“God Helpe the Man”

“God helpe the man”:1 Divine Humility and the Masculine Initiation of the Redcrosse Knight

This essay was originally written for Dr. Danielle St. Hilaire’s ENGL 411W: Edmund Spenser course at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and was completed on December 13, 2020. Last revised December 14, 2020.


“Beware that when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

Edmund Spenser engaged in an ongoing and highly contested dialogue about how Renaissance men might demonstrate their traditional, martial masculinity while simultaneously adhering to an often-contradictory code of religious ethics. The Redcrosse Knight in particular, as the first heroic warrior of The Faerie Queene and the vehicle for Spenser’s views on piety, serves as a gateway to rectifying this debate: an attempt by the knight to fulfill his traditional role as a secular warrior that leads to continued failure — first being injured by the dragon Errour due to his arrogance, followed by his seduction by Duessa and defeat by her giant lover, and his descent into despair — only to be finally redeemed through his successful integration of religious humility, acceptance of divine mercy, and concluding with his victory over a dragon and initiation into mature masculine society. This essay seeks to express the centrality of such humility in the face of divine mercy as a part of Spenser’s view of the masculine male initiation into maturity, tracing it from a historical debate on the conflict between both secular warrior and religious scholarly cultures, through Renaissance discourse on courtly virtue, and finally in the tale of Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight itself.

A Conflict of Masculinity

What does it mean to be a man? This is a question that often touches upon the greatest issues of an age, and such was certainly the case for Edmund Spenser. Before we can begin to interpret Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, we must examine the historical context in which it emerged. Both the Protestant Reformation and the ascension of a powerful female monarch posed unique and serious threats to traditional concepts of masculinity, and Edmund Spenser necessarily found himself engaged in this dialogue about how the ideal English man ought to participate in his changing world. Yet these clashes were merely fresh expressions of a much older conflict, one which has neither a visible beginning nor a foreseeable conclusion.

When one imagines the ideal medieval man, they likely picture a handsome warrior, sitting erect upon a sturdy steed, galloping off with a flourish of his sword as in some romantic fairytale. Warrior or martial culture identified virtue in chivalry, particularly in battle, and was often associated with the aristocracy. This is not an entirely inaccurate picture, although it is certainly incomplete. The romantic warrior has persisted as an archetype of ideal masculinity through the work of Chaucer, Spenser, Tennyson, Scott, and even into the modern world with the “Jedi knights” of George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars (to name only one example). I suspect that we are all intimately familiar with this concept of masculinity, and we will come to learn even more about it as we dive into Spenser’s poem, but there is another face of the same male coin that is often neglected in popular imagination: this is the scholar.

Perhaps the scholar is not immediately understood to be in the same vein as the chivalrous knight, but he has constantly challenged warrior culture for supremacy as the ideal masculine archetype. Scholars appear in literature, sometimes as the primary hero but more often as an aid or mentor. Intellectuals are typically depicted as “some little fellow[s] of the wood, some wizard, some hermit, shepherd, or smith” who renders aid unto the hero.2 According to Joseph Campbell, “The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown,”3 and as such the scholar is uniquely positioned as a heroic figure due to his being a possessor of knowledge — and thus, a conqueror of the unknown. It is their capacity of awareness, ability to exercise creative insight, and knowledge of the sacred mysteries that gives them power.4 Such literal literary themes are visible in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene but are beyond the purview of this particular study. What is more important to our inquiry is the way that this seemingly exclusively literary conflict actually played out in reality, and the way that Spenser sought to integrate both the warrior and scholar through his depiction of a pious hero.

Throughout history the scholarly concept of masculinity has been on the defensive, struggling against the seemingly insurmountable might of the warrior. The intellectual class of Europe consisted almost exclusively of religious clerics, typically educated in monasteries or, later, universities. Nowhere is the struggle between both martial and clerical masculinity more evident than the Christianization of Europe, which began with the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 a.d. The polytheistic pagans of pre-Christian Europe were stereotyped as savage warriors whose entire society centered around the spilling of blood. Early Christians like Constantine, who converted after being ‘granted victory’ by God in the Battle of Milvian Bridge (a decidedly pagan reason for conversion) often did not see a conflict between their martial activities and newfound faith.

St. Augustine (354–430 a.d.), whose philosophy was vastly influential on early Christian Europe, held that “the morality described in the New Testament refers in fact to ideal forms that can only exist completely in the Kingdom of Heaven.”5 Such a view accords well with the struggles of fitting Christian ethics on prospective pagan converts, who may resist joining a religion which outright condemns their way of life. But Christianity swept across the empire in only a few generations, and Rome quickly became majority Christian by the reign of Theodosius I (r. 379–395 a.d.). The reforms of St. Augustine suggested that perfect Christian virtue was only achievable in monasteries, which were cut off from the vice of broader society — seemingly restricting salvation from most Christians. Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604 a.d.) believed that anyone could be trained to be moral with the proper guide.6 Christians could no longer pass their sins onto reclusive clerics like scapegoats.7 Successive generations of European rulers had to contend with contradictions between the traditional life of a warrior and that of a devoted Christian man.

Louis the Pious, depiction from 826 as a “soldier of Christ” (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Codex Reg. lat 124, f.4v.).

One needs only consider the life of Louis the Pious, son and successor of Charlamagne, King of the Franks, which paints a vibrant picture of this conflict. Pope Gregory I held that caritas, meaning love or charity towards one’s fellow man, was the paramount virtue of Christian men. Such devotion was possible for clerics and perhaps other lay people whose livelihood did not depend on warfare, but for the medieval aristocracy of Europe it was unfathomable. Some nobles, such as the Duke Eric of Friuli and Count Wido of Brittany, were committed to living a secular life in strict accordance with Christian ethics — but they were in the minority.8 For the medieval nobleman warfare was not only an occupation (and one which could pay handsomely), it was the very way in which they defined manhood.  Louis’ departure from these martial norms baffled his contemporaries, who scrambled to justify his reign using the Gregorian language of caritas. Although Louis did not eschew violence altogether, he ultimately forgave many of his opponents and allowed them to return free to his empire — only to repeatedly watch them betray his benevolence. These rebellions plagued his reign, ultimately resulting in the fragmentation of the empire among his defiant children, but despite this failure his biographers “constructed Louis as an avatar of empathetic masculinity as a means of demonstrating his imperial authority, even in defeat.”9 It was Louis’ piety and devotion to Christian morality which gave him the right to rule, not his martial prowess.

Medieval clerics argued that they embodied a more mature and effective masculinity because of their capability to cultivate virtue, which came from segregating themselves from a broader society that valued debauchery, decadence, and aggression. Clerics were engaged in a battle with sin, which required far more discipline and strength than any amount of martial training.10 In fact, this is the reason for growing restrictions on religious positions between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries in Europe, particularly regarding clerical celibacy. The failure of clerics to remain celibate both humiliated the church and polluted the sacrament, demonstrating a lack of moral strength on the part of the religious man.11 Not only was the man who held himself up to a moral code more disciplined, stronger, and more effective as a servant of God — he was manlier. “What reformers had defined as effeminacy, demonstrated by an excessive love of women and sex, these clerics potentially used as social demonstration of their masculinity.”12 Similar things could be said for a secular reign, as piety and devotion to Christian morality justifies one’s reign as wise and benevolent.13 Louis the Pious perfectly modeled this form of masculinity, which was uncommon outside of the clergy.14 Just as clerics were capable of circumventing standard criticisms of their masculinity by comparing their religious struggle to battle, Louis was able to re-frame an otherwise disastrous reign as an example of secular piety.

Edmund Spenser embarks on a similar journey, framing strict traditional religious virtues through tales of martial heroes. These warriors, as we will learn from the Redcrosse Knight and subsequent champions, not only benefited spiritually from adopting these virtues — it was necessary to attain victory on the battlefield.

This is not to suggest that men conforming to this clerical model of masculinity were without criticism; they were often attacked for their celibacy and rejection of violence.15 Participation in warfare and marriage were cornerstones of medieval masculinity, and those men who failed to fulfill these responsibilities were viewed as both effeminate and immature.

