The Task of Interpreting the Allegory in Spenser’s Faerie Queene
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.
Greenlaw, 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.
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