Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Faerie Queene: Concluding Remarks

The Faerie Queene is a stunning achievement—and we only have a quarter of it. Spenser’s original plan was to write 24 Books. The first twelve, set before Prince Arthur’s accession to the throne of Britain, would have demonstrated twelve private virtues. The second twelve, set afterwards, would have demonstrated twelve public virtues. It would have been, by far, the longest poem in the English language.

As it stands, The Faerie Queene is well worth reading, full of exciting adventure, profound doctrines, and lots of historical/cultural interest for students of history. I feel that perhaps this series of reviews has been focusing too much on the last two, and too little on the first. So, to amend that, let me quote from Book I:
But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthful knight could not for ought be stayed,
But forth unto the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistering armor made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half like a serpent horribly displayed,
But th’other half did woman’s shape retain,
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.

And as she lay upon the dirty ground,
Her huge long tail her den all overspread,
Yet was in knots and many boughts upwound,
Pointed with mortal sting. Of her there bred,
A thousand young ones, which she daily fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, each one
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill-favoured:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone.

Their dam upstart, out of her den afraid,
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous tail
About her cursed head, whose folds displayed
Were stretched now forth at length without entrail.
She looked about, and seeing one in mail
Armed to point, sought back to turn again;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darkness to remain,
Where plain none might her see, nor she see any plain.

Which when the valiant Elf perciev’d, he lept
As Lion fierce upon the flying prey,
And with his trenchant blade her boldly kept
From turning back, and forced her to stay:
Therewith enrag’d she loudly gan to bray,
And turning fierce, her speckled tail advanced,
Threatening her angry sting, him to dismay:
Who nought aghast, his mighty hand enhanced:
The stroke down from her head unto her shoulder glanced.

Much daunted with that dint, her sense was dazed,
Yet kindling rage, her self she gathered round,
And all at once her beastly body raised
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Then wrapping up her wreathed stern around,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge train
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stir he strove in vain:
God held the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train.
…And you can read the outcome of that epic battle in Book I, Canto I.

Edmund Spenser holds a particular interest for bibliophiles, because he was a great influence on CS Lewis, perhaps more than any others except George Macdonald and JRR Tolkien. It could certainly be argued that the Chronicles of Narnia were deliberately written as a Faerie Queene for twentieth-century children. The setting (a forest kingdom), milieu (dwarfs, witches, dryads, and river-gods), and structure (one book per virtue/planet) are all very similar. Then, as I’ve mentioned previously, it always used to surprise me when people talked about CS Lewis’s “innovation” and “daring” in using pagan mythology in his Christian allegory/fantasy. And the reason why it surprised me was because I’d read Spenser, and knew that Lewis, far from being an innovator, was more traditional than his critics…because Spenser did it first, and many others before him.

Which brings us to the question of the use of pagan imagery in Spenser, which is even more obvious than in Lewis. In Spenser, the gods are characters in the epic, and occasionally our characters even visit their temples. The question that immediately arises in post-Enlightenment Christian minds is, Why? Accustomed as we are to think of pagan gods as something totally evil and wrong, it’s hard to see why Spenser (and later, Lewis) could have included them.

However, this is because we modernists have been stripped of all the layers of doctrine and imagery which had been built up around classic mythology by medieval Christendom. The fact is that the medievals had redeemed the gods and transformed them into something quite different from what they were to begin with.
While some classical creatures are clearly evil, like these ladies.
Astonishingly, the key to this literary quirk lies in the middle of Saint Augustine’s book The City of God. As I discussed in my review of that book (scroll down to the section titled “Cosmology in Augustine”), Augustine applied Scriptural tests to Neoplatonist cosmology to come up with the theory that the gods worshipped in fear and vice by the pagans were, in fact, angels being impersonated by demons. That is, the pagans actually worshipped the demons, but the demons were impersonating and twisting angelic personalities. The original Neoplatonist theory had been that the demons were mediators between blessed and holy gods, and man; that if the gods were said to do any evil, it was the work of demons impersonating them, since the blessed and holy gods could certainly not have anything to do with our diseased and fleshly world. Also, in Neoplatonist thought, the lowercase gods were creatures, created by the original Prime Mover, a “God” outside time and space altogether. So, while at the same time Augustine attacked and demolished the Neoplatonist faith (arguing for the sanctity of the material world and the personal intervention in history of a holy, just, and loving God, as opposed to a shadowy, detached Prime Mover), he preserved and in a way baptised a part of their cosmology. The blessed gods are the holy angels, he argued. They want us to worship the true God.

This was a great contribution to medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation literature, because it allowed sincere Christian authors to use the pagan gods for a whole new purpose, in a whole new way. Instead of being worshipped and feared blasphemously as the creators of life and predestinators of men, the gods could be depicted as angelic powers ultimately obedient to their and our Creator. Their personalities—the association of Jove with kingship, Saturn with contemplation, or Mercury with skilled eagerness, for instance—could now be used to convey truth symbolically. Spenser, of course, was not the first (nor the last) author to use them in this way.

If you read Spenser for yourself, you’ll see that he clearly distinguishes between idolatrous worship of diabolical gods and the symbolic veneration of angelic powers. In the House of Busirane where Amoret is tortured, there is an idol of Cupid—
And all the people in that ample house
Did to that image bow their humble knee,
And oft committed foul Idolatry.
But in the Garden of Adonis just a few cantos earlier, we’ve read that Amoret, Chaste Affection, was fostered by Cupid himself. Is she now being tormented by his auspices, and if he’s evil, then how did his fostering contribute to her virtuous character? The answer is that there’s more than one Cupid here. The diabolical Cupid in the House of Busirane is like the evil counterpart to the angelic one in the Garden of Adonis, who does such a good job of bringing up Amoret and doesn’t claim idolatrous worship for himself.

Because, if you accustom yourself to the way pagans would speak of their gods as all-powerful and predestinating saviours, then Spenser’s attitude comes off as casual and irreverent by comparison. He uses them to his own ends.

Spenser also uses different symbols to mean different things at different times. For example, Britomart is an example of chaste love in Book III, chaste friendship in Book IV, and loving equity in Book V. As we’ve seen, Spenser does this with the gods. Cupid is two Cupids, one diabolical and one angelic. Lewis identified a number of different Venuses in Spenser, including Venus used a) as a diabolical symbol of lust; b) as a quasi-angelic figure of good; and c) as a mysterious and incomprehensible symbol of God Himself, but only through an intermediate step. The veiled Venus/Hermaphrodite in the Temple of Venus is a symbol of marriage. (Notice the difference between this image and the image of Cupid in the House of Busirane: both are images of the gods, but the image of Cupid, like Love itself, is worshipped idolatrously in Busirane’s house, while the ideal of marriage is revered justly in the Temple of Venus). According to orthodox Scriptural theology we know that marriage is a symbol of Trinitarian love between the members of the Godhead, as well as the relationship between Christ and the church. So, only because this specific Venus is a symbol of married love, is she also a symbol of Trinitarian love, and therefore of God.
This picture of Prince Arthur is completely gratuitous.

No matter how Spenser uses the gods, he never lets us lose sight of the difference between the symbolic gods and the true God, the Most High. In the Cantos of Mutabilitie, the unfinished book VII of The Faerie Queene, the Titaness Mutability even appeals from the court of Jove to God Himself. They then go to the veiled Nature for judgement. (Again, notice the veil). Nature is clearly intended to be Natural Law, the will of God made evident in Nature and thus, like the veiled Venus, an image of an attribute of God: His natural law. So Nature is elevated to the position of judge, but it is the law of the God of the Bible which she applies.

Finally, some of what Spenser picks up from the pagans is Neoplatonist in tone. I honestly am not familiar enough with Spenser, his critics, or the Neoplatonists to discuss this at length. The Garden of Adonis, for example, is often quoted as the example of Neoplatonism in Spenser (even I picked that up). But everyone who discusses the presence of this pagan philosophy in Spenser’s works, friendly or hostile to Christianity, usually ends up agreeing that Spenser picks and chooses the aspects he wants to serve his own story, in which God is unmistakeably sovereign. Augustine, for example, was not a Neoplatonist when he acknowledged that the Neoplatonists might be right about the existence of good gods—they might be holy angels. For he asserted, against the Neoplatonists, that the god-angels could not mediate grace to mankind. For there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, and it was wholly contrary to the Neoplatonist worldview that the Prime Mover would, even if he could, enter his own creation in the flesh. Rather, while refuting the root of Neoplatonism, Augustine allowed himself to be somewhat influenced by their “science”, particularly as he saw no contradiction of it, and perhaps even some support, in Scripture. We find Spenser playing with Neoplatonism, picking and choosing the images that would serve him best and weaving them into his own stories in the same way that, for example, Tolkien picked names of dwarves from Norse myths to name his own dwarves in The Hobbit.

