EXTENDED INTRODUCTION TO BOOK TWO
We don’t use the word temperance very often these days, so let’s begin by defining the term: a temperate person has mastery over her impulses. Who wouldn’t want this level of self-control—but how in the world do we get there? Whether we are trying to spend less time on social media, working to get in better shape, or fighting against reckless spending, most of us know how difficult it can be to resist temptation. For over two thousand years, humans have recognized this internal struggle, trying to figure out how temperance works and how it fits inside a larger moral framework. We all admire and desire restraint, but how do we achieve it? Do we simply flex our willpower, or is God’s assistance required?
Spenser wrote his book on temperance under the influence of several ancient frameworks. In fact, Guyon mirrors the classical hero, “a type of Hercules” who demonstrates “some of the qualities of pius Aeneas.” Therefore, we should probably gain a general history of virtue before we tackle his plot. This field is quite complex, however, and my summaries are too brief to represent each landmark (or all that happened between them) adequately. Nonetheless, even a few basic touchpoints will help us move through Book Two with common language and a bit more insight.
The Cardinal Virtues
Plato’s Republic included temperance as one of four key virtues (the other three being wisdom, courage, and justice). Cicero’s De Officiis offered a nearly identical list about three hundred years later. Within five hundred years, leaders of the Christian church were finding ways to incorporate Greek ethics into their interpretations of Biblical morality, and in 377 CE, Ambrose of Milan (a teacher of Augustine) linked Plato’s framework to the Christian virtues. He seems to have coined the term cardinal virtues during the funeral of his brother Satyrus in 378 CE
About forty years later, Augustine unified the four cardinal virtues under a single heading: charity (or love)—for all sin is ultimately a violation of love. While most of us can eke out a few scattered virtues here and there, Augustine taught that complete virtue cannot be achieved during the human lifetime. Our inability to live a flawless life led Augustine to declare: “What hope is there, then, unless mercy exults in its superiority over judgment?” As a result, the love necessary for driving all virtue is deeply embedded in the tender redemption of Jesus.
While Augustine acknowledged the four virtues of the ancient Greeks, he shifted their impetus, rooting them in a grace-driven, grace-dependent Christian framework. He wasn’t the first person to propose such a nucleus for all morality, but his writings had a huge impact on future generations of Christians.
Aristotle (a student of Plato) was one of Spenser’s strongest influences. In Nicomachean Ethics, he divided virtues into categories: moral (achieved through active mastery of our habits) and intellectual (achieved through instruction). Temperance was one of his eleven moral virtues. The concept of the mean—a perfect middle course between unhealthy extremes—was particularly important to Aristotle; therefore, it became important to Spenser. In fact, you’ll find references to the mean throughout The Faerie Queene. Temperance was Aristotle’s mean between the deficiency of insensibility (taking too little enjoyment in pleasures) and the excess of profligacy (indulging in pleasure too much).
The Seven Virtues and Beyond
Around 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius wrote a poem called Psychomachia (“The Battle of the Soul”), in which he generated a list of seven virtues to oppose the seven deadly sins—which people worried about quite a bit in those days. Pope Gregory I made a few changes to Prudentius’ list in about 590 CE, combining the four cardinal virtues with three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love. He also connected human ability to manifest virtue to the power of the Holy Spirit, “in order that both faith and works may be perfected at the same time.”
In Summa Theologica (1270 CE), Thomas Aquinas outlined the intellectual, moral, cardinal, and theological virtues, as well the Gifts, Beatitudes, and Fruits of the Holy Ghost. He meticulously explained how all of these categories overlap, where they are distinct, and how each works in the life of a Christian. Like Augustine, Acquinas ultimately acknowledged that while some aspects of virtue can be performed by the human in his own power, “He that fails to acknowledge the truth, has no true virtue, even if his conduct be good,” making faith an integral part of the virtuous life.
So, while Spenser respected Greek wisdom and gleaned heavily from it, he was also influenced by a thousand years of Christian teaching that placed the virtues of Plato and Aristotle firmly within a context of dependence on the grace of God. Will Spenser’s new protagonist simply learn to master his own impulses, or (like the Red Cross Knight) will he find the end of his own strength and learn to rely on something even greater? This last question captures the biggest, oldest dilemma of Book Two—and, I believe, unlocks it.
