This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Protestant Allegory in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene”, running in the Winter 2021 Term (January – March), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.
If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.
Virginia Woolf’s essay on Edmund Spenser’s epic opens, “The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end.” In fact, it has never been written to the end: originally Spenser planned to write twenty-four books, then thought better of it and changed his plan to a more modest twelve. As it happens, he only wrote six and a fragment of the seventh (an odd fragment whose placement in the narrative is difficult to place). What we have here is a strange creature of a text: written in Spenser’s own “Spenserian stanza” (a derivation of the sonnet), The Faerie Queene greets us with Elizabethan English pretending to be Chaucerian Middle English. The adventures of Arthurian knights mix with the wild romps of Italian epic romance and high medieval allegory. If Thomas Malory had read John Bunyan, then wrote an Early Years of Merlin in which he simultaneously imitated Milton’s serious tone and Ariosto’s jubilant plots, the result would be something like The Faerie Queene. There is a profoundly weird joy to be found in reading it.
Spenser himself wrote that the poem was a “dark conceit”—not always “dark” in the sense of contending with unsettling realities (though the poem certainly does this), but more in the sense of 1 Corinthians 13:12 that “we see through a glass darkly.” True to the author’s promise, in reading the poem I am often possessed by the acute sense that what I am reading has some deep, ineffable meaning, one bigger and more mysterious than I can hope to articulate. Spenser apparently felt the same way: he initially completed the narrative with the third book, thinking the work finished, and then returned to write four and a little more, revising the ending of Book Three to excuse the change. Once begun, The Faerie Queene took on meanings so great and mysterious that they took hold even of its author.
The proposal of reading The Faerie Queene is therefore justifiably intimidating. If Henry James complains of novels as “large and loose baggy monsters,” one can only imagine what he would say of The Faerie Queene, whose monstrous plot features a cast of literal monsters as well. But how does one ignore a poet to whom Milton refers as “our sage and serious Spenser, whom I dare to be known to think of as a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas”? Or one whom Lewis, in The Allegory of Love, says is one of his “masters or collaborators” and of his Faerie Queene that “to read him is to grow in mental health”? These are weighty recommendations. Yet the best thing to do, as Woolf says, is not to read the critics, but rather to “make a dash for The Faery Queen and give yourself up to it.”
My upcoming Davenant Hall class starting in January 2021, “Protestant Allegory in Spenser’s class Faerie Queene,” will focus on the first book, which retells the story of St. George the Dragonslayer and establishes the pattern of the subsequent books, each of which follows a knight sent on a quest by the eponymous Faerie Queen. “Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song,” Spenser promises us in the book’s opening—and he keeps his word. The poem opens as St. George, also called Redcrosse, leads his lady Una on a quest to save her parents from a dragon. The second stanza describes his appearance:
And on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,Book 1, Canto 1, Stanza 2
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador’d:
Upon his shield the like was also scor’d,
For soveraine hope, which in his helpe he had:
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word,
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.
On his breastplate and shield, Redcrosse bears the symbol after which he is himself addressed: his human name, George, is replaced by a “remembrance of his dying Lord” and faith in “the soveraine hope” he receives thereby.
Our suspicion that Spenser has in mind here Ephesians 6 is confirmed by his own summary of the poem, written in a letter to Walter Raleigh. Spenser discusses how the Faerie Queene gave Redcrosse his armor so he can defeat the ancient dragon guarding Una’s parents: “In the end the Lady told him, that unlesse that armour which she brought would serve him (that is, the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul, V. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise: which being forth with put upon him with due furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in al that company, and was well liked of the Lady.”
The dramatic tension introduced by the Faerie Queen’s gift is the same tension that pervades all of Christian life. Though he is fully equipped by God, Redcrosse’s cheere (disposition) seems “too solemne sad,” suggesting he has yet to “consider it all joy” when facing “divers temptations.” Such temptations he will certainly face as he fights a horrifying snake-woman, becomes ensnared in the machinations of a conniving wizard, and is seduced by the worldly life of the court to abandon his heroic calling. Although Redcrosse begins the story, in one sense, justified in Christ, he has yet to achieve perfect sanctification, and his very armor symbolizes his spiritual imperfection: “Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,/Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,/The cruel markes of many’a bloudy fielde” (Book 1, Canto 1, Stanza 1). Redcrosse’s armor bears signs of a mighty battle he didn’t fight, and hence merits he has not and cannot earn; but the cross emblazoned on it reminds him that he truthfully has nothing to dread. For, by the grace of God, he has been made more than a dreadful equal to those trials which will seek to conquer him.
In these few passages, Spenser brings us into a story which synthesizes Ephesians 1 with Ephesians 6 under the guise of Arthurian epic. We can say that Redcrosse is predestined unto knighthood by adoption through taking up Christ’s armor, that he is made more than a dragonslayer through the Lord who loves him. The comfort he receives as a knight who gives his allegiance, as Thomas Malory might say, “first to his God and second to his lady,” is nothing less than the comfort of the saints in the Church Militant whose tears are not yet dry, and yet who believe that the drying of those tears in the Church Triumphant was assured before all worlds. Such is the core of the Christian allegory to be found in the pages of The Faerie Queene, a work that Christians should read deeply with a mind to profit from its wisdom. I hope you will join me in just that endeavor in “Protestant Allegory in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.”
Dr. Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.