Faerie Queene as a Romantic Epic
An epic is a long, narrative poem depicting heroic deeds and adventures, and portraying brave, fearless warriors who undertake dangerous tasks and enterprises. The earliest epics were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. These Greek and Latin epic poems belonged to antiquity. Then came the medieval Italian poet Dantes epic poem called The Divine Comedy. Spencer’s epic, The Faerie Queene, appeared in the sixteenth century; and later came Milton’s famous epic, Paradise Lost. However, instead of calling Spencers The Faerie Queene, an epic, some critics have applied the label of ‘romance’ to it, while there is yet another group of literary critics who have very -cogently opined that the book is neither an epic properly nor a medieval romance, it is rather a romantic epic, combining within itself the elements of epic and romance. In fact, Spencer’s The Faerie Queene has inspired many controversial critical conflicts as to the category in which the books fall.
Book. I of the Faerie Queen has several features of an epic as laid down by Aristotle in his famous treatise, The Poetics. It is a long poem consisting of as many as twelve Cantos, each Canto consist of forty to sixty stanzas of equal length, written in the same meter. The whole poem is written in what has come to be known as the Spencerian stanza. Book-I is predominantly a moral and didactic poem having a single theme though it offers a large variety of incidents and situations. Its theme is a quest by the Red Cross Knight or Holiness of victory over the Dragon allegorizing Satan or the forces of evil (who has been tyrannizing over and tormenting the king and the people of a certain country.)
An epic is invariably a story of heroic deeds. In Book I of Faerie Queene we find the Red Cross Knight fighting against a monster who is half-woman and half serpent. We then find him fighting against Sans foy or (faithlessness) and killing him. Next, we find him fighting against sans Joy (or joylessness). Then he fights against Orgoglio, a giant who represents tyranny. Here the Red Cross suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of the giant. Finally, he fights against the Dragon (or Devil) and kills him. The heroic deeds of the Red Cross Knight certainly remind one of the heroic deeds described in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
An epic has love as one of its leading themes: love that is noble or ignoble, honorable or dishonorable. In Book I, we find all these varieties of love. The Red Cross Knight’s love for Una is noble but his love for Duessa deteriorates into lust, while Duessa’s love, first for Sans foy, then for the Red Cross Knight, and next for Orgoglio is a mere pretense because Duessa is incapable of true love.
An epic always upholds certain moral values; it always has an ethical message to unfold which may not be explicit. In Book I this message is most explicit. In Canto X the abstract human virtues such as Fidelia, Speranza, Charissa, Reverence, Patience, Mercie, and Contemplation are presented before us as concrete embodiment. Then there is the situation in the preceding canto (IX) in which the Red Cross Knight encounters a villain by the name of Despair. This situation conveys to us a very important message that we must not surrender to the feeling of hopelessness, and that we must preserve our faith in the mercy of God and God’s grace. Similarly, the situation in which Archimago and Duessa figure, teach us hypocrisy duplicity, and falsehood.
Book I also shows the dignified style of writing over which Spencer had full command. He shows his originality in coining happy phrases and in combining words into pleasing phrases. The imagery in Book I is very also vivid and contributes greatly to the appeal of the poem. Yet another feature of the epic in Bank-I is the use of elaborate similes (of the kind which were first used by Homer and which have come to be) known as Homeric similes. Spencer’s use of this kind of simile extends over the whole of a stanza. for instance, in one stanza (Canto II, Stanza 16) the Red Cross Knight and Sans foy stand facing each other after fierce combat which has exhausted them. They are here compared to rams which have been fighting each other for some time but which now stand stunned, like two senseless blocks of wood, forgetful of the issue of the battle.
Romantic Features :
Along with the epic features, the romantic features also exist side by side in the course of the story of Book-1. Book-I has love and war as its chief themes and these two were the main themes of the romances of Spencer’s time, and of the earlier times too, to which Spencer added a third theme, which is religion. The Romans as of pre-spencer days contained stories of knights wielding magic swords and shields, ladies armed with the magic of beauty, human beings possessed of superhuman powers, castles, and palace, forests, and lakes, with all their natural terrors or beauties heightened by enchantment, giants and dwarfs, fire breathing dragon and winged horses. Now, Book I contains all these ingredients. We have Prince Arthur possessing a magic shield that has a blinding effect on his enemies. There is Duessa who can, with her beauty, though it is only false beauty, cast a spell upon men like sans foy and even the noble-minded warriors like the Red Cross Knight . Then we have Archimago who has a human shape but possesses superhuman powers. We have the palace of Queen Lucifera with all its splendour, but also with its dungeons beneath the main edifice. Then we have the Giant, Orgoglio, who lives in a castle which too has subterranean dungeons. We have a dwarf who attends, Red Cross Knight. Then the Dragon against whom the Red cross knight wages war at the end of the story is equipped with wings, and he also breathes fire. Next, we have love affairs in Book I which appears both in its noble and ignoble forms. Furthermore, in this book Spencers also has introduced all the abstract human virtues, which true religion demands.
Thus, Book I certainly follows the conventional pattern of medieval romance. It presents a quest which, after many dangers and adventures for the knight-hero, find it’s climax in a great combat, in which the Red Cross Knight kills the Dragon or Devil and free’s Una’s parents and their Kingdom from its tyranny. But Book I, like many other books of The Faerie Queene has the kind of dignity and & high seriousness which an epic is expected to have. In fact, when we examine Book-I more closely,we find that it is more of an epic poem than a romance.