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Singing of Knights and Ladies: Flows of Virtue in Book One of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

By Haider Ali

Spenser, as he opens Book One of The Faerie Queene, finds himself “enforst a farre unfitter taske, / For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine [his] Oaten reeds: / And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds” (0.1.3-5).^1 Adopting the tropes of the chivalric romance while leaving behind the pastoral—taking up ‘trumpets sterne’ to ‘chaunge’ his ‘Oaten reeds’—Spenser announces his intention to ‘sing’ of both ‘Knights’ and ‘Ladies’. That is, from the opening of The Faerie Queene, the reader is introduced to the possibility of an equal weight assigned to the signifying terms, ‘Knights’ and ‘Ladies’. Yet, writing to Walter Raleigh of his intentions with The Faerie Queene, Spenser remarks that “The first [book] [is] of the knight of the Redcrosse, in whome I expresse Holynes” (“LR” 207). The central virtue of Book One, ‘Holynes’, is embodied—‘expresse[d]’—by ‘the knight’. It here appears as though Spenser centres the knight figure as the bearer of virtue, at least in his stated vision for Book One. This centring is in line with what takes place in Book One, though only insofar as the knight is a surface upon which virtue may be recorded, but also, critically, an agent that may enact it—the virtue being otherwise instructed by the figure of the lady, in this case Una.

What I will argue is that Spenser, in Book One of The Faerie Queene, constructs the knight figure as an identity symbiotic with the lady figure, the latter being an otherness that intervenes to direct the path of knighthood towards virtue. That is not to say that the lady becomes the centre of Spenser’s project; rather, the knight and the lady enter a mutualistic relation, with the former accomplishing—bringing into being—the virtue instructed by the latter through his agency.^2 To demonstrate this point, I will consider the following aspects of Book One of The Faerie Queene: (1) knighthood as performance; (2) the knight’s fall due to this performance; (3) the lady’s corrective intervention on the fallen knight; (4) the recording of virtue on the knight; and (5) the knight’s victory as an affirmation of the accomplishment of his virtue.

1. The performance of knighthood: Redcrosse, the everyman

Redcrosse is introduced to Spenser’s reader as a common man who has adopted the garb of the knight—and therein we may detect an element of performativity, at least at the onset of The Faerie Queene, in Redcrosse’s role as Una’s chosen knight. As Redcrosse enters the poem, “Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,” the reader is made aware that “armes till that time did he [Redcrosse] never wield” (FQ1 1.1.2, 5). A disjunction emerges between the projected image of Redcrosse and the reality veiled by said projection. Although ‘Ycladd’ in the weapons and armour of a knight, Redcrosse has not yet earned his image, seeing as he has ‘never wield[ed]’ such ‘armes’ up until this point. Though Redcrosse seems a knight, he is merely an everyman figure, for all intents and purposes—he is untested. Indeed, as the speaker proceeds with the exposition of the allegorical narrative, he remarks, on Redcrosse, that “ever as he rode his hart did earne / To prove his puissance in battell brave / Upon his foe, and his new force to learne” (1.3.6-8). Redcrosse’s ‘earn[ing]’ in this instance involves a ‘prov[ing]’ of ‘puissance’: since he has yet ‘to learne’ of ‘his new force’—that is, knighthood—he is, as it stands, waiting for a test, which awaits him in the form of the “Dragon horrible and stearne” (1.3.9). Here, Spenser establishes initial and terminal points in Redcrosse’s character arc: he begins as an inexperienced knight who must, eventually, test himself against a ‘horrible and stearne’ foe in the form of the Dragon. The question of how Redcrosse arrives at this terminal point of inhabiting knighthood from his initial performative inexperience is impressed upon the reader, becoming a motive force for the plot.

