Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/16/07 at 10:52 AM
The Faerie Queene is an allegory. So far so good. The first adventure in this enormous allegorical textual edifice concerns the Redcrosse Knight, who stands for ‘holiness’, and who is travelling through Fairyland in the company of his woman, the beautiful and virtuous Una. They enter a dark and tangled wood, and there encounter a hideous monster called ‘Errour’. A nasty piece of work, this creature: ‘a monster vile, whom God and man does hate’:
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.
Redcrosse fights the ...view middle of the document...
There we are. The end of error.
Now it’s easy to see why Spenser puts this episode right at the start of his allegorical epic. He intends to dramatise the battle, and ultimately the victory, of truth; and this is clearly the right way to begin such a striving, by tackling that emblematic enemy of truth, Error. But there’s more. In a sense, this defeat of error sets up the allegorical mode itself.
I’ll explain what I mean. Allegory is a way of seeing the world such that the inner truth of entities is displayed externally. In this respect it is different to the world in which we actually live. In the real world, as Shakespeare once pungently observed, there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. Indeed, that single insight, and the endlessly dramatically fertile disparity between appearance and reality, is the main motor of Shakespeare’s writing. It is very easy to fall prey to error, in our world, because the face our world presents to us is so often misleading, hypocritical and false. So our task is first to identify error, and only then to fight it. Or to put it another way, our first danger is to fall into error about error—not to recognise it for what it is.
By encountering and slaying error right at the start of the Faerie Queene Spenser is addressing this matter head-on. He is ushering us into a world in which error, in its manifold embodiments, will be plainly visible to anybody who has eyes to see. Lawlessness (say) will not insinuate itself into our acquaintance as freedom, or as revolution, or as anti-tyranny or anything like that; it will ride up fully armed, with Sansloy written on its shield, and try to hack us down. Evil will not walk the land as a plausibly-spoken and handsome man called George W.; it will take the form of an enormous, foul dragon that must self-evidently be destroyed. These things will still be lawless and evil; it’s just that they will be obviously lawless and evil. In other words, Redcross’s first victory is important because ‘the death of Error is the birth of Truth’ [James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton University Press, 1976), p.147].
But there’s a problem here, and it’s one that has the potential to unpick the entire project. It’s this: how can it be that Redcross, having slain error, subsequently goes on to fall into error. Because that’s exactly what he does, and not just once, but many times. How can he be fooled into erroneously trusting the wicked Archimago? The falsely beautiful witch Duessa? How can the false knights (such as Sansloy, Sanfoy and Sansjoy) be riding around in a world in which error is dead, defeated, no more? Those three are manifestations of specific varieties of error; but the category itself has already been abolished! How can they persist?
Critics have of course noticed this, although they seem (in my reading of the secondary criticism at least) remarkably blithe about it. Here’s Russell J. Meyer: