Fidessa’s character in Edmund Spenser’s “The Fairy Queene”, introduced in the second canto of book 1, is essential to the understanding of one of Spenser’s main messages in the poem: the Roman Catholic Church is corrupt and falsely interprets Christianity. Through Fidessa’s and her Saracen’s names, Fidessa’s characterization and dress, and the relaying of the death of Fidessa’s fiance, the reader is able to fully realize and comprehend Spenser’s position on the Roman Catholic Church.Fidessa is superficially characterized as the beautiful young daughter of a Roman emperor. At first glance, Fidessa appears to be the quintessential maiden of the chivalric knight tale. She is a beautiful lady (the knight cannot keep his eyes away from her face ) and she is also grandly arrayed (13). She is accompanied by her champion knight, who came into her life after the noble prince to whom she was betrothed died (23-24). With a father who is an emperor (22), Fidessa seems to be the paradigm of a sweet, gentle maiden in need of protection and assistance. However, by looking closely at how Fidessa is portrayed, one sees who Fidessa truly is and what she symbolizes. Fidessa’s ornate, scarlet dress is reminiscent of “the purple clothed woman on the seven hills” found in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, a representation of false religion. The fact that Fidessa’s father is a Roman emperor establishes the analogy of Fidessa as a representation of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Spenser equates Roman Catholicism with false religion. Spenser does not have a positive view of the Church (which makes sense, seeing as how Elizabeth was a Protestant queen).Spenser employs name symbolism throughout his work to convey what a character is intended to represent. The name Fidessa means “faith”, suggesting that Fidessa is meant to represent faith. However, Fidessa’s real name is Duessa, which means “two-faced”, which informs the reader that Fidessa has a dual nature and does not, in fact, represent faith. Similarly, the fact that Fidessa is accompanied by a Saracen named Sans foy, which means “false faith” or “without faith”, shows that Fidessa is a representation of false faith and false piety. Actually, the fact that her champion knight is a Saracen in the first place should strike the reader as odd and important, because it is ironic that a woman with a name that means faith has an “infidel” for a companion. The reader will learn that Fidessa inspires disbelief, and, unlike Una, Fidessa is insincere. This fact is in keeping with the theme of separating the Redcrosse Knight from the truth, set up by Archimago, who tricks the Redcrosse Knight into thinking that Una is immoral, which causes him to abandon his quest.The main way in which Spenser presents his views on the Roman Catholic Church is through the death of Fidessa’s fiance. Fidessa’s fiance is an emblematic representation of Jesus Christ – a “faithful”, “meeke”, and “debonaire” man (23). This Christ-figure undergoes an “innocent death” and his body is mysteriously removed (24). Fidessa spent many years searching for the corpse of her fiance. If Fidessa’s fiance represents Jesus Christ and Fidessa represents the Church, then, logically, Spenser is saying, through the fact that Fidessa (the Church) and her fiance (Jesus) can never be married, that Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of Christianity, has no place in the Church. There is no “body” of Christ, because Christ ascended into heaven, He rose from the dead. Fidessa’s perpetual search for a body that, as any true Christian should know, does not exist symbolizes that the Roman Catholic Church has based its entire theology on a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religious doctrine. Thus, the Church is invalid and erroneous as a religion.Fidessa is an essential character to Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” because her portrayal allows Spenser to get across one of the main themes of his poem: the Roman Catholic Church is an erroneous, hypocritical institution. Spenser subtly intersperses his views within his allegorical tale so that the reader is able to enjoy the fanciful tale of a chivalric knight and his travels while she also is able to understand the views of the author, thus understanding the circumstances under which Spenser wrote.
In many ways The Faerie Queene presents a unique challenge to the English reader. It can be described as epic, romance or fantasy and covers a wide range of topics religious and romantic, political and spiritual, Christian and Pagan. It is also incomplete, leaving the resolution of the separate narrative open for conjecture. Moreover, it is a poem that refuses to reveal itself in one sitting; demanding more of the reader than usual. MacCaffrey describes the challenge to the reader as”The characters, including the heroes, move primarily in the horizontal plane, but Spenser’s readers have their attention repeatedly drawn to the upper and lower limits of reality which are also the sources of the poem’s truth. This vertical dimension is ordinarily beyond the horizon of the characters, but visible to us; as always when a distance develops between fiction and reader, the effect is to make us aware of fictiveness itself and to ponder the nature and relevance of fictions”Interpreting the allegory in The Faerie Queene is not simply a task of deciphering a code, but a matter of relating to the Spenserian, Elizabethan and Fairy worlds in order to make sense of and then bring together the carefully structured layers and meanings of the poem.Both Spenser’s contemporaries and his modern audience are likely to know when they approach The Faerie Queene that what they are reading is an allegory. Allegory as a literary device evolved out of the classical method of interpreting the world through figurative means with Gods and myths, combined with the (somewhat simplistically stated) progression from simile to metaphor to allegory. Allegory was used extensively in the Bible; thereafter the technique was regarded as one of moral intentions and was used throughout the medieval period from Dante and popular romances like The Romance of the Rose to Chaucer. Therefore Elizabethans would have been fully aware of the allegorical style of The Faerie Queene, as are modern readers whose copies are invariably prefaced by Spenser’s famous letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. So we should assume that Spenser was not intending to confuse his readers in any way but use allegory as a technique best suited to espousing his ideas and views on contemporary Elizabethan society.Therefore the reader has to perform the task of following the narrative in Fairy Land as well as being conscious on another level of Spenser’s aims of “fashioning a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” based on Protestant Christianity and glorifying, in the same vein, the reign of Queen Elizabeth.The role of the Redcrosse Knight in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene can be examined to highlight the demands placed on the reader in interpreting the allegory. As MacCaffrey explains, “In the epistemological allegory of Book 1, Spenser compels both his reader and his hero to confront the duplicity of seemings”. This “duplicity of seemings” is mostly represented by the roles and differences of Una and Duessa. The reader already knows that Redcrosse is ‘holiness’ from the prefatory quatrain and must bear this in mind to understand the significance of the problems he has to overcome. Duessa, Abessa and Archimago are, for Spenser, allegorical representations of the Catholic Church – ones that are specifically aimed at deceiving Redcrosse and the reader, for Redcrosse is in many ways the Christian, or more precisely, Protestant everyman. His quest for truth and holy glory is one that Spenser sees as the duty of every man and it is the forces of Catholicism that are placed in the way. But Catholicism is not Spenser’s only evil in the poem; Islam, as represented by the 3 brother “Sarazins”, is seen to be without faith (Sansfoy), without law (Sansloy) and without joy (Sansjoy). There would have been very little problem in interpreting these names for Spenser’s audience as any reader of such a poem would most likely have rudimentary knowledge of the poem’s names Latinate origins; however the modern English reader may not comprehend the name’s meaning without secondary material. Comprehension of the names in The Faerie Queene is always useful at an early stage of reading as they provide a ‘short cut’ to the allegorical significance of the characters.Another problem for the modern reader is the blatant and consistent attacks on anything non-Protestant, be it the Catholics, the Muslims or the faithless. As a prominent Elizabethan, Spenser was writing with the backing of the political and religious power base, and his views would have been either applauded or opposed quietly. However, modern English readers inhabit a society where multiculturalism is publicly celebrated and religious intolerance officially unacceptable. In Northern Ireland, for example, study of the allegory of The Faerie Queene would be a highly contentious issue as to celebrate the poem would blatantly be an attack on Catholicism in an area of the world where religious differences can cost lives. Similarly unacceptable would be to endorse a poem that condemned Islam as being without law, faith and joy in a British society with an established Muslim community that would be deeply offended. Whilst it is impossible to criticise Spenser for lacking the sensibilities and enlightenment of the 21st century, a new task for the reader is to take Spenser’s targets and give them a universal meaning. This is dangerous in terms of developing an exclusive interpretation (i.e. attempting to publish a book defining a universal interpretation) but the allegory of The Faerie Queene should be interpreted personally so that it means something for each individual reader. This may mean accepting Fidessa-Duessa as being the personification of falseness, but ignoring her being the Whore of Babylon, or perhaps accepting her as the Whore of Babylon but rejecting that figure as a representation of the Catholic Church. Similarly, Sansfoy does not have to be a Muslim in order to represent the folly of being lawless. This selective interpretation may break the ‘completeness’ of Spenser’s poem but the process in itself would be a worthwhile experience.For such a personal interpretation to occur, firstly the reader must understand Spenser’s intentions fully. The crux of this task lies in the navigation of the “vertical axis” that MacCaffrey mentions. Redcrosse does not symbolise a fixed concept or figure. We have seen that he is allied