Reading · Teaching

Layers like a cake, not like an onion: In Praise of Allegory

I love The Faerie Queene. There. I said it. I feel better.

I don’t have a horse in the Catholic/Protestant race, so I can read it without passion in that regard, but I do in the It’s All Connected race, and Spenser is ringing all my classical and medieval fangirl bells.

It’s a brilliant, sometimes hilarious compilation of previous works in service of a new narrative and a context where Spenser was interested in showing off his learning and skill. When I teach it, I scribble on the board an over-simplified equation that nonetheless helps students wrap their heads around it. Spenser uses classical epic conventions + medieval content + Protestant allegory to create the Faerie Queene.

I teach the third book (the story of Britomart, the knight of Chastity, and the only female knight) pretty regularly, but I haven’t had occasion to dive in to the rest of the book for many years.

It was right there waiting for me, as all the great books do.

Maybe that’s a definition of a classic—a text that waits for you, and when your crazy life lets you get back to it, it is every bit as delightful, surprising, and moving as it was when you first encountered it.

So the Faerie Queene….

Book I is the story of the Redcrosse Knight, the knight of Holiness. And it’s an allegory, right? So he IS holiness; he embodies holiness. But during the course of his quest, he is tested, he errs (literally!) from his path, and he needs to be rehabilitated; thus his faith is tempered. He is stronger than he was before.  

Redcrosse’s quest is to liberate Una’s (the One, True, i.e. Protestant Church) parents from the dragon.  But to focus on Redcrosse is to miss Una and her Perils of Pauline melodrama (or Penelope Pitstop, for 70s cartoon fans).

Una accompanies Redcrosse at the beginning, guiding him on his way (she knows where she lives; he doesn’t) and giving advice and encouragement. She’s lovely, really. And Holiness–in service to the One, True Church–defeats Error and her monstrous brood in the darkness of ignorance. So far, so good.

But even before the end of the first Canto, the wizard Archimago (Hypocrisy) sets deceptions in motion to raise doubts about Una’s virtue, and Redcrosse flees without her. Una wanders after him, alone and afraid, and in to her own adventures.

A lion tries to eat her. But as he gets close enough to see her, he is calmed and tamed by her… what… aura of goodness? Sure. He goes from wanting to eat her to giving his life to protect her; she’s that compelling a personage.

She is then claimed by Sans Loy (Lawlessness), who kills her lion and drags her off. She’s saved from him by a band of satrys, and saved from them by a mysterious half-satyr, half-human knight. It’s a little ridiculous, at least to a modern reader who can’t read Una among the satyrs as Princess Leia in the Ewok village.

And of course, Spenser is counting on his readers recognizing scenes, characters, and elements from other books like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and others. As a medievalist and a reader with a heavily annotated edition, those references are not lost on me, and there is a special pleasure in “getting the references” an author like Spenser drops. But what slays me is the pile of continued narratives since he wrote. My reading of The Faerie Queene is filled with moments of recognizing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel movies, Disney heroines, and countless other literary and pop culture references Spenser couldn’t have predicted but I can’t unsee.

Una will forever be the One, True Church, but also Princess Leia, Penelope Pitstop, even Eowyn the shield maiden from The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know if that would make Spenser spin in his grave, or if he’d think that all recognition was good recognition, but it sure makes for a delightful experience.

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar