O how can beautie maister the most strong,
And simple truth subdue avenging wrong?
Recently, I have been reading the first book of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene in which Spenser tells the story of the brave Redcrosse Knight who undergoes a falling away from faithfulness to his lady Una only to be redeemed at the end. His fault led ultimately to the perilous battle between Truth and the deceit of sight. Beauty and Truth are one in the same, yet our world so falsely portrays Beauty that it often can become confused with Truth: we tell ourselves that the beautiful in appearance must be truth, and in the confusion we end up deceived.
As I read the book this time through, I decided to note the many times Spenser uses sight in reference to deception. What is beautiful is often a deception, and the Redcrosse Knight’s biggest mistake in the poem is his leaving Una for the deceptive Duessa. Upon seeing Archimago’s disguised couple, the Redcrosse knight deserts his lady, forgetting to trust in her as a faithful companion. This leads to his abandoning her and joining with the evil Duessa who is beautiful on the outside yet horribly ugly when uncovered. The Knight’s mere lust of the eyes leads him down a path in which he is taken captive by Duessa’s giant Orgoglio and nearly dies. It all leads to what I believe is a climax of this theme concerning deception: his battle with Despair.
This scene in the story demonstrates how blindly following after the beauty of mere appearance can lead to a desensitizing of Truth and true Beauty. While the reader can somewhat sympathize with Redcrosse as he is deceived by Archimago’s disguise and Duessa’s physical beauty, he cannot accept the scene with Despair which culminates in Redcrosse longing after death and damnation.
He shew’d him painted in a table plaine / The damned ghost, that doe in torment waile, / And thousand feendes that doe them endlesse paine / With fire and brimstone, which forever shall remain. / The sight whereof so throughly him dismaid, / That nought but death before his eyes he saw.
With this Redcrosse begins to give in to despair. No longer is he deceived by disguises and fake beauties, but his wayward ways have lead to a misunderstanding of what is desirable in this world, what Beauty and Truth actually are, and the ugly has become beautiful. Just as Abraham was about to end dear Isaac’s life, so Redcrosse raises the dagger to end his, only to be saved by his better half, fair Una: Fair Una who never allows herself to give into the lusts of the eyes.
The tale of Redcrosse’s failing is a testament to the modern. Our desires today are in the wrong place. We are far too easily pleased with mere outward appearances, unwilling to see the unseen Truth. I find it interesting in this first book that Redcrosse deals as would any good knight with the obvious evils he encounters (Sansjoy, Sansfoy, the beast Error, etc.). But when it comes to deception, he nearly fails completely, and it is only because of his hero Una that he has any hope at all. The lesson is one the Christian should take to heart: What looks good in this world can easily be a trap by the Angel of Light to lead us down a destructive path which ends in our longing for sin. Thus, the Christian should seek for Truth above all, for seeking after Truth will result in an accurate evaluation of what is truly beautiful. When Redcrosse finds the light of truth, he is finally able to see straight, for he was “taught celestiall discipline,” which “opened his dull eyes, that light mote in them shine.” A world colored with Truth is a world that despises what ought to be despised and loves what ought to be loved: “That flowre of faith and beautie excellent.”