Saturday, July 30, 2011

Favourite Novelists: Edmund Spenser and What He Taught Me

If you do not appreciate Edmund Spenser, you cannot appreciate CS Lewis. If you do not understand Edmund Spenser, you cannot understand CS Lewis. The two are tied together in many ways; though they lived four hundred years apart and had vastly different careers, beliefs and aims, they speak together, almost in unison, on some of the most contentious matters of modern fantasy.
Lewis was neither a Calvinist nor a Puritan. Edmund Spenser was both these; in fact, the very greatest Puritan poet that ever lived—and Puritans were famous poets, and produced practically everything of note that was written in Great Britain between the 1500s and the 1700s (save perhaps for the plays of Shakespeare; and there is evidence that the Earl of Oxford, who may have written under that name, had at least some Puritan sympathies).
I was surprised when I heard that CS Lewis is looked at askance in some circles for his use of pagan Greek imagery. He portrays wise centaurs, argue these critics, which were in the Greek myths lawless and lustful. What business had they in this supposedly Christian work?
But if you ask that, you must dig further back, and ask Edmund Spenser, who also used pagan imagery. If you ask why Christians should write fantasy at all, Edmund Spenser stands in your way. If you ask how it is possible to redeem pagan imagery, from Elves to satyrs, Edmund Spenser is waiting for you. Why write? Why tell stories? Why such gaudy tales of passion and fantasy? Your road, inquirer, leads to Edmund Spenser, and though his voice is muted by the grave, it is full beauty and authority. Edmund Spenser wrote the epic of the Reformation, the greatest Puritan literary work. He cannot be discounted.
Until I read Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward, I did not fully understand why Lewis chose to use the pagan imagery he did. I understand now, and learning the reason behind his choices has raised some new and tricky questions. It would be easy to say that Lewis made a few unwise literary decisions…if it weren’t for Edmund Spenser.
Edmund Spenser is why Lewis chose to include pagan imagery in the Narnia books. The medieval times, before the fall of the first Christendom to the so-called Enlightenment, were perhaps the highest and greatest expression of Christianity that has ever been. The Reformation was not a rebellion against the medievals; it was the fulfillment of it, the pouring-out of grace upon a Christendom that had begun well but lost its way. The Puritans were not creatures of the Enlightenment; they were creatures of medievalism. In many ways they were the culmination of medievalism. And Edmund Spenser was in many ways the culmination of the Puritan poets. Medievalism, Christendom I, was rolled up, refined, reformed, and given to us again in the person of Edmund Spenser.
Fittingly, he was always stuck in the past. Even the Elizabethans would have found his language archaic, and the firearm had already begun to make knights redundant. In this language, with these knightly characters, Spenser sat down to write his fantasy-allegory. It was a celebration of the English Reformation; it cast the heroes of the Reformation as faithful knights serving God, Queen, and lady. Its subject matter was radically Calvinist and Protestant. The very first canto was about the knight of Holiness protecting the fair lady Truth from the vile beast Error. Spenser's story was not exactly vague about its allegiances.
I have said that Spenser, besides a Puritan, was also a medieval. Like all good Christians, he loved his Father first, and his mother the Church second. He came—much more immediately than we do—from a great Christian civilisation, however marred and imperfect. Like all medievals, he understood the vital importance of metaphor, which was why he wrote an allegory, and not a Realist Novel. The novel, though invented by Daniel Defoe, the successor of Puritan poets, gained much of its importance during the Enlightenment. Modernity was born during the Enlightenment, and nothing is such an anathema to the modernist cult of Reason as is metaphor. The Enlightenment could only tolerate realist fiction. It killed the epic, and it tried to kill metaphor.
We who live on this end of the Enlightenment may find it difficult to understand the importance the medievals gave to metaphors, to parables and yes, to fantasy. Modernism believes only facts; but metaphor is an attempt to get at the truth.
The imagination of Edmund Spenser had not been crippled by modernism. He sprang directly from the medievals, and his use of metaphor and allegory is far richer than anything we could—or would—use.
