Exploring the Allegorical Nature of the Faerie Queen
Exploring the Allegorical Nature of the Faerie Queen
An allegory – a form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons and actions in a narrative, in this case, The Faerie Queen, are equated with meanings lying outside the narrative itself – represent an abstraction in the guise of a concrete image, with characters often personifying abstract qualities. One way of looking at The Faerie Queen is that it is allegorical in a complex manner.
As a mode of writing in a still largely religious society (15th century England), viewing The Faerie Queen as an allegory allows the reader to perceive nature and history as in possession of hidden divine meanings capable of being revealed to the diligent, worthy seeker. Similar to the concept of a “sugar-coated pill” The Faerie Queen’s allegorical nature allows the author (Edmund Spenser) to conceal (largely moral) ideas from his readers and reveals them only to a deserving few who are able to go beyond appearances and recognize the truth for what it is.
One needs to work hard in unlocking the hidden meanings for comprehension brought about by diligence would be valued more by the human mind than one that is easily understood, i. e. Una had veiled herself until the Red Cross Knight had proven himself worthy of seeing her face at their betrothal. In the case of Duessa, the name itself seems to represent duality, duplicity in contrast to the one (Una) truth, as her role varies from one book to another.
In Book I she embodies religious falsehood while in Book V it is political falsehood, appearing in the guise of fair creatures until the facts of her foulness are uncovered much like literature’s Circe the witch and her cup of poison capable of altering her shape in her aim to entice and imprison her lovers. Spenser’s Duessa is distinctly English as she appears to be the fusion of the enchantress Circe with the biblical Whore of Babylon, i. e.
Catholicism in the eyes of Protestant (Elizabethan) England. Her role is largely limited to deceiving appearances and seducing the Red Cross Knight, supposedly representing the “false” religion of the Roman Catholic Church. As for Una, her identity is clarified with vices parodying “true” religion as she appears to represent the one, noble truth among the wilderness, a ‘woman clothed with the sun’ and whose beauty is a manifestation of Christ’s alluring grace.
As the personification of the “true” Church (the Church of England), she travels with the Red Cross Knight (supposedly representing England as its patron Saint George was said to have been a dragon slayer) in order to save her parents from a dragon. In keeping with the work’s religious tone, Una’s wanderings in the wilderness could be viewed in the biblical tradition as the Church fleeing the antichrist. Upon meeting her, the character of Abessa flees in terror of Una and her lion, which likely represents the justice wielded by Christ through the earthly executors of His will.
Una plays the role of the romantic heroine in need of a brave knight to rescue her from a moral and fickle fortune. She is the “truth” to the Red Cross Knight’s “nobility” yet they are separated, until such a time when they overcome their respective obstacles and prove themselves worthy of a blessed union. Her character is made to wander, and in Cantos 3 and 6 it is made clear that her progress through the natural world is upward. Her encounter with Arthur helps her better understand her plight and what needs to be done for her to be able to transcend her suffering and misery.
In a way, one could argue that Arthur represents divine intervention or simply providence lending a hand to strengthen our moral resolve at the time of darkest human frailty. Whereas Una represents the one truth, Duessa is the living, breathing duplicity in Faerie Queen. The Red Cross Knight as he descends the world of society (Cantos 4 and 5) in the company of Duessa is capable of seeing only surfaces. She is deceptive, but does that make her necessarily evil?
There is no doubt that Una personifies the good yet though Duessa might be her antithesis, it is harder to ascertain whether she is out rightly evil or merely duplicitous. After all, human beings certainly err from time to time, we are both deceived and deceivers in our own way, yet we are not condemned so easily as evil personified or offspring of Satan. But since we are talking of allegories in The Faerie Queen written to glorify the reign of Elizabeth I of England, one has to note the seeming need to vilify Catholicism, symbolized by Duessa, as the deceptive enemy to England’s Anglican Church symbolized by Una.
Representing truth, Una remains veiled for most of the poem, uncovering herself only when the Red Cross Knight is finally betrothed to her (Canto 12) and when she is all by herself ‘farre from all mens sight’ (3:4). In the same way as that of the House of Holiness, her ‘gates’ remain closed for fear of being raped for her beauty. The rationale for this is that truth as a prize of great worth remains vulnerable to exploitation, epitomized in the image of Una’s virginity, ‘that stubborn forte’ (6:3) which needs to be safeguarded until such time when she is ready to relinquish it to someone worthy of her.
When she is finally unveiled, her beauty is described as blinding – ‘The blazing brightness of her beauties beame’ (12:23) – to lend credence that truth is not for the faint-hearted, and in the occasion that it appears to the common people is needs to wear a veil as truth cannot be conveyed directly for it tends to blind its audience. Finally, for all its power truth is clothed in simplicity and naturalness. In contrast to Duessa’s garb of garments ‘gilt and gorgeous gold arayd’ (5: 26), Una enters ‘under a vele, that wimpled was full low.
’ Duplicity is fond of shows and of parading itself – Duessa is set upon a seven-headed beast – yet truth does not need fancy outer garments to conceal its natural splendor. She is able to tame the lion, which recognizes Una’s beauty and goodness and responds to her overtures accordingly, while it seems to be able to discern Duessa’s true nature despite her lovely appearance. 15th century Elizabethan England placed great value on a woman’s virtues, e. g. chastity, fidelity, etc.
and this is appropriately manifested by Una who steadfastly safeguards her virginity, in contrast to Duessa who takes great pleasure in seducing men with her feminine wiles. Una represents chaste love which waits for the right time, that is, in the context of marriage, before engaging in sexual liaisons. Duessa is an entirely different matter – she takes pleasure in her power over men through her sexuality. Of course for the conservative sexual mores of the time this was despicable in a woman – she would easily be labeled as a whore.
A woman during those times was viewed slightly better than property, first as belonging to her father, then to her husband, and her worth in the marriage market was often viewed in relation to her maidenhood, aside from the size of her dowry. Nowadays though, society has a more liberal view on the roles of women, their functions in society and how they are expected to act, and it would be harder to categorically generalize women as simply being the marriageable kind or those whom men should only dally with.
Also, the influence of religion has significantly waned – it no longer plays such a central role in the lives of most people. Thus, modern-day interpretations of The Faerie Queen would not necessarily take a kind view of Spencer’s illustration of women, particularly if one utilizes the feminist perspective in critically analyzing the said work. Work Cited: Spencer, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. London: Penguin Classics, 1979.