I emphasise Redcrosse’s performance of knighthood because, so long as Redcrosse is in this state, he is unable to champion the central virtue of holiness for Una. For instance, as Una urges Redcrosse, “Sir knight, with-hold, till further tryall made,” the latter overconfidently asserts, “‘Ah Ladie’ (said he) ‘shame were to revoke, / The forward footing for an hidden shade’” (1.12.6, 7-8). Una’s insistence encourages restraint: she imparts the necessity of ‘with-hold[ing]’ until ‘further tryall’ is undergone. She promotes a methodical approach, rather than a brash rush into battle, towards ‘an hidden shade’. Redcrosse, however, fears the ‘shame’ of taking back his ‘forward footing’ towards Errour’s den; his misplaced sense of pride, that is, manifests at this moment as an inability to recognise the potential flaws of his mindset. Instead of considering Una’s words of caution, he trusts that the supposed virtuosity of his actions will lend him success, no matter what awaits in the ‘hidden shade’. Of course, Redcrosse proceeds to state that “‘Vertue gives her selfe light, through darkenesse for to wade’” (1.12.9). A scansion of this line would reveal a double trochee followed by four iambs, as I depict below:

´ ˘ | ´ ˘ | ˘ ´ | ˘ ´ | ˘ ´ | ˘ ´ |

This sonic structure generates a tone of confidence insofar as it begins with a tonic stress on ‘Vertue,’ underlined in my visual demonstration above. At the same time, since the consecutive non-stressed syllables between the second and third feet achieve a sonic separation of the line into two parts, the emphasis on ‘Vertue’ is intensified. Indeed, by emphasising ‘Vertue’ with a tonic stress, Redcrosse demonstrates a conviction in his spiritual righteousness in the face of Errour’s den. The fact that the line initiates and terminates with stressed syllables, moreover, adds to this soundscape of spiritual self-assurance. However, due to this same construction, ‘Vertue’ as a signifier is separated sonically from ‘light’. Redcrosse’s confidence as a knight, despite his inexperience, leads to his distancing from the ‘light’ that defines ‘Vertue’: he is barred from the essence of the signifier that he embraces. This can be read as a separation from Una, who, as discussed, urges Redcrosse to be methodical. According to Kaske, Una “exercises a private influence as his [Redcrosse’s] guide, the true church… or more inwardly, his own divine spark, or the indwelling Christ or Holy Spirit” (Kaske xix). It is the ‘indwelling’ divinity—the ‘light’—that Redcrosse must find, in other words. Una, for that matter, becomes the key to unlocking this ‘light,’ insofar as that is her allegorical position. Although Redcrosse ultimately succeeds against Errour in this situation, the establishment of his hubris returns in the form of his spiritual corruption at the hands of false lady figures, in later cantos of Book One. This hubris sets up his separation from Una, who remains the light of spirituality.

2. From performativity to spiritual collapse: Redcrosse, corrupted

Redcrosse, because he is only performing knighthood at the beginning of The Faerie Queene, is, even worse, easily led astray from Una’s virtuosity by the forces of evil, an arc that can be mapped from Archimago’s deceptions to Redcrosse’s arrival at Lucifera’s palace, the House of Pride. Archimago’s machinations lead Redcrosse to view a “false couple… Which when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire, / The eie of reason was with rage yblent” (FQ1 2.5.4, 6-7). Redcrosse here misrecognises Una, mirrored by one of Archimago’s sprites, as partaking in adultery; however, instead of working through the scene rationally and trusting in Una’s virtue, Redcrosse immediately turns against her. Indeed, upon viewing this ‘false couple’, Redcrosse undergoes two key transformations: he is ‘burnt’ in a ‘gealous fire’ and his ‘eie of reason’ is ‘with rage yblent’. These images of engulfment—a ‘fire’ consumes his body and anger is ‘yblent’ into his ‘eie’—convey that Redcrosse has been overwhelmed, or engulfed, by his emotions. Consequently, he leaves Una, the light of the Church, behind, and begins wandering, literally and spiritually. Cleaved from Una—cut off from that flow of virtue—Redcrosse’s fall into corruption begins.

In the fourth canto, Redcrosse arrives with Duessa at the House of Pride, reigned over by Lucifera, an incarnation of Satan-as-Lucifer. The very entry into the domain of Lucifera qua devil represents Redcrosse’s entry into vice—he is in the early stages of his fall into vice. The culminating point of Redcrosse’s time at the House of Pride transpires when he defeats Sansjoy, before Lucifera: “Wherewith he [Redcrosse] goeth to that soveraine Queene, / And falling her before on lowly knee, / To her makes present of his service seene” (5.16.1-2). The fact that Redcrosse ‘fall[s]’ before Lucifera—an avatar of Satan—to give her a ‘present’ in the form of his ‘service’ reflects his yielding to sin: he is placed on a ‘lowly’ altitude relative to Lucifera, deferring to her supposed royalty. It is no longer the divine, or God more precisely, that is exalted, but rather Lucifera, the hellish.