A Strange Transition
Enter Sir Guyon, the hero of Book II, and the knight assigned to teach us about temperance. Whether he represents temperance, or whether his journey simply helps us understand temperance has long been a matter of debate. Regardless, he’s regularly put into situations that expose the sorts of temptations humans feel when they are drawn toward dangerous extremes. After watching the Red Cross Knight fumble his way into maturity, it’s easy to expect a similar setup in Book Two. We open the book ready for a protagonist who makes obvious mistakes and learns through them. Instead, Guyon projects a sense of flawlessness, possessing restraint that seems superhuman.
I couldn’t stand Sir Guyon the first time I read Book Two. His goodness felt clinical and soulless—an obedience that checked off all the proper boxes while running short on heart. Not only is he robotically obedient, he’s also severe, attempting to devote the infant Ruddymane to a life of vengeance. So it seems at first that Spenser is using Guyon to undermine his core teaching of Book One. We see neither the mercy nor the humility of the Christian gospel in him. After proving our reliance on constant, sustaining grace, why would our poet feature a knight who hardly seems to need it? If temperance is an application of the holiness we have just learned, why does this virtue operate by an opposite mechanism? As you can imagine, this sudden shift has led to quite a bit of debate among Spenserian scholars. To give you a taste of this conversation, I have summarized three theories on Book Two before sharing a few of my own thoughts. If you haven’t yet read Book Two, perhaps it would be best for you to do so before learning it here. I don’t want to influence your first impressions too heavily, and this introduction to critical thought does contain a few spoilers. However, if (like me) you hit a rut on your first pass, know that a little companionship waits for you. Feel free to access this essay whenever you are ready for it.
Woodhouse’s Theory, 1949: Nature versus Grace
In Spenser’s era, it was common to divide human life between two basic orders: nature and grace. This division was applied in different ways and to different extremes, so it wasn’t exactly dogma. The basic framework was generally accepted, however, and it impacted the Elizabethan perspective significantly.
The realm of nature contained its own laws and ethics, and it was governed by its own institutions. The truths of nature were understood through human reason and experience, a body of secular wisdom influenced heavily by the ancient Greeks. Separate from this realm—sometimes even opposed to it—stood the order of grace, which focused on the spiritual transformation and growth of humans. Instead of being obtained by reason, the wisdom of grace was gained through “the revealed will of God, received and interpreted by faith.” Each of the two orders was governed by a different institution: the realm of grace by the church, the realm of nature by the government.
Reconciling these two orders—deciding where they overlapped and where they stood distinct from one another—was as complicated during the Renaissance as it is today. Arthur Woodhouse argues that Spenser takes a Christian humanist view on how the two connect, grace providing a “superstructure whose foundations were laid securely in nature.” So, instead of competing with nature, grace completes and heals it. According to this model, Book One tells the story of grace applied to nature. After finding the end of his natural strength, the Red Cross Knight grows in faith until he is able to function on earth as a microchristus. In contrast, each subsequent hero in The Faerie Queene operates strictly in the realm of nature—a microcosmos instead of a microchiristus.
This theory challenges critics who have suggested that each book in The Faerie Queene contributes to a cumulative model of Christian virtue, every new hero adding to a bank of wisdom and goodness gained by his or her predecessors. If Woodhouse is correct, every abrasive difference between the Red Cross Knight and Guyon is intentional. The spiritual growth of the Red Cross Knight should contrast against Spenser’s other heroes as they work out secular applications of their assigned virtues.
My favorite way to apply Woodhouse’s theory involves three remnants of text discovered after Spenser’s death, presumed to be bits of an unfinished Book Seven. After Books Two through Six explore secular morality inside Faerie Land, Spenser does something new in this fragment. A character named Mutability (or Change) engages the pantheon in a celestial debate, vying for power. Nature hears this case and administers judgment. In the end, a future is foretold in which all things will ultimately settle under the glorious rule of the Christian God. After a rather glum ending to Book Six, this sudden twist takes our hope a step further than the failure of the chivalric quest—and even beyond the pastoral wisdom to which Spenser seems at last resigned. Here we find a source of security that could survive even the mountains crashing into the seas.
