I hope in this morning’s post to get a little philosophical if only for a moment to better argue that which will be stated in the coming paragraphs regarding Spenser’s first book in The Faerie Queene. I intend to begin the conversation speaking of sin, which is necessarily important regarding the first book as it concerns the knight of the Redcrosse, or “holinesse”. To be holy is, by definition, to be “exalted or worthy of complete devotion” specifically because you, or whatever is holy, is “perfect in goodness or righteousness.” That is, the legend of Redcrosse is, on an allegorical level, the legend of a knight’s pursuit for holiness, for moral perfection. There are essentially two ways to view morality. I suppose there could be three ways, but I will discuss two. The first is that both good and evil (and by good we mean perfection, evil as total depravity with no goodness) have existed from eternity past or that they both came into existence at generally the same times. That is, man chose to follow the evil or good as a common decision from all time. The second view is that the universe was begotten in goodness, the source of all our existence. Thus, evil and sin is nothing more than a distortion of the original good (if we can use such trifling diction regarding transgressions). I adhere to this second view. First, because we can only know bad if we first know good, but it seems to me that we somewhat intrinsically know good without necessarily there being any evil. For instance, when observing a sunrise we inwardly perceive it to be good without there needing to be a direct evil associated. However, when Phoebus runs his course to its peek and we become sun-burnt, we feel this is an evil because we first were comforted by his rays. Secondly, nearly every transgression on earth that is committed is done so for a secondary motive that is itself not evil. Love in and of itself is not evil, but much sin is committed in its name, and money is not the root of all sorts of evil, but the unhealthy love for wealth and avarice creates a world of hurt. Every person believes in the spiritual battle between good and evil whether they admit it or not. That battle is what we notice in the first book of The Faerie Queene, and it is why this poem feels so much like home to us.
It is fitting that Spenser begins his great work with the virtue of holiness as holiness is the highest pursuit as well as the end of all Christians. The first book concerns the quest of Redcrosse who is sent from Gloriana, the Faerie Queene of Faerieland, to redeem the land of his lady, Una, from a terrible dragon. Una is often described throughout the book as the “fairest of the fair” or one so fair that those who first see her had never seen the likes of before. Her purity, her holiness, is the first thing that is attacked. Redcrosse is not “saved” at the beginning of the book, but must go through various trials, many physical but the hardest being psychological. The major test that plagues him through the first six cantos of the book is the effect of Una’s seemingly waning purity that affects his quest’s course. Archimago, the evil sorcerer, invites the two into his home, and immediately begins creating a false Una, one Duessa (Duplicity) who takes the name of Fidessa (Fidelity). Though Redcrosse knows Una to be the “chastest flowre”, under Duessa’s guise he sees her as a “loose Leman (lover) to vile seruice bound.” The first test is passed by Redcrosse, but Archimago, again deceiving him, wins the second battle, and Redcrosse leaves his lady under the false pretense that she has been unfaithful. But the abandoning of Una is not as destructive as his joining with Duessa who is disguised as “a goodly Lady clad in scarlot red.” After joining with Duessa, Redcrosse is immediately warned by Fradubio, a man who was turned into a tree by her, that underneath her guise, she is “misshapen, monstrous… foule and hideous.” Yet despite this Redcrosse is still deceived by her beauty, and at the end of Fradubio’s story, “her vp he took, too simple and too trew, / And oft her kist.” Duessa’s disguising herself as Fidessa is significant concerning the philosophy of sin. Redcrosse, though certainly in the wrong at this early period of the book, is primarily at fault for allowing himself to be deceived. He believes Duessa is the fair Fidessa, and his abandoning of Una is primarily for the good motives of his believing her to be unfaithful. The sin is not so much in his will but in his utter lack of discernment. And beauty plays a huge role as beauty is at its core a good quality. But when beauty is a mere covering for evil, even that beauty becomes distorted. The reader of the Faerie Queene becomes as susceptible as poor Redcrosse to the deceptions of Duessa’s “beauty.” Spenser never (to my knowledge through a first read) makes an excuse for Duessa’s beauty as if it really is not beauty. Instead, the reader almost feels sympathy for Redcrosse as he is wholly taken up in this beauty. And when the reader takes a step back and applies this to his own world, he sees the danger that lies all around him masked in a horrible beauty by that terrible Angel of Light.
Redcrosse’s sin has consequences not only for himself but for Una. In her distress, she wakes up and begins the search for her beloved knight. The roles are reversed, and the fair maiden becomes the hero of the canto as she must save her “knight in distress.” But her searching is initially in vain, and all alone, she is captured by the dastardly Sansloy (without law, or leachery).
And all the way, with great lamenting paine, And piteous plaints she filleth his dull eares, That stony heart could riuen haue in twain, And all the way she wets with flowing teares: But he enrag’d with rancor, nothing heares.
At this highly suspenseful point in the book, Spenser gives the reader, the knights of this world, very wise advice:
Young knight, whateuer that dost armes professe, And through long labours huntest after fame, Beware of fraud, beware of ficklenesse, In choice, and change of thy deare loued Dame, Least thou of her beleeue too lightly blame, And rash misweening doe thy heart remoue: For vnto knight there is no greater shame, Then lightnesse and inconstancie in loue; That doth this Redcrosse knights ensample plainly proue.