The Procession Portrait of Elizabeth I, c. 1600, attributed to Robert Peake the Elder

The Renaissance saw the flourishing of a sophisticated courtly scene around Queen Elizabeth, which typically provoked accusations of moral degradation and the feminization of the English aristocracy. The same language was used to criticize these courtiers as was used before with clerics. In reality these changes emerged out of the widespread need for European nobles to redefine and separate themselves from social inferiors. The warrior was replaced by the courtier as the chief occupation of the nobility, but without the prestige that came from defending the realm. The aristocracy thus placed an increasing emphasis on self-control and refinement of character in order to demonstrate their sophisticated taste, virtuous character, and natural leadership.16 Much of this included extravagant spending and visits to the royal court or prestigious salons, where courtiers could demonstrate their wit and wisdom. This was part of the motivation behind Spenser’s writing of The Faerie Queene, which he dedicated to the queen Elizabeth herself and hoped would ingratiate among the aristocracy (he would have been familiar with the work of Baldassare Castiglione, which heavily influenced his contemporary William Shakespeare).

After such a long and winding journey, we must return to the more direct focus of this study. This conflict between the warrior and scholarly masculinity is present throughout Spenser’s The Faerie Queene as he attempts to illustrate his own view of the virtuous self. How does Spenser depict and ultimately solve this crisis of masculinity? For this, we shall turn to the Redcrosse Knight and his struggle with piety.

The Failure of the Secular Warrior

We have thus captured what this author believes to be an adequate understanding of the central conflict of masculinity that pervades history generally — it stands to be proven how such a conflict manifests in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Because this discussion regards the transformation of the Redcrosse Knight himself through the story, it is necessary and logical to approach the issue chronologically, and to illustrate along the way how such events correspond to our argument. We shall then proceed to examine the life of the Redcrosse Knight as presented by Spenser, and how his actions demonstrate the rapid descent of a nascent warrior lacking in pious humility.

We are introduced to the Redcrosse Knight, who, at some time preceding the events of the story, has sworn to rescue the kingdom of fair Una’s parents from a dragon (1.1.2, 3, 5). Yet before he can face that dreadful beast, he shall contend with all manner of monsters — beginning with another dragon, Errour. It is in the fighting of Errour that the curse of the Redcrosse Knight is presaged; his haughty and proud neglect of piety will lead to his downfall, unless he can learn to kneel before God. Such is lost on the poor Knight, though for we omniscient scholars it is quickly revealed. The princess herself represents this piety, for besides being dressed in virgin white (1.1.4.2) she is also “So pure and innocent, as that same lambe, / She was in life and euery vertuous lore” (1.1.5.1–2). And just as the Knight will neglect the literal supplication of his God, so shall he neglect his Lord’s expression in saintly Una. The battle between the Redcrosse Knight and the dragon Errour represents the first of three battles that will test the Knight’s maturity as a man. He is destined to fail before he succeeds, and as such his immature pursuit of knightly honor leads him rashly into the cave of the dragon.

From the beginning we are aware the Knight is inexperienced. “Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,” writes Spenser, “Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine, / The cruell markes of many’ a bloudy fielde; / Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield” (1.1.1.2–5). Likewise, after his first battle we are informed by Una that it is indeed his “first adventure” (1.1.27.8). He approaches the dangers of the world wearing old armor, though it was not his own glory providing the marks. Perhaps he has inherited the arms from his father, whose reputation he hopes to live up to — this would explain his desperate pursuit of glory. For the Knight is like his horse, foaming at the bitt (1.1.1.6) and eager for combat. But, as we will soon learn, this confidence is misplaced. He is not yet a man nor a proven warrior. The immature man (or boy) state Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in their book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, “does not know his limitations; he is romantic about his invulnerability. The warrior, however, through his clarity of thinking realistically assesses his capacities and his limitations in any given situation.”17 Though young and inexperienced, the Knight dreads nothing (1.1.2.9) and is unfazed by the prospect of facing the dreadful Errour.

Una warns the Redcrosse Knight upon coming to the cave of Errour, “Be well aware, quoth then that Ladie milde, / Least suddaine mischiefe ye too rash prouoke: / The danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde, / Breedes dreadfull doubts: Oft fire is without smoke, / And perill without show: therefore your stroke / Sir knight with-hold, till further triall made” (1.1.12.1–6). She tells the ambitious knight, who is eager to pursue his foe, that he should refrain from doing so. The dangers she, “better wot then you, though now too late / To wish you backe returne with foule disgrace,” (1.1.13.2–3) and thus advises that, based on her greater experience, the knight retreats. The dwarf agrees.

