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BRITOMART IN BOOK V OF THE FAERIE QUEENE ELIZABETH BIEMAN The fifth book of The Faerie Queene has probably drawn more unjustified critical censure than any other of the six books. The warrior-maiden, Britomart, although more likely to be admired than the book in which Spenser ends her adventures, falls victim almost as readily to critical undervaluation. The reason for both kinds of error may be found in this: although in the fifth book the figure of Britomart attains poetic completion and furnishes an ameliorating grace in the presence of harsh historical fact, critics usually have not noted the full significance of her presence there. We may easily see why_Any critic of a work as extended and complex as The Faerie Queene must choose some specific path of inquiry. A number of premises, correct enough in themselves, have offered access to the study of Britomart, or to the study of the Book of Justice. Britomart is the Knight of Chastity in Book III and chief of the many knights of Friendship in Book IV_ Artegall is the Knight of Justice in Book V. Books III and IV deal with modes of love. Book V deals with facts of history. Too often the divergent paths from such starting points have failed to meet in the maze of the epic. Examples of the consequences in current scholarship come readily to mind. In a book-length study one critic has confined his examination of the image of Britomart to the Books of Chastity and Friendship and, not surprisingly in the light of that limitation, has found her an unreal character' A recent article upon the Temple of Isis passage in Canto VII of Book V demonstrates its author's specifically historical approach. He writes upon "Elizabeth at Isis' Church."2 Yet at the Temple of Isis Spenser glorifies his most fully-drawn human figure in a dream both numinous and psychologically valid. That figure is Britomart, not Elizabeth the Queen. Granted, the history of Spenser's own time has an especial importance in Book V_ But the mine of contemporary allusion-still clearly not exhausted-should not be permitted to attract more than its just share of Volume XXXVll, N1tmber 2, January, 1968 BRITOMART IN The Faerie Queene 157 critical attention. The result of so much study of the historical allegory in Book V has been the unwarranted separation in critical consciousness of this "stony plateau'" from the rest of faeryland, that imaginary world in which moral and cosmic allegories are seen to unfold. There is a fitting although probably gratuitous irony in the present critical problem, that of grasping the import of Britomart's presence in the Book of History. In the world of the quotidian- which is the world of the fifth book as well as the world the reader wakes to each morningreason is notably prone to dismiss any visionary experience as dangerous or irrelevant. To the visionary, of course, a vision may be a little dangerous even when shared vicariously through the mirror of a poem. But to the critic, seeking to comprehend the poetic world in which the vision occurs, a more real danger lies in neglecting as irrelevant such stuff as Britomart 's crucial experience in the Temple of Isis. In studying Book V, we must apply the tools of analysis not just to the facts of history but to the given dream, and to those adventures in the book which prepare the reader to understand the dream. Having suggested some of my motives, I propose to read in this paper those parts of Book V that serve to develop an appreciation of the function of the figure of Britomart within it. Certain of the passages will concern Artegall, both because the meanings of the Book of Justice are defined in his character, and because as Britomart's betrothed he functions as her schematic complement. We should recall at the outset that Spenser has delineated in the earlier books many functions, active and passive, masculine and feminine, in the figure of the warrior-maiden, Britomart. During her various adventures as Knight of Chastity, she has frustrated or defeated figures representing types of unchastity or unwholesomeness in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 156-174
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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