Spencer’s Mercy

January 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

Spenser’s Faerie Queene evinces the New Testament religious doctrine that God shows infinite mercy toward man, and by “heauenly grace doth…vphold” (VIII.1.3) him despite his weaknesses. This philosophy, shown in The Faerie Queene through Redcrosse Knight’s ascension to Sainthood despite his failures and weaknesses, contends that through God’s grace one can be a “righteous man” despite “daily fall[s]” (VIII.1.2). Spenser’s project, in part, is to educate his readers in this doctrine of divine mercy. Additionally, Spenser utilizes the philosophy of mercy in reference to his own text. He chooses to show mercy to the Catholic and pagan traditions of old, lending his own strength to them to lift them to righteousness. In a complicated way, he shows, through a tale of God’s mercy, how he can help England rework her old cultural and literary traditions, flawed though they are, to fit the new Protestant order.In order to make the lesson on divine mercy palatable and relevant to his readers, Spenser has to make Redcrosse Knight into a representative of the English populace and country. Spenser first establishes a connection between the Knight and England by linking Redcrosse with “that most noble Briton Prince” (39), King Arthur. Arthur’s destiny becomes interwoven with that of Redcrosse when he agrees to help free the young man from the clutches of the giant. Since Arthur is a traditional British cultural hero, his interaction with Redcrosse creates an association between Redcrosse, England, and the English people.To cement this bond, Spenser reveals Redcrosse to be the young patron saint of England, St. George. Redcrosse’s position as England’s patron saint and also as an ally of King Arthur positions him as a singularly English hero. Spenser utilizes all of this in order to create for his readers the opportunity to see Redcrosse and his journey as allegorical representatives of their country and of themselves. Spenser suggests that England and her people have to try to avoid the dangers of Catholicism and find their way to holiness just as Redcrosse has to. He sets out to prove that the only way for any of them to succeed is through the mercy of God.Spenser depicts Redcrosse Knight’s journey toward holiness so that his readers may “profite [by] the ensample” (15) of an ordinary English man who finds salvation, not through his own powers, but through the grace of God. Through the adventures of Redcrosse Knight, the reader learns that according to Spenser, salvation is only possible through God’s grace. The religious focus in the text on salvation through divine mercy rather than good works positions the text as opposed to Catholicism, and also makes it a tool for educating and moralizing readers in Protestant ways.One of the ways Spenser shows Redcrosse’s need for divine mercy and intervention is through Arthur’s role in saving Redcrosse from the giant. Redcrosse’s need for Arthur’s aid in escaping from the giant shows his fallibility and dependence. In the battle between Arthur and the giant, the giant can be seen as the devil in the form of the Leviathan. That is why the “villains powre” (VII.12.7) is compared with powers from “deepest Hell” (VII.13.1). The fight for Redcrosse represents the spiritual fight between Christ and the devil for the soul of mankind. In this sense, Arthur can be interpreted as an allegorical symbol of Christ. Therefore, when the Giant’s monstrous “stroke vpon [Arthur’s] shield” (VIII.18.7) manages to “doubleth him full low” (VIII.18.8), the reader sees an allegorical enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. And afterward, the moment when Arthur’s “shield, that couered was, / did loose his vele by chance” (VIII.19.1-2), comes to represent the resurrection. Arthur’s blinding of the Giant with the “blazing brightnesse” (VIII.19.4) of his shield leads to Redcrosse’s freedom form the Giant, just as Christ’s rebirth leads to the salvation of all mankind from the clutches of the devil. From this standpoint, the situation represents Redcrosse’s need for the grace of God, given through Christ’s sacrifice, to save him from the grasp of the devil. The text declares that if it “were not [for] heauenly grace,” Redcrosse “had been pouldred all, as thin as flowre” (VII.12.13-14). This part of the tale works to prove that Redcrosse, and by implication, all mankind, and especially the chosen men and country of England whom Redcrosse represents, need God’s mercy in order to reach salvation.The main thrust of Spenser’s argument for salvation through mercy, however, comes in Canto X, with the appearance of Redcrosse’s guide, Mercy. As the allegorical personification of mercy, she comes, “his weaker wandering steps to guide” (X.34.1) on the path toward heaven. She proves to be “gratious, and eke liberall” (X.34.5). “She remou'[s] away” the “bushy thornes, and ragged breares” on the “narrow way” so that “nothing might his ready passage stay” (X.35.1-4). Whenever his feet “from the right” do “stray, / she [holds] him fast, and firmely [does] vpbeare” (X.35.7-8) him. Spenser uses this figure to show that “mercy in the end his righteous soul might save” (X.34.9). After Redcrosse Knight’s mistakes of doubting the