Woodhouse reminds us that Spenser was only half-finished with The Faerie Queene when he died. So, I can at least imagine our poet building secular moral tension (exploring the realm of nature) in Books Two through Six while planning to bring things around to a spiritual resolution in Books Seven through Twelve. But I don’t think this is likely. As Tonkin states, Woodhouse’s theory “understates the extent to which themes in Book I continue into Book II.” However, because Spenser incorporates a preview episode in many of his books, it’s at least possible that the entire rise, fall, and resurrection journey of Book One serves as a preview of an intended twelve-book poem.
Berger’s Theory, 1957: Child of Faerie Land versus Child of Briton
Sir Guyon is a descendent of the faeries, while Prince Arthur is a descendent of Briton. Harry Berger Jr. uses the chronicle of Book Two, Canto Ten to explain why this difference in origin gives Guyon and Arthur unique modes of existence, even though they share the same story. Arthur is human and was therefore born needing forgiveness, while Guyon’s ancestors never experienced the Fall, preventing his need for redemption by grace. Berger writes:
No period of sin and suffering, no struggle with the unruly elements of krasis within and without (disordered by sin) precedes the enlightenment of grace. Therefore Faeries can have neither the experience nor the knowledge of insufficiency which characterized Arthur, made him sympathetic to (and a sharer in) the ills of Everyman, rendered him a suitable hero for the defense of the community in Christ. . . . The Original Excellence, harmony and power of Elfin man is a much more satisfactory state of nature than that of postlapsarian Adam; yet it contains a much more limited possibility of perfection and life.
On the other hand, Spenser’s human heroes (Arthur, the Red Cross Knight, Britomart, etc.) are fallen earthly citizens drawn by “love toward an object painfully remote.”
So Berger offers us two parallel “modes of existence,” faerie and human. The former is “an excellence which is secure and self-sufficient because it has its roots in a special gift of nature.” The latter is compelled by longing, yet lives aware of its own insufficiency. Berger suggests Guyon was selected to face the main villain of temperance, Acrasia, for this reason.
Why wouldn’t a human be able to master Acrasia’s Bower? Because her realm is full of lethal imitations of a good creation God made specifically for His children. Her opposition to divine virtues doesn’t just stir up lust or self-serving pleasures—she’s also formed an entire artificial paradise brimming with intoxicating replicas, striving against the “Divine Creation” while shadowing it. By convincing humans that these artificial beauties are real, she wins their admiration and ultimately their allegiance. Berger suggests that as a faerie, Guyon is not subject to the same aches as humans are. He doesn’t live feeling “love toward an object painfully remote.” Therefore, he is naturally protected in his fight against Acrasia, a warrior selected to conquer the Bower of Bliss “precisely because of what he cannot know and does not feel.”
A Fallen Guyon
I respect Berger highly, and I cite his research in footnotes throughout this project. He demonstrates an understanding of Spenser exponentially greater than my own. However, a single line in Spenser’s text prevents me from embracing a strict faerie-human divide. At the beginning of Book Two (II i 27.6), Guyon is shown to be a believer in Christ, referring to the cross as “the sacred badge of my Redeemer’s death.” This doesn’t seem to be a simple acknowledgement of the Creator’s existence but a declaration of engagement with a God who has paid for his sins. The word redeemer is used only three times in the entire epic—each time indicating some form of personal rescue. So, while there is a faerie-human distinction in this book, I’m not sure Spenser’s second tale is built around a contrast between those under the Fall and those outside it. In fact, the lineages of Guyon and Arthur serve complementary roles. We will explore this in more detail in the introduction to Book Two, Canto Ten, but Arthur’s line recalls leadership errors that will grow the future king in prudence so he might rule with temperance. Guyon’s line offers a gentle retelling of Tudor history, offering praise for his sovereign Elizabeth, as well as hope for the future.