to the reader in the problems he has to overcome, making him in one respect an ordinary man, but he is clearly not just that. Spenser fashioned him to represent holiness, although this definition should be treated carefully as he is not holiness itself, but a man who has holiness. There are characters, such as Malbecco (Jealousy) in Book 3 who are concepts in themselves and Una as Truth represents this type of allegorical figure. Whenever she is with Redcrosse he has ‘true Christian Truth’; when she is absent he is prey to the evils of Duessa and Archimago. Redcrosse possesses holiness and courage but lacks experience; at the beginning of Book 1 he is described as yearning for glory: “his hart did earne / To prove his puissance in batell brave”. This gives us an impression of youthful endeavour – he yearns for glory in battle, thus suggesting that he has not yet achieved much. The way he is deceived by Duessa is a challenge – one that he initially does not seem able to win as he is led towards Lucifera and the seven sins, but overcomes eventually by way of his holiness and his reunion with Una. The allegory here is not only for the individual man to steer away from deceit and pride towards truth and holiness, but a chronicle of how Christians as an entire religious people were deceived (in Spenser’s eyes) by the Catholic Church. It was only the true holiness of man that enabled him eventually to embrace the ‘true religious faith’ of Protestantism. The religious allegory is the primary concern of Book 1; only with the introduction of Arthur does the political one begin (to be developed later).When the Redcrosse Knight is revealed as St. George the reader then has a new level on the ‘vertical axis’ to deal with. His role as a Protestant role model is combined with his representation of the British nation. Whilst the device of allegory can be categorised by the different applications, techniques and situations with which it is used, e.g., situational allegory, typological allegory, psychological allegory etc., this need not concern the reader as such a categorisation can prove confusing and unhelpful. Rather, the priority for the reader should be the distinctions between the topics of the allegory, for example when Redcrosse is led up the mountain by Contemplation the reader should consider this an important part of his development in the surface narrative but also bear in mind that Redcrosse signifies a Moses or Christ-type figure; “he leads him to the highest Mount; / Such one, as that same mighty man of God, / That bloud-red billowes like a walld front”, as well as being symbolic of England – at the top of the mountain his destiny as St. George, patron of the English, is revealed as well as contemplation of London and Elizabeth in their allegorical forms of Cleopolis and the Faerie Queene. That Spenser is quite explicit with his references to his referred meaning again demonstrates that he openly intended for those meanings to be apparent to his audience. It is when Spenser is not so open about his intentions that the reader has to juggle priorities in his consciousness.In conclusion, the task of the reader of The Faerie Queene involves active participation, patience and a compromise between objectivity and subjectivity. The surface narrative, which can be overlooked as a hindrance to understanding the poem, becomes a help when the reader is prepared to follow the fairy story – the battles between Knights and monsters against a backdrop of bleeding trees and mythical creatures. For the narrative of the fairy story is designed to be synchronised with the allegorical developments. Thus the journey to the mountain, led by Contemplation, is the cerebral ‘calm’ before the physical (and allegorically spiritual) ‘storm’ of the dragon battle. If the reader is confused then the enjoyment of the surface narrative will engage the attention so that rereading is possible and fruitful. Keeping the different allegorical strands in mind when reading The Faerie Queene is, however, what makes reading it rewarding; once it is understood the surface narrative becomes subservient to the referred meaning as ultimately it is a vehicle for Spenser’s ideas. In other great epics like, for instance, Paradise Lost, any allegory concerning the English Civil War is essentially subservient to the surface narrative about the ultimate battle of good and evil. But the reader of The Faerie Queene must always have allegory as the priority of their consciousness to fully receive the complete impression of the poem.BibliographyGreenlaw, Edwin. Studies in Spenser’s Historical Allegory. London: OUP, 1932.Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.MacCaffrey, Isabel G. Spenser’s Allegory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.MacQueen, John. Allegory. London: Methuen, 1970.Parker, M. Pauline. The Allegory of The Faerie Queene. London: OUP, 1960.Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
The consequence that Spenser faces in casting the Redcrosse knight as the obvious hero of The Faerie Queene is that all who oppose him throughout the poem are immediately branded as inherently evil figures. Such is the case with Despaire, whose encounter with the Redcrosse knight on the surface looks like a cruel and conniving attempt to make the hero of the story commit suicide. Upon closer analysis, however, Despair can be seen as “that cursed man” (I, ix, 308), not because he embodies evil, but rather because he is himself cursed and endures a more miserable fate than those who stumble upon him.Spenser sets Despair apart from characters such as Duessa or Archimago, who actively pursue the Redcrosse knight for the sake of bringing him to ruin, as well as from Errour and the Dragon, whose horrendous physical appearance and prowess suggest their potential to do great harm to the knight. Despair, unlike the knight’s other opposition, neither pursues him nor poses immediate physical danger. Rather, the knight comes seeking Despair at his cave, and at a purely physical level, the only threat to him comes from his own hand (since Despair does not do the actual killing).When Despair is first introduced, the description of his physical appearance resonates with that of the knight only one canto earlier, when he was in the dungeon of the Giant (I, vii, 357-369). Particularly when Spenser describes how Despair’s “raw-bone cheeks through penurie and pine, / Were shronke into his jawes, as he did never dine” (I, ix, 314-315), he sounds very much like the picture of the malnourished knight, “whose feeble thighs, unhable to uphold / His pined corse, him scarse to light could beare, / A ruefull spectacle of death and ghastly drere” (I, viii, 358-360). This resonation has the affect of reminding the reader that the fate Despair faces could have fallen upon any man, including the knight himself.Having brought Despair to the same level of humanity as the knight, Spenser further nullifies the notion that Despair is a malicious enemy and emphasizes his doomed state on Earth with the description of his surroundings. The image of him confined to a cave where “beside there lay upon the gras / A drearie corse, whose life away did pas, / All wallowd in his owne yet luke-warme blood, / That from his wound yet welled fresh alas” (I, ix, 319-322) paints a vivid picture of his miserable situation. It is hardly the portrait of a bloodthirsty villain who triumphs over every life ended by his rhetorical power, or over the sight of his latest visitor’s fresh blood.His act of persuading people to commit suicide somehow reduces the evil attributed to him, as opposed to if he were presented physically murdering his visitors. Spenser somehow finds a perfect balance between the craftiness of Duessa and Archimago and the physical brutality of the Dragon or Errour. Despair cannot be blamed for craftiness or deceit because he does not disguise his intent to drive people to suicide. At the same time he cannot be blamed for inflicting physical harm on people. Spenser cleverly created a character who could be admired for his rhetorical ability and who cannot be wholly blamed for the destruction of lives. Despair also escapes blame because he does not do nearly as much harm to the knight as any of the other “villains.” In fact, the knight escapes from the cave unscathed.Despair’s response to the knight’s departure is also crucial to the portrayal of his character. When the knight leaves, he does not pursue him because the knight is not the true victim in this scene. What ensues the knight’s departure reveals the true victim: Despair, who “when…[he] saw his guest / Would save depart, for all his subtill sleight, / He chose an halter from among the rest, / And with it hung himselfe, unbid unblest. / But death he could not worke himselfe thereby; / For thousand times he so himselfe had drest, / Yet nathelesse it could not doe him die, / Till he should die his last, that is eternally” (I, ix, 479-486).The sense of comfort in human companionship invoked by the use of the word “guest” suggests the loneliness of Despair in the midst of his interminable life in the cave. Despair’s response upon the knight’s departure reveals his belief that suicide truly is the best escape from the despair that he suffers. Given this conclusion, the fact that he persuades others to take their lives no longer appears as an act of evil, but rather an attempt to spare others from his own miserable fate.If it were his passion to ensnare men and persuade them to take their lives, he would be outside of the cave pursuing after victims, possibly wearing an effective disguise such as Duessa and Archimago, that would win him credibility. Instead he sits in a hollow cave with festering corpses. Surely anyone who stumbles upon him would be suspicious of him, thus making his job of luring them to suicide more difficult. His condition, his dwelling, and his candidness suggest that he is not doing this job out of his own volition or zeal, but rather because this is the fate that has been allotted to him by some unmentioned, greater supernatural power.This sense is strengthened by the mention of his numerous unsuccessful suicide attempts. If his fate were in his hands, then he should have no problem taking his own life; instead, “death he could not worke himselfe thereby” (I, ix, 483). There is a sense that Despair operates under the authority of a greater power which spares his life in each suicide attempt and propels him into the continuous doom in the cave. His role as an advocate for suicide suddenly turns into a life that he has been unfortunately fated with rather than a malicious endeavor of his own volition. As the canto comes to a close, Despair’s grim fate invokes far more pity than the knight’s momentary danger, from which he escapes unharmed.