Truth, represented by Una, and believing in the duplicity of the Catholic Church, represented by Duessa, Spenser shows that Redcrosse will still reach salvation. However, it is through mercy, and not heroics or good deeds, that he shall be led to the kingdom of God.In addition to using the religious doctrine of mercy to educate and moralize his readers, Spenser adopts the philosophy to show how to salvage important stories from their Catholic and pagan origins. He then uses these rescued tales to establish acceptable sources of Protestant England’s new literary tradition.One of the tales Spenser works to save from disrepute is the story of England’s patron saint, St. George. To recast St. George as a Protestant figure, Spenser has to reinterpret the story of St. George’s success as dependent more on God’s grace than George’s innate holiness. To do this, Spenser reveals that his protagonist, Redcrosse Knight, is actually St. George in his youth before he becomes saintly or performs any miracles. Spenser emphasizes Redcrosse’s newness to the spiritual battle many times, reminding the reader that he is only “a tall clownishe younge man” (17), who is “vnfitte through his rusticity for a better place” (l17). Redcrosse is so new and untried that “till that time did he never wield” (I.1.5) the armor and weapons of God. These details of his humble beginnings combine with the fact that he will someday become St. George to position the knight as an emblem of the ability of ordinary Englishman to climb to great heights through God’s grace. By providing details of Redcrosse Knight’s humanity and frailty, Spenser both emphasizes Redcrosse’s connection to the ordinary people of England, and also shows his dependence on God’s mercy to save him. Without God, Redcrosse is “clownishe” and “vnfitte,” but with God’s help he attains saintliness, holiness, and righteousness. In other words, his success depends more upon God’s mercy than on the innate qualities he possesses. This brings the tale of St. George into a Protestant realm of literature, effectively saving him from the taint of Catholicism and the rubbish bin of time.The other tales Spenser attempts to recuperate are the legends of King Arthur. In order to accomplish this, Spenser not only incorporates the figure of Arthur into his Protestant story, but also has Redcrosse give him a bible. He gives him this “worke of wondrous grace” (IX.19.9) specifically to pass on “his Saueours testament” (IX.19.7), which is the New Testament. The New Testament focuses on the eternal mercy God shows mankind through the sacrifice of His son. The comment that the book is “able soules to save” rings incredibly true here. By bestowing the New Testament on Arthur, Spenser attempts to save the iconic and literary English figure of King Arthur by converting him to Protestantism. He does this so that the King, his tales, and the literary history they embody, can be part of the newly Protestant culture of England he is trying to create.Spenser’s justification for continuing to use and address tales associated with paganism and Catholicism can particularly be seen in Redcrosse’s pardoning of Duessa. Una convinces him that it would be “despight, / and shame t’avenge so weak an enimy” as Duessa. They decide that he only needs to “spoile her of her scarlot robe, and let her fly” (VIII.45.7-9). For Spencer, this in part represents the redemption of Catholic and pagan literature through exposure and mercy. Spenser contends that it would be foolish to kill Duessa, or destroy the Catholic tales of antiquity that she in part embodies. Through the treatment of Duessa, Spenser depicts the possibility of showing mercy to Catholic texts and figures. In this case, he suggests that what needs to be done is to expose the parts of the texts and traditions that are merely lies and “secret filth” (VIII.46.9), so that they can no longer threaten good Protestant culture. Spenser attempts to do exactly this with The Faerie Queene, exposing what he sees as the falseness and baseness of Catholicism in favor of the mercy of the Protestant God, in order to purge the literary and cultural traditions of England of their Catholic taint.Overall, Spenser’s mission is to present a tale that preserves the literary traditions of antiquity that England depends on for her cultural and literary history, while remaining true to the Protestant faith. Spenser sets out to “maister” the “mishaps” of England having her literary roots in Catholicism by using his “patient might” (VIII.45.2) to reinterpret them. He accomplishes this brilliantly by applying the attitude of the merciful God of the New Testament, which he portrays in his text, to the creation of his text itself. Spenser recognizes God’s ability and tendency to condemn mankind for his baseness, while also saving and uplifting him, faults and all, through His mercy. Spenser mimics this behavior, by simultaneously vilifying the Catholics in The Faerie Queene, and yet still uplifting their traditions to his specifications of acceptability. He does this to educate the English people, and to attempt to unite them after a volatile period of unrest through a righteous new Protestant interpretation of English literary history and culture.

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