To sum up, according to Michael Ward, “The redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks, as was recognised by Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton, for all of whom ‘the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.’”

This doesn’t mean that Spenser didn’t have his faults. While there was so much in the Faerie Queene to learn, enjoy, and love, there were also, of course, a handful of things that I didn’t find so praiseworthy. The theme of suicide, in Book II, would be a good example of this—it doesn’t seem to perturb Spenser as much as it obviously should. But these things are few and far between.

There are a few final aspects of Spenser I’d like to call your attention to.

First, as Lewis pointed out, in Spenser, virtue beats vice on its own grounds. I have often argued in favour of fiction that in a sermon, goodness and truth is often presented without the visceral, persuasive beauty that you get in a really good story. Spenser’s stories are particularly good ones, and one of the things he does best of all is demonstrate the beauty of goodness and truth and the ugliness of evil and lies. And he does it by showing that virtue conquers vice, not just by being stronger and better, but also by giving what the vice promises. The devil promises pleasures, but delivers death. But on the right hand of God are eternal pleasures. This is a major theme of Spenser’s, shown in how he balances one place or person with another. Duessa is a cheap knockoff of Una. The Bower of Bliss is a tacky imitation of the Garden of Adonis. Discord is Hell’s grotesque parody of heavenly Concord, for both contain opposing principles within themselves. The real thing is not just more beautiful; it’s also more real. It can give what it promises. The false thing is an attempt to get at real beauty without having to pay the price for it; it’s an attempt to steal. But what you get, in the end, is never what you set out to steal. Only a cheap fake.
Beware the Blatant Beast!
Lewis also observed that in Spenser, vice is always passivity. Throughout the epic, virtue involves action, and often violent, uncompromising, harsh, “un-Christlike” action. Think about it—the anthropomorphic personification of True Love is a lady knight who, in Book V, splits open the head of Radigund. And yet this is a hoary principle of Christendom. GK Chesterton would have said that you cannot love a thing without being ready to fight for it. And John Buchan put it another way—chastity is a “mailed virgin”, not an “untempted Aphrodite”. Untested virtue is not virtue at all. And, even more to the point, virtue isn’t always nice and is certainly never boring. The life of virtue is the true life of adventure.

Finally, if there’s one thing that Spenser celebrated more than anything else, it would be creation, and God as Creator. Most authors have one thread running through their works. Some can’t stop meditating on the Atonement, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection. For Spenser, it’s the wonder of creation itself. This expresses itself partly in poetic illustrations drawn from the natural world, partly in the continued emphasis on God’s authority as the author of reality, and partly the earthy physicality of the poem. In this last aspect, Spenser may be far more Christian than we can handle. His was a Christianity that enjoyed, even reveled in the physical world. Too many Christians, instead of enjoying God in nature, try to close their eyes to nature in order to focus on God. Spenser doesn’t seem to have that problem. All of creation is given by God. Some of it has been twisted by sin and the devil, but the rest of it is fair game. And, rather like an excited puppy, he revels in it—in detestation of evil as well as exultation in goodness.

Edmund Spenser is buried next to Chaucer, in Westminster Abbey. And his epitaph reads:
'Heare lyes (expecting the Second comminge of our Saviour Christ Jesus)
the body of Edmond Spencer the Prince of Poets
in his tyme whose Divine Spirrit needs noe othir witnesse
 then the works which He left behinde him.'
My favourite picture book. Obviously.
Thanks for joining me in Faerie Queene Week. If you enjoyed reading my posts, I hope I’ve convinced you to try a bit of Spenser, even if it’s only Book I!

Renascence Editions etext

Librivox recording

Saint George and the Dragon, a retelling of part of Book I by Margaret Hodges and illustrated beautifully by Trina Schart Hyman

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves, an edition of Book I by Roy Maynard

The Elfin Knight, an edition of Book II by Toby J Sumpter

1 comment:

Lady Bibliophile said...

A very interesting series! I love your in-depth reviews; they are both challenging and entertaining. And yes, I am willing to give Spenser another go; I'll have to see if I can get past Duessa this time. ;)


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