Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Despair continues his rhetorical attack, pointing out to Redcrosse his multiple sins, including leaving Una and hooking up with Duessa. Also so recently he’s wished for death in the dungeon and the odds are, soon he is going to be in a similar predicament, so why not end all now? Finally, he shows him a painting of the damned souls suffering in hell, although this one seems to me to be a rather counterargument – if Redcrosse considers himself damned, surely he would like to put off the moment of death and going to hell? But Redcrosse seems convinced, becoming paler and weaker, and the cunning Despair brings him all the instruments through which he can shorten his life. But Una snatches the knife out of Redcrosse’s hand and talks some Christian sense into him: Isn’t he one of the elect? Doesn’t he know that for God grace always is more important then justice? The knight rises and leaves, and Despair tries to hang himself out of, well, despair, but he cannot succeed even in that – he cannot kill himself. Spenser seems to forget completely about Trevisan, whom Redcrosse made stay with him and who surely would be as susceptible to Despair. I don’t know if he’s going to reappear, but that wouldn’t be the first narrative hole in TFQ. End of Canto 9.

P.S. I am going away, so the regular posting will commence after a week or so.

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Continuing Despair’s description – he is dressed in rags pinned down with thorns (no safety pins invented yet) and next to him lies the corpse with the knife in its chest, apparently the corpse of the unhappy Terwin. Redcrosse feels angry at this sight and tells Despair that in the name of justice he should pay with his own blood for this blood. However, starting a dispute with Despair is tricky, because he is a surprisingly good debater. His arguments seem to echo Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but that’s because both Spenser and Shakespeare drew on the same tradition of Stoic philosophy combined with the Old Testament. Those who don’t merit life, deserve to die, he says, and this man was as desperate to die as somebody who is trying to get home but there is a big flooding river in his way – all I did was helping him a little. Now he’s enjoying eternal rest. Redcrosse says that it is only up to God to decide when we die, and we should be like soldiers standing sentinel, not leaving it until they are commanded to do so. Not quite, answers Despair, since God doomed all the creatures to death, a person taking away his life is like a soldier who knows he is free to go when he hears the morning drum. I am not quite sure I follow Despair’s argument here, but he seems to say that if somebody commits suicide, then, well, it was written. The longer one lives, the more opportunities to sin one has. And even Redcrosse’s battles, on which he prides himself, are in fact just so many more sins of murder, for which he will have to pay as well. So wouldn’t it be better for him to lie down and die here as well?

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

The scaredy cat knight is finally induced to talk. His name is Trevisan, although in a typically Spenserian fashion we don’t learn about that until six or seven stanzas are past. Well, we can count ourselves lucky it doesn’t take, like, weeks, as was the case with Arthur. He was a friend of a knight named Sir Terwin, who was unhappily in love with a proud lady who scorned him. One day as they were returning from her, they met a knight named Despair who ingratiated himself with them, asking about the cause of their sadness, although Trevisan doesn’t explain whether he was just sad for his friend, or whether he had some reasons of his own. Despait then convinces both men there’s no hope for them and talks them into committing suicide, handing a knife to one and a rope to the other. Terwin does take away his life, but Trevisan, scared at what he saw, took flight. Redcrosse wants to fight Despair and asks Trevisan to guide him to his cave. Trevisan agrees, saying he can just show him the way but won’t stay there a minute. The cave of Despair is indeed a dismal place, surrounded by dry stumps of dead trees with bodies of the knights who hanged themselves there strewn around. Despair himself is sitting musing on the ground, with his long gray hair unbound. He is very thin as if he has not eaten for days.

Despair Spenser writes about is a sinful doubt in the possibility of God’s mercy – this was the sin, preachers taught, for which Judas was ultimately condemned, not for the betrayal of Jesus. If he had repented like Peter, he would still have had a chance of saving himself. But I sense here also the influence of the traditional theories on melancholy and its depictions, the most famous being the one by D. Even though his Melencolia seems rather good-looking, s/he is accompanied by a painfully thin dog. Thinness was traditionally considered to be a sign of melancholic humour. However, Spenser’s Despair doesn’t seem to have much of the allure that melancholy had for Renaissance scholars, who believed it was a sign of intellect. It’s just the bleakest depression.

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Una exclaims that the Faerie Queene is indeed happy to have such a champion. Redcrosse wishes Arthur good luck in finding his lady and vows to love him second to none but Una. On their parting they swear eternal friendshp and exchange gifts – Arthur gives Redcrosse a diamond box with a potent cordial inside it that heals all wounds, and Arthur gives Redcrosse the Bible (or maybe only the New Testament, because the whole Bible in its medieval form, or even early-modern form, would be rather unwieldy). Then Redcrosse and Una leave the castle, but Una doesn’t want Redcrosse to fight for her cause yet, because he is still weak. [So why do they leave the comforts of Orgoglio’s castle?] As they are travelling, they notice a knight riding towards them with great speed and in seeming fear, as if he were running away from something really dreadful. He is pale, his hair stands upright and he has a rope around his neck. Redcrosse stops him and tries to find out what caused such fear, unseemly in a knight, but he can’t squeeze anything out of him.

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Arthur says that God sent him here, but he is not sure. Was it God’s will or the fresh wound rancling in his breast that makes him travel? Una asks about the wound. Arthur fortunately does not do the whole passive-aggressive thing like Una did and tells his story promptly. When he was growing up, old Timon warned him not to be foolish and fall in love. Accordingly, he laughed at suffering loves, controlled his passion by reason and was sure he would never fall in love – until one day, tired after riding the whole day, he lay down in the woods and fell asleep. In his dream he saw a beautiful royal maiden lying down next to him. She asks him to love her and after the appropriate amount of time she promises to love him back. At her parting she reveals she is the Queene of Fairies. (I thought Gloriana as the apotheosis of Elizabeth would be less forward.) When he wakes up, he sees just trampled grass next to him. From that moment on he roams the world, looking for his lost love, but to no avail.

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Duessa ashamed flees into the desert, where she hides among the rocks. Una and both knights stay for some time in the castle to recuperate after the dramatic events, thus ending Canto 8. In Canto 9 they set out but before they part, Una asks Arthur about his name and family, so that his noble deeds may not go unrecorded. And here Spenser does again something weird and kind of similar to his vague use of pronouns. He never mentions Arthur’s name up to this point, it appears only in the epigraphs to the cantos. When Una asks his name, he instead gives her a long answer about how he really doesn’t know his family, but still doesn’t say his first name. (I’ll overlook the logic of asking somebody’s name after you’ve spent several days in his company, instead of at the beginning of the acquaintance.) And then Una, who apparently hasn’t heard his name yet, addresses him as “Prince Arthur”. I really don’t understand if it’s some kind of mysterious literary device, or just sloppy writing.

Anyway, Arthur tells his story, which roughly corresponds to the one we know from other Arthuriana: he doesn’t know his family, because as a baby he was delivered by a Faerie knight into the care of an old and wise man named Timon (meaning “honour”) who lived in Wales (the source of many Arthurian legends as well as the place of origin of the Tudor family). He was often visited by Merlin, who oversaw his education, and he asked him about his family, but all Merlin told him was that he was from a royal lineage and he would learn everything in due time. “But what brings you here, Prince Arthur?”, asks Una, without revealing how she knows his name. “Well, it’s the mystery of fate”, he answers. I hope he’s going to explain more in the next page.

Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene (ctd.)

Arthur manages to find Redcrosse, who is terribly emaciated and worn out by the three months of imprisonment. He gets him out of the cell, and Una rushes to him crying and exclaiming “How could you have found yourself in this terrible situation?” This looks like a rhetorical question to me, since Una is pretty much up to speed with everything that happened to Redcrosse, thanks to the Dwarf. But still it seems as if the text itself thought she was due an answer, because then the narrator justifies Redcrosse, saying he is too hungry and tired to tell his story, and Arthur explains patiently to Una that it’s certainly an unpleasant story which Redcrosse does not want to revive; it’s enough if he just draws some morals from it for the future. Now what shall be done about Duessa? Una mercifully says that klling her would be spiteful and unhonourable, so she just should be stripped naked and let go. When they strip her, her dreadful real body is revealed, wizened and ugly, with bald head and lots of various skin diseases. He won’t describe her “nether parts”, Spenser says, because he is too chaste, but she had a fox tail and one of her feet was an eagle’s claw, and the other a bear’s paw, which made me think about Liz Lemon’s foot complex. But more relevantly, was she disguising all that up to now by magic? Because otherwise she would have had to wear a burka for Redcrosse not to notice that her teeth were missing. Also it made me think about Queen Elizabeth, who at this time was ageing, missing several teeth, wearing huge wigs (although it’s been argued that contrary to the popular image, she was never completely bald) and covering her smallpox scars with lots of makeup. And of course wearing wonderful clothes. Her “nether parts” were also the subject of much salacious gossip – was she really a virgin? wasn’t she? Which is really not that much different when you look at our culture’s obsession and also often policing bodies of women, especially the famous ones. I am not sure if Spenser had the honour of having a personal audience with the Queen, but he was hanging out in the court circles, including her on-and-off favourite Walter Raleigh and he must have heard some things. My point is, even though I know Duessa stands for the spurious splendor of the Catholic Church hiding ugly reality, there are some interesting undertones here (just like earlier with Luciphera).