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The Faerie Queene, Book V: Justice ¦ Edmund Spenser (1956)

After (in my view) a lacklustre book IV, Spenser picks things up with possibly one of the best books in the whole epic. Book V, of Justice, finally places Britomart’s lover Artegall at the centre of his own story as the embodiment of justice.

The concept of justice is split into two entities: Artegall and his companion, Talus, a magical entity made of iron. Talus is brutal in his delivery of justice to the villains of the book, with some of his actions coming across as cruel rather than just. His punishment for Munera, the complicit daughter of a robbing murderer, is to chop off her golden hands and feet, drowns her in a muddy river, then burns everything she has stolen along with her castle. That said, Talus can deliver more satisfying justice. When Braggadocio’s knavery finally catches up with him, exposed by Guyon, the iron man breaks his armour and handsome face. Talus’ actions are expressions of the divine justice that we see in Dante’s Inferno. Even at it’s most cruel, the punishment always ‘fits’ the crime. The greedy Munera loses her golden hands and feet, symbols of her greed. Braggadocio loses his pretty face and his armour, the façade that hides the fraud and coward beneath.

Long they her sought, yet no where could they finde her,

That sure they ween'd she was escapt away:

But Talus, that could like a limehound winde her,

And all things secrete wisely could bewray,

At length found out, whereas she hidden lay

Vnder an heape of gold. Thence he her drew

By the faire lockes, and fowly did array,

Withouten pitty of her goodly hew,

That Artegall him selfe her seemelesse plight did rew.

Yet for no pitty would he change the course

Of Iustice, which in Talus hand did lye;

Who rudely hayld her forth without remorse,

Still holding vp her suppliant hands on hye,

And kneeling at his feete submissiuely.

But he her suppliant hands, those hands of gold,

And eke her feete, those feete of siluer trye,

Which sought vnrighteousnesse, and iustice sold,

Chopt off, and nayld on high, that all might the[m] behold.

Her selfe then tooke he by the sclender wast,

In vaine loud crying, and into the flood

Ouer the Castle wall adowne her cast,

And there her drowned in the durty mud:

But the streame washt away her guilty blood.

Thereafter all that mucky pelfe he tooke,

The spoile of peoples euill gotten good,

The which her sire had scrap't by hooke and crooke;

And burning all to ashes, powr'd it downe the brooke.

There is a tension between Talus’ representation of justice and that which Artegall represents. There are several moments where Artegall has to restrain Talus from delivering his divine justice. He even pities Munera, though he does not spare her. This suggests that Spenser is highlighting a tension between justice as a divine ideal in tension with the virtues of pity and compassion. This conflict appears with other characters, such as when Queen Mercilla contemplates whether to condemn the false Duessa to death for her crimes or forgive her. Spenser does not give clear answers here; some characters are smitten by Talus’ iron fist, but others are spared his brutal justice. So we are led to contemplate justice; what does it mean, and how far should we go in realising the ideal? If the ideal is symbolised as an inhuman iron man, unbending and sometimes cruel, perhaps we should temper ourselves with pity. And perhaps that is a true, humane justice.

Britomart appears once again in this book for two key sequences. The first, she rescues Artegall from his humiliating state as a slave to the Amazon Kingdom headed up by the warrior Radigund, who forces her male captives into drag to symbolise their submission the matriarchy. This continues a recurring theme from book III, in which Britomart comes out on top of her lover. In book III, she bests him in battle, and here she rescues him like a Prince Charming rescuing his Princess from an evil tyrant. The upshot of her rescue is that Artegall must continue on his quest, at least in part, to regain his masculine pride and be worthy of the lady Knight.

One thing that is so fascinating about Spenser, is the way he combines Christian and Pagan mythology. I noted in my blog on the Epithalamion?, that Christiany often plays second fiddle to paganism in Spenser; the same is true here. Although the titular virtues are embedded in Christian morality, Spenser constantly invokes the pagan gods of Greece, or the creatures of British mythology in his poems. It is these Gods and creatures that play a more active role too in his work. In this book, Spenser goes further afield, bringing in the Egyptian Gods of Isis and Orisis, who he considers to be symbolic of Equity and Justice, respectively, in a vision scene with Britomart as she takes refuge in the temple of Isis.

The end whereof, and all the long euent, They doe to thee in this same dreame discouer. For that same Crocodile doth represent The righteous Knight, that is thy faithfull louer. Like to Osyris in all iust endeuer. For that same Crocodile Osyris is, That vnder Isis feete doth sleepe for euer: To shew that clemence oft in things amis, Restraines those sterne behests, and cruell doomes of his.

That Knight shall all the troublous stormes asswage, And raging flames, that many foes shall reare, To hinder thee from the iust heritage Of thy sires Crowne, and from thy countrey deare. Then shalt thou take him to thy loued fere, And ioyne in equall portion of thy realme: And afterwards a sonne to him shalt beare, That Lion-like shall shew his powre extreame. So blesse thee God, and giue thee ioyance of thy dreame

Britomart’s ultimate destiny is to be the Great Mother of Britain. The Lion that she will give birth to will be the start of a lineage that will bring prosperity and virtue to Britain. In this scene, we see that Britomart and Artegall have their own genesis not in the Christian God, but in the Egyptian Gods Orisis and Isis. We also see how Spenser clearly sees Britomart as a divine entity, ruling over her lover and sun, represented as they are by mere beasts. Not only that, but it is Britomart’s destiny to tame Artegall the crocodile. Even if the crocodile also represents Orisis, suggesting some kind of equity, it is still Isis who keeps the crocodile beneath her feet. Perhaps Artegall’s fate at the hands of Radigund is a symbolic foreshadowing of what will come when he and Britomart finally unite. Unfortunately, Britomart’s appearance in book V is her final appearance in the unfinished Faerie Queene, so we can only ever wonder at how Spenser would have resolved their romance.

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