SpenserÃ¢s Faerie Queene fights against reduction; there is no one-to-one correspondence of thing to meaning. Spenser recasts figures and images throughout the poem, allowing meanings to be changed and complicated through the course of reading. Language and form work to divide these moments of action and implication; the space within or between stanzas (or cantos, or books) allows shifts in narrative tone and complications of meaning. As Spenser revises the act of wandering in Book I, Canto I, giving it a moral meaning alongside its spatial one, so he takes an epic simile, and, using a sequence of comparisons, forces it to undergo changes in meaning and intent. In Canto I, this technique is seen in stanzas 20 through 23, in SpenserÃ¢s epic similes of the Nile River and the shepherd.Stanzas 20 through 22 sustain a single image, with variations. It is the image of glut uncontained and spilling. Stanza 20 describes ErrorÃ¢s vomit, Ã¢a Floud of pyson horrible and blacke,Ã¢? containing lumps of flesh, books and papers, and eyeless frogs and toads, who Ã¢creeping sought way in the weedy grasÃ¢? (20.2-8). Spenser takes care to introduce some idea of life along with the dead and material fragments of the vomit; the frogs and toads, released from ErrorÃ¢s mouth, creep away in the grass in a startling and unexpected image. This allows Spenser to move into his epic simile in stanza 21, in which the sense of life is perverted in the course of the simile. The simile, taken from the natural world, begins by referencing fertility, the healthy abundance and cycle of seasons bringing rain and flood:As when old father Nilus gins to swellWith timely pride aboue the Aegyptian valeHis fattie wauves do fertile slime outwellAnd ouerflow each plaine and lowly dale. (21.1-4)But in the second quatrain of the stanza, the idea of regeneration is complicated. Like the creatures that creep out and away from ErrorÃ¢s vomit, the swelling of the Nile River leaves Ã¢Huge heapes of mudd . . . wherein there breed / Ten thousand kindes of creatures, partly male / And partly female of his fruitfull seedÃ¢? (21.6-8). This second quatrain continues with the ideas of the first; the Ã¢fertile slime,Ã¢? as it should, produces Ã¢fruitfull seed.Ã¢? But this seed is perverted. The sexual paternity and maternity of the seed are obscured, incestuous or otherwise depraved, and breed Ã¢ten thousand kindes of creaturesÃ¢? of mixed male and female orientation. Spenser writes, Ã¢Such vgly monstrous shapes elsewhere may no man reed,Ã¢? recalling the image of Error as half-serpent and half-woman, Ã¢Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaineÃ¢? (21.9, 14.6-9). The natural and abundant order of the world, like the natural and rich human acts of wandering and procreation, so quickly becomes tainted. Spenser implies that error is constantly breeding, lying dormant in fertile mud, so that romantic wandering Ã¢” non-linear, spatial play within a romantic landscape Ã¢” too easily becomes epic wandering, which is not innocent but morally suggestive.The epic simile in stanza 21 runs on to stanza 22, so that it is unclear whether the simile should be read as an exposition of stanza 20 (ErrorÃ¢s vomit) or as an exposition of stanza 21 (ErrorÃ¢s vomit-children). At any rate, it probably does not matter. Spenser links both excretions to the perverse propagation of the river in stanza 21, so that all three stanzas are tied visually and allegorically. Error, like the riverÃ¢s seed, is Ã¢fruitfull.Ã¢? Spenser writes, Ã¢She poured forth out of her hellish sinke, / Her fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small, / Deformed monsters, fowle, and blacke as inkeÃ¢? (22.5-7). Both the spawne of Error and of the river are Ã¢deformedÃ¢? and unnatural offspring. While these monsters are characterized by their foulness, nearly overcoming the Knight with their vivid stink, the narrator notes that they are harmless, Ã¢swarming all about his legs did crall, / And him encombred sore, but could not hurt at allÃ¢? (22.8-9).The closing couplet of stanza 22 is the narratorÃ¢s interjection, a distancing effect that allows the reader a small release from the epic and narrative tension sustained and built through the three stanzas. We are told that the Knight cannot be harmed, and therefore we are able to enjoy the quality of the poetic image, especially as it takes a comic turn in stanza 23. Here, Spenser uses another epic simile to combat that put forth in the preceding stanzas. ErrorÃ¢s offspring are transformed from the thick and lowly (creeping and swarming) to the light and airy. He writes,As gentle Shepheard in sweete euen-tide,When ruddy Phoebus gins to welke in west . . .A cloud of cumbrous gnattes do him molest,All striuing to infixe their feeble stings. (23.1-5)It is still a mob scene, but a gentle one, more of a disturbance than a danger: Ã¢From their noyance he no where can rest, / But with his clownish hands their tender wings / He brusheth off, and oft doth mar their murmuringsÃ¢? (23.7-9).The description of ErrorÃ¢s offspring is enclosed between two epic similes, both taken from the natural world, but with different degrees of threat and therefore different degrees of narrative distance from the Knight. Spenser uses a series of comparisons that introduces different modes of vision throughout the canto, allowing multiple perspectives. Thus, when Una approaches the Knight in stanza 27 to greet his victory, telling him Ã¢Well worthy be you of that Armorie,Ã¢? when in stanza 26 we have just been told that Ã¢His foes haue slaine themselves,Ã¢? we understand that the two statements are not incompatible (27.5, 26.9). From the KnightÃ¢s perspective, or perhaps from UnaÃ¢s, he is worthy, having stood in Ã¢certaine perillÃ¢? (24.2). He has not seen himself as the shepherd brushing flies from his flesh, as we have. Spenser reduces the KnightÃ¢s adversary in the space of a stanza, and suggests that bigger and more dangerous battles are yet to come.The strength of the poetic image, and its malleability in SpenserÃ¢s design, is seen in the way it returns later in Canto I. In stanzas 36 through 38, he revisits the simile of the shepherd and the flies. Following the defeat of Error, the Knight and Una take a rest in ArchimagoÃ¢s inn. While the two are sleeping, Ã¢[Archimago] to his study goes, and there amides / His Magick bookes and artes of sundry kindes, / He seeks out mighty charmes, to trouble sleepy mindesÃ¢? (36.7-9). This recalls ErrorÃ¢s vomit in stanza 20, which is filled with the stuff that magic is made of: Ã¢great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw . . . bookes and papers . . . loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lackeÃ¢? (20.3-7). This symmetry of base materials throws Archimago on the side of evil in the canto, aligning him with Error.From these books, Archimago chooses a few verses,And forth he cald out of deepe darknesse dredLegions of Sprights, the which like little flyesFluttring about his euer damned hed,A-waite whereto their seruice he applyes. (38.1-4)The shepherd in stanza 23, Redcrosse, has become Archimago in stanza 38, the flies have become sprites, and the epic simile has been freed from the merely metaphorical world to become a real and corporal part of the narrative, anticipating the granting of physical form to allegorical characters as Book I continues. Accompanying this shift from the figurative to the literal is an intensification of degree. The harmless flies, fluttering around an entirely different and less moral shepherd, suddenly become dangerous. Archimago chooses Ã¢the falsest twooÃ¢? from this swarm, and sends them to the Knight. The swarm is reduced in number, but gains in specificity and threat.Finally, in stanza 41, Spenser condenses the image to a sound, Ã¢the sowne / Of swarming BeesÃ¢? that surrounds the house of Morpheus (41.4-5). This sound, blended with the sounds of a Ã¢trickling streame from high rocke tumbling downe / And euer-drizling raine vpon the loft, / Mixt with a murmuring winde,Ã¢? Ã¢lulleÃ¢? the occupants of the town to Ã¢slumber softÃ¢? (41.1-4). The beautiful aural imagery of the stanza is indulgent and deceptive, lovely but dangerous in the way it diverts Morpheus from his labors. The sound of swarming bees thus prefigures the Ã¢fit false dreame, that can delude the sleepers sent,Ã¢? which Morpheus delivers to Archimago (42.9). Although the image is condensed into a single element, that of sound, it retains its rhetorical power through allusion to its earlier appearances in the canto.Spenser delights in the limber quality of language and form, the way images and meanings can be altered and complicated in the course of a few stanzas, the way metaphor can come to life. The romantic impulse might mourn the restriction of wandering to a morally problematic act, but the epic impulse Ã¢” arriving somewhere Ã¢” forces this to be the case. Both impulses perform in the Faerie Queene, however, as Spenser wanders through language, recasting images with different intents, resting only when his design is exact.
The work of art is a central image in The Faerie Queene, though it rarely appears as a neutral force. On the contrary: art often seems to act as a tool of the post-lapsarian world, dragging once-pure characters into earthly knowledge and moral descent. Specifically, in the house of Busirane, art acts initially as an aid to Eve’s original sin as well as, in more secular terms, the loss of sexual innocence in the mythological women Leda and Danae. The tapestries on Busirane’s walls depict the means by which, through artistic transformation or ornamentation, women especially are deceived or invaded. However, while the power and invasiveness of Busirane’s art is clearly emphasized, art seems far from wholly evil in the narrator’s view. As strong as the attempts of Busirane are to display, reenact, or remember female falls in the history of man, so strong (if less often stated) is the work of art’s function as a redeeming force. Just as, in contemporary Christianity, the Old Testament fall is somehow “reversed” through the New Testament redemption of Christ, so too does The Faerie Queene suggest a narrative of fall and ascent. Spenser does not wish the work of art to disappear altogether; rather, he wishes to present a counterexample to both the mimetic and lapsarian views. Through the cases of Eve, Danae, and Leda, the work of art will be seen not only as an accomplice to lapsarian acts, but also as a saving, restorative force, allowing acts of violence to women to be rectified and the women themselves absolved.When the art in Busirane’s house is first described, the reader can begin to realize the harm of which visual representation is capable. As Busirane’s actual situation is one of holding Amoret captive, physically and perhaps sexually, and attempting to force her emotional love, it is tempting to read descriptive scenes as a mirror of this triptych of violence, lust, and desire. Not only does Busirane desire and hold Amoret physically, he wishes to penetrate her psyche, in order to turn her favor his way. This same type of impure desire arises in the first description of Busirane’s tapestries, in which the following passage appears:[The tapestries were] woven with gold and silk so close and nearThat the rich metal lurked privily,As faining to be hid from envious eye.Yet here and there and everywhere unwaresIt showed itself, and shone unwillingly:Like a discoloured snake, whose hidden snaresThrough the green grass his long, bright-burnished back declares. (Bk. 3, c. 11, s. 28)This stanza has implications beyond a pure Platonism, which might suggest that all art is imitation: instead, it imaginatively connects art with the snake in the Biblical Garden of Eden. The tapestries’ metal is connected through a simile to the “discoloured snake,” an image which can be read on the visual level (the snakelike weave of the threads) as well as the metaphorical one (the tapestry being “woven through” with deceit.) Significantly, the rich metal does not seem to declare itself: instead, it “lurk[s] privily,/ As faining to be hid” and “sh[ines] unwillingly.” This phrasing suggests the increased power of art due to its hidden nature: rather than simply stating facts, as a report might, or declaring beliefs in a propagandistic way, the work of art uses more subtle techniques. Though a modern reader might laud the work of art for allowing a multiplicity of interpretations, here it seems that the ambiguous status of the art object leads more easily to lures and trickery than straightforward work. In fact, it is the “hidden snares” of the snake, the secret lures rather than any easily-visible purpose, which reveals the snake’s position at all.Through this Biblical reference, the narrator directly implicates the work of art in connection with Eve’s eating of the apple and, more generally, to the resultant fall of man and loss of paradise. The work of art “lurks” in this post-lapsarian world, mirroring and perhaps even reconstructing the initial fall. The fact that the snake “declares” his back in the present sense suggests that his narrative is still (at least metaphorically) going on; that is, that the content of the tapestries is a dynamic one. In the tapestries, the metal is still “as faining to be hid from envious eye” the viewer, now present at the scene, presumably could perform the function of this “eye,” looking on in amazement and jealousy at the scene before him. This viewer may now, in fact, be enacting a modern version of the Biblical tale of lust and desire. Thus, not only is the work of art brought very much into the narrative of the present, but the viewer himself is implicated in Eve’s sins as well. Considering the work of art in the imitative Platonic sense, this tapestry is a mimicking of the original Biblical event; as such, it performs its mimetic function as a work of art as well as reenacting the lures of Eve. The tapestries’ hidden, “unwilling” shining suggests that it would rather work its evil unseen; because it is visible, however, it participates in the tradition as a work of art, beginning with the first representations of the fall. In this way, the tapestry brings itself to the viewer’s senses, allowing him to consider what relationship it has to the original event. Through visual representation, the fall is continued into the present narrative of the story, allowing the viewer to understand that he too is engaged in the lapsarian act.This ability of art to recall and reinstate a fall from Paradise is not unique to the Biblical tale of Eve; on the contrary, it stretches into the more secular realm of female sexuality. Just as the fall from the Garden of Eden occurred, so too can a “fall” from the realm of female virginity cause a loss of purity or holiness. Especially when this latter fall is not voluntary, its ability to be represented artistically is at once jarring and profound. The presentation, in a tapestry, of rape and voyeurism is made possible perhaps only through the tapestry’s status as an art object, a thing which purportedly may be viewed at a distance from the actual event. If the narrative had been presented in a graphically straightforward way, even as a kind of “criminal report,” the gruesomeness of the acts may have been too much for a viewer to bear. However, because the act is couched in beautiful colors and a pleasing composition, the acts’ nature as invasion and fall may be more easily concealed.Even more relevant, though, is the idea that these acts of rape and voyeurism are themselves abetted through the artistry of deceit. Even a god must transform himself visually in order to be a “successful” rapist or voyeur. In the house of Busirane, some of the tapestries depict the classical god Jove in his function as a violent, invading force. Known as the reigning god, Jove also engaged in numerous earthly activities, including viewing Danae (s. 31) and raping Leda in the guise of a swan (s. 32).Significantly, these narratives participate equally with the Biblical one in the idea of a female character’s fall. In this case, it is not the original fall from paradise, but a parallel, more modernized and secularized, version: that is, the fall from the purity of virginity to the “knowledge” of sexual life. This reference is significant not only because of the mores of the time, but also because of Elizabeth’s status as the “Virgin Queen.” Jove’s transformation into “a golden shower” and “a snowy swan” utilizes the snake’s principles of secrecy and deceit; additionally, it allows for his ability to instigate the fall from virginal wholeness, literally in Leda and visually (Jove wishes “to view” Danae) in Danae’s case. In the Danae passage (s. 31) the narrator emphasizes the additional possibilities open to the transformed Jove. Though Danae “kept the iron door fast barred,/ And watched that none should enter nor issue,” her efforts were all “vain” and “bootless,” once Jove has been changed to a “golden hue.” Like the snake, Jove would not wish his real identity to be revealed; if it were, he would be recognized as the obviously masculine figure which Danae is struggling to keep out. He would have a clear physicality, which in the form of a “golden hue” is absent. Therefore, Danae’s careful attempts to protect herself would have a better chance at success, and Jove would have to struggle against an at least somewhat stronger barrier.Significantly, the episodes of Danae and Leda detail the ways divine illusion and transformation can cause harm to innocents. These tales of Jove are tales of invasion, in which rape and voyeurism are aided by the invader’s transformation into various visual forms. Such transformation helps to instigate the fall from purity for these women, who it seems had little choice in the matter at hand. The fact that these episodes are displayed in tapestries on Busirane’s wall suggests that their content is something he at least implicitly admires. While, in the divine, an actual transformation is possible, a parallel visual transformation may occur in art. To display these episodes alongside that of the snake implies a narrative or even thematic connection between them all in short, their parallel qualities of illusion and secrecy, even of “artfulness,” which give rise to clearly lapsarian acts.However, the idea that art can act as an aid to transformation is, in a very real sense, its saving grace. While art can enable a transformation from purity to baseness, it is equally capable of facilitating the reverse. Acts which occur through art, it seems, can only be done through the same art, allowing the narrative of fall and redemption to come full circle. The restorative power of art, in a very literal sense, can be seen in Busirane’s forced release of Amoret. In this episode (c. 12, s. 31), Busirane has command over Amoret’s body and is attempting to gain control of her mind through spells. The description of the spells seems to resemble the writing of verse or, more generally, the written metaphor. Busirane “figur[es] strange characters of his art” and writes “with living blood those characters,” suggesting that the spell is transformative both as a written document (the “characters”) and as a mixture of the spoken and physcial (the “with living blood.”) In general, it seems that the spell is designed to influence the mind through the use of the physical body, mingling them in a single attempt to be falsely given love. However, when Britomart meets Busirane, who is presumably involved in evil deeds, and begins to slay him, she is stopped by Amoret herself. Amoret’s reaon for doing so is a pure act of self-preservation:So mightily she [Britomart] smote him that to ground He fell half dead: next stroke him should have slain,Had not the lad (which by him stood bound)Dernly unto her called to abstainFrom doing him to die; for else her painShould be remediless, sith none but heWhich wrought it could the same recure again.(Bk. 3, C. 12, s. 34)In what may be the supreme irony of spells, only the person who held Amoret captive would be capable of allowing her to be freed. If Busirane died, the cure would die with him – Amoret’s “pain/ Should be remediless,” and though Busirane would presumably have had justice done to him through his own death, Amoret would be left forever uncured. “None but” the agent of an evil deed here, a deed committed with the help of verbal magic can reverse the deed and turn Amoret back to her original state.Because of this restorative power, Busirane is himself transformed, at least momentarily, into an agent of good. Though it was clearly by his hand that Amoret was first bound, he now is Amoret’s only hope for freedom. Busirane certainly does not commit this act of good willingly: he must be threatened by Britomart that he will “else die, undoubtedly” (s. 35). Still, the idea that Britomart must threaten or bargain with Busirane in order that he might cooperate is very different from that of killing him straight away. Amoret recognizes that not just any spell contains the power to restore her body; it is in fact the same spell that was used to assert power over her originally. Thus, the passage seems to make a case for the restorative power not just of art in general, but the power of negative works of art to answer positively for itself. The harm that a work of art, or a spell, causes can only be erased through its particular magic, and thus it pays to allow even evildoers to live, in order to keep the possibility of restoration alive.The nature of the restoration Amoret undergoes is indicative of Spenser’s broader restorative plan. Not only does the “cruel steel which thrilled her dying heart” drop away, the “great brazen pillar” on which she is placed crumbles and her “riven bowls” are “closed up as it had not been bored”. Amoret becomes an “unbound/ And perfect whole,” restored to a state of metaphorical, prelapsarian virginity as well as given freedom to move. The phallic image of the pillar and the “boring” image of her bowels cannot be denied as sexual; thus, the invasive sexality which Busirane had forced upon her is removed with the physical chains. The women in previous episodes, such as Leda and Danae, act initially as parallels with Amoret, having their privacy or sexuality invaded by forceful men; however, Amoret, through the power of the spell which first bound her, is restored to a state of (at least putative) virginity. The fall represented by the snake, and the secular falls of the two women, drop away in this image of a “perfect whole2E” Because the creator or user of the art was present, it seems, Amoret is able to leave her oppressive state. The women in the tapestries, whose Jove is not now on earth, are incapable of undergoing this change.
The role of the magic mirror in Britomart’s encounter with Arthegall extends beyond the fact that it drives her quest to find him. It is also the center point of Spenser’s theme of reflection and representation and its influence on his use of allegory and chastity. By identifying mirrors as a symbol for allegory, and then underscoring the misleading qualities of reflections, Spencer hints that allegory, though directly reflective of one main theme, can be simultaneously interpreted multiple ways. This suggests that the allegory of Chastity has several meanings other than that of an entirely non-sexualized, virginal woman.Unlike in Book I, Spenser’s writing in Book III is not meant as a tool for blatant moralizing. Here, he is much more interested in the abilities of his verse to create a “lively… pourtraict” of Queen Elizabeth, a “mirrour [for] her selfe to see”, a reflection made of words (231-2). Spenser’s mirrors reveal his quest to find the true identities of his characters and muses by examining their reflections, using tools like Merlin’s magic mirror, which “like to the world it self, and seemed a world of glas” (254). It serves the same purpose of allegory, creating an entirely new domain that reflects and comments on the themes and events of the real world without requiring it to be a painstakingly exact copy. Similarly, Spenser concedes that his mirror of verse, despite representing “living art”, cannot be completely “life-resembling” (231). Therefore, he indirectly describes Elizabeth, his actual subject, through several varied ‘mirror images’ of her, all of which are allegorized as Chastity. A mirror reflection can comment on allegory through their similar natures as one dimensional, formless images and fictional characters. In describing the very human Elizabeth using the imaginary Britomart, Spenser both mirrors and allegorizes her. The mirror is, in fact, a symbol of and an allegory on allegory itself.However, many of the mirrors in Canto III present reflections that are rather misleading. Elizabeth is represented by Chastity, but Chastity is in turn represented by a number of women in Canto III, from Belphoebe to Amoret to Britomart to Florimel, each of whom also represents an entirely different set of characteristics. If each of these is meant to be a mirror image of Elizabeth, then it would seem that Spenser’s mirrors are so bewitched that each look produces a completely different reflection.Perhaps due to the presence of mischievous magic, the enchanted mirror that Britomart looks into is surrounded by contradictions. Its origins are suspect; it is alternately referred to as “Venus looking glas” and as “the glassie globe that Merlin made/ And gave unto king Ryence” and compared to mirrors made by “Great Ptolomae… by Magicke power” (234, 254). The mirror’s reflections are equally ambiguous. Arthegall is merely the “shade and semblant of a knight” (258), a mere impression, the smoke and the mirror. He appears when Britomart looks at the glass, as if his reflection preempts her own transformation into a manly knight. As a mirror image, he is as a “fine forgerie” (245), a ‘deceitful’ copy of Britomart when she misleads everyone with her manly disguise, like Elizabeth did with her manly power and aggressiveness. In addition to a magical mirror’s unreliability, creating a mirror through verse is also prone to deception. Britomart, with only Arthegall’s face imprinted into her mind, tries to build up a more complete image of him through others’ testimony. She confirms Spenser’s earlier worry that words are not truthful enough to paint honest, faithful representations when she compels Arthur to defile Arthegall’s name and then induces Redcrosse to praise him. She ends up with a mental picture of her love that stems from what she wants to see, and not necessarily what actually is true.One also can never completely trust the motives or goal of a Spenser mirror/allegory. In Britomart’s case, the mirror revealed her true love, only to cause her pain from the ensuing love wound. Love is usually chastity’s enemy, as it encourages and causes “ill” and “evill” to purity (266); Britomart describes her love resentfully in terms of “bitter stowre [and] horrour” (250). Under the guise of an agent of love, like the protean wicked witches of fairy tales consulting their mirror on the wall, the “mirrhour fayre” maliciously sets Britomart on an unrelenting, agonizing search after a mere shadow (254). As two allegories clashing, Britomart representing Chastity and the mirror representing Allegory battle to determine how rigidly the mirror can control Britomart, and vice versa. Ultimately, there is a compromise. Chastity can be more loosely interpreted, and allegory does not need to imitate its subjects so exactly.As a result, the ambiguity of Britomart’s reflection through the magic mirror and the mirror of Spenser’s words suggests that there is room for interpreting women’s virtue, which she embodies. So that love is not so painful, Spenser proposes that the translation of the Chastity allegory might also be