This fall into sin can be tracked on a more specific level as well, through Redcrosse’s encounter with the cardinal sins of Gluttony and Sloth. For instance, after agreeing to fight Sansjoy, Redcrosse becomes the beneficiary of these two cardinal sins:

The night they pas in joy and jollity,
Feasting and courting both in bowre and hall;
For steward was excessive Gluttony,
That of his plenty poured forth to all;
Which doen, the Chamberlain Sloth did to rest them call. (

Having agreed to face Sansjoy at the House of Pride, Redcrosse spends the night indulging in sin: he is served the ‘plenty’ of ‘Gluttony’ and provided a place of rest by ‘Sloth’. Being the guest of these cardinal sins, Redcrosse’s severance from Una is made painfully apparent: he is no longer in the bounds of the Church—Una—but in the unbounded, pleasure-driven realm of sin, courtesy of Lucifera. These indulgences in ‘Gluttony’ and ‘Sloth’ return in more concrete manners later in The Faerie Queene. After Redcrosse nearly defeats Sansjoy, only for the latter to be vanished by Duessa, the narrator elaborates on Redcrosse’s psychical state: “Not all so satisfied, with greedy eye / He sought all round about, his thirsty blade / To bathe in blood of faithlesse enimy” (5.15.1). Although Redcrosse defeats Sansjoy, he is not ‘satisfied’, to the extent that his ‘blade’ remains ‘thirsty’ for Sansjoy’s ‘blood’. He is ‘greedy’ for this ‘blood’. The signifier ‘bathe’ is particularly telling, recalling the imagery of engulfment that marked Redcrosse’s first wavering from Una and holiness. However, this choice of signifier also permits a reading of said imagery in the context of excess, of gluttony, since this takes place after Redcrosse’s entry into the House of Pride. Redcrosse’s unquenched desire, his ‘greedy eye’ for more ‘blood’, that is, stems from his newfound gluttony. Sloth is also concretised to show Redcrosse’s spiritual corruption. After leaving the House of Pride, Redcrosse arrives at a fountain associated with lethargy: “To rest him selfe, foreby a fountaine syde, / Disarmed all of yron-coted Plate… Eftsoones his manly forces gan to fayle” (7.2.7-8, 6.4). At this ‘fountaine syde’, Redcrosse reaches his weakest point spiritually, going so far as to be ‘Disarmed’ of his knightly garb—his ‘yron-coted Plate’. By indulging in sloth, first encountered in the House of Pride, Redcrosse loses himself as a knight and is reduced to his material body as a man. His knightly ‘manly forces’ even ‘fayle’, as he stops performing knighthood. Redcrosse’s spiritual corruption is complete: he no more resembles a champion of virtue, territorialised as his body is by sin. He is indeed a recording surface, but one recorded with sins like gluttony and slot—and these sins are what he qua agent enacts thereafter, as demonstrated.

3. The intervention of the lady: Redcrosse, rescued

 At this point of spiritual failure, Redcrosse loses his agency and requires divine intervention, manifested in Una. Indeed, Redcrosse even gives up his knightly apparel—and therein his performance of knighthood—submitting instead to Duessa:

Yet goodly court he made still to his Dame,
Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd,
Both carelesse of his health, and of his fame:
Till at the last he heard a dreadfull sownd. (7.7.1-4)

Kaske describes this encounter as a sexual consummation of Redcrosse and Duessa’s relationship since Redcrosse becomes ‘carelesse of his health’—which would suggest the risk of venereal disease (Kaske 104n4). Even if we choose not to read the encounter quite that way, it nevertheless stands that Redcrosse engages on an intimate, physical level with Duessa, making ‘goodly court’ unto her. The relation is one of ‘loosnesse’ and ‘carelessse[ness]’, befitting Redcrosse’s loss of principle, which is to say his territorialisation by sin. Notably, just as Redcrosse reaches this spiritual low, he also hears ‘a dreadfull sownd’, that of Orgoglio. A link is formed between a submission to falseness, Duessa, and the arrival of presumptuousness, which is Orgoglio’s allegorical position. To play on this, we might say that Redcrosse himself becomes orgoglioso—Orgoglio—when his spirituality fails.^3 Hugh Maclean reinforces this reading of Orgoglio:

That the name of Orgoglio (whose ‘uncouth mother’ was Earth, vii 9) contains the root of the knight’s name, Georgos (in the Golden Legend interpreted as ‘tilling the earth, that is his flesh’ ed 1900, 3:125) supports the view that Orgoglio is in some sense the fallen state of Redcrosse. (The Spenser Encylopedia 1361)

Having “sojourn[ed] in Lucifera’s house of Pride” and having had a “dalliance with Duessa,” Redcrosse is denied his status as a knight and falls into a state of being orgoglioso (1361). Yet, I shall maintain, to use Maclean’s terms, that this fallenness is vital to the “Christian quest for regenerate self-realization” (1361). Redcrosse’s fall is the necessary condition for his reinstruction and reorientation by Una towards the light of holiness, since it is only from a fallen position that said light can be distinguished as light (contra darkness). Moreover, without his fall, Redcrosse could not serve as a model of moral instruction for the layman, fallen as the latter is according to Christian theology.

Una, as Redcrosse’s true lady, intervenes amidst this territorialisation of sin on Redcrosse, reorienting him towards virtue. In this vein, Una catalyses Redcrosse’s spiritual salvation. The speaker opens the eighth canto of Book One by remarking on man’s fallen state: “Ay me, how many perils doe enfold / The righteous man, to make him daily fall, / Were not that heavenly grace doth him uphold” (FQ1 8.1.1-3). Worldly ‘perils’ batter the ‘righteous man’—Redcrosse being the specific instance from which this generalisation arises—and reinforce a state of fallenness with ‘daily fall[s]’. However, ‘heavenly grace’ allows for the ‘uphold[ing]’ of the ‘righteous man’: divine intervention permits the virtue of the ‘righteous man’ to persist despite the ‘perils’ it encounters. Should we recall Kaske’s characterisation of Una as the light of the Church, we may transpose this meditation on human life that opens the eighth canto to Redcrosse and Una’s relation: the fallen knight, Redcrosse, needs divine light, Una, in order to remain ‘upright’. This dependency is elucidated later in the canto: after Una and Arthur save Redcrosse from Orgoglio, Redcrosse admits to the former, “This daies ensample hath this lesson deare / Deepe written in my heart with yron pen” (8.44.7-8). The writing metaphor is telling: the ‘ensample’ of the day—the fall of Redcrosse to Orgoglio, and Una and Arthur’s subsequent rescuing of Redcrosse—is ‘written’ into Redcrosse’s ‘heart’ like a ‘lesson’. Una’s first intervention, in other words, counters the annexation of Redcrosse’s spirit by sin by rewriting his heart, to some extent. Una rightfully notes that this is merely the beginning of the process, responding to Redcrosse: “Henceforth Sir knight, take to you wonted strength, / And maister these mishaps with patient might” (8.45.1-2). Una does not let Redcrosse remain at the level of the lesson; rather, the onus on Redcrosse is to now ‘maister’ his ‘mishaps’. That is, the ‘lesson deare’ is insufficient: Redcrosse must ‘maister’ whatever is inscribed upon him by Una, not remain a recording surface. It is a matter of combining instruction with action—it is a matter of praxis.

