Faerie Queene Readalong Book II: Guyon, the Knight of Temperance

Well.  It took me two weeks to read Book II, yet I still feel I'm doing well.  Everyone seems to have agreed to slow down to whatever pace each can maintain; I think we all ran headlong into the brick wall that is the cold, hard reality of reading Spenser!  And now it's taken me another week, just about, to write this very very long post.

Book II is kind of strange, but there's a ton to say about it.  It's hard for me to believe that Spenser tackled temperance as his virtue of Book II, right at the beginning, because temperance is a really tricky virtue to write a knightly adventure about!  Temperance is all about not getting into battles willy-nilly--it's self-control, moderation, and keeping your temper.  If everybody in Le Morte D'Arthur went around being temperate all the time, nothing would ever happen!  Perhaps Spenser is showing off a bit here: "Look, here's a wild and crazy adventure starring the Knight of Keeping Calm!"  Guyon doesn't even have a lady love to travel with--instead he has a Palmer, a dour old pilgrim dressed in black (though Palmer does get a magic staff).

Like Redcrosse, Guyon has much to learn about actually practicing temperance.  His Palmer has to tell him what to do on a regular basis, and he sometimes falls into temptation, though not as often as poor hapless Redcrosse did.  There is some wordplay here; Guyon has to depend on his guide a lot, and the word guide appears on a regular basis near his name.  I'm not sure of all the nuances of the name Guy at this time, pre-Guy Fawkes, but Guyon is definitely a regular guy.  And so, on to the story:

Right away, our old decievers, Archimago and Duessa, show up to convince Guyon that Redcrosse has raped Duessa.  Guyon believes them at first, and promptly attacks a very surprised Redcrosse, but--showing superb horsemanship--Guyon veers off at the last moment, realizing that something is wrong.  The two knights meet for a talk and become friends instead.  Oddly, Guyon figures out the truth on his own and needs no explanation.

Moving off into the woods, Guyon finds a dying lady with a dead knight by her side.  Her infant plays at her side, but since she is bleeding from a massive wound, his hands and arms are covered in her blood.  Guyon is able to revive her long enough for her to tell her sad story--her husband, Sir Mortdant, went adventuring and fell under the spell of the wicked Acrasia.  She, the lady Amavia, went searching for him and spent a long time curing him of the deadly drugs he'd been given, but just as he was getting well and they were heading home, Acrasia got him to accept a drink to refresh himself by the way.  Of course it killed him.  Here Amavia dies herself, unable to finish her story.  Guyon buries the two, takes charge of the child, and vows revenge upon this Acrasia.    (Note here that Acrasia means 'without restraint'--she is excess.  Mortdant is 'death-giving' and Amavia is 'love of life'--but her husband gave her death.)  But it is a long way to Acrasia's Bower of Bliss.

Guyon and his Palmer try to wash the baby's hands clean, but cannot.  He is permanently dyed red.  Palmer explains that it will be a testament to the crime, and also that this particular well will not wash away anything unclean.  Also, as they come out of the wood, Guyon's horse is gone, stolen away!  So poor Sir Guyon is stuck walking on foot, in armor, carrying a baby and Mortdant's armor.  (Odd, isn't it, that such a great horseman loses his horse?  I'm not sure what to make of that.)  They find a castle nearby, built upon a rock (yep, the Biblical one).  Inside, there live three sisters, who are like the three bears.  Elissa, the eldest, is a scold, never satisfied--everything about her is stingy and too little.  Perissa, the youngest, is over-enthusiastic and wanton, too much all over.  She is just like Lydia Bennett!  And Medina is just right: serious and courteous, welcoming and calm.  Elissa and Perissa have lovers--the rough Sir Huddibras and our old enemy Sansloy.  Both attack Guyon on sight, and there is a three-way battle until Medina brokers a truce.  Guyon explains that he's on his way to deal with Acrasia, and his Palmer was the one to go to court asking for assistance.

Guyon entrusts the baby (now named Ruddymane) to Medina, and walks away on foot.  We move now to the horse thief, Braggadocio --Spenser invented the name!  He's just a hoodlum who saw the horse and grabbed it, but now he puffs himself up with pride and bullies the first person he sees, taking him prisoner.  This is Trompart, a flattering toady.  They run into Archimago, who as usual complains about Redcrosse and Guyon.  Braggadocio gets carried away and talks a lot about what a great knight he is even though he only has a spear, for he has sworn never to carry a sword until he can have the best in the world.  Archimago promises it to him and flies off to get Arthur's sword, scaring the two frauds silly.  They run into a forest and promptly get scared again, so they hide in the bushes and see Belphoebe arrive, dressed as a huntress.

Here Spenser stops and spends ten verses on a blazon, a detailed catalog description of a woman's features and virtues.  Belphoebe is just like Artemis, beautiful, virginal, and with every virtue...and she very nearly shoots Braggadocio, thinking him to be a deer.  He crawls out and they converse--Belphoebe extols honor through work, but Braggadocio has stopped listening long ago and tries to embrace her instead.  So she menaces him with her spear and takes off through the woods, as he loses his temper, brags some more, and finally rides off on the disgusted horse.

