Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Faerie Queene: Book III, Britomart

 Sir Guyon and Prince Arthur set out for more adventures and almost immediately meet a strange new knight who effortlessly unhorses Sir Guyon. Not long after, the three knights are surprised to see a beautiful woman fleeing in terror from a savage forester, and the party splits up: Prince Arthur and Sir Guyon chase the lovely Florimell, who has left the safety of Gloriana’s court to find the man she hopelessly loves, Marinell. Prince Arthur’s squire Timias follows the forester, and after some thrilling adventures finds himself being nursed back to health by the lovely but aloof Belphoebe, who was brought up by the goddess Diana herself. The strange knight travels on and helps out the Redcrosse Knight, who is in a spot of trouble—the six henchmen of Malecasta (“Unchaste”), who represent the six stages of lechery, are about to kill him if he doesn’t yield up his love for Una and take Malecasta as his mistress. The two knights escape from Malecasta’s castle, but not before the stranger is wounded by the arrow of the first henchman—Gardante, or Seeing.

Seeing has indeed undone this strange knight. Britomart, a princess of Britain, looked into her father’s magic mirror and saw the knight she was destined to wed—Arthegall, a knight of the Faerie Queene. Unable to forget him, she disguised herself as a knight and with the help of her old nurse Glauce as a squire and an enchanted lance which will unhorse any opponent, Britomart travels to the land of Faerie in search of her love. Now she roams the forest, facing one adventure after another, and helping to flesh out a detailed picture of the virtue she represents: Chastity. 

I am aweary, aweary...
Book III of The Faerie Queene was difficult to unravel, partly because I had little help on my way but also partly because in this book, the format of Spenser’s stories begins to change. While in the two previous books we followed single knights on single quests, here both the story and the allegory is diffused among various knights on different quests, and even Britomart achieves a different quest in this book to that which she set out on. Most of the plotlines begun in Book III are not resolved at the end: Book IV will continue the stories of all four major female characters.

I also committed the error of reading this book too closely, trying to unravel the symbolism behind each person, artifact, and event. CS Lewis warns against this:
We shall understand it best (though this may seem paradoxical) by not trying too hard to understand it…Allegory is not a puzzle. As each place or person is presented to us in The Faerie Queene we must not sit down to examine it detail by detail for clues to its meaning as if we were trying to work out a cipher. That is the very worst thing we can do. We must surrender ourselves with childlike attention to the mood of the story.
I followed this excellent advice while reading Books IV, V and VI and found them much easier to interpret.

Book III develops the theme of chastity in some of the same ways previous books developed their theme: a hero representing the virtue faces various allegorical challenges to that virtue before triumphing. However, instead of one hero, the virtue of chastity is developed through several heroines. Also, unlike Redcrosse and Guyon, the previous knights, Britomart makes no serious missteps and does not need the help of Prince Arthur. Rather, she herself comes to the rescue of Sir Scudamour, whose wife Amoret is being held captive by the enchanter Busirane.
Spenser’s chastity is a distinctively Protestant virtue. Just a hundred years or so earlier Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur had demonstrated the Romish definition of chastity as a virtue best satisfied by celibacy. At the dawn of medieval Christendom Saint Augustine in The City of God had argued that not even marriage was free of sin, and set the stage for an increasing emphasis on celibacy in the Roman church. Protestants, on the other hand, insisted that chastity was best served by fruitful marriage. This is the definition Spenser promotes in The Faerie Queene—to the extent that some have wondered if the poem’s emphasis on married affection as central to the definition of chastity was a veiled rebuke to the single, aging and childless Elizabeth I.

The simplest description of chastity in Book III comes with a description by Spenser of Britomart:
For she was full of amiable grace,
And manly terror mixed therewithal,
That as the one stirred up affections base,
So th’other did men’s rash desires appall,
And hold them back, that would in error fall;
As he, that hath espied a vermeill Rose,
To which sharp thorns and briars the way forestall,
Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose,
But wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose.
As the book unfolds, we see that both attractiveness and stand-offishness are essential components of chastity. A rose that’s all thorns and no flowers is worthless: the thorns must have something to protect. But a rose without thorns can be picked by anyone. It’s good to have to use those thorns sometimes, because it demonstrates both attractiveness and chastity.

The three other ladies used in Book III of The Faerie Queene to demonstrate the virtue of chastity each, though themselves good and noble women, fall short in some way of this ideal. Belphoebe is the fearless huntress, able to defend herself easily from the perils of the forest, but is oblivious to the love of Timias and unable to return it. She is all thorn, no rose. She lacks the chaste affection displayed by her sister.

Florimell may represent Temporal, or Fleeting, Beauty. Like Britomart, Florimell prizes her honour highly, but unlike Britomart she lacks the martial skill and active virtue to protect herself. Instead she spends the book flying in blind terror from dangers real and imagined. Florimell wants to be chaste, but she keeps blundering into various distresses which she is unprepared to handle. She is all rose, and no thorn.

By contrast, Britomart combines amiable beauty with active virtue. In the castle of Malecasta, her courteousness and ability to overlook Malecasta’s ill-mannered advances (believing her to be a man) make the seductress believe that this strange new knight is a ripe conquest. But Britomart is both immune to her charms—being a woman herself—and able to defend herself against the attack of Malecasta’s six warriors, though at this point she and the Redcrosse Knight, Holiness, form a team (thus suggesting that Chastity cannot survive in the absence of true Holiness, and vice versa).

Also in contrast to Belphoebe, Britomart is actively seeking out love, marriage, and motherhood. Once assured that her marriage to Arthegall will certainly occur and that they are destined to begin a royal British line together, Britomart sets out to find him. It is this which differentiates her from the Chastity of the pre-Reformation church: it is a chastity which actively seeks and hopes for marriage and motherhood.

The fourth image of Chastity is Amoret, Belphoebe’s sister. While Belphoebe was reared by Diana, Amoret was fostered by Venus, and represents Chaste Affection, which forms a third vital ingredient of chastity.

Amoret was brought up, in one of the book’s most bewildering images, in what Spenser calls the Garden of Adonis. This is a problematic image; some have used it as proof that Spenser leaned towards Neoplatonism, although Lewis believed that Spenser simply drew upon the idea to illuminate his larger themes. I do intend to talk about the Neoplatonic influences on The Faerie Queene in a later post, although I laid the groundwork for our discussion a week or two back in my review of The City of God. Suffice it to say that if, as I had the opportunity of doing, you have read Books II and III of the epic within a short space of each other, you will immediately spot the similarities between the Bower of Acrasia and the Garden of Adonis. Both are gardens of generation, guarded by Genius, full of luscious beauty. But the Garden of Adonis is the real thing of which the Bower is a twisted mockery. Amoret, Chaste Affection, is the anti-Acrasia: virtuous and good. All living things come into the world through the Garden of Adonis, but Acrasia’s Bower simply swallows and transmutes. But Acrasia is not Amoret’s enemy; she is a copy, and therefore weaker, defeated by simple temperance. The real thing is stronger. And this is another classic Spenserian theme: virtues beat vices easily at their own game. CS Lewis:
In Spenser we have the answer to depraved and artful sensuality given by innocent and natural sensuousness. ... Acrasia is answered by something which does much better what she professed to do—beaten, as we say, on her home ground.
Chaste Affection is a fruitful love reminiscent of Charity in Book I, and like Charity it is not limited to marriage, although Amoret’s marriage with Sir Scudamour serves as the book’s depiction of chaste marriage. Chaste Affection is that Christian charity which also manifests in social courtesy and in friendship. It is Love itself which Busirane is attacking in Amoret, and Britomart’s supreme test is not so much in defence of chastity as it is in defence of love.