From The Red Romance Book (1921), illustrated by Henry Ford and edited by Andrew Lang

But Redcrosse is predictably too proud to give up such an opportunity for glory, and he rushes headlong into the cave of the dragon. “But full of fire and greedy hardiment, / The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide, / forth vnto the darksome hole he went,” (1.1.14.1–3). The dragon is a mother, surrounded by her serpentine spawn, and she fears the light that emerges from Redcrosse’s entrance into the cave. Reeling, she retreats but is blocked by the shining knight. He strikes her, but she coils herself around him and prevents his total movement. This is the critical juncture for Redcrosse. His lady Una cries out at seeing his plight and beseeches him to pray unto the Lord his God for assistance. “Add faith unto your force,” (1.1.19.2) she says, but this embarrasses the proud warrior. For, “when he heard, in great perplexitie, / His gall did grate for griefe and high disdaine” (1.1.19.5–6). He is confident in his ability to overcome Errour, sure of his warrior skill, and he rises in defiance of Una’s request. For it is the duty of the male warrior to act deliberately and overcome all obstacles by their hand alone. This is merely a delusion of the immature, unaware of what it truly means to be a warrior. For he is not invulnerable and is unaware of his limitations — which is the mark of folly, not bravery.18 Nevertheless, this seems to work out for the Knight, whose strength is enhanced by the fire in his heart. He escapes the grip of the creature, though this victory is short lived. Spewing forth poisonous bile, Errour brings the knight to the brink of defeat. “That welnigh choked with the deadly stinke, / His forces faile, ne can no longer fight” (1.1.22.2–3), and he is suddenly assailed by the mother’s fiendish children, who swarm about our injured hero. They are a mere annoyance simply prick his pride. He lashes out at the mother, finally, and beheads the dragon Errour in a ghastly move.

Though victorious, many errors were revealed in the fight with Errour. He has revealed his courage, but only insofar as it emerges from pride. And as Spenser himself declares, no house built on “so weake foundation” (1.4.5.4) can but shake beneath “euery breath of heauen” (1.4.5.7). He lacks the insight, patience, and knowledge of his own limitations that characterizes the real hero. He spurned the aid of God, though doubtless He was the cause of the Redcrosse Knight’s victory (1.1.28.7). Providence is merciful, though, and the Redcrosse Knight is destined for glory — but not before he is tested and shown the consequences for his immaturity.

The hero proceeds and comes upon the sorcerer Archimago, who tricks him into believing Una has betrayed his love and devotion. We might use this event to add to the Knight’s list of faults: he is so quick to abandon Una. More than anything, it reveals his vulnerability to the coming events. For, betrayed in love by his lady, he is seduced by the temptress Duessa (1.1.29–2.6). She is encountered in the company of a man, Sansfoy. Unlike the pure Una, who is simply dressed in white, Duessa is like a shining courtesan. “A goodly Lady clad in scarlot red, / Purfled with gold and pearle of rich assay, / And like a Persian mitre on her hed / She wore, with crownes and owches garnished, / The which her lauish louers to her gaue” (1.2.13.2–9). She provokes Sansfoy, her lover, to battle the Redcrosse Knight immediately upon seeing him. The two battle, with Redcrosse slaying him. Duessa is not even remotely upset, for “when she saw her champion fall, / Like the old ruines of a broken towre, / Staid not to waile his woefull funerall,” (1.2.20.1–3) and submits herself to his “mighty will” (1.2.21.4).

The two travel together, she seduces him. The Knight has surely betrayed his love of Una. He has been told, in part by Duessa herself, that she has a pattern of seducing men and leading them to a cruel end. Such was delivered ignorantly by the Knight himself upon poor Sansfoy. He is also warned more directly by a tree, which was once a man but was cursed by Duessa in the past — though she has concealed her identity to prevent the Redcrosse Knight from discovering this secret (1.2.34.8). This nearly occurs in the House of Pride, ruled by the queen Lucifera and her seven chancellors of sin, but Duessa betrays him. He escapes, but by this point he is so mired in his lust that she easily manipulates him into returning to her influence (1.4.1–5.53). Despite his constant mistakes, he continues to survive the challenges placed before him. Ultimately, though, he will have to sink to the black pit of complete defeat in order to recognize his folly and trust in the mercy of the divine, to pull his wretched soul from the depths.

