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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 49-70
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William A. Oram
The worst thing that can happen to Spenser's characters is to get caught in an unnatural stasis, like the people in Dante's hell.
I. The Problem: Battles Going Nowhere
The first episode of The Faerie Queene comes to a temporary halt when the monster Errour wraps the Redcrosse Knight in her coils "That hand or foot to stire he stroue in vaine." 1 The image--an emblem of the mind immobilized by uncertainty and doubt--brilliantly embodies the issues of the subsequent book. But this onset of furious helplessness is not limited to Redcrosse's adventures. It appears repeatedly in The Faerie Queene--for instance, in book 3 when three forsters (foresters) ambush Arthur's Squire Timias while he is fording a river. One throws a "dart" that pierces his mail without wounding him:
That stroke the hardy Squire did sore displease,
But more that him he could not come to smite;
For by no means the high banke he could sease,
But labour'd long in that deepe ford with vaine disease.
In these resonant Spenserian lines, Timias is not (like Redcrosse) pinned but he is equally helpless. The "vaine disease" of his condition [End Page 49] (a particularly resonant phrase in The Faerie Queene, with its associations of sickness, restlessness, inconsequential activity) results from his laboring desperately in the ford without being able to do anything.
This recurrent stalemate distinguishes the battles in Edmund Spenser's long poem from those in other epics and romances. One might call the typical epic or romance battle teleological: its actions look toward a meaningful end. When, in the Aeneid, Turnus attacks Pallas, the point of the battle rests in the opponents' inequality and the pathos of Pallas's inevitable death. We see it moving toward its tragic outcome. Even when opponents are evenly matched, traditional narrative stresses the movement toward an eventual resolution of the conflict. It may not be clear who is winning, but it is clear that the battle is going somewhere. 2 Spenser, by contrast, shapes his battle scenes to stress their frustrating indeterminacy.
When Prince Arthur fights with Maleger--one of the longest combats of Spenser's poem--the frustration modulates toward terror. Maleger--supported by his minions Impotence and Impatience--shoots arrows at Arthur, who rides after him but finds that "labour lost it was, to weene approch him neare" (18.104.22.168). When he tries to exhaust Maleger's store of arrows, he finds that Impotence continues to gather them up for her master; the allegory suggests that Arthur's awareness of his own impotence further weakens him. Attempting to bind Impotence, he finds himself overthrown by Impatience: he's caught between knowledge of his weakness and his angry wish to be otherwise. Rescued by his Squire, Arthur manages to engage his enemy directly, only to find him unkillable. He smites him with his iron mace, rejoicing to see "all his labour brought to happie end" (22.214.171.124), but finds that end deferred when Maleger rises again. "Halfe in a maze with horror hideous / And halfe in rage, to be deluded thus," Arthur strikes him again with the same result (126.96.36.199-5).
His wonder farre exceeded reasons reach,
That he began to doubt his dazeled sight,
And oft of error did himselfe appeach:
Flesh without bloud, a person without spright,
Wounds without hurt, a bodie without might,
That could doe harme, yet could not harmed bee,
That could not die, yet seem'd a mortall wight,
That was most strong in most infirmitee;
Like did he neuer heare, like did he neuer see.
(2.11.40) [End Page 50]
Maleger is a walking riddle, but, unlike such incidents in, say, the Queste del Sante Graal, there is no hermit handy with an allegorical solution. Arthur will kill him again only to have him arise again, leaving the frustrated victor to think "his labour lost and...