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.

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