Literary Analysis of The Faerie Queene
Taking a Look at Canto 1
The First Booke of The Faerie Queene from Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic, The Faerie Queene concerns the exploits of a young knight, Redcrosse. Redcrosse travels on orders from Gloriana, Queene of the Faeries (lines 19 – 21), in the company of Una, a fair and virtuous young woman of noble birth (lines 28 – 39). Much like the character of Christian, from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Redcrosse meets various fantastic characters and fights many foes while on a momentous quest, which adventures, taken together, represent the trials and pitfalls of the Christian life. The knight’s fair lady, Una, is the embodiment of Truth, beautiful and unadulterated by deception or hypocrisy. Canto 1 of Book 1 relates the knight’s struggle to defend and hold onto Truth, despite the horrible monster Error, and the temptation and deception of Archimago, a sorcerer concealed in the guise of a peaceful hermit.
Spenser’s depiction of Redcrosse seems to draw on imagery from the crusades, the knights of Arthurian legend, and perhaps the passage, found in Ephesians 6:12-17, which describes the armor of God. Redcrosse appears to us as, “A Gentle Knight…/Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,/Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,/The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;/ Yet armes till that time did he never wield:” (1-4). From the assertion that Redcrosse’s shield and armor are dented, but that he has never wielded arms, it may be inferred that he is exemplifying Christ’s command to “…resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5.39 KJV). Evoking the image of a knight crusader, Spenser goes on to tell us that “…on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore, /The deare remembrance of his dying Lord, /…Upon his shield the like was also scored,” (10-11, 14). Concerning Redcrosse’s personality, Spenser tells us that he is faithful and true, but not very cheery, and is not afraid of anything (16–18). Una, Spenser’s representation of Truth, is the very picture of a demure and chaste young lady, who appears to be in mourning (28-38). Spenser makes a point of telling us that “by her in a line a milke white lambe she lad.” (36), to which he then compares her; “So pure an innocent, as that same lambe,/She was in life and every virtuous lore,” (37-38). The lamb seems an obvious reference to Jesus, whom the gospel of John calls the “Lamb of God” (Jhn 1.29,36 NIV). At this point in the tale, we have a nearly ideal Christian knight, battle-seasoned and well-armed, who is on a mission for his queen, and in the company of Truth herself.
Fleeing a storm, the pair of travelers, together with Una’s servant, take shelter in a pleasant wood, where they promptly get lost (50-90). Eventually, they choose the path that seems most worn, which leads them to still more trouble (93-99). Una, sensing the danger, warns Redcrosse not to go into the mysterious cave they have encountered, realizing they have found themselves in “…the wandring wood, this Errours den,/A monster vile, whom God and man does hate:/Therefore I read beware…” (114-116). Eager for battle, the young knight does not heed Una’s warning, choosing instead to confront the monster, Error.
In the context of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and supported by the “bookes and papers” (177) the creature later vomits, the Error in question is likely Catholic doctrine. Depicted as a lamia –mythological creature that is half woman, half serpent-, Error has a venomous stinger on her tail, and a thousand spawn of various shapes and sizes (124-133). Error feeds her numerous young on poison (132), and hates the light (142), just as those steeped in sin or incorrect beliefs hate the revelation of God’s truth. Wrapping Redcrosse in her seemingly endless coils, the monster nearly succeeds in killing him (158-161). Una urges the knight to throttle Error, before she suffocates him. Heeding her, he does so; forcing the lamia to let go (164-171). The monster then switches tactics, swarming Redcrosse with her young, and with stinging gnats (194-207). Redcrosse, fearing the shame of losing, firmly resolves to win the battle and marshals superhuman strength to defeat the monster and cut off her head (208-215). Error’s spawn then gorge on her blood, which causes them to burst and die (217-230), a likely warning to anyone seeking unjust gain from the demise of Catholic tradition. That foe vanquished, the knight and lady continue on, following the path out of the wood.
Having successfully defeated the Error of false doctrine which threatened to choke him, it is time for Spenser’s intrepid hero to confront the more subtle foes of hypocrisy, seduction and deception. In time, Redcrosse and Una meet a penitent hermit. Here, Spenser paints for us a picture of a holy man, completely devout and humble:
“An aged Sire, in long blacke weedes yclad,/His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray,/And by his belt his book he hanging had;/Sober he seemed, and very sagely sad,/And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,/Simple in shew, and voyde of malice bad,/And all the way he prayed, as he went,/And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent.”(253-261).
The hermit further reinforces this image when he calls himself a “Silly old man, that lives in hidden cell,/Bidding his beades all day for his trespas,” (267-268). The hermit’s lifestyle and his use of the phrase “Bidding his beades” (268), a reference to saying prayers using a rosary, indicate that he is catholic. The knight and his lady do not seem to mind this, accepting the old man’s invitation to stay the night in his hermitage (294-297). The ascetic’s conversation soon confirms the reader’s suspicion of his religion, for “he told of Saintes and Popes, and evermore/He strowd an Ave Mary after and before.” (314-315). Eventually, it is revealed to the reader that the seemingly harmless hermit is, in fact, the sorcerer, Archimago. Calling up sprites and acquiring a false dream from Morpheus, Greek god of dreams, Archimago sets about troubling Redcrosse (325-396). Fashioning one of the sprites in the likeness of Una, the evil magician tries to snare the faithful knight with a counterfeit Truth (397-441). The knight is steadfast and resists the temptation of the beguiling sprite. However, he is disturbed and his faith in Una is shaken, as Spenser explains; “Long after lay he musing at her mood,/Much grieved to thinke that gentle Dame so light,/ For whose defence he was to shed his blood.” (486-489). Thus, the groundwork is laid for the enemy to part Redcrosse from Truth in Canto 2.
Spenser, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 371-383. Print.
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