Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Spencer’s Sleeping Knight — Faerie Queene, Book 2, Canto 8

Knighty knight.
It’s been a while (again) since I did a post on The Faerie Queene. The book has (seemingly permanent) residence on my desk, and so it hurry it back to its location on my shelves, I really need to get this blog post out. It’s not that I haven’t read Book 2, Canto 8, I have. I read it, started writing, and put it aside.

When I was an undergrad, one of my professors commented that “‘it bored me to tears’ is always a perfectly reasonable critical response.” It bored me to tears. This suggestion comes too late for Edmund Spenser, but perhaps it will save someone else: don’t put your protagonist into a deep slumber. Sure, it worked for Sleeping Beauty, but face it, that story is really about the prince (who has a thing for comatose women).

Like the sleeping princess, stuff happens around Sir Guyon while he’s asleep, but he’s really not involved in any of it. I’m not looking to Elizabethan poetry for white-knuckled excitement, but at least if we had shifted our focus to another character, we wouldn’t have Spenser reminding us, “that guy is sleeping through all of this.” I blame Edmund Spenser for the tardiness of this post.

Besides, Spenser has a lot of threads to wrap up. Eight cantos in, and Sir Guyon seems to be making little progress in avenging the deaths of the couple who blamed their fate on Acrasia. And he’s lost his horse. Does this guy really have time to take a nap? Sir Guyon spends most of the canto eight out of it, while everything happens around him. He gets help, and he needs it. Of course, he’s not actually aware of any of this going on. Further, we get a bonus: we get some actual references to Arthurian romance in this canto (remember, in some slight way, the Faerie Queene is Arthurian).

Guyon seems to succeed more by luck than by actual display of temperance. Resisting Mammon put him into a swoon, and while he’s lying there senseless on the ground, who should show up the the faithful Palmer, who had to take the long way around. Until he gets there, an angel is watching over Sir Guyon. The angel is
a faire young man,
Of wondrous beauty and of freshest yeares,
Whose tender bud to blossome new began,
And flourish faire above his equally peares :
That last word is, in our spelling, likely “peers,” at least that’s the sense of it. But the angel flies away once the Palmer arrives. You’d think that the angel might have stuck around for a bit, the brothers Pyrochles and Cymocles show up, ready to avenge themselves on Sir Guyon.

It’s made clear by Spenser at this point that the two are Saracens, that is to say Moslem nights, as were the brothers Sans (Sansjoy, Sansfoy, and Sansloy) whom the Redcrosse Knight encountered. Is this new biographical detail? It doesn’t spring to mind that the two were previously described this way. It would not, however, surprise me if more of the “bad guys” are Moslem (in a Elizabethan way, mixed in with lots of misconceptions about actual practice and belief in Islam).

Continuing on the idea that no matter how much J.R.R. Tolkien may have disliked this poem, we know he read it. Pyrochles snatches a sword named “Morddure” from the Archimage. Wait a minute, Mordor? Close enough. In any case, the Archimage warns Pyrochles that the sword, for all of its virtues,
Ne ever may be used by his fone,
Ne first his rightful owner to offend.
He flat out tells the guy that this is Prince Arthur’s sword and you can’t use it against him. Stock villains never listen to that sort of warning. But, since their initial target is Sir Guyon, that doesn’t matter, right? In chivalric romance, the guy the sword can’t hurt never shows up. (For those not accustomed to the patterns of chivalric romance, it’s as good as a summoning spell. This also holds true for contemporary high-fantasy, comic-book heroes, and lots of other things too. “You have this one teeny weakness, but don’t worry, you won’t run into it” means that you will, and in the second act.)

But Prince Arthur shows up and fights Pyrochles, he of the untrusty sword, although Morddure’s enchantment doesn’t protect the prince’s horse (poor thing). The two fight, with Pyrochles in part protected by Sir Guyon’s shield which has a portrait of the Faerie Queene, and it’s just that Prince Arthur doesn’t want to strike her portrait with a weapon.

The prince wins, killing both of the pagan knights. That’s when Sir Guyon finally wakes up. The Palmer explains it all to him. The Archimage and Atin flee.

[Note: I have no idea why this thing has sat unpublished. I finished it on February 4. Now, two weeks later, here it is. Okay, time for me to get on to Canto 9. I swear I'm going to finish this book. So many other things vie for my time and attention though.]
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