able to accommodate feminine eroticism and manly dominance. Flouting her strict standards of honor, Spenser highlights Britomart’s womanly sensuality by subtly surrounding her with unchaste imagery. When discussing Arthegall, Britomart seems to betray an emotion much more passionate than virginal affection; she can barely describe him without having an orgasmic reaction in her curiously “alablaster brest” in “which all that while she felt to pant and quake/ as it an Earth-quake were” (259). With the loosened allegorical constraints, it is acceptable, even desirable, for chaste women to know and enjoy sensual delights, and pursue them (as Britomart does) for pure-hearted reasons.While it is sinful to solely lust after men’s physical attributes, chaste minds can still process wholesome love and its natural consequences of procreation. Britomart’s Nurse describes her as being strongly affected by the image in Merlin’s mirror, and being “deepe engraffed [and] infested” by the consequent love (266). Like Chrysogonee, Britomart’s chastity is penetrated by something immaterial, without physical body, that is reminiscent of Malbecco, who became an allegory when his “substance was consumed to nought” (374). Similarly, the non-corporeal ‘shade’ of Arthegall and the matter-less sunshine also represent allegory. Like mirror reflections, which can be infinite depending on how many times someone looks into a glass, they reproduce using the images of the women who happen to be present. When Chrysogonee and Britomart, the representatives of Chastity, are unwittingly impregnated by substance-less allegory, Spenser allows chastity to experience and embrace sexual love while remaining blameless and clean-hearted.Mirrors are powerful vehicles for the womanly vanity and self-love that allows for sensual pleasure. The value of reflections and mirrors is based on images and visible things, like color. In Canto III, Spenser often mirrors Britomart’s pure whiteness with contrasting redness to suggest an attitude of Chastity that is far from innocently unadulterated. Spenser uses the word “colourable” to mean ‘deceptive’ (267). The virginal warrior’s purity, defined by her extreme paleness and blonde hair, is often corrupted and stained by blood or blush, by other men or through her own fiery love. In Malecasta’s castle, she is attacked by Gardante, who represents ‘looking’ and sight, the sense that is most pleased by mirrors. He metaphorically rapes her with his eyes and his phallic sword, until her left her “lilly smock with staines of vermeil steepe” (248). Her Nurse tries to cure her lovesickness with a potion of milk and blood, both feminine fluids. When she thinks of her love, “her pure yvory/ into a cleare Carnation suddeine dyde” (267). Chastity is not immune to sexual overtones. Indeed, Spenser links Britomart indirectly with Adonis, the lover of Venus, goddess of physical pleasure. Both mirror each other, with their pure hearts bloody with love wounds that “staines [their] snowy skin” (242). Both are represented by lustily red, “dainty flowres” (242), as if their chastity was meant to bloom and be deflowered, not kept in budded-up innocence. Chastity should not be blindly, militantly non-sexualized; in order for chaste hearts to stop bleeding from apparently hopeless love, love and adoration must be portrayed as something normal and pleasing.At the same time, however, Spencer implies that Britomart’s chastity is so well maintained because she completely avoids all eroticism, discredits her femininity and ignores the burden of purity by becoming entirely like a man. In this scenario, her arsenal of male weapons completely defends her chastity. In times of crisis, her “snow-white smocke” is defended by “her avenging blade” (248). Here, to be “despoiled”, she can simply ‘disrobe’ (247), dropping the shield of her manly armor and nakedly advertising herself as a woman. Ironically, it is only when she is immersed in the strongly phallic, penetrative imagery of her sword, her “griding”, ‘piercing’ weapon that her feminine virginity becomes invulnerable (248). It is as if she is more comfortable in the armor and attitude of a man because, peculiarly, her chastity is only truly safe when her invincible male image aggressively ‘penetrates’ her weaker female copy until her natural identity is as a man, and her mirror image is womanly only her spirit.Spenser raises yet another method for Chastity to be achieved. Mirrors allow women to see copies of themselves, to be “vewd in vaine” (254). It also encourages them to admire beauty, to focus on the visual. Ultimately, a mirror allows a form of self-appreciation and spiritual self-generation, which, for women, would invalidate the purpose of most men, then allowing them to easily retain their chastity. However, since mirrors obviously are not sufficient for physical reproduction, men stay in the frame. Even so, Spenser suggests a state of affairs in which mirrors, sight, and concentration on the visual cause traditional roles of gender and sexuality to be inverted, as if reflected in a circus funhouse mirror. Here, women do the looking; the Peeping Toms of Canto III are mostly female. Venus peeps on Adonis while he bathes (which overturns the conventional position of men like David watching women like Bathsheba in their vulnerability). At dinner, Malecasta peeps on Britomart, who peeps on Arthegall in the mirror. In these relationships, women dominate the positions of power, and coddle their lovers while also keeping an eye on them. The mirror again reflects another version of loving, sensual Chastity as empowering, and Allegory as generously open for interpretation.
The Romantic era saw a wave of primitivism sweep through its literature and art. The dissatisfaction of the present led to a glorification of the past, and it was explored and philosophized by looking at the ‘noble savage’. However, a branch of primitivism arose which looked, rather, at England’s own past for its ideal situation. These were considered new concepts, but perhaps there was a harbinger to this mode of thought. Indeed, glimpsing the past, or revisiting the past in an ideal manner began much before the Romantic era: an excellent example of this is seen in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s master work was meant as a Christian allegory, with little political scraps thrown in to the whole, but Spenser chose the medieval world of King Arthur to set his tale, and he chose an archaic language by which to fashion his tale. This is a form of primitivism.Primitivism as a movement began in the Romantic era, in the eighteenth century. As England saw more and more report of their colonies which harbored savage races of people, the fascination grew. The natives of North America, for instance, were seen as being proud, noble, tied to no one and nothing, and living a pure and innocent life off the land. The same things were being said about South American natives, African natives, and Australian natives, among others. But there began a feudal offshoot of Primitivism which took the feudal era as being something of an ideal system. Edmund Burke writes about his ideal as being “indeed a contract … it is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.” (Wu, 7) What he is describing here is the tenant-lord relationship in the manorial system of the feudal era. The idea of being responsible to one person whom you interact with regularly and whom is responsible to you, as well, was a very attractive idea to Romantics. It was simple in comparison, but it was not the first era to find the past attractive.Spenser’s most important work begins its primitivistic look with just that: its look. It is easy to read through The Faerie Queene and mistake one word for another, and even one letter for another, for Spenser employs an archaic language which had long gone ‘out of style’, or had never been in style: But how long time, said then the elfin knight,Are you in this misformed house to dwell?We may not chaunge (quoth he) this euil plight,Till we be bathed in a liuing well;That is the terme prescribed by the spell.O how, said he, mote I that well out find,That may restore you to your wonted well?Time and suffised fates to former kindShall vs restore, none else from hence may vs vnbyned. (I, III, verse 44)To some modern readers this would be entirely illegible. One may notice immediately that many of the V’s are U’s, and U’s are V’s; there are e’s at the end of words which should not be there; and words such as ‘mote’ which few modern readers would understand off hand. These peculiarities are all remnants of an older style of writing. Also, one may notice in many instance such as “we be bathed”, and “wonted well”, and “fates to former kind”. These, and even more blatant examples of alliteration, can be found littered throughout the text, and this too, hearkens to an earlier form of writing: specifically, the old anglo-saxon verse which produced such works as Beowulf. And what these oddities of language describe is no less archaic and primitive.The Faerie Queene is a Christian allegory which espouses different character traits which Spenser believes to be those of the true and ideal Christian, and the fact that Spenser has chosen a medieval era as the best manner and setting to put forth his sermon is testimony to the primitivistic qualities of the work. The story follows knights which wander in a pastoral medieval landscape. Book one’s main character is the Redcrosse Knight whom is the personification of holinesse (or, at least, he becomes so at the end of the book when he has learned all the lessons set out for him to learn). The next knight of major import is Britomart, a female knight who personifies chastity. Along the way the reader meets many other knights of not-so-good qualities, evil temptress women, terrible enchanters, satyrs, lions, giants, and even Merlin and some of better quality, like King Arthur themselves. Even though Spenser poetically calls on the muses at the beginning of his work, The Faerie Queene is decided medieval:Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds,Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;Whose praises having slept in silence long,Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areedsTo blazon broad emongst her learned throng:Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song. (ll. 1 – 9)By calling forth the muses in his attempt, Spenser actually is looking backwards to two different ‘ideal’ eras. He mentions knights and ladies which hearkens, of course, to a medieval setting and time period, but the muses are decided Greek in origin, and thus he is perhaps also wishing to employ the possibly simpler, purer ideas of the Greek writers and of the ancient Greek life in general. His primitivistic ties to these eras is unknown; however, it is clear that Spenser believed Greek and specifically Medieval setting to be the ideal setting from which to teach the Christian values he advocates in The Faerie Queene.The question which must be asked, rather than motive, however, is simply: is this method Spenser has used effective in his aims? Obviously, this question must be definitively answered individually by every reader. But it is possible to get a sense of the probability of how well The Faerie Queene achieved its ends. The first evidence to its effectiveness is in its popularity. The masterpiece has been called just that, and has held its popularity high through over four centuries of other writers seeking to duplicate and outdo their forerunners. But aside from the simple popularity of the poem, which does not necessarily mean the message was transmitted clearly, is the poem successful? It is. And the evidence of it comes approximately three centuries after The Faerie Queene was published when Romanticists began idolizing the natives of North America and their savage way of life. Writers such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley have since created works which have moved and affected emotions in readers until the present day, and their method for doing so was in their glorification of a simple past which either was the setting for their works, or was the tool which affected the emotions. The effect of these poems is unquestioned, and Spenser has employed the same means in The Faerie Queene. The landscape is of the Medieval era, and heroes are knights, and both of these things are idolized fully:By this the Northerne wagoner had setHis seuenfold teme behind the stedfast starre,That was in Ocean waues yet neuer wet,But firme is fixt, and sendeth light from farreTo all, that in the wide deepe wandring arre:And chearefull Chaunticlere with his note shrillHad warned once, that Pheobus fiery carreIn hast was climbing vp the Easterne hill,Full enuious that night so long his roome did fill. (I, II, verse 1)The language is plainly lofty and praising: Spenser employs a medieval landscape, which he praises, and thus, The Faerie Queene is very much a primitivistic work, and is, by association with the unquestioned works which would follow in the later centuries, effective.When Wordsworth wrote works like “Michael”, or Mary Shelly wrote works such as “Frankenstein”, they were not thinking of a specific time or place as an ideal. This was done mostly by the philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. And also Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene is unquestionably a work of primitivism by its medieval setting, which includes knights, damsels in distress, villains and monsters of all sorts, and also by its archaic language which marks it as ‘old fashioned’ without even having to read it. What exactly primitivism effects in others is mostly unknown, or specific to the reader, but it generally has to do with the simplicity of life in earlier times. In this sense, Spenser chose maybe the perfect way to express his complicated Christian beliefs.