To confirm Guyon’s culpability, we should remember a turning point that occurs in Book Two when the knight emerges from the Cave of Mammon, collapsing into a near-death state after finding the end of his natural strength. Before this faint, Guyon seems to have been almost flawless in his behavior—though his goodness has often felt cold and reasoned. With only a few exceptions, Guyon has performed noble works almost robotically, teaching others about ethics and trusting reason and power to change the world through lectures and force. In reality, however, these deeds accomplish very little. As Hamilton notes, Guyon is able to subdue but not slay Furor. He can save Phedon but not cure him. He can drive Pyrochles to flee for a while, but he cannot not remedy his inner fire. Cymochles can be awakened, but he will quickly return to lustful slumber. Guyon manages to survive Mammon’s Cave, but he passes out as he emerges.
As the knight lies unconscious, exhausted from all these noble endeavors, an angel appears to minister to him. Here, Spenser describes Guyon as a “wicked man.” These words are a shock. Guyon has resisted both Phaedria and the allures of the underworld. How could he be wicked? Such a stern accusation begs a question: If such a man is evil, then what must the rest of us be?
Hamilton’s Theory, 1958: Original Sin
- C. Hamilton has an answer for that question, arguing that the concept of original sin drives the entire plot of Book Two. Hamilton references Spenser’s letter to Raleigh, in which the bloody-handed babe is identified as the tale’s “whole subject thereof.” Within this framework, Acrasia’s charms parallel Eve’s temptation of Adam. Guyon is therefore commissioned to face the essence of the original Fall by applying temperance to Acrasia’s allure.
As a “second Adam,” Guyon will face a second Garden of Eden (the Bower of Bliss), hoping to defeat a second Eve (Acrasia). However, Guyon finds he is unable to master temperance through his power alone—and at his breaking point, Arthur shows up to rescue Guyon. “From this moment,” writes Hamilton, “he acts no longer by his natural power alone, but is guided by reason and aided by grace.”
According to Hamilton, in alignment with the Thirty-Nine Articles, the “infection of nature” persists in Guyon, even though he has been “regenerated.” So, the Bower of Bliss represents the enticements of a natural order that actively, continually draws humans toward itself and away from God. In this second Eden, Guyon must face the original temptation of Adam, a temptress—“Eve within her Garden.” Yet after he learns grace, instead of yielding as Adam did, Guyon destroys the bower, shattering the overwhelming allure of harmony that “seeks to absorb man upon the order of nature.”
- C. Hamilton’s extensive work has provided essential resources for modern readers of this poem, and I am deeply indebted to him for his work on The Faerie Queene. However, I think his 1958 analysis needs a bit of clarification to prevent misunderstanding. These explanations weren’t needed for his original audience—scholars familiar with how literary parallels can function within a text–but they might benefit more casual readers.
If we tie Guyon too tightly to Adam, we risk implying that the first man should have behaved as Guyon did, binding Eve as a villain before utterly destroying The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—if not the entirety of Eden itself. This is not what Hamilton means. His argument addresses temperate living in the world as it is, not what Adam should have done. But terms like “second Adam” can be confusing. In fact, the Bible refers to Christ as the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), One who brought healing through His sacrifice and redemption. So understand that Hamilton isn’t explaining how Adam should have avoided humanity’s first mistake, nor is he trying to overshadow what Christ did to remedy it. He’s presenting Guyon as a son of Adam, interacting with ancient and present temptations of the physical world.
Also, while historically men in power have minimized Adam’s sin while magnifying Eve’s, Spenser generally seems to elevate the redeemed woman, placing females in positions of spiritual healing and authority throughout his poem. Because of this, I’m hesitant to embrace a strict Adam versus Eve framework for Book Two. Instead, I think Guyon represents all of humanity while Acrasia represents the temptations offered to humanity by the serpent.
Before adopting Hamilton’s explanation of Acrasia’s realm, it might also be helpful to clarify how Spenser handles nature throughout the poem. Yes, there are wicked natural realms in Faerie Land that exude the allure of the flesh. But the enticements of the Bower of Bliss contrast with the goodness of the Garden of Adonis (Book Three) and the gardens surrounding the Temple of Venus (Book Four). Most of Book Six is a song of praise for the pastoral. So, if Spenser is attempting to distinguish between the order of nature and the order of grace in Book Two (which is possible), we should at least acknowledge that he uses nature quite differently in subsequent imagery.
