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  • jjck1993

The Faerie Queene, Book VI: Courtesy ¦ Edmund Spenser (1956)

And so we come to the end of what would have been the first half of the Faerie Queene, and it’s strange because, just as book I tells a more or less self-contained story focusing on a single Knight, so does Book VI. Though there are clearly some things left unresolved, book VI does feel like a more or less complete tale, with some threads left for future books.

The virtue explored in this book is courtesy, though what Spenser means by courtesy is ambiguous. Calidore, our central knight, is on a quest to capture the Blatant Beast, who is clearly a metaphor for the opposite of courtesy. However, Calidore abandons his quest in favour of (1) an idyllic life with a peaceful farming family and (2) love of the farmer’s adopted daughter, Pastorella, whose name clearly identifies her with the pastoral. Now I suppose that one might see Calidore’s abandoning his quest as a failure of courtesy, that is, courtesy to Queen Gloriana who sent him on the quest. Or, as it seems to me, the real conflict here is not one of courtesy and a lack of it, but a conflict between the idyllic life of peace, love, and craft, with the political life fraught with conflict, violence, and war.

The conflict between nature and politics comes up in Spenser’s other poems, such as his Prothalamion, where he begs the sweet river to run softly as he revels in the marriage of young lovers to forget his political anxieties. Perhaps the lack of courtesy in the sort of idyllic dream life of Spenser’s is a kind of listlessness. Yes, it’s peaceful to be out in the country. Yes it’s romantic bliss to be always with your beautiful lover. But, the world needs people to run it and people have to step up and do that.

The lesson of Courtesy, then, seems to be one of avoiding that lazy fate, which Calidore eventually gives up when he pursues the Blatant beast and eventually captures it. But two things remain at the end. First, we here that the Blatant beast is not defeated forever; he will be released upon the world again. And second, although Calidore leaves Pastorella, he will one day return to her, just as the Redcross Knight, will return to Una, and Artegall to Britomart. The first thing reveals how we should never get too boastful when we think we’ve achieved virtue. Virtue is difficult to get down, and to perfect it might be impossible. We can only ever have small victories as we try to form a moral character. We should take pride in our victories, but always be watchful, lest our bad habits trip us up while we’re gloating. The second thing reveals how, in the end, we all get back to nature. Yes there is a time for politics, but there is also time for simple pleasures, like nature, sex, and love. Both are necessary pillars for a good human life.

It's a great literary tragedy that Spenser never finished the Faerie Queene. From what I have heard of Book VII, Spenser still had a lot to say about virtue, and his creativity clearly hadn’t burned out either. Book VII, tentatively titled of Mutabilitie, would have followed the ambitious Titaness Mutabilitie, a chaotic Amazonian figure who wants to reign over heaven as well as earth. Titaness Mutabilitie sounds like she would have been up there with some of Spenser’s best characters. Nevertheless, what we have of Spenser is still a fascinating work and one that I am glad to have re-read.

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