Monday, January 31, 2011

Iconoclasm as Heroism in Spenser's Book One of The Faerie Queene (an academic essay by an orthodox rebel)

In Book One of The Faerie Queene, being enamored with and thereby enslaved to the signifier rather than the signified seems to adequately identify Spenser's iconoclastic (and thus Protestant) tendencies in literature. Of course, it's not as simple as saying that Spenser was a Protestant in the absolute sense. His sympathies with medievalism greatly irritated his puritan and humanist peers, who could not understand why he wrote a story about knights and dragons and dwarves and other such papist trappings. Nevertheless, Spenser still allows for iconoclasm to be a kind of heroism, even while he maintains his medievalist leanings.

This is not a difficult inference to make. Practically every incarnation of evil in Book One, whether they be man or monster, is some kind of deceiver, spellbinder, or (if I may coin of term) a sign-weaver. Error spews forth false doctrines, Archimago weaves illusions, Duessa lives for deception, the House of Pride is a thin yet flashy veneer covering the dungeons of the dead, and Despair twists scripture in order to produce suicide.

In response to these "sign-weavers" is an apparently iconoclastic retaliation. Error is beheaded (defaced?), Duessa is stripped, and Despair's deadly interpretations are thwarted by Una's reiteration of true grace. Even the Dragon's death is described as erosion, which is a type of defacement: "So down he fell, as a huge rocky cliff / whose false foundation waves have washed away." It seems as though the weapons of the enemy are the deception of false images, and the weapon of holiness is an iconoclastic resolve guided by the word(s) of truth (viz., of Una).

As already stated, Spenser's use of "sign-weavers" as enemies is more than mere anti-papist propaganda: it is a statement about the intimate connection between evil and falsehood as well as between goodness and truth.  Holiness is not simply Protestantism; holiness is reality, living in and being guided by the real (esp. the highest real, i.e., God). Still, since The Faerie Queene was not ashamed to dabble in sensationalist elements (elements that had deep correlations to the everyday lives and experiences of the common folk of 16th century culture), asserting Spenser's use of iconoclastic heroes and image-bound villains is not an unfair interpretation.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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