He soon meets this fate, as he finally sinks to the lowest point of his depravity. In complete violation of his chastity and former love of pious Una, he consummates his lust with Duessa. “Yet goodly court he made still to his Dame, / Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd, / Both carelesse of his health, and of his fame” (1.7.1–3). The Knight has not even a moment to revel in his lust, to savor the fruits of his sin. Such is often the case when we make mistakes, that we are immediately enwrapped in guilt and the consequences delivered. A giant arrives, named Orgolio, and he subdues the Redcrosse Knight. He has finally been bested, having been distracted by the sinful embrace of the temptress, and Duessa predictably takes the new, stronger man for her husband — abandoning the Knight to rot in a subterranean dungeon. Here, in the depths of his imprisonment, he has truly suffered defeat. And unlike the previous times, when the Knight himself has managed to overcome his errors through sheer luck, he is now at the mercy of a rescuer.

Therewith an hollow, dreary, murmuring voyce
These piteous plaints and dolours did resound;
O who is that, which brings me happy choyce
Of death, that here lye dying euery stound,
Yet liue perforce in balefull darkenesse bound?
For now three Moones haue cha[n]ged thrice their hew,
And haue beene thrice hid vnderneath the ground,
Since I the heauens chearefull face did vew,
O welcome thou, that doest of death bring tydings trew. (1.8.38)

It is Prince Arthur, who arrives and slays the giant, who breaks the cycle. Instead of falling for the pleading of Duessa, he exercises right judgement and banishes the witch. Unlike the Redcrosse Knight who has, up to this point, failed to learn from his mistakes and hollow victories, Prince Arthur is a mature warrior capable of not only surviving his encounter, but of achieving total victory over the challenges presented to him. He is the model of the ideal masculine warrior, and in future adaptations a fully realized king.

The Cave of Despair (1772) by Benjamin West

Immediately after his rescue by Prince Arthur, the Redcrosse Knight returns to his travels with Una towards his eventual battle with the dragon terrorizing her father’s kingdom. He is wounded, not only externally from his various defeats, but also in the spirit. The two come upon a figure known as Despayre, who nearly drives the shamed knight to suicide. “Shall he thy sins vp in his knowledge fold, / And guiltie be of thine impietie? / Is not his law, Let euery sinner die” says Despayre to the Knight. “Death is the end of woes: die soone, O faeries sonne” (1.9.47.3–5, 9). So similar is this to the antique wisdom of Silenus, which appears most concisely in the work of the Greek tragedian Sophocles.

                                                        Not to be born is best            
when all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light
           the next best thing, by far, is to go back
back where he came from, quickly as he can.19

Like the famed philosopher and classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche who so understood Silenic wisdom, Despayre is a nihilist who finds the struggles of life too great a burden to bear. He longs for death himself yet is incapable of bringing it about. It is the guilt of the Redcrosse Knight, all too burdened by the knowledge of his own sins, that nearly drives him to commit suicide. For he has failed as a warrior and as a man. But Una pulls the knight from the pit of despair. “Fie, fie, faint harted knight,” she reproaches him, “What meanest thou by this reprochfull strife? / Is this the battell, which thou vauntst to fight / With that fire-mouthed Dragon, horrible and bright?” (1.9.52.6–9) She begins by appealing to his former virtues; in his heart the Knight knows his duty, and it is a fear of failing at his duty which leads him to suicide. But such is the way of a coward, not of a man. The man does not shrink before too great a challenge, he does not surrender before the battle begins. Even if he is afraid, it is more manly to face and die in the maws of the challenge than it is to live with the shame of cowardice.

