring chastity he creates at the start of book 3. Britomart’s disguise unsettles identity, presenting a challenge to the patriarchal notion that authority is something biologically masculine […] Perhaps that is why Spenser’s portrait of Britomart initially moves between two extremes: the masculine, authoritarian Britomart of canto 1 and the innocent and helpless maiden of canto 2 stand in stark contrast to one another.’ Crane draws on this duality of character; though clad in armour, the breastplate is not masculine, her shield is draped with cloth, and her nostalgic gaze is closer to Una than Redcrosse. While there are moments where one can perceive Spenser’s ambivalence towards female authority in Britomart, she clearly and consistently demonstrates not just martial skills, but wisdom. Pivotally, when Britomart, Sir Guyon, and Arthur first encounter Florimell:
The whiles faire Britomart, whose constant mind, Would not so lightly follow beauties chace, Ne reckt of Ladies Loue, did stay behynd, And them awayted there a certaine space, To weet if they would turne backe to that place: But when she saw them gone, she forward went, While the men assist Florimell, Britomart does not allow the situation to distract her, thus drawing a comparison with Redcrosse, who consistently allowed himself to be distracted from his quest, perilously courting downfall. However, Britomart soon encounters Redcrosse under attack and stops to help: that she offers knightly assistance to the man, not the woman, suggests she values his life more than Florimell’s, rendering her more masculine than feminine. Yet she represents chastity, and in saving Redcrosse makes chastity essential to holiness. As with Una’s truth, qualities allegorically presented in female form become essential to the male.
A further example of Britomart’s authority over men comes when she encounters Scudamore, unable to enter the castle:
With huge impatience he inly swelt, More for great sorrow, that he could not pas, Then for the burning torment, which he felt, That with fell woodnes he effierced was, And wilfully him throwing on the gras, Scudamore’s impatience (like Redcrosse’s) is illuminated by Britomart’s action: she tries to open the door but cannot, so waits until the next night for the procession to restart:
Where force might not auaile, there sleights and art She cast to vse, both fitt for hard emprize; For thy from that same rowme not to depart Til morrow next, shee did her selfe auize. Britomart not only copes with demanding situations alone; she also displays tact and patience, qualities noticeably absent in her male counterparts, and is victorious because of it.
A powerful and successful queen in a culture that envisioned order as hierarchical disrupted the patriarchal ideology of sixteenth-century England. I would argue that in all representations of women discussed, the text reveals Spenser’s ambivalence, not anxiety, about feminine authority. Una is submissive and largely unacknowledged, yet wise; Duessa evil, yet astute; Florimell lusted for, yet staggeringly strong; and Britomart both a helpless maiden and fierce warrior. Despite paradox, each demonstrates ability to overcome demanding situations, heightened more by Spenser’s choices of allegory, strengthening them as almighty damsels and revealing the knights to be superfluous.
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