Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Faerie Queene: Book I, Redcrosse

Book I of The Faerie Queene  is titled, The Legend of the Redcrosse Knight, or Holiness. Spenser introduced it like this:
I devise that the Faery Queen kept her Annual feast twelve days, upon which twelve several days, the occasions of the twelve several adventures happened, which being undertaken by twelve several knights, are in these twelve books severally handled and discoursed. The first was this.

In the beginning of the feast, there presented himself a tall clownish young man, who falling before the Queen of Fairies desired a boon (as the manner then was) which during that feast she might not refuse: which was that he might have the achievement of any adventure, which during that feast should happen, that being granted, he rested him on the floor, unfit through his rusticity for a better place. Soon after entered a fair Lady in mourning weeds, riding on a white Ass, with a dwarf behind her leading a warlike steed, that bore the Arms of a knight, and his spear in the dwarf’s hand. She falling before the Queen of Faeries, complained that her father and mother an ancient King and Queen, had been by an huge dragon many years shut up in a brazen Castle, who thence suffered them not to issue: and therefore besought the Faery Queen to assign her some one of her knights to take on him that exploit. Presently that clownish person upstarting, desired that adventure: whereat the Queen much wondering, and the Lady much gainsaying, yet he earnestly importuned his desire. In the end the Lady told him that unless that armour which she brought, would serve him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul v. Ephesians) that he could not succeed in that enterprise, which being forthwith put upon him with due furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in all that company, and was well liked of the Lady. And eftsoones taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that strange Courser, he went forth with her on that adventure: where beginneth the first book… 
Meet the Redcrosse Knight, better known as Georgos, the ploughboy, until just a few days ago the Faerie Queene gave him a terrifying mission: travel with the gentle princess Una to the kingdom of her parents and rid it of a horrible dragon. They’ve started on their quest together, but the bold and inexperienced Redcrosse can’t possibly imagine what dangers and griefs lie ahead for both himself and the sweet Una, with whom he’s already half in love. Soon they are deceived and parted by a rascally wizard, and Redcrosse falls for the sad story of a gorgeous woman he finds in the wilderness. While Una faces wild beasts, robbers and villains, Redcrosse finds himself in far more insidious danger. Will Una find her knight, will Redcrosse develop the holiness he’s supposed to symbolise, and how about that dragon?

Una and the lion
Or what about this? Holiness and Truth team up to defeat the Devil. Hypocrisy separates Holiness from Truth, leaving her at the mercy of Natural Law and Unsaved Man, who are unable to rescue her from Lawlessness until Christ comes to her aid. Meanwhile, flattered by Falsehood, Holiness is tempted by Pride and the other Seven Deadly Sins, and finally overcome by Fleshly Confidence. Will Truth find her natural protector, will Holiness learn from his mistakes, and how about that dragon?

Or maybe this? The baby Reformed Church under the guidance of Queen Elizabeth I sets out to defeat the Devil, but then Politics separates the Church from Truth and the Church begins a dalliance with Mary, Queen of Scots, or is maybe taken in by the Romish Church, leaving the Truth to the rude protection of Henry VIII. Philip II plays a baddie, and things rapidly run downhill until the Earl of Leicester, or possibly Sir Walter Raleigh, pulls England’s act together. Will the Reformed Church become strong enough to slay the dragon?

All these interpretations fit, and this is what makes the allegory so rich and pleasant to read. But another thing is the fact that the characters, although they so delightfully portray the virtues or evils they are chosen to represent, have their own life. Una may be Truth, but if this is so, Truth has a lot of personality. She is more than a concept.

Book I of The Faerie Queene, a retelling of the old legend of St George and the Dragon, is probably the most well-known section of the work. It’s a self-contained story in which the allegory happens on a multitude of levels, which allows Spenser to focus on the gripping plot instead of letting the symbolism hijack the story.

There is so much goodness in this book; reading it is an education in itself; partly, of course, on account of the symbolism, mythology, literary allusions, cosmology, and language involved. But the moral element makes it worth reading purely on that account. Every canto provides something to chew on. How about the profound insight that escaping from sin can cause our downfall if we succumb to pride in our own strength? How about the way that Spenser contrasts the House of Pride with the House of Holiness, and Blind Devotion with far-seeing Contemplation? Or the contrast of the lures of Pride with the yet-stronger challenge of Despair?

Spenser weaves this imagery skillfully into the plot. One major theme is the necessity for Holiness to be allied with Truth. In the poem these are represented by Redcrosse and Una respectively. I would call these two the brawn and brains, but Una is more than clever—she is wise; while Redcrosse, in addition to being good in a fight, is nice but clueless, with the clueless niceness of the unwise Christian (Roy Maynard calls him “Sir Clueless” and it fits like a glove!).

These two start out cutely in love, but Redcrosse, symbolising the Christian everyman, doesn’t yet realise the importance of Truth and fails to listen to good advice. Later, when they get separated, their pathetic, tear-jerking adventures underscore the fact that neither has a hope of surviving without the other. Una needs a protector if she is not to be at the mercy of every passing ruffian; and Redcrosse needs an advisor if he is not to be at the mercy of every passing nicely-dressed witch; meanwhile, Natural Reason—the Dwarf who opens his eyes to the dangers of the House of Pride--can only bring him so far.

But put them together, and nobody can withstand Truth and Holiness.

One of my very favourite passages in the Faerie Queene comes when Redcrosse, under the influence of Despair, considers suicide. It is here that--after being timid, gentle, and forgiving for the entire book--our Una, in no uncertain terms, tells him to man up:

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.'

Official dragonslayer/engagement portrait
Readers should also appreciate the way Spenser’s Christian worldview is woven into the foundations of the work itself. During Spenser’s time, the Bright Young Things of his day were turning away from medievalism to Renaissance humanism. CS Lewis says, “[H]e turned his back on the strict humanists, who would have wished him to write a pseudo-classical epic, closely modeled on Virgil.” Prince Arthur, the major character and hero of the Faerie Queene as a whole, may be a concession to the humanist model of literature that demands an omni-capable hero representing the best of humanity. But Spenser subverts this by using allegory. All his characters symbolise something and teach something deeper than the surface; they do not exist merely for entertainment, but point to a deeper truth. And Prince Arthur symbolises the Man who combines in his person all the virtues in perfection: Christ. As here in Book I, he appears throughout the poem to rescue and comfort the knights. By incorporating the allegory into his adventure, Spenser allowed himself to use a human hero who symbolised something much bigger. Notice that, like Tolkien’s, Spenser’s Christ-figure is also distanced from the reader: Arthur only ever appears briefly, to rescue or help our major characters and then to disappear. We do not follow his struggles as we follow Redcrosse or Guyon.

This is the second time I’ve read Book I from beginning to end, and I loved it just as much this time as well. It’s a magnificent, epic story of love and war woven around the gentle but gumptious Una and the clueless but courageous Redcrosse, as well as other vivid personalities like Duessa and Archimago. The story is gripping, the action scenes must be read to be believed, and the doctrine is sound.

I once again read Book I of The Faerie Queene in the version edited by Roy Maynard, published by Canon Press, and titled Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves. I wholeheartedly recommend this version to everyone making their first acquaintance with Edmund Spenser, and to home or Christian schools wanting a comprehension study guide. 

Renascence Editions etext
Librivox recording

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