The process of penance and spiritual recovery is far more linear: Una’s involvement in Redcrosse’s arc does not end at a mere urging of praxis, but requires more direct interventions, such as in the episode of Despair. Despair, after conversing with Redcrosse, eventually argues, “Is not his lawe, Let every sinner die: / Die shall all flesh? what then must needs be donne, / Is it not better to doe willinglie” (9.47.5-7). The rhetorical question posed by Despair uses God, designated by ‘his’, to justify despair and suicide. As ‘his’ order is the death of sinners—and of course in Spenser’s theology we are all fallen, filled with the Original Sin and further worldly sins—Despair argues that it ought to be followed. Suicide, he suggests, is merely an expedited means of obeying this order. Redcrosse, just rescued from his fallen state by Una and Arthur, is quite susceptible to such logic, which “in his conscience made a secrete breach… / As he were charmed with inchaunted rimes, / That oftentimes he quakt, and fainted oftentimes” (9.48.3, 8-9). Despair’s ‘inchaunted rimes’, in other words distortions of God’s words, achieve a ‘secrete breach’ of Redcrosse’s ‘conscience’, allowing for the eruption of guilt—guilt for his recent sins. This guilt is consequently converted into physical symptoms: Redcrosse ‘quak[es]’ and ‘faint[s]’ after internalising Despair’s ‘rimes’, indicating the success of Despair’s machinations through his body. His interiority is here externalised. Una recognises as much, such that when Redcrosse takes Despair’s knife to commit suicide, she intervenes: “Out of his hand she snatcht the cursed knife” (9.52.4). The verb ‘snatcht’, ascribed to Una, reinforces how Redcrosse, still spiritually weak, depends on Una’s active interventions to remain on a righteous path. Una must additionally admonish his mental fragility, and therein offer more spiritual instruction: “In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part? / Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art?” (9.53.4-5). With these lines, Una reclaims the words of God from the perversions of Despair: she assures Redcrosse that he is amongst the kingdom of God, that he does have ‘a part’ in ‘heavenly mercies’. Redcrosse belongs in the kingdom of God, no matter his sins, and Una’s words force him to consciously acknowledge as much. The fact that Redcrosse still relies on Una to prevent his spiritual self-destruction—which would be the outcome of suicide, being the major sin that it is in Christianity—shows that it is only with a strong grounding in religious instruction that one may begin religious praxis. Fittingly, the two venture to the House of Holiness for this purpose hereafter.

4. From vice to virtue: Redcrosse, restored

The recording of virtue onto Redcrosse thus mainly takes place in the House of Holiness, wherein he is re-coded according to the virtues of Caelia’s daughters: faith, hope, and charity. Una, again, is instrumental to this process, as the narrator reveals: “Fayre Una gan Fidelia fayre request, / To have her knight into her schoolehous plaste… / And heare the wisedom of her wordes divine” (10.18.3-4, 6). It is Una who makes a ‘request’ of Fidelia to take on Redcrosse as a student—insofar as he would enter ‘into her schoolehous plaste’—so that he may ‘heare the wisedom of her wordes divine’. In this instance, divine ‘wordes’ must overwrite the sins in Redcrosse, such as his acceptance of the “inchaunted rimes” of Despair (9.48.8). Words must force out words. However, this initial evacuation of sin leads to Redcrosse abhorring what he sees as the “wretched world” (10.21.4). Fidelia’s rendering into ‘wordes’ the nature of the ‘divine’ brings Redcrosse to a point of losing hope in the prospects of earthly life: it is far too ‘wretched’, or spiritually impoverished, relative to the heavenly, in which his faith has presumably been strengthened by Fidelia. This new form of despair is resolved by the entry of Speranza, or hope: “But wise Speranza gave him [Redcrosse] comfort sweet, / And taught him how to take assured hold / Upon her silver anchor, as was meet” (10.22.1-3). Once more, Redcrosse must be ‘taught’ something; he is still, as of now, a recording surface for virtue. With Speranza, it is a matter of learning how to be ‘assured’ in himself as an earthly being; that is, to take ‘comfort sweet’ by maintaining his hope in God’s goodness, symbolised by Speranza’s  ‘silver anchor’. To finish his instruction, Redcrosse must turn to Charissa, or charity:

During which time, in every good behest
And godly worke of Almes and charitee
Shee [Charissa] him instructed with great industree;
Shortly therein so perfect he became. (10.45.3-6)

The lexicon of education carries on here, with Redcrosse being ‘instructed with great industree’, the focus at this point being on ‘Almes and charitee’. What is critical about this moment in Redcrosse’s spiritual education is that he finally becomes ‘so perfect’. He is now fully re-coded according to the virtues of the House of Holiness, a channel accessed through the actions of Una.

