Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

The fragment selected from Book 2 is that about “the Bower of Bliss”. The whole book is dedicated to Temperance, the virtue which its main hero, Sir Guyon, has to master, purging himself of all passions (and becoming, I am afraid, an insufferable prig in the process). Guyon reaches the Bower with his guide, the Palmer. The place is surrounded by a fence but it seems to be very weak. It cannot be won by force, but only by the power of wisdom and temperance. The gate is similarly light, made of ivory, on which the story of Medea and Jason is carved. I guess Medea stands here for uncurbed passions, the kind that Sir Guyon learns to fight. The porter of this place is a Genius – but not the good one, called Agdistes, who is the god of generation and also the daemon in the sense Socrates used this word, that is our inner self. He is the foe of life and wishes people ill. He is dressed in a very loose robe, not fit for running or exercising, which I guess has some allegorical meaning that will be explained later.

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Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

Redcrosse explains that the woman who sent the letter is not Fidessa, but Duessa, the cause of his many misfortunes. The reason why he didn’t mention her earlier is because he wouldn’t have enough time in a day to tell all the details of his travels (a tiny bit disingenously, perhaps?) Una confirms his story and says that the messenger must surely be Archimago. So Archimago is seized and put into a dungeon, and then Una and Redcrosse can celebrate their betrothal. Now I am confused – just a few pages ago Redcrosse says he has no time for marriage because he must go to serve the Faerie Queene. Now, I know that early modern era the boundary between betrothal and marriage was a bit fuzzy (viz. Measure for Measure and the whole affair of Claudio there) but what Spenser describes here looks to me like a proper marriage, and celebrated a bit like the ones in ancient Greece – the hands of the young couple are joined, holy fire is lit, water sprinkled and a marriage torch is lit and put in a secret chamber (isn’t it a coy reference to the bedroom?). all the posts of the house are sprinkled with wine etc. Angels sing, everyone is transported with joy and Una and St George are going to live happily ever after.

Now Spenser’s poetic ship enters the harbour, where it is going to let off some of its passengers, i.e. characters. Good, because I’ve found some of them rather tiresome. The other books of The Faerie Queene are represented in the NAEL only as a selection, so I hope they are going to be more manageable.

Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

The king calls Una, who in the meantime changed her widow’s dress, in which she used to ride, for a white robe made of silk and silver woven together. Her description is reminiscent of the “wife of the Lamb”, as described in the Revelation. Even Redcrosse, who knows her well, is amazed at her beauty. Before the king manages to say anything, a messenger runs into the hall and delivers a letter to the king. In the letter a woman claiming she is the daughter of the Emperor of the West, says that the knight has been betrothed to her and so by uniting his daughter and him, the king would be a party to an act of treachery and vow-breaking. But of course we already know from the epigraph that the letter comes from Duessa, or as she signs herself, Fidessa. Interestingly enough, Spenser here breaks off the rhyme pattern of his stanza to add her name – it’s like the whole letter is written in his regular stanza, and then the signature “Fidessa” is appended at the end. Does he just imitate the way letters end in real life, or does this breaking of the structural pattern signify the disruptive nature of Duessa/Fidessa? The king is flabbergasted, but then calls upon Redcrosse to explain himself.

Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

The king bestows many precious gifts upon the knight and then invites him for a feast to his palace. They all celebrate the victory with a sumptuous meal, but behaving though courteously, without false pride or putting on airs, because as Spenser writes, such behaviour was unknown in the ancient times. One curious thing – Spenser writes that the floors of the palace are “bespred with costly scarlot of great name, on which they lowly sit”. So does he mean their lives were so simple they were sitting on the floor? After the meal the king and queen listen to the story of Redcrosse’s adventures, often expressing their compassion. When the story is finished, the king says now they can offer him “everlasting rest” (which sounds a bit… menacing), but the knight refuses, saying that he promised the Faerie Queene to come back and fight in her army with the Paynim for six years. This, as the footnote informs us, refers to the fact that the era of the eternal happiness, symbolized by the marriage between Jesus and the church can come only at the end of times, and in the meantime we have to keep on fighting. The king is unhappy about it, but oaths are oaths, he says. After six years St George will return to marry Una and become the king’s heir, as he promised long ago to the one who would kill the dragon.

Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

Spenser informs his readers that he sees an end of his interminable poem in sight, like a ship entering a safe port. The watchman tells the king that the dragon is dead. The aged king hastens to see it with his own eyes, and when he is sure, he bids to open the gates of his fortress. He goes out of the fortress with his queen, surrounded by the peers of the realm. They are preceded by two processions, one of young men with laurel boughs in their hands, and the other of young girls bedecked with garlands and children singing songs. The young men throw themselves at Redcrosse’s feet, paying tribute to his valour, while the girls praise Una and half in jest, half seriously, crown her their queen. Then the commoners flow out of the gates to gaze at and admire the carcass of the dragon. They are still a bit scared of it, and some warn against touching it, as there may be still a spark of life in the beast, or perhaps she (?) can still spawn some children. One mother scolds her child for playing with the talons of the dragon, as he can hurt himself even though the monster is dead. Others try to measure the carcass and calculate how big it is.

Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

The dragon daren’t approach the tree of life and so Redcrosse spends another night lying in the stream flowing form under its roots. Una seeing her knight’s second fall again spends the whole night praying. In the morning, when in a rather laboured metaphor Aurora gets on her chariot, the dragon gets ready to eat the knight, but much to his surprise he sees him springing up as good as new. The dragon decides to swallow the knight whole, but George thrusts his sword into his open maw. When he takes it out, blood gushes forth and the dead dragon falls senseless to the ground. The crash is so great that it scares both the knight and Una, who daren’t approach until she is perfectly sure the dragon is dead. Canto 11 ends with her praising God and thanking her knight. Thus the whole fight lasted three days, which is an obvious parallel to the period between Christ’s death and resurrection.

Edmund Spenser – “The Faerie Queene” (ctd.)

The wounded dragon manages to raise a bit in the air and clutches with his talons Redcrosse’s shield. The knight tries to snatch it back, but the dragon is too strong, so he goes at him with his sword. He manages to make the dragon let go of one paw, so that he can defend himself, and then strikes at the other paw, still on the shield. He luckily hits the joint and chops it off. The cut-off talons still grip the shield even after that. The enraged dragon roars very loud and produces as much smoke and sulphur as Mount Etna. The knight has to step back and in doing so slips on the ground. Fortunately it was not just ordinary mud he slipped in, as he is near the two miraculous trees – the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. From under the roots of the first one flows a sweet stream with restorative properties, like the Well of Life, and it’s in this stream that St George fell. Spenser makes one puzzling remark – he calls the Tree of Life “the crime of our first fathers fall”. It’s not true as Adam and Eve transgressed by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. They were in fact free to eat from the other one, and had they not been banished from Eden, they would have stayed forever young. Could it be that Spenser, a good Protestant, didn’t read his Bible carefully? Or is it some kind of odd theological puzzle I don’t get?