She drives the point home, no longer appealing to the very archaic warrior virtue that has thus brought him to despair. “In heauenly mercies hast thou not a part?” she implores. Does not the sinner have a chance for redemption, even to the moment of death? Likewise, the life of a hero like the Knight is not forfeit after so much sin — especially when done mistakenly, rather than in pure pursuit of evil itself. It is to the mercy of God that the Knight should surrender his soul, and it is both foolish and arrogant to make such a decision himself. This is why it is a sin to kill oneself in Christianity (the ancient pagans had no similar taboo on suicide, see Sophocles’ Ajax for the only classical depiction of suicide on stage). The life of the warrior goes beyond one’s individual experience; we are all characters in a divine drama of which God is the author, and we have no choice but to play our part.

The Final Trial and Initiation into Manhood

The Redcrosse Knight has thus far striven after pure martial victory, but in the process, he has neglected what is arguably more important (at least for Spenser) — this is the cultivation of knightly virtue, and it begins with bowing before God. For Thomas Aquinas, whose theology is present throughout the work of Edmund Spenser, God is essentially defined as that paragon of all being. He is virtue, in its truest form — and it is only by understanding the perfection of God that one can understand virtue. Humility and submission to God is therefore necessary for understanding one’s moral position in the world, and one’s purpose in the cosmos.20 There is always something greater beyond human cognition, and this is embodied in God. Redcrosse constantly confronts danger, and unlike the other heroes of The Faerie Queene, he is injured every time; it is only through his final humiliation by Duessa and Orgoglio and saved by Prince Arthur (who is the allegorical embodiment of perfect virtue, and thus associated with the divine) that he recognizes the importance of submission. When he comes to face the dragon that he sought at the beginning of the poem, it is this that will be put to the test.

The Redcrosse Knight is saved and has now learned from his mistakes — finally experiencing true defeat — but he must learn to integrate the mercy of God in order to evolve into the man that he is destined to be. This is accomplished at the House of Holiness, where Una delivers him to be treated for physical and psychological wounds. He is attended by the daughters of Caelia, who represent several distinct virtues and are charged with nursing him back to health (1.10.1–33). In keeping with the theme, he is then taken to a matron named Mercy — obviously referring to the mercy of God, which previously saved him from despair. He is not only cured here, but his destiny is revealed; he is exposed as St. George, bound for future glory in the name of God (1.10.34–68). From the depths of despair, having gone through so many days of self-inflicted pain through his sin, the Knight rises in preparation for his final battle with evil.

We must remember our original argument, which reaches is apogee here: that it was necessary for the Redcrosse Knight to finally surrender himself to the will and mercy of God in order for him to be initiated as a mature, fully integrated and heroic man. This is the basis of piety, and following the work of Aquinas, the basis of all virtue. For it is only with the knowledge that there is always something above, something perfect like the divine towards which we can strive, that truly allows us to live. For what is life but to struggle in the constant pursuit of perfection? That Greek lover of fire, Heraclitus, might agree with this writer when he states that no life is worth living which does not contain struggle, and with the Buddhists when he says that no man can truly be happy until he embraces such a reality. So, the Redcrosse Knight becomes aware of this reality and at the same time learns of his destiny. Before, he was a hero without a cause — striving towards an amorphous glory; now he has seen perfection in the mercy of God and is aware of what it means to perform his duty as a man in this world.

Alone, the Redcrosse Knight must face his final challenge. Now he must face the dragon which has long lurked in the background. He has been forgiven; his soul wiped clean of the burden of past sins. He knows that it is his destiny to succeed, having been given a vision of his future as a saint, but tension remains high; despite this knowledge, the Knight is devoid of his past arrogance. He is aware of his destiny, prepared for action, but not cocksure. Having received the advice of Una, he sends her away. This is his battle, his monster to face. For the first time he embraces the mantle of his God: “I this man of God his godly armes may blaze,” (1.11.7.9) he says — his final words before the battle commences.