Near the end of the tenth canto, however, Spenser’s reader is refamiliarised with the importance of praxis as a realisation of instruction: Redcrosse’s instruction is yet without praxis, and he seems hesitant to bring it to that point. Nohrnberg, in The Analogy of ‘The Faerie Queene’, writes: 

The ‘succour’ that Redcrosse receives from Arthur is also available at the House of Holiness. In fact, the hero of each book visits such a ‘house’—an Alma Mater devoted to the nurture and support of his virtue. This house functions to expound the symbolism of the virtue, and it therefore naturally occasions the hero’s self-recognition in the first installment. (75)

As Nohrnberg notes, the House of Holiness is ‘devoted to the nurture and support of his [Redcrosse’s] virtue’, being a site that symbolises said ‘virtue’ in order to bring the knight to a point of ‘self-recognition’ and, thereby, self-improvement. While the reader may be confident in Redcrosse’s acquisition of the virtues allegorised by Caelia’s daughters, the fact that Redcrosse resists praxis is also apparent—and so it is clear that the ‘self-recognition’ that Nohrnberg writes of has not been attained by Redcrosse. In this vein, Redcrosse says to Contemplation, after seeing New Jerusalem in all its grandeur—which is beyond linguistic symbolisation for the speaker—“‘O let me not’ (quoth he) ‘then turne againe / Back to the world, whose joyes so fruitlesse are, / But let me heare for aie in peace remaine” (FQ1 10.63.1-3). Instruction in holiness has led Redcrosse to a point of desiring only what is holy, to the extent that a ‘turne again’ to ‘the world’ is loathsome, as lacking as said ‘world’ is in ‘joyes’. Instead of becoming a champion of his newly-learned virtues, Redcrosse becomes complacent: he wishes to ‘in peace remaine’ at the House of Holiness. This would entail, naturally, a failure to accomplish the virtues inscribed upon him through direct action in the world. Contemplation lambastes this position, insofar as virtue severed from accomplishment is virtue unfulfilled: “‘That may not be’ (said he) ‘ne maist thou yitt / Forgoe that royal maides bequeathed care, / Who did her cause into thy hand committ’” (10.63.6-8). Contemplation reminds Redcrosse of the importance of the earthly. Since Redcrosse is bound to the world, namely in his responsibilities to Una, whose ‘cause’ he had ‘committ[ed]’ to his ‘hand’, he cannot simply leave everything for the sake of divine contemplation by the side of Contemplation. To do so would, on one hand, sever him from Una, the light who enabled his spiritual salvation, and, on the other, prevent Redcrosse from enacting and proving his virtue through Una’s ‘cause’ that is in his ‘hand’. Redcrosse, rather, must leave Contemplation—both the character and the state of mind—if he is to truly accomplish his holiness. He must not ‘Forgoe’ the ‘cause’ to which he did ‘committ’ himself: the vanquishing of the Dragon. Accepting this position, Redcrosse finally “c[o]me[s] to Una,” prepared to face the Dragon (10.68.6). The knight and the lady, holiness and light, are reunited—the recording surface is ready to become an agent.

5. From instruction to praxis: Redcrosse qua holiness

Redcrosse, through his instruction in virtue by Una and the House of Holiness, but also his experiences with sin, emerges as a champion of holiness, capable of facing the Dragon and thereby accomplishing the virtue recorded upon him. The Dragon is contextualised as “swoln with wrath, and poison, and with bloody gore” (11.8.9). This lexical constellation of wickedness—the ‘wrath’, ‘poison’, and ‘gore’—elevates the Dragon to an embodiment of pure evil. He is indeed ‘swoln’ with these qualities—in other words, brimming with them physically. When the Dragon faces Redcrosse, fire is a central motif: for instance, the Dragon sends a “flake of fire” whose “scorching flame sore swinged his [Redcrosse’s] face, / And through his armour all his body seard” (11.26.4, 6-7). Kaske reads this as a matter of temptation intruding upon Redcrosse. Yet, how might this be possible, given Redcrosse’s supposed perfection in the House of Holiness? Kaske writes, in “The Dragon’s Spark and Sting”:

One defect that is ineradicable, according to Christian moralists from St. Paul to Richard Hooker, is ‘concupiscence’ or ‘lust’—comprising both those involuntary impulses (‘first motions’) and that general proneness toward sin (‘corruption of nature’, or the fomes peccati) springing inevitably from the corrupted bodies we all inherit from Adam… [C]oncupiscence could be symbolized appropriately by a spark or a sting. (610)

Kaske understands the ‘flake of fire’ emitted by the Dragon to carry the suggestion of concupiscence, which is an ‘ineradicable’ defect, insofar as it penetrates Redcrosse’s armour and ‘all his body seard’. He is burning in the fire of this fundamental sin, encountered in the incarnation of evil that is the Dragon. In an opposing register, though, fire can be read more optimistically: “Fire, the active principle of burning, was recognized early by Israel as a purifying agent” (Crawford 176). Here, the fire, more than manifesting a sin, also carries the possibility of purification. Both these perspectives are justifiable: Redcrosse’s encounter with fire-as-sin pushes him to such pain that he wishes to shed his armour—an image of succumbing to said sin—but this same fire also leads him to the “The well of life,” where he is renewed (FQ1 11.28-30; 11.29.9).

Redcrosse overcomes this fire—he is in this manner purified—given that he wins the support of the divine, evident through certain miracles. After being nearly defeated by the Dragon for the second time, the speaker says of Redcrosse, “Then freshly arose the doughty knight, / All healed of his hurts and woundes wide” (11.52.1-2). Just as Arthur is saved from Orgoglio by a sudden intervention from the divine, so is Redcrosse miraculously able to ‘freshly ar[i]se… / healed of his hurts and woundes wide’ (8.19). Despite his near-death condition, the divine does save Redcrosse—and this intervention is representative of Redcrosse’s success in facing at once an external enemy, the Dragon, and an internal enemy, the last vestiges of sin within him. He has earned divine intervention, precisely because he now champions holiness. Subsequently, Redcrosse “Ran through his [the Dragon’s] mouth with so importune might… / And back retyrd, his life blood forth with all did draw” (11.53.7, 9). Redcrosse’s final defeat of the Dragon, an agent of evil, positions him as an agent of holiness, one who has accomplished this virtue—externalised the internalised teachings—through his knightly valour. To be sure, it is only because he has arrived at the point of accomplishing this virtue, engaging in praxis, that he can win the divine’s favour and defeat so powerful an enemy, who would have otherwise slain him.Spenser’s conversion of a common man performing knighthood into a champion of holiness—as per his stated intentions for Redcrosse in the “Letter to Raleigh”—achieves the broader aim that Spenser writes of, to Raleigh: “The generall end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” (“LR” 205). Though Redcrosse falls from virtue, he nevertheless, albeit with difficulty, rises from his fallen state and becomes the embodiment of holiness. In this manner, Redcrosse becomes a figure idealisable by the layman, who too is inevitably marred by sin, insofar as the latter may take a model in the former: no matter how far lost one is to sin, one may return to the divine. Yet, this is not so simple a task, naturally: Redcrosse’s redemption is only possible because of divine instruction through Una, his lady, who records onto him the virtue that he later accomplishes through his agency, in her service. Spenser consequently demonstrates a fundamental symbiosis between the knight and the lady figure of the chivalric romance—a mutualism, whereby both parties benefit from one another. The love relation, that is, is a pathway towards holiness. This relation is the fundamental dynamic that drives Spenser’s first book of The Faerie Queene, combining a chivalric romance trope with Christian theology, all in the formal structure of the heroic epic.

  1.  This and all following quotations from Book One of The Faerie Queene follow the Hackett edition, edited by Carol V. Kaske (2006). I will abbreviate Book One as FQ1, when necessary. Since I will only be citing from Book One, my in-text citations shall use a canto-stanza-line number format. Citations from “The Letter to Raleigh,” in the same book, will be identified as “LR,” while any material from Kaske will be evident by my use of her name.
  2.  My use of ‘accomplishing’ follows Heidegger’s, in “Letter on Humanism.” There, Heidegger writes, “To accomplish means to unfold something into the fullness of its essence, to lead it forth into this fullness—producere” (193).
  3.  Orgoglioso is the Italian form of the adjective ‘proud’.

Works Cited

Crawford, John W. “The Fire from Spenser’s Dragon: ‘The Faerie Queene,’ I.XI.” In The South Central Bulletin vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 176–78. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell and translated by Frank A. Capuzzi with J. Glenn Gray. Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008.

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