Much like CS Lewis’ character, Edwin, is entrapped by the evil queen and led to her castle, so is Redcrosse led to Pride’s castle where he is met with the seven deadly sins and falls into a battle with Sansjoy (without joy), Sansloy’s brother. (At this point, it should be noted that Redcrosse “saved” Duessa by killing Sansfoy [without faith], the oldest of the three brothers.) Redcrosse narrowly escapes defeat from Sansjoy, and it is only by his Dwarf that his eyes are finally opened to the folly he willingly stepped into as the Dwarf shows him a cave full of dead men: “The dreadfull spectacle of that sad house of Pride.”
Meanwhile, as the narrative switches between characters, Una has herself narrowly escaped being raped by Sansloy when she is saved by fauns and satyrs. Her life is one of constant fleeing from danger as she afterwards finds herself within Sanloy’s grasps only to flee and be pursued by Archimago. We are left again in suspense of her fate. Spenser informs his reader in Book 2 that it is “A harder lesson, to learne Continence / in ioyous pleasure, then in grieuous paine” and Redcrosse ironically discovers himself in a place of pleasure after leaving Pride’s castle. Spenser fantastically sets up an ethereal setting in which “he feedes vpon the cooling shade, and bayes / his sweatie forehead in the breathing wind” as the birds chirp and sing their songs which “delight his mind.” And while he is comforted in this peace, the false yet lovely Witch approaches “with fowle words tempting faire, soure gall with hony sweet.” The Witch plays this role in which her beauty mixes with the sensual setting, and she takes him to a bubbling fountain that makes all who drink it feeble and unable to fight. Ironically, in all of this Redcrosse’s chastity is saved by perhaps a greater evil. We get the sense that Duessa cares nothing about destroying Redcrosse’s sexuality but is more concerned with taking his soul. And as he “yet goodly court” did make “still to his Dame, / Pourd out in looseness on the grassy grownd, / Both careless of his health, and of his fame: / Till at the last he heard a dreadful sownd.” This sound is the giant Orgoglio who easily, due to the enchanted water, makes him his captive. The Witch’s true identity is discovered, and she is made Orgoglio’s queen and given a beast.
Prince Arthur saves the day as our protagonists have been flung in dire and distressful situations. Arthur first meets up with Una who, thanks to Redcrosse’s Dwarf, is seeking Orgoglio’s castle, and Arthur is the one who saves Redcrosse from Orgoglio’s castle, defeating the giant and stripping Duessa of her false charms, displaying her for who she is truly is, a terrible witch. The allegory here, which I will not really get into, broadens as we see the allusion Duessa’s character makes to the Antichrist of the book of Revelation. Not only is she a witch as a first level of meaning (the most important for our first read), but she also functions as a temptation to sin as we earlier noted. But on an even deeper, third level, she is the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and as the Antichrist is the most deceiving personality in the Bible, it fits that both Redcrosse and the reader are often deceived by her seeming beauty.
The climax of Redcrosse’s quest comes in canto 9 where the brave knight meets and battles with Despair. Our knight is rightfully full of much grief and remorse for abandoning his lady and following Duessa, but much grief lends itself to the sin of Despair. What some consider the “eighth deadly sin”, Despair is a form of pride in one’s one inability to received much needed grace. It is Despair that damn’s Marlowe’s Faustus who pridefully does not believe his past can be atoned for. Instead of fighting Despair, however, Redcrosse suffers a psychological battle in which Despair attempts to sway him to abandon hope in his coming death. (“Did he not create / To die againe? all ends that was begonne.”) Despair uses death as the final question for the character of our Creator. And how can he be just in death? And as our knight is much moved by this speech, Despair, in a last attempt at his soul, shows him the souls of the damned. Given a dagger, Redcrosse decides to end his quest there in Despair’s cave, but at the last second, Una, his hero, delivers him with a moving speech.
Come, come away, fraile, feeble, fleshly wight, Ne let vaine words bewitch thy manly hart, Ne diuelish thoughts dismay thy constant spright. In heauenly mercies hast thou not a part? Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art? Where iustice growes, there growes eke greater gace, The which doth quench the brond of hellish smart, And that accurst hand-writing doth deface, Arise, Sir knight arise, and leaue this cursed place.
The good knight’s soul is saved shortly after in the house of Hollinesse. His battle with the Dragon guarding Eden, Una’s home, is a lengthy one, ending, of course, in a victory for the good guy as every fairy tale should. Una’s faithfulness is rewarded in her betrothal to a far less faithful and worthy knight in the last canto, and the greatest comfort the reader has is that the overarching tale of Faerieland continues for five more books.
I began this post speaking of how sin is “nothing more” than a distorting of a higher virtue. I found this to be true in Spenser’s first book, and Redcrosse’s spiritual battle is common to every person whatever their stage of life. The end of the battle for holiness will possibly for some end in despair, for others grace. This book sets the tone for the next five. Guyon’s level-headed temperance, Britomartis and the battle for chastity, the friendship of Book 4, justice in Book 5, and the ability to show any courtesy all flow from our initial quest for holiness. As I am sure he will continue to do throughout the following books, Spenser has elevated spiritual warfare and given it a place of residence. In this most important of battles, all beauty is to be questioned, discerned; all personal strengths are set aside; trust in companions heightened; true good fully embraced. For sin is but the masking of ugliness, and virtue a never-ending bliss of beauty.