Guyon, meanwhile, runs into a madman tormenting a poor fellow named Phaon, with a hag behind them.  Guyon jumps in to save Phaon, but can't defeat the man--Furor--until he stops the hag.  This is a really weird one, folks.  The hag is Occasion--she is every excuse anybody ever found to get angry or commit sin.  She is a sort of opportunity, so her hair hangs down in front and she is bald in back--because you have to grab opportunity when it arrives, and you can't grab it from behind!  So Occasion has to be bound and gagged before Furor can be subdued.  Phaon can then tell his story, which is the same as in Much Ado About Nothing--he was Claudio and his love was Hero, only, tragically, Phaon got so furious that Furor gained control over him, and he killed his sweetheart.  Guyon points out that some temperance would have saved the situation.

Guyon next meets up with Pyrrocles, the fiery-tempered knight from Book I, who promptly attacks him (on horseback) without greeting or warning, a highly unchivalrous maneuver.  Guyon, still on foot, defends himself and accidentally beheads the horse.   Which is terrible, by Elizabethan knightly standards as well as ours.  They fight on foot, and since Guyon is wary and controlled, as opposed to Pyrrocles' fiery style, Guyon wins.  He asks why he was attacked, and it seems that Pyrrocles wants Furor and Occasion freed.  Generous Guyon grants the wish--and they start beating Pyrrocles.  Guyon, who was somewhat susceptible to Occasion before, is now on his guard and immune to her, but he does want to help Pyrrocles.  The Palmer intervenes here, saying that since Pyrrocles sought his own sorrow, he should not be rescued.  His squire, Atin (a boy Ate, or anger) runs off to inform the brother Cymochles, the unstable, that he should take revenge upon Guyon.

Cymochles, however, runs into a snag on his way.  He spots a little boat on the lake, and calls to it for a ride.  It's piloted by Phaedria, who is light-mindedness and idleness.  (Phaedra means shining or joy, but the classical Phaedra had a passion for her stepson).  She takes Cymochles into her magic boat, and she is so witty and charming and wanton that he forgets all about his brother.  He is taken to a lovely island and takes a nap in Phaedria's lap; then she enchants him and leaves him there.  Back in her boat, she picks up Guyon (refusing to take the Palmer) and takes him to the island too, but he is reluctant about the whole thing and spends the entire time politely insisting on leaving.  Cymochles wakes up and attacks Guyon out of jealousy, and Guyon wins, but Phaedria is glad to be rid of this party-pooper and sets him back on shore, now without his Palmer.  Just then, Pyrrocles runs up and throws himself into the sludgy lake water, screaming that he burns and wishes to die.  Atin leaps in to save him and Archimago intervenes to fix both of them up.  Goodness.

Guyon, alone, meets Mammon, the god of worldly wealth, who throws all of his gold into a put as soon as he's seen.  He is all black and smoky and filthy.  They argue about wealth, its value and utility, and Mammon offers a tour.  So he takes Guyon down into the underworld (where Duessa has already been), and they enter the House of Richesse through a tiny door next to the gates of hell.  The house is filled with dusty, cobweb-covered gold--in fact Arachne lives on the ceiling--and Mammon describes it all as heaven, full of bliss and grace.  Guyon refuses it all.  As they go further in, they are attacked by the iron man Disdain and they see Ambition's temple throne with a massive golden chain next to it, which throngs of people try to climb.  Like Lucifer, she has fallen, and Mammon offers her to Guyon as a wife.  Then they go into Persephone's garden, which is full of black, poisonous plants and a tree with golden apples--the one I thought grew on Mount Parnassus.  They meet poor Tantalus, and Guyon, again eschewing mercy for justice, refuses to give him a drink, which I thought was pretty awful.  They also meet Pilate, whose hands are most certainly not washed clean.  Guyon asks to leave, and actually faints away upon exiting the underworld, whether from fatigue or moral weakness, I'm not sure.  He needs help, anyway.

Happily, the Palmer finds Guyon...with an angel ministering to him!  This is the only point at which God sends visible aid or directly interferes.  And oh no, here come Pyrrocles and Cymochles again, inflamed by Archimago, and they think Guyon is dead, so they plan to strip his body.  Our hero, Arthur, arrives just in time.  There's a lot of mix-up about swords, but the upshot is that Arthur wins and Guyon revives.  They become friends and Arthur asks how Guyon got that great shield with Gloriana's image on it and became one of her knights.

They arrive at a castle, but the guards tell them that they can't get in because the castle is besieged.  They fight the besiegers, but they're not soldiers; they're insubstantial creatures that swarm and sting.  Finally, the knights enter the House of Temperance, run by Alma, which means both soul and nourishment.  She gives them a tour of the castle, which is really a human body!  It's really strange and there is some oddball symbolism here.  They go right through the digestive tract, complete with privy waste gate (no over-delicacy here, please, says Spenser).  There is a heart, home of Praysdesire and Shamefastness.  The tower of the head contains three old men: Imagination (or Foresight), a sort of Present Wisdom, who specializes in law and philosophy, and Memory with his books of learning.  Memory owns histories of Britain and Fairyland, and the knights eagerly sit down to study.  Canto Ten is all about British history (courtesy of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Holinshed).  Did you know that Stonehenge is a memorial to the British lords killed by Hengist?  I didn't.

After this, the knights are ready to save the castle from its siege by Maleger, who is both disease and sensual evil.  Thus the evil soldiers come in twelve groups: seven for the deadly sins, and five for the senses.  Each sense tower is attacked by things that can affect it--Sight gets ugly creatures and sightly sins like envy and lust, and Hearing gets slander and gossip.  Spenser couldn't think of any smelling sins, so that one just gets really stinky problems.  We also learn that Arthur's horse is named Spumador, ick.  It means frothing.  Arthur has to fight Maleger, who sends diseases and infirmities ahead of him, and keeps coming back stronger after every attack.  Finally we realize that he is gaining strength from the earth itself, and Arthur uses the traditional solution and triumphs.

Acrasia's Bower of Bliss

Now it's finally time for Guyon to face Acrasia.  He and the Palmer sail for three days, encountering perils of excess such as the Gulf of Greedinesse and the Rock of Vile Reproach, which are Scylla and Charybdis with new names.  They also pass the Wandering Islands, where Phaedria reappears and calls to them.  There's a quicksand of Unthriftyhed, and all kinds of perils, frequently from the Odyssey.  At last they reach Acrasia's land, which is a lovely garden, but crammed full of extra artistic touches, such as fake ivy, painted flowers, and all sorts of things that aren't real.  In fact they're overdone, too lavish, and in bad taste.  Kitschy, really.  Guyon does OK walking through this garden, until he spies two naked damsels bathing wantonly in a fountain.  He stops and stares through the trees at them until the Palmer rebukes him.  Then they sneak up on Acrasia, sitting in a bower with a young knight's head in her lap.  Her clothes are mostly gauze, and a crowd of watchers stand around and sing.  The knight's name is Verdant, so he's young and alive and the opposite of poor Mortdant, who Acrasia already used up.  They throw a net over the lovers and tie Acrasia up, but let Verdant go with a lecture about temperance.  After that, Guyon tramples and destroys the entire garden!  It's over-pretty and false.  Give Guyon some honest mud and box hedges any day; he's fine with flowers, but not with pretending that flowers are prettier and more abundant than they actually are.  And the animals are really men enchanted by Acrasia, so the Palmer fixes them, except for one who prefers his hoggishness...and that's the end.  Bam.

Is it just me, or does this book seem really....fragmented?  The adventures don't really flow into each other, it seems to me.  Spenser sure can get a lot of material out of a dull-sounding virtue like Temperance, though.

Twice in this book, Spenser describes knights lying down with their heads in ladies' laps as pretty much the height of earthly bliss (although not in a good way).  This really amuses me.  And it's not because he's using it as a euphemism; in the Acrasia/Verdant episode, he makes it quite clear what they've just been up to.

One verse in Canto I made me laugh aloud and read it to my husband and daughter, who were also tickled.  As Guyon tries to revive poor Amavia:
Out of her gored wound the cruell steele
  He lightly snatcht, and did the floodgate stop
  With his faire garment: then gan softly feele
  Her feeble pulse, to prove if any drop
  Of living blood yet in her veynes did hop;
  Which when he felt to move, he hoped faire
  To call backe life to her forsaken shop;
  So well he did her deadly wounds repaire,
That at the last she gan to breath out living aire.
From now on we're going to be asking each other whether the living blood in our veins does hop.

Literary notes:
There's a lot of callback to Virgil's Aeneid here.  Medina's castle has some details that remind me of Dido and Aeneas, and Guyon's trip to the House of Richesse bears several resemblances to Aeneas' underworld trip.

Then, the final canto features a bunch of Odyssean perils with new names, and Acrasia bears a very strong resemblance to Circe, who likes to turn men into animals and take illicit lovers.  Remember how she wouldn't let Odysseus leave for years, even though he wanted to?  Even the last man who prefers being a pig is straight from the Odyssey.

I presume that Shakespeare and Spenser both got the Claudio/Hero story from Holinshed or someplace like that.  Spenser did it first, but only by a few years.  A similar story also appears in Orlando Furioso, which also appeared in the 1590s.

The Wandering Islands seemed a bit like the islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Not very much, but I wonder if they were in Lewis' mind.

The song in the Bower of Bliss is rendered in a slightly different rhyme scheme, which is neat.  The theme is the one all impatient lovers use: "Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time..."  sound familiar?  Herrick must have liked Spenser, he practically lifted the line verbatim!

Phew!  That was a long one.  On to Book III!  Excelsior!


  1. I'm about three weeks later than you but I've finally caught up and gathered my thoughts! Yes it did feel fragmented and I found it hard to follow. I understood it largely in terms of Book I's structure. Some great stories within it, but oh so hard!


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