Holiness, Whole-ness and Holes
An Exploration of the Protestant Journey in Book One of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
essay by Stephanie Airth
Throughout Book One of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight’s progression from an unproven, proud knight to the “patron of true holinesse” (1.1 Argument) reflects the Protestant journey of trial, self-realization, and repentance. As Red Cross’s adventure progresses, it becomes evident that Book One’s titular “Holinesse” can only be attained through a careful balance of personal wholeness and wretchedness. We can explore the nuances of this juxtaposed state through an investigation of Spenser’s use of a triple pun: holiness, wholeness, and hole-ness. Holiness is the goal of spiritual perfection; whole-ness encompasses emotional and bodily completeness; holes represent things to be overcome, but also the looming consequences of failure. This balance of wholeness and wretchedness is enacted in instances of whole-ness and holes throughout the tale: without both personal completeness and experience in trials such as those provided by the holes in the story, one cannot attain holiness. Through this interaction, and in creating a cast of allegorical villains and monsters for Red Cross to both defeat and fall to, Spenser provides a subjective lens through which the reader may view the superiority of Protestantism and the failings of Catholicism. It is important to note, however, that Spenser’s sentiments arise out of an England recently restored to Protestantism with the coronation of Elizabeth I, and therefore “exemplif[y] the anti-Catholicism common in his time and place” (Black 557). Spenser also wrote “the first part of The Faerie Queene” as part of “his bid for [. . .] royal patronage” (555) from the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. We shall proceed, then, while keeping this historical context in mind.
Red Cross begins his journey an unpracticed, unfit, and ultimately incomplete knight; aside from being made clear by his frequent mistakes, his incompleteness is especially evident in Spenser’s use of the word “seemd” in the book’s opening stanza: “Full jolly knight he seemd, and fair did sitt, / As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt” (184.108.40.206-9). Although at first reading it appears as though the speaker is simply commenting on Red Cross’s apparent fitness for knightly deeds, investigation into other uses of “seemd” proves the opposite to be the case: “false Duessa seemde as faire as [Fraelissa]” (220.127.116.11) to poor Fradubio; when disguised as Red Cross, the magician Archimago likewise a “Full jolly knight [. . .] seemd” (18.104.22.168); the House of Pride a “house of mightie Prince [. . .] seemd to bee” (22.214.171.124). As Spenser tends to use “seemd” whenever the person or thing does not have the qualities it “seemd” to have, it thus appears as if in describing Red Cross as a knight who “seemd” fit for knightly adventures, Spenser is actually informing the reader of his unpreparedness for these deeds and therefore his lack of wholeness as a knight. Spenser’s use of the word “Full” in these lines further emphasizes Red Cross’ incomplete nature.
Thus it seems that Red Cross’ journey to holiness parallels an underlying pursuit of the whole-ness of self; indeed, as he is to become the “Knight of . . . Holiness,” we may venture to say that Red Cross cannot be whole (as a knight, as a man) until he attains holiness. This idea is particularly notable in the correlation between holiness and bodily whole-ness. Throughout the tale, Red Cross often encounters monsters or villains that are allegories for sins he has just committed or moral deficiencies he has just displayed. For example, after being “with pleasure forward led” (126.96.36.199) into the woods, Red Cross and his companion Una find themselves in “Errours den” (188.8.131.52). As her name suggests, Errour functions as an allegory for the sort of pleasurable wandering that many 16th century Protestants would have deplored and associated with Catholicism. Both her female physiology and the cave that is her home function as the holes in this situation and mark the encounter both as an essential trial to overcome in the pursuit of holiness and a warning of what one might become if led too often by dalliance. Thus, as Red Cross fights and defeats Errour, one might expect that he likewise battles and fells his tendency towards that particular sin. Despite this expectation, Red Cross is soon after wooed by the “pleasing wordes” (184.108.40.2062) of Archimago, as if Errour’s defeat was not enough to purge him of this failing. One could say, however, that these battles merely represent a process of self-realization in the Protestant journey, and that the repentance (and thus purging of sin) is fully represented by Red Cross’ literal purging in the House of Holiness.
Further, when Red Cross fails to defeat these allegorical enemies, he is subject to wounds or situations that result in the diminishment of his physical or emotional whole-ness. For example, when defeated by Orgoglio, an allegory for pride and sexual dalliance, Red Cross is thrown into a dungeon. When later rescued by Una and Arthur, it is said that “all his flesh [was] shronk up like withered flowers” (220.127.116.119). Moreover, within Orgoglio’s dungeon, Red Cross is driven to such despair that he “for death . . . oft did call” (18.104.22.1682). Thus it seems that in failing to defeat Orgoglio, and by extension failing to overcome the internal deficiencies represented by Orgoglio, it is not only Red Cross’ holiness that is diminished, but also his bodily and mental wholeness. These wounds, emaciated hollows, and pleas for death are themselves holes, and thus mark the importance of Red Cross’ failure if he wants to achieve holiness. It is not enough for Red Cross to simply slay monsters and sins in order to attain holiness: he must also experience failure and wretchedness for his holiness to have meaning.