It’s also a little more daring. What about those Elves, for instance? All or most of his heroes are referred to as Elves, and their good Queen, Gloriana, is definitely the Faerie Queene of the title. But what are Elves? They were creatures of Germanic legend, nature spirits perhaps similar to the Greek dryads and naiads. In the original legends, Elves might act as the servants of greater deities, but more often they were simply chaotic neutrals, good or evil depending on mood or tribe. Later, when legends came under Christian influence, it was said that the Elves were caught between Heaven and Hell, forced to sacrifice one of their number to Hell on the night of Hallowe’en.
So what is a Christian poet doing, writing about Elves? Edmund Spenser never stops his epic to explain. Spenser’s Elves, however, are much different to the Elves of Teuton legend: they are beings of grace and bravery who serve with all their hearts and strength the King of Heaven. They expect to go to Heaven when they die, and they are emphatically neither chaotic nor neutral. Spenser is using Elves as a symbol of all that is best about redeemed man. He redeems what is bad about the Elves of legend by putting them into the service of Heaven, and grabs everything that is good about them—their reputation for ethereal beauty and artistry.
Spenser’s ultimate aim in using this pagan legend was probably to redeem it and use it to the glory of God rather than of pagan gods. Instead of being the attendants of a Teutonic god, the Elves would now serve the Lord. Only the most superficial reading would suppose that Spenser’s Elves have hijacked his narrative, turning it into something pagan. Instead, the story has hijacked the legend and turned it in a different direction. In the free edition of the Faerie Queene on Gutenberg, a footnote notes:
"The difference between Spenser's elves and these Teutonic elves shows how he perverts Fairy mythology in the same way as he does Classical myths.—Percival.”
Perverts is a strong word. Percival—whoever he was, but he bears the name of another great knight—saw Spenser's work as a radical alteration of the original legends; an alteration in some way deeply disrespectful to the originals. Spenser's use and redemption of these legendary beings was not syncretism, but conquest.
To illustrate: think of Santa Claus. A thousand years ago we would have been speaking of St Nicholas, who among other great charitable deeds once saved three maidens from disgrace by anonymously throwing gold into their drying stockings, and who travelled to the Council of Nicaea in order to sock the heretic Arius on the nose. But this is not what Santa Claus means these days. Instead he means the secular materialist spirit of Christmas, dressed in red felt and white faux fur, intensely repellant to all right-thinking people. St Nicholas has undergone over a hundred years' worth of severe distortion. He is no longer who he once was.
This is what the medievals did to the pagan gods; but they redeemed them, resulting in a happier fate than that of poor St Nick. And this is why Edmund Spenser was able to use them.
Then in the Enlightenment we lost those strata of redeemed imagery and metaphor. Stories were out, science was in. Miracles were gone; empiricists had come. It was no longer possible to believe that an angel might inhabit the Sun, simply because we had proved, by a trick of logic, that nothing exists unless you can touch it or measure it. CS Lewis, however, yearned to recapture what had once been lost—and perhaps half of what had been lost was Edmund Spenser and everything Edmund Spenser stood for. It is entirely arguable that Narnia was Lewis's attempt to write a Faerie Queene for the next generation. At any rate it was his whole-hearted purpose to reverse some of the damage done by the moderns.
People always said how daring it was for Lewis to include pagan imagery in his fantasy, as if it had never been done before. I knew better. I had read Spenser.
I have spent a long time talking about Edmund Spenser vis-a-vis CS Lewis. That is not as it should be. Spenser was remarkable on his own account.
He was a Puritan among Puritans—which is to say literate, passionate, joyful, and giving glory to God. His theology was, as far as I know, impeccable. He wrote with pagan imagery, but not with pagan attitudes. Achilles or Hector, upon failing as miserably as Redcrosse does in Book I, might fall upon his sword, believing that only blood wipes out dishonour. But when Redcrosse is tempted to the same thing by the monster Despair, he finds himself up against gentle Lady Truth, who for once hauls off and lets him have both barrels:
Which when as Una saw, through every vein
The curdled cold ran to her well of life,
As in a swoon: but soon revived again,
Out of his hand she snatched the cursed knife,
And threw it to the ground, enraged rife,
And to him said, 'Fie, fie, faint-hearted knight.
What meanest thou by this reproachful strife?
Is this the battle, which thou vauntst to fight
With that fire-mouthed Dragon, horrible and bright?
Come, come away, frail, seely, fleshly wight,
Nor let vain words bewitch thy manly heart,
Nor devilish thoughts dismay thy constant sprite.
In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part?
Why shouldst thou then despair, that chosen art?
Where justice grows, there grows also greater grace,
The which doth quench the brand of hellish smart,
And that accursed hand-writing doth deface.
Arise, Sir Knight, arise, and leave this cursed place.'
Besides The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser also wrote the Epithalamion, a twenty-four-stanza poem celebrating his wedding-day, and much other poetry.
Edmund Spenser became one of my favourite authors when, one day (after many years of hearing his name and trying to get his works) I picked up Book I of the Faerie Queene and started reading. I had read various epics by then, and I expected Spenser to be hard work. I found that this was not so. Spenser is compulsively readable; his story is fast-paced and thrilling. It takes a good grip of sin and virtue to write a really good book, and Spenser's moral compass is rock-solid. I was glued to the page, scared for sweet Una alone among villains—scared for silly Redcrosse in the clutches of the terrible Duessa. I was reading a version with footnotes explaining some of the imagery, and it was a wonderful experience, like listening to grand music with the volume turned way up. I couldn't put the book down. But it was the last few cantos of Book I that did for me: the part where Redcrosse finally gets around to fighting the dragon.
(Spoiler Warning. Yes, I am putting a spoiler warning on a 500-year-old epic poem.)
He battles the dragon all day, with Una off to the side watching him, and her parents and their people waiting on the battlements of their castle for deliverance. And he loses. He is beaten down and falls beneath a tree and lies there all night, sore wounded; but overnight dew from the tree falls on him (it is the Tree of Life) and he rises to fight the next morning. All day he fights the dragon, and his blood runs upon the ground, and when the sun sets he falls exhausted into a stream (it is the Water of Life) and lies all night with Una praying above him; and on the third morning he rises and takes his sword and kills the dragon. Then there is much rejoicing, and the country is freed of the dragon, and Redcrosse is married to Una.
(End spoilers).
The imagery is extraordinarily rich and distinctively Christian. Although Redcrosse is the saviour figure, however, he is not Christ and not perfect. The dew from the tree, the Water of Life, are wonderful acts of divine grace; all the more incomprehensible and humbling since they are given to a chap who has, until now, behaved like a perfect chump.
The thing that Edmund Spenser taught me was that sin is serious. Some of the later medieval writers thought sin was a bit funny, or not all that bad. A little bit of it in everyone, no need to panic. God liked virtue, they thought, but He didn't get all that worried about sin.
Edmund Spenser was a Puritan, and when his characters sin, they risk their lives, their souls, and their quests. Sin destroys—especially sexual sin. If you've read as many different stories from as many different time periods as I have, you know that sexual sin is the venial sin. The OK sin. After all, if you love someone, it's alright. Not like one of those really awful, selfish sins. It is somewhat telling that in Dante's Inferno, the highest (and least terrible) circle of hell is reserved for the lustful, while the lowest (and worst) circle is for political traitors. In today's media, it's especially maddening that people who are heroic and virtuous in almost every other way don't seem to think it odd, or bad, or downright despicable, to sleep with someone they aren't married to.
Sleep with a witch, says Spenser, and you will die unless God takes mercy on you. When sin—of any kind—happens in the Faerie Queene, it imperils everything. The only way out is repentance and grace.
Don't, however, get the impression that Spenser is all about sin. The Faerie Queene is, in fact, about different virtues, each symbolised by a specific knight. Redcrosse is the Knight of Holiness, Guyon of Temperance, Britomart of Chastity, Arthegall of Justice, and so on. Because these knights must face different tests and quests designed to build up or display their virtue, sin is not just a wayside peccadillo; it threatens their very reason for existence. And those of you who know the first question-and-answer of that other great Puritan work, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, you cannot deny that this is true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Walter Scott's comparison of Spenser and Bunyan, written late in his life? He puts Bunyan a notch higher.


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