Throughout “The Faerie Queene, Book 1,” a variety of tensions present themselves, some intended by the author, Edmund Spenser, and others perhaps unintentional yet very much present. The very nature of the poem lends to a strong tension, as it is a story that is written to portray the positive nature of Christian virtues while warning the reader against the danger of those virtues’ moral opposites.
One secondary tension inherent in such a morally allegorical tale is the pull between human nature and spiritual strength, which comes forth in various parts of the story. These are the most obvious tensions; however, other more subtle tensions exist in the story, creating a tale with numerous layers of understanding and perspective.
In the very first lines, we find a tension between Christian faith and a pre-Christian worldview in a story clearly written to promote Christian values. Before Edmund Spenser begins the tale of the knight of holiness, he refers to a muse who helped him in previous works and then calls on the aid of various muses to assist him in his writing, as he states,
“Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds …
Helpe then, O holy Virgin chiefe of nine,
Thy weaker Novice to performe thy will
Lay forth out of thine everlasting scryne
The antique rolles, which there lye hidden still.”
The author spends the first four verses asking for the assistance of various Muses rather than requesting the help or inspiration of God or angels, thus blending Greek mythology into a primarily Protestant poem before the tale even begins. This unexpected and perhaps even unintended tension is brought forth as Spenser uses an introduction similar to early Greek poets such as Virgil and Homer, who held pre-Christian beliefs and had a different worldview than that of Spenser.
In the fourth canto, Spenser deliberately uses tensions to describe the “house of Pride,” describing it as a place of unsurpassed beauty, yet it had no foundation:
“A stately Pallace built of squared bricke
Which cunningly was without mortar laid
Whose wals were high, but nothing strong, nor thick
And golden foile over them displaid.”
The stateliness of the palace juxtaposes its weak foundation. Parts of the palace were also old and crumbling but overlaid with gold paint to hide the ruination:
“And all the hinder parts, that few could spie
Were ruinous and old, but painted cunningly.”
Again, a tension is created between the beautiful appearance of the palace and its true nature. As this palace is an allegory for pride, Spenser’s intention was to portray the danger of entering a prideful state of mind – a perspective that makes one seem beautiful and strong but in reality lacks substance and is built on a false foundation. The admonition is clear that such a “house” (or palace) is doomed to fall.
In the ninth canto, the main character, Redcrosse, finds himself caught in a pull between despair and truth in his meeting with the character named Despair and his rescue by the fair Una (Truth) – two characters whose names describe their true nature.
Despair tempts Redcrosse to take his own life by telling him that those who died enjoy peace and surcease from life’s battles:
“Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease
And layes the soul to sleep in quiet grave?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.”
As Redcrosse succumbs to Despair’s perspective and prepares to drive a dagger into his own heart, Una wrests the knife from his hand, challenging him to continue his journey by saying:
“Come, come away, fraile, fleshly wight
Ne let vaine words bewitch thy manly hart …
In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part?
Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art?”
This third form of tension is created by the tale’s characters, yet expresses a deeper tension between human nature and spiritual strength, which the author portrays can only come through the avenue of truth. Redcrosse was ready to end his life and thus the struggle, yet Una convinced him to keep on fighting, reminiscent of biblical instruction to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12) and “keep the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
In a time when moral relativity is the virtue of the day, such strong tensions between good and evil, flesh and spirit, pride and humility, seem rather archaic and irrelevant. At the same time, these issues created the basis of much of our modern culture and aspects of them are still “hot topics” today. Although there are more than fifty shades of gray to choose from as we sort through issues of morality or virtue, the very fact that humanity cannot easily dismiss these tense issues altogether shows that there is more at play than mere opinion.
Edmund Spenser, through the tensions put forth in his stories, makes it clear that these contrasting issues are a part of what molds our culture and our very natures by the choices we make and the paths we follow.