Finally, Spenser names an Eden openly in Book One, Canto Twelve—it’s Una’s homeland. Her father is addressed as “most mighty king of fair Eden.” Implication? Una’s parents are Adam and Eve, who rule a kingdom that has been seized by the serpent (the dragon). This is the core of the Red Cross Knight’s mission, facing down the Fall after being purified and strengthened by the redemption of Christ. So, if Book Two gives us a second-second Adam who resists a second-second Eve in a second-second Eden, we should be sure to explain how this micronarrative fits inside the greater theological Edenic framework that the dragon’s fall has already provided.
So, I don’t disagree with most of Hamilton’s conclusions. Book Two does address original sin and the vulnerability it impressed upon humanity, a vulnerability that draws us almost irresistibly to the stuff of earth. Ruddymane does show us original sin, and the entirety of Book Two shows us what the Thirty-Nine Articles describe as the consequences of the nature of sin, even in the redeemed. As Edgar C.S. Gibson has written, “there are two evils attaching to all sin, viz. the guilt, which needs pardon and forgiveness, and the power, which needs overcoming and driving out.”
But it’s important to clarify what Hamilton does and doesn’t mean by his Edenic framework model. The term “second Adam” requires a great deal of qualification—and the Eve connection might need to be discarded.
Permission to Feel the Awkwardness
So what do we do with these pieces? All these critics have at least something to offer. The realms of nature and of grace appear throughout the poem. Differences between the faerie lineage of Guyon and the humanity of Arthur are undeniably emphasized. The problem of original sin is featured through Ruddymane’s story. The Bower of Bliss is a model of intoxicating, lethal allure. Somehow, all these pieces must connect with a hero who shows up wandering around the countryside, rehearsing his own strengths. Can we help but hear Lancelot singing “C’est moi!” during the first half of this tale? What do we do with that?
For thousands of years, humans have understood the benefit of thinking of oneself positively. Delight in one’s own virtue wasn’t necessarily a faux pas in Greek culture, and to an extent, this was also an acceptable posture in the Renaissance. Nicomachean Ethics lauded the “magnanimous man,” a hero who serves others with his life because he perceives himself to be dignified, even superior. The ideal of the megalopsychos (the “great-souled”) is “both to be and to appear self-sufficient.” And some, like Kitchen, have argued that Guyon “is quite after the pattern of Aristotle’s magnanimous man.” Such grandeur can feel a bit awkward these days. Can we even imagine megalopsychos without getting megalomaniac vibes?
Even in the classical world, however, a line could be crossed. Hubris has long been considered dangerous, and when taken to an extreme, has led to disaster. In ancient plays and stories, hubris was often the hamartia, the fatal flaw that destroyed a hero. Christian teaching later confirmed the dangers of pride. Paul warns Christ’s followers about the difference between trying to achieve moral goodness through the power of their own flesh and a life of walking in the Spirit. A believer’s understanding of her new identity in Christ is supposed to fuel change, but this newness isn’t a simple matter of flex. It results from an indwelt life of faith. So in both Greek and Christian teachings, there were positive and negative ways to apply self-image.
Guyon also commits a sin Saint Thomas called curiositas. We usually think of curiosity as a positive characteristic (as long as it doesn’t shade over into nosiness), but Saint Thomas would have defined curiositas as a misguided desire for knowledge. Curiositas has many manifestations. Two relevant for Book Two are (1) when someone abandons a beneficial study to which he is obligated in order to chase study of something less helpful; and (2) when someone attempts to learn from an immoral or wicked teacher. Such failures are found in Book Two when Guyon is distracted from his main quest (defeating Acrasia) by traveling into the House of Mammon, where he is taught by a demon. As Berger writes: “Guyon rejects the shameful material root of evil. But the mode of his rejection is in the species of Pride, which is the formal and spiritual root of evil.” Furthermore, this entire distraction occurs because, as Tonkin writes, “Guyon seems oddly unconcerned about his quest,” trotting about the countryside looking for adventure, when he had been given a very specific commission.