The Faerie Queene Book Two, by Edmund Spenser, is a book entirely devoted to the concept of temperance and moderation. Espoused as a cardinal virtue in Plato’s Republic, and referred to similarly in several other influential works from across many cultures, temperance encompasses myriad traits or characteristics. It is perhaps best described as refraining from excess; resisting temptations and impulses which otherwise might overcome one’s control completely. That temperance is the main concern of Book Two is made clear by Spenser in the title of the work, being called The Legend of Sir Guyon OR Of Temperaunce. However, rather than simply being a story about a temperate knight, the nature of temperance itself is actually the subject of Book Two; specifically, whether or not it is possible to be continuously temperate. Book Two highlights the flaws in the concept of temperance, and this has wider ramifications when considering the social context, specifically regarding the Reformation and the perceived pitfalls of Catholicism over Protestantism (temperance arguably being considered unimportant in Protestantism, as Protestants believe in predestination). This essay will show, therefore, how Book Two of The Faerie Queene can be considered a religious commentary as well as an examination of the idea of temperance.
An important point to note, before looking at any particular stanza in detail, is that a word which continually recurs throughout Canto XII is “wanton”, and this word perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of the Bower of Bliss and the nature of sin. It is a word which can mean many things, and indeed its meaning throughout this Canto changes depending on the context in which it is used. First, it is used in the line “nature had for wantonesse ensude” (184.108.40.206) , which depicts it as a negative thing, or at the very least something excessive. However, when referring to the images of the boys on the fountain, the word – used in the line “their wanton toyes” (220.127.116.11) – implies playfulness. In stanza 61, when describing the flowers in the fountain, the word is again used negatively: “Their fleecy flowres… seemd for wantones to weep” (18.104.22.168). Finally, in stanza 63, the word is used in perhaps its most multi-layered context yet: the maidens in the fountain are said to “wrestle wantonly” (22.214.171.124). This could simply mean that their wrestling was carefree; however, the recurrence of the word (which occurs thirteen times in this Canto) as well as Guyon’s response to their wrestling, intermingles the ideas of excessiveness, playfulness, and sexual hedonism. The rather disparate meanings of the word “wanton” imbue this Canto with an ambivalence regarding what, exactly, qualifies as sin, and highlights that evil doesn’t always look evil – something Guyon fails to notice, it seems, until the end of the book and his meeting with Acrasia.
Though this is a running theme throughout the book, it is arguably most evident during Canto Twelve, in which Guyon finally reaches the Bower. In stanza 58 of Canto XII, the Bower is described for the first time: it is termed a “Paradise” (126.96.36.199), even to the “sober eye” (188.8.131.52) of Guyon. It is not even, in fact, described in particularly lascivious or maleficent terms; instead, it seems to be a place of beauty, in which nature seems to be the defining characteristic. Spenser mentions the “painted flowers” (184.108.40.206), “the hilles for breathing space” (220.127.116.11), and “the Christall running by” (18.104.22.168) – imagery which is unequivocally positive. Additionally, the pleasures spoken about in this stanza seem to be universal, as “none does others happinesse enuye” (22.214.171.124). The Bower does genuinely appear to be a paradise, and the final line of the stanza directly addresses this, saying “The art, which all that wrought, appeared in no place” (126.96.36.199). The dichotomy between what the Bower appears to be, and what it is according to Guyon’s view, is here laid out for the reader – he seems to expect brazen and wanton sin, and the obvious presence of magic or some supernatural source, but instead is presented with a glorious representation of nature. The comparison of the Bower (known to be a sinful place) with the majesty of nature, reproduced in all its glory, makes a statement about the connection between nature and sin, and arguably implies that what is considered sinful is also natural (created or predestined directly by God), a prominent Protestant argument – and a powerful argument against temperance as a permanent characteristic.
Stanza 59 goes on to address this dichotomy, speaking of how skillfully the Bower seems to emulate nature, and how “the art” and nature seem harmoniously intermingled, as in the lines “So striving each th’other to undermine/Each did the others work more beautifly” (188.8.131.52-6). It is as if the Bower itself somehow exceeds nature – the line “that nature had for wantonesse ensude” (184.108.40.206) shows this. Interestingly, this is the first point at which negative vocabulary creeps into the articulation; in particular, the aforementioned lines, and the line “Art, and that Art at nature did repine [chafe]” (220.127.116.11). This idea of the jarring comparison between nature and the Bower’s magical representation of nature is not sustained, however, and indeed the stanza is prefaced with the words “One would have thought…” (18.104.22.168), so the Bower is not being directly described in negative terms. Still, the reason for the inclusion of such ideas remains ambiguous; it could be simply to provide a sense of juxtaposition, or it could be making a point about the reader, telling them essentially that true beauty, and that which is derived from evil sources, are indistinguishable. This arguably makes the point that the pleasures offered in the Bower, while encouraging sin, are not in themselves sinful, as they are described as so aesthetically pleasing and even the narrator seems unaware of any way in which the Bower can be perceived as evil. The pleasing imagery is renewed throughout the remainder this stanza, with the ultimate impression of the Bower being that of “sweete diversity” (22.214.171.124). That phrase itself, however, can be taken several different ways, two of which make important allegorical points. Firstly, that temperance itself is by comparison “unsweete”, as it is a mode of being which decries diversity, and instead encourages simply the metaphorical staying of one’s hand, rather than action, either good or bad. Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, this phrase implies that there is some symbiosis between nature and sin. This ties in with the Protestant idea that sin is ingrained in humans, and that they are foredestined to do so. Taken this way, this stanza hints at Guyon’s forthcoming lapse in control as a result, arguably, of what happens in the following stanzas.
The next stanza introduces perhaps the most important physical object of this Canto: the fountain. This item is significant both for its upcoming role in Guyon’s strongest temptation yet, but also because it relates back to a story told by the Palmer in Canto II – of a nymph fleeing the unwanted advances of Faunus by becoming a fountain, the water of which could never be sullied. Indeed, in that Canto, the Palmer says “secret vertues are infusd/In every fountaine” (126.96.36.199-7), and the fountain in Canto XII seems to reinforce that fact. It is described as breathtakingly beautiful, made of “richest substance, that on earth might bee” (188.8.131.52), as well as “pure” (184.108.40.206) – an interesting word choice given the environment. While the majority of the words used so far to describe the Bower, with the possible exception of “Paradise”, have been words which relate to aestheticism, the word “pure” has different connotations, specifically holy ones. There is an inherent connection between Cantos II and XII here, in that divinity and lust are inexorably linked through the fountain – a connection which makes a wider allegorical point. The Palmer’s story in Canto II shows that lust is inescapable unless one becomes something else entirely, which is exactly what happens to Guyon at the end of this Canto. This again acknowledges the Protestant idea that sin itself is inescapable. A linked and salient point is that fountains are, as the Palmer says, connected with secret magic – an interesting oversight, then, when in stanza 58 there is the statement about “The art… appear[ing] in no place” (220.127.116.11). While this may be a reference to Acrasia specifically not being anywhere in sight, another interpretation is that Guyon himself doesn’t regard the fountain as magical. This is the first step towards his ultimate downfall, and again makes an important point – even when one is specifically warned about sin, one cannot expect to recognize it every time it appears, which goes some way towards refuting the idea of temperance as a permanent trait. How, this section implies, can one be temperate even when one is incapable of recognizing sin when one sees it.
In stanza 62, the positive imagery is continued, with the “infinit streams” (18.104.22.168) of the Jasper-paved fountain being described as “sweet and faire to see” (22.214.171.124). Despite these statements, the fountain is perhaps the most potent representation of wanton excess (and, indeed magic) in the garden. While the streams of all fountains seem to be infinite, Spenser describes the basin into which they fall to as being increasingly filled, saying that the water “shortly grew… /That like a lake it seemed to be” (126.96.36.199-5). This is a clear sign that the fountain is magical – if the streams were infinite, and the amount of water in the basin grew as it was watched yet the depth never exceeded three cubits, then clearly the fountain is magical as such a thing is impossible. Also, in stanza 63, it is made clear that this fountain is surrounded by laurel trees, which “defend” (188.8.131.52) it from the sunlight – a potent word choice, as sunlight is inherently connected with the idea of heaven’s power. This word choice is followed by the sunlight itself becoming personified; it “[beats] on the billowes” (184.108.40.206), implying the idea of a battle between light and dark. Very like, in fact, the one which is about to occur within Guyon himself (or, arguably, between Guyon’s inner self and the Palmer), when he sees the wrestling women in the fountain.
The description of these women, between stanzas 64 and 67, has a rather different hue from what has come so far. Spenser’s word choice in these stanzas is much more ambiguous. The women are not simply naked; their bodies are occasionally hidden by the water “as through a vele” (220.127.116.11), and then suddenly exposed to all present and “th’amorous sweet spoiles” (18.104.22.168) revealed to Guyon’s “greedy eyes” (22.214.171.124). In other words, they are set up to be as tempting as possible, their “dainty partes” (126.96.36.199) being hidden, and then shown, over and over again. The word “amorous” here is ambiguous and carries implications of bitterness, as does the phrase “sweet spoiles” – “spoils” of course meaning both “prizes” and “becoming rotten”. Stanza 65 mentions “that fair Starre” (188.8.131.52) – not only a reference to Venus – mentioned again in a following line as the “Cyprian goddess” (184.108.40.206) – the Roman goddess of beauty, but also to evil, as Venus was also called “Lucifer” (“light-bringer”). Stanza 67 also makes a reference to Venus, as one of the women stands up and lets down her long hair, covering her body, so “that faire spectacle from [Guyon] was reft” (220.127.116.11). This echoes the painting The Birth of Venus by Botticelli in which Venus’s private parts are also hidden from the viewer by her long, flowing hair. These references comprise perhaps the clearest connection between beauty and evil so far, and yet, despite this potent symbolism, this is the point at which Guyon is drawn in, “his stubborne brest gan secret pleasaunce to embrace” (18.104.22.168). Without the intervention of the Palmer (the true representation of temperance in the book), this is the point at which Guyon would have lost his battle with temptation, as he has been shown throughout the book to have a weakness for beauty. In fact, Guyon’s resistance to temptation seems to hinge on this very idea; he has very little trouble resisting the filthy, grubby Mammon and his piles of money in a gloomy glade, but when presented with things of genuine beauty – Philotime, the fountain, the wrestling maidens – his resolve wavers. Even his ultimate transgression – the “pitilesse” (22.214.171.124) destruction of the Bower – is in part a response to beauty of Acrasia and her subversion of the handsomeness and power of Verdant. Guyon seems to subconsciously resist the idea of beauty hypothetically being evil throughout the book, and when he is finally confronted by (and subdues) the agent of the Bower – the beautiful seductress Acrasia – his lust for beauty turns to rage.
Having taken the moderate path throughout the book, and indeed even doing so in capturing Acrasia rather than killing her, Guyon’s resolve breaks and he utterly destroys the Bower of Bliss in a manner incongruous with the idea of temperance. The reasons for this, in terms of Guyon’s motivations and characteristics, are actually made clear by Guyon himself in Canto I; he says to Palmer that “raging passion…/robs reason of her dew regalitie” (126.96.36.199-5) . Throughout the book, Guyon is able to resist all temptations but shows a weakness for lust. In Canto VII, the only offer made by Mammon which is not dismissed based on temperance is his daughter’s hand in marriage; the language used by Guyon in rejecting the offer is much less harsh, and is based on his self-perceived unworthiness and previous betrothal. This character flaw ultimately ends up inspiring Guyon’s acts of violence in Canto XII, and shows that, with or without temperance (temperance being, as has been stated, embodied by the Palmer), Guyon was destined to sin. This can, therefore, be considered the dominant argument of Book 2 in general – that humankind is fundamentally flawed, and therefore cannot be expected to avoid sin through temperance.
In his prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser sets out his intention in constructing The Faerie Queene as allegory. Its aim, he writes, is to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous or gentle discipline’ He continues; the Knights of each book depict a journey towards respective states of virtue and Spenser’s re-imagining of the mythological Arthur prior to his kingship embodies the over-arching state of ethical consistency or ‘magnificence’ that both his fictional knights and his reader must strive to achieve. The virtues described are derived from Aristotle and, by overcoming the vices that they meet along the way, each knight reaches a state of virtue that evokes those set down in Nichomean Ethics. Yet, they also align Spenser with Courtesy literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier sets out, by way of example, the models of behaviour and social conduct to which the nobility ought to adhere to and cultivate. Yet if like Castiglione’s model, Spenser’s poem is effective by its transparency, why the elaborate detour of allegory? Because allegory communicates things that other media cannot? Spenser’s reason advocates ‘delight’ in reading over ‘good discipline deliuered plainly in way of precepts,’ (P.16) yet, the very act of constructing a letter of explanation acknowledges the difficulties posed by allegory. That the poem might present its meaning ‘clowdily enwrapped in allegory’ returns as both lure and anxiety throughout Spenser’s letter. He at once demonstrates an enjoyment in the complex threads and narrative structure of allegory and acknowledges the unethical potential of writing whose meaning is not always what it seems.
‘Seeming’ rather than ‘being’ reoccurs throughout The Faerie Queene as a constant problem for its characters. Spencer’s description constantly returns to surfaces and to the deceptive, often intricate facades that mask a hidden corruption. Perhaps one of the most clear examples of this can be located within the ‘foule witch’ Duessa. Duessa pervades the first book of the poem in the guise of a beautiful woman; bent on misleading and destroying the Red Crosse knight from his path to ‘Holyness’ (Prefatory letter, p.16) What Duessa ‘seems’ to be shifts from canto to canto. Spenser pays particular attention to her disguising apparel when introducing her character to the narrative:
A goodly lady clad in scarlot red,
Purfled with gold and pearle of rich array,
And like a Persian mitre on her hed
She wore, with crownes and owches garnished,
The which her lavish louers to her gaue; (I, II,13.)
‘red’, ‘gold’,‘mitre’, ‘crownes’, Spenser’s verbs pay attention to the outward appearance of his character. As emphasized by the color of her dress and golden mitre, Duessa is a thinly veiled figuration of the Roman Catholic Church and the implication that her ‘goodl[iness]’ is derived from her material dress offers a wry, albeit, well-worn aside to the reader. However, what is more interesting about Spenser’s stanza is the way in which the language of his description at once participates in the disguise and the disrobing of Duessa’s true nature. Unlike the Red Crosse knight who is taken in by her guise, Spenser leaves clear signals in his language that point towards the ‘fouleness’ lurking beneath the surface; the ‘tinsel trappings’ of her horse’s bridle – with all its connotations of artifice and Catholic dress, being one example. This is affirmed in Canto VIII in which she is stripped of her robe to reveal ‘monstrous’ deformity and ‘secret filth’ (I, VIII, 46.) and is cast into the wilderness. A reader then must perceive and avoid the allure of her character if they are not to fall into the same trap as Spenser’s knight.
Spenser’s basic premise appears straightforward; those characters that exhibit excess within their outward appearance frequently mark hidden internal deficiency. In many ways, this corresponds with the model of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics referenced in the poem’s prefatory letter; figuratively speaking, the Red-Crosse Knight must cut a clear course between the vices of deficiency and excess in order to achieve a holistic moral state. The dichotomy between deficiency and excess crop up repeatedly throughout the first book. In Canto IV, Queen Lucifera outshines the ‘glistening gold and peerless pretius stone’ of her throne with her own ‘bright, blazing beauty’. Yet, like Duessa’s hidden, disfigured form, a dragon lurks beneath her ‘scornful feet.’ Spenser’s architectural spaces often display a duel nature. His description of Lucifera’s castle provides a good example;
A stately palace built of squared bricke
Which cunningly was without mortar laid
Whose walls were high but nothing strong or thick
And golden foile all over them displayed. (I, IV, 4)
If Duessa’s dress masks a hidden, corrupt form, the castle of Lucifera appears to be a facade only; the building lacks foundation and its architectural ornament seems to constructed for its sake alone. Spenser’s language is similarly textured; rich in assonance, it is pleasing sonically as well as in terms of the imagery that it evokes. Spenser’s language corresponds to the subject described; his rhymes are balanced and contribute to the rhetorical shifting between binaries orchestrated by the stanza; ‘squared brick’ and ‘strong and thick’ are counter balanced by ‘without mortar laid’ and the flimsy ‘foile’ ‘displayed.’ Like the castle described, the stanza it is elegant and well-wrought. This parallel between description and thing described is intriguing; it denotes a linguistic attention to ornament; it hints at vacuous. Spenser’s conception of his poems as ‘enwrapped in Allegorical devices’, parallels this idea – consciously or otherwise. ‘Enwrapped’ is a slippery metaphor; it simultaneously suggests interior and exterior. The word both points towards a core meaning or truth and describes an outer casing. The notion that Spenser’s language may ‘clowdily’ disclose truth with its style is dubious and that the writing of so Protestant a man may unwittingly border on senseless ornament, even more so.
To some extent, the debate about form and content comes into play again. The debate has traditionally separated the outer coating of style from the inner stuff of thought; a suggestion that is now well worn. When writing on the human faculty of judgement, Francis Bacon considers the possibilities of formal style to obscure and alter the meaning of the words expressed. A ‘delight in the manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing’, according to Bacon, has led men to ‘study words and not matter’. He continues; the ‘sweet falling of the clauses’ and the ‘illustration’ afforded by ‘tropes and figures’ detracts from the ‘weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment of a piece of writing. Emptiness of meaning is not Bacon’s only concern; he bestows a sinister agency to words themselves as they impose upon the judgement of their creators; like ‘a Tartar’s bow,’ they ‘do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pevert the judgement’.
This is intriguing; Bacon not only advocates clarity of style, he equally calls for careful reading and warns against misinterpretation. It is worth considering Spenser’s choice of the ‘Cunningly’ in his description of Lucifera’s castle. The word describes the enchantment by which the bricks are constructed and connotes trickery; deceit. Spenser at once aligns his writing with a fine architectural space and acknowledges the potential for words to mislead and be misread.
In his book-length study on Spenser’s allegorical rhetoric, Michael Murrin sets out the difficult ways in which rhetoric and allegory intersect throughout much Renaissance thought. For Murrin, ‘the allegorical poet’ was frequently ‘asked to perform the function of orator’; delivering clarity of meaning within the genre of allegory. Yet, as Murrin points out, clarity and allegory seldom hand in hand. This duel ask of the poet ‘strikes at the heart of the confusion between oratory and poetry’; poetry is notoriously ambiguous, oratory relies on clarity of speech. Murrin’s observationreturns to the point made in Spenser’s introductory letter; the intention of his allegory is to provide a model of ethics that is challenged by its own narrative structure; oration relies on clear speech and allegory is concerned with ambiguity. Yet at the same time, it is expected to have at its core a definable truth or value. It is as though Spenser’s poem in caught between the desire to say something paraphrasable, transitive and moral and a narrative structure that renders any such neat expression impossible with its shifting ‘Allegorical devices’.
Bacon’s essay emphasizes the significance of readerly interpretation. The Faerie Queene corresponds to this; throughout all six book, Spenser’s characters must observe, choose and act according to their interpretation of a situation and thus to their moral judgement. At the heart of this is the notion of work and active engagement with moral choices. Before introducing the Castle of Lucifera, Spencer sets out a warning; ‘Beware of fraud, beware of fickleness’ (I, IV, 1) The warning is addressed to the ‘Young knight’, yet it is equally concerned with the reader. Throughout the poem, the reader must concentrate on the processes of observing, distinguishing, and finally preferring; the complexity of Spenser’s narrative thread demands the kind of attention and awareness that he induces his character to apply to moral decision-making. Like the knights of each book, the reader must constantly assess the ethical significance of the characters with which they place their sympathy. In many ways, this active engagement with both characters and moral choices corresponds to the ‘two lures’ of allegory, as figured by Jonathan Goldberg. In a footnote in his chapter on ‘Others, Desire and the Self’ within the Faerie Queene, he sets out the following premise; ‘allegory offers the reader two lures.’ The first ‘is the set of characters who act in the text’; their actions often serve the story at hand and it is possible for the reader to respond to characters as though they were people. ‘This’, writes Goldberg, ‘is the lure of the proper name, in Barthes term.’ The second lure is that of allegory; ‘the possibility of substituting an abstraction for a name or character, thereby leaving behind the narration and its characters for the sake of meaning.’In many ways the two are joined; Spenser’s characters are figures whose pronounced characteristics are involving yet at the same time, nothing comes alone; each figure is accompanied by the awareness their hidden significance; no matter how thinly veiled this may be.
One way of thinking about this dichotomy between textual surface and allegorical meaning is in terms of the imagery of darkness and light to which Spenser constantly returns throughout the first book. When Duessa is stripped of her disguise in Canto VIII, the darkness beneath her ‘dazzling’ garments is made plain for all to see. Conversely, the ‘chaste’ Una hides the inner brightness that radiates from her beauty ‘under a veil that wimpled was full low.’ (I, I, 4) Veils and veiling crops up again in Spenser’s dedicatory sonnets; In his address to Lord Burleigh, he imagines the ‘deeper sence’ of his allegory as concealed by ‘the dim vele, with which from comune vew | The fairer parts are hid’ (p.25). Spenser’s metaphor seem clear; the narrative structure and language of his allegory at once conceals and conveys its meaning. Thus, it is the task of the reader to discover its sense through careful reading. Spenser’s sonnet correlates with Thomas Nashe’s description of poetry as a ‘more hidden and diuine kind of Philosophy, enwrapped in blinde Fables and dark stories.’
‘Enwrapped’ returns; Spencer and Nashe’s shared use of the term implies a central meaning that must be discovered, yet it also draws attention to the importance of disguise. In pointing to the divine, Nashe unavoidably connotes scripture and in doing so, implies the kind of meaning that can only be known through allegory. It is worth noting the violence of Spenser’s metaphor when Una’s veil is ripped away by the Serazin in Canto Six. Her ‘beauty’, now revealed turns upon her aggressor and ‘burnt his beastly hart l’efface her chastitye.’ (I, VI, 4) The scene’s implications of defilement do not only come from the Serazin’s subsequent rape of Una, but from his rough exposing of that should be ‘veled’. There is a certain elitism to this implied method of reading; the significance of Spenser’s allegory becomes available only to those whom will read it correctly. As Murrin puts it; the ‘veil’ of allegory ‘makes truth valuable for a few people in the poet’s audience.’Or, to put it slightly differently, Spenser’s allegory creates the value of the truth conveyed by establishing difficulties with which the reader must carefully engage.
Varying representations of both genders are abundant in romantic literature of the Renaissance period in general, a fine example of which can be found in Edmund Spenser’s allegorical epic poem, The Faerie Queene. The poem depicts the tale of seven knights, who each represent the desirable noble virtues of holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy. Book three of The Faerie Queene is concerned with the virtue of chastity, “that fairest vertue, farre above the rest” (Smith 342), which is embodied by the knight Britomart, a woman who has disguised herself as a male knight in armour. Britomart’s chastity is almost portrayed as the infinite source of her physical and emotional strength in the poem, enabling her to resist and ultimately defeat all which may threaten to corrupt it. The chaste, pure love Britomart has for Arthegall can not be tainted by lust, despite the advances of Malecasta, the impassioned and sensual lady of Castle Joyeous, where she lives guarded by six servant knights who defend the lady and her honour.
The theme of chastity serves as a tool through which Spenser provides a critique on sexual ideology in his own time and how this ideology differs between the two genders. Lauren Silberman has theorised that “the Spenserian critique of conventional sexual ideology becomes part of a cultural discourse that, several centuries later, produced feminism” (2) and upon considering this, it is impossible to ignore the fact of extreme progressiveness towards gender and sexuality employed by Spenser in his political viewpoint and consequently, in his writing. This essay aims to explore the importance of gender in Book III of the Faerie Queene, and particularly in the early cantos, as it determines the process and outcome of the pursuit of romantic desire for multiple characters and the ways that it provides a channel through which we can derive an explanation for events occurring in the way that they do.
Probably the most profound example of the importance of gender and sexuality in Book III is realized through the representation of love as a hunt, with men as the hunters and women as the hunted. In this way, gender becomes the most significant distinguishing indicator of characters and their representation, influencing all the events that occur in each of their stories. In the first canto, Arthur and Sir Guyon are riding on horseback in search of the Faerie Queene so that they may offer their services to her. Britomart, disguised as a male knight, happens across their path and, after a brief altercation, they make peace and continue on together. Suddenly, a maiden runs past them, pursued closely by a forester who intends to rape her, “breathing out beastly lust her to defile.” (Smith 348) The two knights follow hastily, while Britomart continues on with her quest, undistracted.
Thus far, Spenser has provided the reader with two clear images of the female gender. Firstly, the hunted creature, an object pursued by men for their own gratification, and then Britomart, “a more productive alternative” (Silberman 14) to typical gender ideology, wherein a woman can pursue her own quest for romantic fulfillment, and take on the role of hunter. In this case, of course, it is important to note that while she has rejected societal expectation based on her gender, Britomart can only assume this position of autonomy and pursue the object of her desire without fear of danger or judgement by rejecting her own gender, casting off femininity and disguising herself as a man. So while Spenser has provided an alternative image of the female gender, even still he is aware that this alternative can not be without limitation.
This scene of love as a pursuit is also highly reminiscent of traditional Petrarchan interpretations of the same subject matter. Even more noteworthy than the conventional representation of women as the helpless, hunted object, is the image here of men as slaves to their sexual desire. The male characters in Book III are often presented as being helpless in terms of controlling their yearnings, but especially in this early scene during the first canto, Arthur and Guyon seem to blindly abandon their initial quest in favour of pursuing a totally unknown maiden, “a bit like horses who break in to a gallop simply because they observe other horses galloping.” (Silberman 29) Their motives are highly ambiguous; they appear to be “full of great ennuie and fell gealousy” (Smith 348) and make the impulsive and irrational decision to pursue the maiden rather than her persecutor, despite their intentions to rescue Florimell from him.
The implication here is that these male characters are at the mercy of physical forces beyond their control or understanding. If questioning the motives behind the male romantic pursuit, we must also question those of Britomart and her quest to find the object of her affections, a knight who she has seen in a mirror given to her father by Merlin. The critical difference between the two lies in the legitimacy of the feelings fuelling each one, a difference that is solely dependent on gender. For Arthur and Guyon, lust fuels “beauties chace” (Smith 348), a phrase which epitomizes Spenser’s opinion of it: fleeting, false and unsubstantial. Britomart, however, is inspired by chaste love, a love “sanctioned by the goal of marriage” (Mikics 88). She transforms herself in to a knight, after the image of her love Arthegall, and thus, “the lover is transformed into the beloved”. (Silberman 29) In an unprecedented reversal of gender roles, Britomart becomes the character driven by reason and rational thinking inspired by chastity, while the male knights are ruled by emotion, lust and impulsive action inspired by sex.
In the previous scene, in which Guyon and Britomart (whose true gender and identity Guyon is unaware of) partake in a duel, Britomart knocks Guyon off his horse using a magical sword which she has taken from her father’s possession. This whole scenario perhaps inadvertently raises some poignant questions about the ability to choose one’s own gender and the benefits which may come from doing so. This is the reader’s initial encounter with Britomart, and we are deceptively led to believe that this is an example of female empowerment, where Britomart can display her prowess and prove herself as worthy despite her gender. However, this is not the level playing field it appears to be, and we come to realize that while Spenser boasts progressive ideas about gender ideology, he is confined still by a traditional fear of feminine defeat over masculinity. Britomart can only win in fight against a man when using a magical spear, and she uses it to unabashedly goes far and beyond what is necessary to protect herself from masculine aggression throughout Book III. Spenser also confines his female heroine by disallowing her the freedom to flaunt both masculine and feminine characteristics, so that she spends most of the book taking every precaution to conceal her true sex. However, Britomart knows that she can achieve much more and come much closer to her destiny if she can continue pretending to be a man. As Jane Blanchard has observed, “as a knight-in-arms, [Britomart] can conquer male combatants and flirt with licentious females before hanging up her helmet and her spear to settle down as a wife and mother.” (39)
In summary, the importance of gender and sex in Book III of The Faerie Queene, and more specifically in the early parts of it, lies in the remarkable difference between the pursuit of love for the male and female characters. The representations of gender differ greatly, so that not only does Spenser offer a critique of gender and sexual ideology of his time in general, but also provides an alternative in the form of his heroine, Britomart, even if it proves problematic at times. In Book III, gender is the dominant defining characteristic that most significantly determines how the story of each character unfolds, and ultimately the outcome of their success in pursuing the objects of their desire.
Smith, J.C. Ed. Spenser’s Faerie Queene: Books I-III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978
Silberman, Lauren. Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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