Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Faerie Queene, Book V: Artegall

Sir Artegall, Britomart’s fiancé, rides into the wilds on the quest given him by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene: rescue the lady Irena from the giant Grantorto, who has usurped her kingdom and thrown her in jail. Before he finds his way to Irena’s island kingdom, however, he attends the wedding of Marinell and Florimell, falls into the evil clutches of the wild Amazon queen Radigund, and teams up with Prince Arthur to fight a whole series of unjust tyrants.

Book V of The Faerie Queene is the one CS Lewis liked least, for reasons I’m not sure I understand, since just like the others it’s another ripping yarn full of monsters, battles, and eternal truth. If I was to guess, however, it would be that this is where you’ll find the most pronounced political allegory since Book I. In his meditations on Justice and Injustice, Spenser drew heavily on current events from the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and the quelling of an insurrection in Ireland to the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands and some severe words about Henry of Navarre’s capitulation to the Roman religion. I didn’t mind these historical allusions at all—they fitted neatly into the story and provided some interesting commentary on how those events were viewed by our Protestant forefathers.

Book V also represents a return to the format of Books I and II—unlike Books III and IV, which followed the intersecting doings of a large cast, this book stays mostly with Artegall and his quest to free Irena, with brief detours to follow Prince Arthur and Britomart.

So let’s look at how Spenser develops the concept of Justice in Book V. To begin with, Artegall, the personification of justice, bears a name meaning “Arthur’s equal”. While some of the knights of the Faerie Queene are comically inept at their jobs and none of them are perfect, Artegall or Justice may be the most capable so far, most nearly equal to the epic’s central figure Arthur, who displays the virtue of Magnificence (or Magnanimity) and also contains in himself the other eleven private virtues which The Faerie Queene would have depicted, had Spenser gotten that far.

Artegall is assisted on his mission by Talus, an iron squire with a flail and Britomart, his fiancée. It’s interesting to see how the three work together. Artegall’s job description as the Knight of Justice includes fighting oppressors and adjudicating property disputes. (Incidentally, one of the property disputes he adjudicates concerns our old friend Sir Guyon from Book II, whose horse was stolen by Braggadochio at the beginning of the canto and never returned!)
This is Artegall. Or Sam Vimes, I'm not sure.

Talus, on the other hand, represents the blind, iron agent of the Law who inexorably hunts down or punishes evil-doers. A stern and effective ally, Talus handles executions and investigations, but cannot take the place of Artegall’s judicial discretion, and must be restrained, once he begins killing, from killing everybody.

Britomart only appears in part of Book V when Artegall is captured by the Amazon queen Radigund. In this Book, Britomart represents the need of Justice for Love, or more accurately—as suggested by the canto in which she visits the temple of Isis—Equity, which is the legal form of Love. However, her main task in Book V is to rescue Artegall from Radigund. Radigund had captured Artegall when she’d convinced him first to fight by her rules, and then taken advantage of his softness toward her when he saw her beauty. By contrast, Britomart insists on fighting Radigund according to the usual rules of chivalry, and then splits her head in two at the first opportunity. For of course, Artegall’s gentleness to Radigund wasn’t true equity.

Radigund, of course, represents an evil force which it turns out the Elizabethans were just as familiar with as we are: Feminism! This was fascinating for a number of reasons. First, because Spenser wrote his poem in praise of a Queen, Elizabeth I, whom he butters up in a previous book by saying that men have too long ignored the leadership capacities of women. As a matter of fact, the 1500s saw the rise of a number of powerful women rulers from the good (like Jeanne D’Albret) to the indifferent (like Elizabeth—sorry, Spenser) to the downright diabolical (like Catherine De Medici). Second, because there are a few action girls in Spenser, including Britomart as well as Palladine and Belphoebe. However, Spenser’s appreciation of strong women doesn’t extend either to egalitarianism or to feminism. His action girls represent militant feminine virtue, not women in the military. And his queens, like Mercilla or Gloriana, rule in a way that inspires manliness in their knights, rather than mocking and defacing it, like Radigund.

Spenser even hints that it’s the duty of queens to make sure their female subjects learn their proper place, when Britomart spends time in Radigund’s city:
During which space she there as Princess reigned,
And changing all that form of common weal,
The liberty of women did repeal,
Which they had long usurped; and them restoring
To men’s subjection, did true Justice deal.
There’s so much to like about this quotation. One implication is that women of strong character, not men, are the right people to police women and resist the tendency to feminism—which fits well, I think with Titus 2. Another is, of course, the assumption that women with authority and influence aren’t bad per se. But perhaps the most heartwarming thing is the statement that true Justice is anything but egalitarian.

Indeed, perhaps my favourite moment came in Canto II, in which Artegall meets, refutes, and then defeats a giant representing egalitarianism itself. He meets the giant standing on a rock with a pair of scales in his hand, boasting that he will measure out and equalise everything, from men and women and their possessions to the seas and lands themselves. Egalitarianism pretends to be justice (holding the scales), but is in fact counterfeit, followed only by “fools, women, and boys”. He promises to reduce all things to equality:
Therefore the vulgar did about him flock,
And cluster thick unto his leasings vain,
Like foolish flies about an honey crock,
In hope by him great benefit to gain,
And uncontrolled freedom to obtain.
Artegall, however, answers the giant that God has created all things according to their right place. “Such heavenly justice doth among them reign, That every one do know their certain bound.” Heavenly justice is knowing one’s own place.

But the giant feels sure that some having less than others is unjust:
Were it not good that wrong were then surceased,
And from the most, that some were given to the least?
Therefore I will throw down these mountains high,
 And make them level with the lowly plain:
These towering rocks, which reach unto the sky,
I will thrust down into the deepest main,
And as they were, them equalise again.
Tyrants that make men subject to their law,
I will suppress, that they no more may reign;
And Lordings curb, that commons over-awe;
And all the wealth of rich men to the poor will draw.
Notice that the giant defines tyranny as making men subject to law. But as the book goes on, we’ll see Artegall battle tyrant after tyrant, all of whom make men subject to their lawlessness (since it is Artegall and Talus, Justice and Law, who are called upon to set things right). That’s the true definition of tyranny.
And this is a true picture of justice.

Notice also that the distribution of equal rank to all men is, in Spenser’s view, as vile as distributing equal wealth to all men. While we rightly believe in the equal worth of all men, a concept we may need to regain from medievals like Spenser is the idea of hierarchy and rank. Elders, judges, and kings are all addressed with the special respect due to their stations in Scripture, and we also know that there will be rank in the New Jerusalem, since Jesus told us, not that the difference between greatest and least would be abolished, but that the one that serves most will be the greatest. Or, as Artegall would put it…
All creatures must obey the voice of the Most High.
They live, they die, like as he doth ordain,
Nor ever any asketh reason why.
The hills do not the lowly dales disdain;
The dales do not the lofty hills envy.
He maketh Kings to sit in sovereignty;
He maketh subjects to their power obey;
He pulleth down, he setteth up on high;
He gives to this, from that he takes away.
For all we have is his: what he list do, he may.
Heavenly justice comes into play several times in the book. While Artegall represents faithful human justice, the destruction of the Soldan who oppresses Queen Mercilla, together with the fate of his wife Adicia, represents the unmediated justice of Heaven at work.

Water fight!
One final aspect of Justice shown by Spenser in this book is how often Justice is both attacked with guile and withstood by guile. The difference, of course, is between treachery aimed at subverting the truth on the one hand, and stratagem employed to reveal the truth on the other. Even Guile itself, one of the monsters taken care of by Arthur and Artegall on their way, is caught by guile: the knights ask a damsel friend of theirs to sit outside Guile’s cave and weep loudly to catch his nefarious attention!

Book V of The Faerie Queene was, more than the others, a fascinating look into the politics and civic mores of Spenser’s day. As usual, I have only skimmed across the top of this Book; there is too much here to discuss in one short post, from the symbolism of each specific form of injustice, to the odd little stanza where Spenser discusses the importance of a knight’s knowing how to swim!

Renascence Editions etext

Librivox recording

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