This connection between holiness and kinds of whole-ness is also present whenever Red Cross seems to succeed in his pursuit of holiness and is particularly evident in his marriage to Una. At this point in the story, Red Cross is at his holiest: he has just defeated the “dread Dragon” (22.214.171.1249), who functions as an allegory for both Satan and Pridefulness; he has been “All healed of his hurts and woundes wide” (126.96.36.1990) by the Well of Life, whose waters flow from the divine Tree of Life. Even the language of the stanza in which Red Cross and Una are married is filled with literal and indirect holiness: Adam knits the “holy knots” (188.8.131.525) of marriage and sprinkles “holy water” upon a “housling fire” (184.108.40.2069). Furthermore, the marriage of Red Cross and Una results in a unit finally solidified and whole. This is particularly interesting as Spenser seems to recall Aristophanes’ tale in the Symposium, in which humans were once “completely round . . . [with] four hands each . . . and two faces” (Plato 190A) until Zeus “cut each of them in two” (190D) and afterwards each forever “longed for [their] . . . other half” (191A): only the finding of one’s soul-mate ended this lifelong search. In this way, then, the marriage can be seen as bringing about not only an emotional and social wholeness, but also a sort of physical wholeness.
One may worry, however, that in marrying Una Red Cross may be limiting his potential for a more transcendental and true holiness; in doing so, he is pledging his life to her rather than to traveling to “Hierusalem” (220.127.116.115) to become “a Saint” (18.104.22.1687). However, it is important to note that Red Cross is merely one-twelfth of the knightly perfection that truly lies in Arthur. He is by nature imperfect and it therefore seems acceptable for him to act as the Knight of Holiness without achieving ultimate or saintly holiness, so long as he has undergone the journey to achieve it at a relatively high level. This seems to strongly parallel the Protestantism Spenser promotes, which concerned itself with the personal journey rather than with the achievement of spiritual perfection. This recognized, Red Cross’s decision to live with Una after completing his personal journey and serving the Faerie Queene, rather than going on to seek transcendental holiness, seems acceptable.
The correlation between holiness and physical whole-ness finds a particularly interesting manifestation in the bodies of the aforementioned allegorical monsters and villains, many of which have additional limbs or heads, or an unnatural size. Errour, for example, has a “huge long taile” (22.214.171.124); Orgoglio is “an hideous Geant horrible and hye” (126.96.36.199); Duessa rides a “manyheaded beast” (188.8.131.52). Because these villains act as allegories for Catholic qualities that Protestants viewed as sinful (such as dalliance, pride, falseness, etc.), their supernumerary limbs or impressive size function as physical representations of Catholic excess. It is as if the monsters have become holy in an excessive way and have ended up deformed and overflowing with bodily whole-ness, rather than becoming spiritually whole. This parallels the aspects of Catholicism that Post-Reformation Protestants would have most disapproved of, such as the “bravely garnished” (184.108.40.206) decoration of sixteenth century Catholic Churches, which would have seemed especially garish in comparison to the minimalistic, “lowly” (220.127.116.11) appearance of Protestant ones. It is through depicting the allegorical villains as deformed and excessive that Spenser condemns similar deformation and unneeded luxuriousness in the Catholic Church itself.
What, then, separates Protestant figures like Red Cross from the Catholic monsters they fight? It is the experience of hitting rock bottom—of having felt the strongest of despair. Red Cross’ interaction with Despair represents this cruel, essential stage of the Protestant journey; Despair’s “darksome cave” (18.104.22.1687) of a home and “hollow eyne” (22.214.171.1242) are the holes in this scene. Despite having fought many monsters and even fallen into despair in Orgoglio’s dungeon, Red Cross is still ailed by the cardinal sin of Pride. One only need consider his reaction to meeting Despair to be convinced: “with firie zeale he burnt in courage bold / Him to avenge, before his bloud were cold” (126.96.36.1998-329). Herein lies the necessity of despair and wretchedness in the Protestant journey: without experiencing despair, people remain too prideful to attain holiness and instead become prey to the excess plaguing the monsters and villains of this tale. This idea seems evidenced by the fact that the story’s greatest monster, the “dread Dragon” (188.8.131.529), is not only an allegory for the sin of Pride but for Satan himself. Despair, then, functions to pull pride down into a wretchedness from which it can properly ascend to holiness. It is through this most essential test that Spenser seeks to prove, in his terms, the greatest failing of Catholicism, and the greatest strength of the Protestant journey.
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