Sir Guyon is a stout Faerie knight setting forth on another of his Queen’s dangerous missions. This time, it’s a dangerous witch named Acrasia who has been beguiling and seducing knights in her Bower of Bliss, and turning them into beasts when she tires of them. When Guyon and his guide—a sober Palmer—stumble upon a dying lady in the woods, and hear how her husband was deceived and then killed by the ruthless Acrasia, Guyon swears to the lady that she will be avenged. But although he’s mighty in battle, Sir Guyon still has much to learn about self-control and listening to wisdom before he is ready to face the tempting Acrasia.
If Book I of The Faerie Queene was about Holiness and spiritual discipline, Book II is about Temperance and physical discipline. While Redcrosse’s great foes were Pride, Falsehood, and the devil, Sir Guyon’s foes include every kind of intemperance.
But what exactly is temperance? These days perhaps we connect it with teetotalers rather than with the huge, full-orbed definition developed by Spenser in this book. Temperance, in summary, appears to be the righteous man’s disciplined approach to the physical world, and is connected to self-control and dominion. What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Temperance thus is partly about the shunning of intemperance in every form. Wrath, lust, worship of Mammon, greed, gluttony, immoderate mirth, and many other dangers attack Sir Guyon, who must resist them in all their forms.
But, according to Spenser, temperance is not just a negative, don’t-do-that virtue.
The name “Guyon”, says Toby Sumpter, means something like “lively struggle.” The temperate man sees the dangers of intemperance, and behaves aggressively towards them. He is a man of action rather than thought; he knows what to do in every situation. He constantly seeks wisdom, especially the wisdom of others (like Medina, the Palmer or Prince Arthur), to keep him on the straight, narrow path. And he is whole-hearted and vigorous in all his actions.
Keeping to the straight and narrow path does not simply mean taking a moderate course. It does mean refraining from stumbling into the dangers lurking on each side of the path, like the paired Scylla-and-Charybdis dangers of the voyage in Canto XII. However, it also means following that path to the utmost. Guyon, sent to capture Acrasia and destroy her Bower of Bliss, enters that place kicking over cups and breaking staves. He takes the gorgeous, plastic, flower-covered, gilded and shiny Bower of Bliss and destroys it with “rigor pitiless”, transforming it from a place of beauty to “the foulest place”—think Las Vegas after a visit from Godzilla, or a Thomas Kinkaid painting dropped in the mud.
|Oops! Fancy that, I accidentally brought you to my sultry island paradise!|
True beauty, as represented by the castle (shaped oddly like a body!) which is ruled justly by Alma, “the pure soul”, is a place of glory and beauty but not sentimentality (even the lower bodily functions get a mention); the right action of the temperate knights Sir Guyon and Prince Arthur is to preserve and defend it against the bestial onslaughts of Maleger and his wild army. The temperate man preserves what is worth preserving, but destroys sentimentality and vice.
By contrast, the intemperate man is a man who has altogether surrendered any claim to valour. One character, Cymochles, is a mighty knight who spends his days off lolling around the Bower of Bliss with Acrasia and her scantily-clad back-up singers—
And over him, art striving to compareWhat’s eglantine? According to the footnote, “Webster says they’re ‘Eurasian roses having prickly stems, fragrant leaves, bright pink flowers, and scarlet hips.’ Even though Cymochles is physically strong and has won many battles, he is a slave of his lusts and surrounded with dainty flowers. How sissy.”
With nature, did an arbor green dispread,
Framed of wanton ivy, flowering fair,
Through which the fragrant eglantine did spread
His pricking arms, entrailed with roses red,
Which dainty odors round about them threw,
And all within with flowers was garnished,
That when mild Zephyrus amongst them blew,
Did breathe out bounteous smells and painted colors show.
