England's Chaste Revelation
by Elmer G. Wiens
In the First Book of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser reveals his prophetic and apocalyptic vision for the fledgling British Empire, personified in his hero Redcrosse. As the secular instrument of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, Redcrosse takes on the sacred task of Una (representing religious truth) to free her parents, Adam and Eve, from their bonds of sin. Before he can achieve his task, the Redcrosse knight (representing holiness) must mature as a Christian knight as he and Una encounter inhabitants of Faerie Land and interact with them. With his allegory, Spenser unveils the secular and sacred obligations of Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers as they lead Protestant England and her empire in the struggle against the Catholic nations of Europe for world hegemony and New World Colonies.
The Apostle Paul laid the foundation of the Christian religion, equally including Gentiles and Hebrews, separate from the state. Spenser lays a basis for England's union of state and religion, conceptually separating these two functions to minimize their intersection, only inherent in the person of Queen Elizabeth. First, he justifies superseding the Catholic Church, until recently the only true religion of the people of the British Isles.
After Redcrosse strangles religious Error at Una's urging and kills the monster with his sword, Spenser separates Redcrosse and Una by way of Archimago's wicked machinations. Una cycles through a sequence of traveling companions: a lion, Archimago as false Redcrosse (the Roman Catholic Church), Sans-Loy (a Muslim), satyrs, Satyrane, and Prince Arthur. Spenser implies that participants of each religion, no matter how primitive, believe its truths are divine. In her latest incarnation of supreme religious truth, Una needs Gloriana's knight to defeat the dragon of sin, to obtain Christ's redemption for Adam and Eve and their descendants. While England amasses vast wealth conquering and colonizing the primitive races, the real battle is not against "flesh and blood," but as Paul stated in his letter to the Ephesians, against principalities (Saracens), powers (Lucifera), "rulers of darkness" (Error and Despair) and "spiritual wickedness in high places" (mythological or primitive gods — demons).
When Redcrosse finally attains sufficient holiness to fight the old serpent (the dragon Satan) of Revelations, Contemplation takes him to look on the New Jerusalem. Like Jesus, Redcrosse is an historical human being (Saint George). Unlike the imaginary characters of the poem, Redcrosse is entitled to everlasting life provided his name is written in the book of life, as stated in the Bible. Jesus, born of the seed of Abraham, preempts the hierarchy of angels as God's son. Redcrosse, born of an ancient line of Saxon Kings, preempts the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and its historical claims as Una's champion rendering service unto God.
Only Jesus can fight and defeat Satan and his demons of fallen angels. Only Redcrosse qualifies to fight and defeat the dragon, the sin of belief in a false religion. Notably, Redcrosse slays all his enemies with his sword of the word of God. Once Redcrosse understands the concepts provided by God as written in the Bible, he defeats the dragon by stabbing his foul, fire-breathing mouth.
Spenser's dream vision reminds one of the dreams of Nebuchadnezzer and Daniel. Nebuchadnezzer forgets a disturbing dream. Before Daniel can provide an interpretation, he must remind Nebuchadnezzer of the dream itself. Furthermore, Daniel's own vision, as elucidated by Gabriel, foretells the fate of the Medes and Persians, and the rise of the Grecian Empire. Similarly, Spenser conjures a dark conceit, which he hopes is compatible with Queen Elizabeth's vision for England once she settles on what she wants for England, foretelling the fate of the Catholic nations and the rise of the British Empire.
Works Cited and Consulted
Spenser, Edmund. "The First Booke of the Faerie Queene." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (793-934).