Duality and Pageantry
Today, we will learn a little bit about the poem’s duality and pageantry. I’ll be citing Alastair Fowler’s collection of C.S. Lewis’s writings on Spenser, one of my favorite books about the poem.
Lewis was quite a scholar, yet after forty years of reading The Faerie Queene, he had grown to consider it, “perhaps the most difficult poem in English” (Lewis 2013:1). While you and I might find archaic language our biggest barrier to comprehending Spenser, Lewis was actually referring to another sort of difficulty: the poem’s ability to work on two levels simultaneously.
Duality has become one of my favorite things about The Faerie Queene. This work can can thrill readers at a simple story level, inviting a childish delight as we read. Yet, the plot also runs so deeply, those who revisit the work discover more at every pass. Have you noticed that Narnia has grown with you as you age? Do you ever wonder how you missed certain connections as an eight-year-old? Expect the same perpetual discovery from The Faerie Queene, for Lewis learned this (in part) from Spenser.
The first time you explore The Faerie Queene, I suggest cozying up with a cup of tea and reading for adventure’s sake. Feel the thrill of Faerie Land. Let your mind’s eye take you on a marvelous journey. Your subsequent readings, however, may move you at new levels. You may begin to find some of your own questions and struggles in shadows that pass through the book. You may also find companionship, hope, direction.
If you’re familiar with Tolkien’s criticism of allegorical methods, perhaps you’ll cringe a bit at the thought of symbolism in The Faerie Queene.When we hear “symbol,” it’s easy to imagine heavy-handed, didactic 1:1 connections that leave little to the imagination. This was certainly a fear of mine before I read The Faerie Queene for the first time.
Yet, Spenser was too creative and too emotionally astute to make such mistakes often. I have left long thoughts about Spenser’s use of allegory in the extended Introduction to Book One (found on our website), so I won’t go into all that here. But I would like to explain a single allegorical method that you will find repeatedly in Spenser’s epic poem: pageantry. This sort of pageant was comprised of “…a procession or group of symbolical figures in symbolical costume, often in symbolic surroundings.” (Lewis 2013:3)
Perhaps a more modern example will help clarify this concept? When my daughter was in elementary school, she participated in a musical in which many students took on the role of a celestial body. One by one, the students would appear on stage and explain how their planet, moon, or star worked. So badly, my girl wanted to be the moon instead of Copernicus. Yet, she was far luckier than her classmate Levi who was chosen to play the sun. Before a gymnasium full of his peers, he had to proclaim boldly that he was “just a big ball of gas.” You can imagine the response. We laughed about it with him for years. Funny and simple as it was, this musical borrowed a bit from historical pageantry; very quickly, viewers realized that we were about to encounter a series of figures, so we settled into that expectation as we watched.
Such progressions aren’t quite as common these days as they were in the Elizabethan era. We do find occasional representative figures like “Mayhem” from those insurance commercials. But rarely do we experience a parade of symbolic characters telling a unified story. In this way, our culture is quite different from the Elizabethan era. For as Lewis states, “Spenser lived in a society that had inherited this whole complex of iconographical traditions” (Lewis 2013:9-10). Elizabethans were culturally trained to recognize such series and settle down to hear the story of a given progression, like parents listening to my daughter’s elementary school play.
You’ll encounter your first mini “pageant” in the opening scene of Book One: a knight, a lady, a dwarf, a donkey, a lamb. Spenser introduces these figures so naturally and so gently, it’s easy to miss the pageantry of their entrance. Later in the book, however, you will find more overt pageants. Caricatures will appear in a series, as will fearsome threats, manifestations of goodness, and dreamlike horrific events haunted by sequential characters. By the time you finish Book Six, you’ll have a richer understanding of how the pageant works and why it was so often employed in archaic storytelling. If you’re a writer, perhaps this knowledge will inspire a revival of some sort of pagentry in a work of your own?
Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Edited by Alastair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,. 1967.
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