|He thinks he's the man.|
Then pricking him with his sharp-pointed dart,Toby Sumpter says,
He said, “Up, up, thou womanish weak knight,
That here in ladies’ lap entombed art,
Unmindful of thy praise and powest might…”
This is a great line [the second above]. The ambiguity stings. Cymochles is a “womanish weak knight” by Atin’s appraisal. The ambiguity is that we don’t know if he is saying that Cymochles is weakened by women or is weak like a woman. But in the context, both seem to be intended. Obviously, this is not a slander against women in general. Rather it’s an honest appraisal of immoral women. A loose woman is the weakest a woman can be. A woman’s true strength and beauty is found in chastity. And being under the bondage of a loose woman is the weakest a man can be. His true strength is found in Christ-like leadership, not limp-wristed enchantment.Although Sir Guyon battles every kind of intemperance in this section of The Faerie Queene, the most formidable of his foes is lust, since that’s the one he must face in Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss. To one who knows that the very next Book will be about Chastity, this seems a little confusing. Is Spenser going to cover the same ground twice? As it will turn out, to Spenser, Chastity is about quite a bit more than simply not being distracted by the girls in Acrasia’s gilt fountain. Temperance faces the purely physical temptation; but Chastity is about resisting emotional temptation and obsession as well.
Now might be as good a time as any to mention that The Faerie Queene is not rated G. Spenser is not a government-school-approved textbook Puritan killjoy. Floods of gore one minute, and nude seductresses the next. Near the climax of Book II, Sir Guyon gets distracted by a pair of girls taking a bath in Acrasia’s fountain, who, upon noticing him, start a charming little act where one of them unsuccessfully tries to hide behind her hair, and the other is all, “On my planet we do not have what you Earthlings call clothes.” The question is, should nice young Christians be reading this?
It’s a good question. This kind of thing in fiction can have two effects on its readers. Everything in Spenser teaches, and this particular episode says, “Hey! Sometimes temptation is obvious. And sometimes, the coy attempted modesty is just a show to lure in the unsuspecting passer-by.” Readers will either get the message, or they’ll miss it and get a thrill from the mental image. To do that they’d have to ignore everything else in the book about the deathly consequences of giving in to temptation and the vital importance of self-control to the Christian life. And so, by all means, if a reader isn’t mature enough to get the message, then maybe he should skip Spenser till he is.
But I have no hesitation in generally recommending this book. If the benefits of reading The Faerie Queene fell on the drawbacks from a great height, all that would be left of the drawbacks would be a damp spot on the pavement. Our hearts are evil enough to come up with all these scenarios on their own, but Spenser tries to equip us so that in real life we’ll recognise the evil for what it is and know that the end of it is death.
Obviously we twenty-first century Christians aren’t used to reading uplifting Christian fiction featuring All This Sort of Thing. But the Elizabethans did not find this shocking at all. Nor did the medievals. From the wiles of hellspawn women in Spenser to the domestic bliss of Adam and Eve in Milton, their literature is full of racier stuff than we're used to. Whether you agree with them or not, there are two things you owe the authors. First, the respect due to great men and fathers in the faith who wrote what they did in an attempt to teach and edify. Second, to judge them not by your own comfort levels or cultural environment but by the objective standard of Scripture, which has some fairly eyebrow-raising passages, itself.
Book II of The Faerie Queene, like all the others, is stuffed to the rafters with profound meditation and encouragement for the Christian life. It depicts the manly vigour of temperance opposed to the beast-like dullness and sissiness of intemperance. The lesson is conveyed in every possible way within the story, so that even having read a footnoted edition, I still feel I haven’t grasped all the meanings within it.
The story itself is another thrilling adventure, although I feel that Book I had a better and more coherent structure. We see more of Prince Arthur this time around, and watching him and Sir Guyon fighting epic battles side-by-side is lots of fun. Meanwhile, new characters are introduced—Belphoebe, the woodland huntress, for one—and old characters pop up, like Archimago, who unsuccessfully tries to set Temperance (discipline of the body) at odds with Holiness (discipline of the soul).
On to Book III—which I do not have a footnoted edition for, and will thus be attempting to interpret on my own!
I read Book II of The Faerie Queene this time in the version edited by Toby J Sumpter, published by Canon Press, and titled The Elfin Knight. Again, I heartily recommend this version to everyone wanting to read this portion of the epic. As with the Roy Maynard version of Book I, the footnotes are often hilarious, and do (if possible) an even better job of explaining the imagery and themes to readers. So far Canon Press has not produced a footnoted version of Book III. One can only hope, and drop broad hints.
Renascence Editions etext