CS Lewis points this out in his essay "Edmund Spenser, 1552-99".
Guyon, the knight of Book II who represents Temperance, comes to the Bower of Acrasia, obviously a place of sexual temptation. But then the female knight of Book III, Britomart, represents Chastity. Obviously she too much be brought through a place of sexual temptation; and so she is, in the House of Busirane.
He goes on to discuss the surprising differences between the Bower and the House, which a lesser allegorist would have made almost identical. The Bower is a tacky, ornamental garden, with Acrasia herself, in transparent lingerie, leaning over her latest conquest.
This is all plain sailing: the simplest reader cannot fail to understand it. But the House of Busirane is a vast building, hard to get into and hard to get out of when you are in. Britomart is there for hours. One empty room leads endlessly into another empty room: all silent, all blazing with an almost sickly splendour of intricate decoration. It is only at midnight, in the last room of all, that a little iron door opens and out of it comes a strange procession, like a masque, of silent people who ignore Britomart, intent upon their own strange ceremonial. Behind that iron door the girl whom Britomart has come to rescue is being tortured.
The Bower, says Lewis, is the enemy to “mere self-control and moderation”, or temperance. But the House of Busirane threatens something else entirely: love. There is something in the House of Busirane that is not present in the Bower of Bliss: an idol of Cupid, worshiped idolatrously. Busirane, the enemy of Chastity, is in fact a twisted kind of love. Again, CS Lewis explains it best:
To a man tempted by the Bower, one would say, “Pull yourself together”, but to a man tempted by Busirane, one would say “Can you not come out? Out into the free air and sunlight? Can you never break this lifelong obsession?” It will dawn on every reader in the end that the difference between Acrasia and Busirane is that between Lust (appetite) and Love, bad love. Many moderns have been brought up to think that the difference between good and evil in sexual matters simply coincides with that between Love and Lust, that every affaire becomes “good” just in so far as it concerns the heart and not merely the senses. If that is our view, then Spenser is here offering us not (as we feared) platitude but full paradox. For he thinks there may be Loves quite distinct from Lust, but evil, miserable, poisoning a whole life; illicit, secret loves that break up homes and lead to divorce courts, suicide pacts, and murders. They are expensive; the House of Busirane is ablaze with gold. They take a long time; the House of Busirane goes on and on.
The theme of love is why the story of Britomart and Amoret’s journeyings together will continue into Book IV, which is about Friendship. But Friendship is also important to Book III, the Legend of Chastity, because true friendship between the sexes—between Britomart and Redcrosse, for instance, or Satyrane, or Scudamour, is impossible without chastity. Without chastity, Spenser shows, all relationships between women and men must devolve into oppression. Whether it’s Argante, the Giantess representing prostitution, carrying off ill-fated men or whether it’s the smooth-tongued Sir Paridell seducing and then abandoning Hellenore, the inevitable consequence of unchastity is destruction. Chastity and Love are inextricable.

This is underlined by the episode of Paridell and Hellenore, who re-enact the legend of Paris and Helen and evoke some of the nastier passages of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Spenser, to his credit, begins the story with an apology:
But never let th’example of the bad
Offend the good: for good by paragon
Of evil, may more notably be read,
As white seems fairer, mached with black at one.
The sordid story of Hellenore serves to give us an example of unchastity, developing a theme Spenser touches upon once or twice in this book: the fact that a good girl can be only skin deep.

While I could spend a lot more time discussing the rich themes of this book, there’s one more I should mention. Throughout Book III, we see a never-ending stream of unrequited love. Every second character is pining after someone else, from Britomart looking for Arthegall to Arthur looking for Gloriana. Britomart, when she first sees Arthegall in the mirror, begins to pine away; Timias is frozen into irrelevance by his love for Belphoebe, who is above his station, and so on. The characters tend to blame Love and Fortune for their mishap, but when Sir Scudamour, putting in his bit, reproaches the heavens it’s not Fortune he cries out to:
At last forth breaking into bitter plaints
He said: O sovereign Lord that sit’st on high,
And reignest in bliss amongst thy blessed Saints,
How sufferest thou such shameful cruelty,
So long unwreaked of thine enemy?
Or hast thou, Lord, of good men’s cause no heed?
Or doth thy justice sleep, and silent lie?
What booteth then the good and righteous deed,
If goodness find no grace, nor righteousness no meed?
In The Discarded Image, CS Lewis explained that to the medieval, what looks like blind and capricious Fortune to us is understood to be a part of God’s ineffable plan. Something can be both Fortune and Providence both; or rather, Fortune is the mask worn by a gracious and kindly Providence.

Britomart begins the book drowned in her hopeless love, and is cured by the revelation that this is not blind Fortune—it is gracious Providence: she will marry Arthegall. The lion passant on her shield identifies her not just with her native Britain but also with the quiet, patient, and hopeful strength that characterises Chastity. This also appears to play into her quest at the end: while Sir Scudamour, impatient and frantic, is repelled by the gate of fire at Busirane’s castle, Britomart’s quiet determination carries her through that gate and then also brings her through the iron door separating her from Amoret. This patience supplies one more key to Spenser’s definition of chastity: it eagerly looks for love, it sets its heart only upon one love, and it is patient in waiting for that love.

Renascence Editions etext
Librivox recording

1 comment:

Christina Baehr said...

A very toothsome post - am enjoying these!


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