So both in obvious and in subtler ways, Guyon falls. Before his collapse, he might have been sincerely attempting goodness; however, as Berger states, he “is not the Christian relying upon God but the megalopsychos relying on himself.” In such a state, even the guidance of his Palmer doesn’t prevent his works from landing in futility; therefore, “Guyon always does something, yet accomplishes next to nothing.” So, I think Guyon’s journey reveals both the strengths and the limits of the classical moral hero. Perhaps he also provides half of a Guyon/Arthur binary that demonstrates the application of grace-sustained temperance.
Why did Spenser choose a faerie for this task instead of a human? Perhaps he was just taking us deeper into his world. C. S. Lewis applied Christian theology within Narnia. Instead of creating a different set of spiritual rules for nonhuman creatures, Lewis transposed the Christian gospel into the realities of his new dimension, allowing all manner of believing creatures to pass through the final gate in The Last Battle. Similarly, Guyon shows us that the redemption needed for the human Red Cross Knight is also necessary for the sons of Spenser’s Faerie Land. Even though he’s different in origin, temperament, and longing, he still needs help. For as Arthur Woodhouse states, “The classical scheme of ethics turns upon self-reliance: there is nothing else to rely upon.” This lack begs a contrary, of course—the person of faith who “relies upon God.” Through the timely appearance of Arthur, Spenser shows us two redeemed souls, sustained by grace, fighting the enemies of the temperate life.
Why does this redemption theme largely disappear in Books Three through Six? I addressed a few possibilities in the Woodhouse section above. However, I want to save the lion’s share of that discussion for Volume Two. For now, let’s close by exploring a question that plagues many first-time readers of Guyon’s tale, as well as a technique of Spenser’s that appears repeatedly in The Faerie Queene.
The Destruction of the Bower
Modern critics of Book Two are often disturbed by Guyon’s obliteration of the Bower of Bliss in Canto Twelve. Here we find a glorious and beautiful paradise, brimming with art that a woman has created—and it is torn to shreds by a male. Is his act anti-art or anti-beauty? Is the Bower another casualty of male suspicion of female creative power? What good could possibly come from destroying something so beautiful?
When evaluating this scene, it’s important to remember two factors. First, the creative realms of females are sometimes lauded in The Faerie Queene. Cælia’s House of Holiness relied on the gifts of five powerful female characters. The realm of Venus was praised for being a haven of love and friendship. The Temple of Isis imparts wisdom and perspective. The realm of Alma is exemplary and instructive. Characters like Belphoebe and Britomart demonstrate admirable feminine strength. Therefore, Spenser cannot be teaching us that the power of women is inherently wicked.
Second, we need to remember that Guyon never kills anyone in his tale. Yes, he destroys the Bower—but when so many other of Spenser’s knights slaughter ruthlessly, why does Guyon only bind Acrasia? Humphrey Tonkin suggests that this relates to Guyon’s mission. Temperance doesn’t destroy sexual desire; it directs this longing toward a healthy end. Acrasia doesn’t need to be slain; in fact, her power needs to be redeemed. What might Spenser’s idea of healthy feminine sexual desire look like? In fact, this is the theme of Book Three, in which we are introduced to a woman overcome with longing for a man—a woman who undertakes an arduous quest, seeking a union of equals. Her desire will lead to a kingdom that creates life, not to the bondage and death Acrasia has enforced.
To help us understand why the Bower required destruction, Spenser gives us the character Grill. Once allured by Acrasia, he was changed into a terrible pig-like creature. Upon regaining his human form, he resents his restoration. This realm of consumptive lust might appear beautiful, but it’s fundamentally flawed. Tonkin writes: “The Bower itself is a false paradise. It gives the appearance of wholesomeness, but its description, which echoes Ariosto, Tasso and a host of others, shows that the Bower is a mere imitation of nature, a false and unnatural creation.” The beautiful Bower doesn’t just damage the external form of those it entices but also their souls. Therefore, every manifestation of the toxic illusion must be erased.