The dragon itself is described as a ferocious winged creature, bearing poisonous breath and an impenetrable hide. The battle swiftly begins, the dragon winging towards the Knight who is mounted atop a strong horse. The beast spews forth his poisonous breath and charges, and the knight returns his attacks — though neither wound the other. But the Knight is strong, surprising the dragon, “For neuer felt his imperceable brest / So wondrous force, from hand of liuing wight” (1.11.17.7–8). It is the Knight who strikes the first blow, injuring the dragon’s wing (1.11.20), though it quickly throws the Knight from his horse with a flick of his tail and engulfs him in a wave of breathy fire. The fire heats his armor to a pitch, searing his body beneath. “That erst him goodly arm’d, now most of all him harm’d,” (1.11.27.9) so it was likewise in the Knight’s past that the traditional vestments of a warrior became more a burden than a boon, and he must shed his martial trapping to survive. But the Knight does not follow his first instinct, which is to reject his warrior’s armor. Instead, he plunges into a nearby well. For a man must know when to abandon his warrior virtue, and when not — it is not to be totally dispensed with, least of all when one is facing a dragon. “Death better were, death did he oft desire,” he thinks amidst his pain. “But death will neuer come, when needes require” (1.11.28.4–5).

The dragon believes he has won, and likewise Una grieves. But the following day, having rested in the well the Knight arises to strike a deadly blow against his foe. Perhaps some change occurred beneath the water, perhaps the Knight is earning thus the grace of his God? The two trade blows: the dragon cleaving through his shield to wound the Knight’s shoulder, the Knight hewing off his serpentine tail. He is nearly killed again by the dragon’s fire, though he falls down into sap oozing from a magical tree. Like before, both Una and the dragon think the knight dead. But saved, perhaps by Una’s feverish prayer, he rises again on the third and final day of the battle. The dragon rages and rushes towards the knight, hoping to swallow the warrior whole — but likewise inspired, perhaps near his own death and without heed, the knight dives into the mouth of the beast and pierces his body full-through. Down the monster falls, dead. (1.11.54)

Mimicking his journey, this is a vivid image. It was only by his descent into sin that the knight could have the opportunity to rise, finally embraced by the father God. Likewise, it was only when the knight plunged into the belly of the dragon, descending into the literal maw of chaos, that he could finally slay the beast and arise a man victorious. There is no path to victory that takes us around suffering; we must face what we fear, drive through it and endure as best we can. In the process we may perish, but victory is worth such gruesome possibilities. In fact, it is the only way to truly live.

The story concludes with the typical fairytale ending, as the Redcrosse Knight and fair Una are engaged. Such is typical of any heroic journey, that the rewards of so long a quest are quickly glossed over. They are earned and present, but we should not confuse them for the object of the knight’s trials and tribulations. Marriage is typically seen as the event by which a man is initiated into manhood, having not only earned the approval of a virtuous lady but accepting the responsibility of being a husband (and eventually, a father). He stays no longer than is necessary to secure his rewards, before departing on another mission. The weaker man may have forgotten his duties in such splendor or at least pushed them until a further date. But our hero understands the importance of his life, earned through the mercy of God, and knows the future prepared for him. Perhaps in another time, not long ago, when the warrior was still but a boy, the beautiful princess and her father’s gold may have allured him — but he has grown, as have we.


Endnotes

[1] Edmund Spenser, “The Faerie Queene,” in The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser (London: Alexander Balloch Grosart, 1882), l. 1.1.18.9; Hereafter referenced in text by line number.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (Novato, California: New World Library, 2008), 59

[3] Ibid., 67.

[4] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 106–8

[5] Andrew J Romig, Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 24, 74.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, ed. Robert Fraser, a new abridgement from the second and third editions (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993), 557–67.

[8] Romig, Be a Perfect Man, 39–63.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Hugh M Thomas, “Shame, Masculinity, and the Death of Thomas Becket,” Speculum 87, no. 4 (October 2012): pp. 1050-1088, https://doi.org/http://www.jstor.com/stable/23488629, 1063; Christopher Fletcher, Richard II: Manhood, Youth, and Politics, 1377–99 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 37.

[11] Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066–1300 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 50.

[12] Ibid., 132.

[13] Romig, Be a Perfect Man, 35.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Thomas, “Shame, Masculinity, and the Death of Thomas Becket,” 1060.

[16] Jonathan Dewald, The European Nobility: 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3, 35–36; Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York, NY: Urizen Books, 1978), 73, 79–82, 106.

[17] Moore & Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, 80.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Sophocles, “Oedipus at Colonus,” in The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1982), pp. 279-388, ll. 1388–91.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1485), I.84.1