Sunday, May 11, 2014

Monstrous Women - Faerie Queene - Book 1, Canto 1

Works of Spenser
The text
Now into the meat of the poem. Happily, Spenser gives us the Cliff Notes version at the head of the canto.
The Patrone of true Holinesse
Foule Errour doth defeate :
Hypocrisie, him to entrap,
Doth to his home entreate.
There it is in four lines. Now that we know what happens. Which is good, because Spenser starts the canto with the lines
A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Which makes me respond, "he's doing what?" But after some verses in which we find that he was sent on an adventure by Queen Elizabeth, or at least her allegorical form as Gloriana, "Glorious Queene of Faery-lond," we are right into the realms of high fantasy.

We have the Knight of the Red Crosse, a Lady, and her servant, a Dwarf. They take refuge from the rain in a wood, that initially seems lovely, but soon becomes a confusing set of paths. Going for the obvious: they are lost.

This means something to the Lady, who realizes that they are in "the wandering wood, this Errours den." It goes from bad to worse. No one told me we were getting a Ray Harryhausen movie. I want to see Errour on the big screen, preferably in 3D. Because Errour is
Halfe like a serpent horribly displayed,
But th'other half did womans shape retaine,
And it only gets better from there. I particularly like how when the Knight is strangling Errour (at the lovely Lady's suggestion), she vomits "books and papers" in addition to "loathy frogs and toads, which eyes did lacke." When Errour dies, her loathsome children devour her, only to then explode from ingesting her blood (saving the knight, as Spenser points out) from having to battle them.

Moving from this particularly interesting woman, Spenser actually fits in a great number of women into this canto. We start, as I noted above, with Gloriana, and then the lovely Lady in stanzas III and IV. We wait until stanza XIV to meet Errour. Several stanzas later, at the hermitage of Hypocrisie, we get references to Persephone (blacke Plutoes grisly Dame), Artemis, Hecate, Dame Pleasure, Venus, the Graces, and Flora (assuming I haven't missed anyone).

This is appropriate, because the knight's two adventures in this canto hinge on conflict with monstrous women. The old man, after pious words told with "a tongue as smooth as glas," waits until the knight has fallen asleep to to conjure up a second monstrous female. But while Errour was clearly hideous, this one is in the form of the lovely Lady,
to imitate that Lady trew,
Whose semblance she did carrie under feigned hew.
The creation is so beautiful that even the old man "Was nigh beguiled with so goodly sight," although he knows she is a spirit and not the real thing. Her target is the Knight of the Red Cross, who has an erotic dream about his companion.
And, coming where the knight in slumber lay
The one upon his hardie head him plaste,
And made him dreame of loves and lustfull play,
That nigh his manly hart did melt away,
Bathed in wanton bliss and wicked jo.
Then seemed him his Lady by him lay,
And to him playnd, how that false winged boy
Her chaste hart had subdewed to learne Dame Pleasures toy.
On waking, he almost kills the real Lady for his dream. She pleads for her life, but unlike Errour, this one is not so easily dispelled. Once he tries to return to sleep,
That troublous dreame gan freshly tossse hs braine.
and in the end,
With that misformed spright he backe returnd againe.
As the canto ends, it looks like battle with the second monstrous woman is still to come.

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