Double Narrative, Single Lesson
Finally, let’s examine an unusual storytelling technique that Spenser employs in Book Two. Earlier, we addressed the problem of Spenser’s faerie/human team of Guyon and Arthur in Book Two. Berger suggested that this distinction teaches us the difference between those affected by the Fall and those immune to it. But what if Spenser is employing interconnected stories in a complementary way to reveal a single truth? He’s certainly done something like this before. Think back to Book One and how we eventually discovered that Charissa (Christian love) had been “giving birth” to the Red Cross Knight in the House of Holiness even while the knight was undergoing a complex purgative and restorative growth process that prepared him to fight and conquer the dragon. Here, a single lesson about redemption is taught through parallel events. A similar overlap occurs in Book Two when Arthur stays behind to fight enemies of the House of Alma while Guyon leaves to continue his quest against Acrasia. These simultaneous battles against the enemies of temperance function as two sides of the same coin.
Arthur performs acts of rescue in Canto Eight of both Books One and Two. The prince charges the giant’s castle in Book One, pulling the Red Cross Knight out of Orgoglio’s dungeon. Then in Book Two, he shows up just in time to protect Guyon from Cymochles and Pyrochles.
But even though Arthur saves both protagonists from themselves, his function changes a bit in Book Two. Here, Arthur is not simply Guyon’s savior but also a fellow pilgrim. Spenser prepares us for this duality in Canto Nine, during a humorous and awkward encounter between Guyon, Arthur, and two ladies of Alma’s court—women who mirror aspects of each man’s private motivations. Guyon courts Shamefastnesse (shamefastness is the quality of being kept in line by the threat of shame), and Arthur courts Prays-desire (that is, Praise-desire). These two passions correlate with each knight’s virtue, Shamefastnesse being the motivation for Temperance and Prays-desire the motivation for Magnificence.
Aristotle taught that “the highest form of courage is a result of two things: the wish to avoid disgrace, or shame, and the desire for honor.” So, this pair connects logically, for “one way that the soul controls shamefastness is by balancing it with the desire for praise and honor, and vice versa.” William Nelson suggests that one of these impulses is froward and the other forward, or as White explains, shamefastness alone would tempt a man to “withdrawing, exclusive, negative, despairing, sorrowing” while chasing praise could lead a man to be too “outgoing, inclusive, positive, and pleasure-seeking.”
So, when the men part ways after learning from Alma, their battles function almost as a single quest. Yet, while they work in tandem, neither man performs perfectly, each stumbling toward a victory that testifies to God’s rescue of the weak. This aligns with a general emphasis on the number two throughout Spenser’s second bookTonkin states: “Book I concerned the preservation of oneness, so Book II concerns the proper management of twoness, of the dualisms that define the personality.” This dualism manifests in the final battle each warrior faces: “While Arthur, spirit of Britain, protects the commonwealth of the body, with its orderly management and its knowledge of true history, Guyon is able to ride out to deal with the ultimate enemy, to take on the fight for the good which, Spenser implies, is the moral purpose behind the preservation of the commonwealth.”
The Palmer (a Christian pilgrim) has guided Guyon from the beginning of his journey, and his advice has been sound. Yet, his wisdom only brings about the completion of Guyon’s quest after the knight learns the limits of self-propelled, classical temperance and is declared “wicked.” Describing the angel who ministers to fallen Guyon, Spenser writes:
Does heaven even care about us? Does love exist in heavenly spirits for base creatures? Do their misfortunes and mistakes stir celestial compassion? Surely so, or else the condition of humans would be much worse than that of beasts. But oh, the exceeding grace of the highest God who loves his creatures so dearly—embracing all their works with mercy, even sending the blessed angels to and fro to minister to wicked man, tending even His wicked foe.
Saved from his own weaknesses by the hand of grace, Guyon is finally able to employ the wisdom of his Palmer in a way that leads to success.
Likewise, Arthur falls in need of his good squire’s assistance, embarrassing the prince terribly. Describing this failure, Spenser adopts a teaching of Augustine—that humans cannot be completely virtuous as long as they live in their present fleshly form. He writes:
So, even the greatest and most glorious thing on earth often needs the help of a weaker hand; the state of man is so feeble and life is so unsound, it never stands in assurance until it is dissolved from earthly bonds. Indeed, you are proof, Prince, most valiant man alive, the noblest born in all of Britain—for despite all of your advantages, fierce Fortune drove you so far, if grace had not blessed you, you would not have survived.
Therefore, Spenser, the poet of paradox, teaches temperance by allowing his mightiest men to fall—a reminder that virtue ultimately requires more than willpower and best intentions.