Britomartis' Heroic Love in Spenser's

The Faerie Queene, Book 3*




Hoyoung Kim




Each book of The Faerie Queene is not a completely new departure from the preceding books but is built upon its predecessors as its subject is carefully anticipated earlier. Sexuality, the main theme of Book 3, plays a very important role in the quests of Redcrosse and Guyon, the titular heroes of Book 1 and Book 2 respectively. The two books or legends, however, are chiefly concerned with its sinful perversions though Redcrosse's betrothal to Una, for example, strongly suggests Spenser's positive view of sexuality and marriage. Moreover, Guyon's destruction of the Bower of Bliss, a false paradise of sexual enslavement, marks the poet's necessary step before he undertakes a positive appraisal of the potentials of sexuality in Book 3, which naturally forms the basis of various kinds of intimate personal relationship called friendship in Book 4. Books 5 and 6 dealing with the social virtues of justice and courtesy are mainly concerned with the order and harmony of the community; but the poet is fully aware that the community is not an impersonal entity but an intricate network of personal relationships based on various modes of love.

The kind of sexuality that the poet is especially interested in is chastity, which does not mean sexual abstinence but chaste sexual love. In the sixteenth century the theme of sexual love was usually dealt with through the medium of lyric poetry, especially, sonnet: the sonnets written by Sidney and Shakespeare wonderfully explore the complicated psychological effects of sexual love. But Spenser's primary aim is not so much investigating the complex nature of sexual love as showing how one could heroically overcome various enemies of chastity because the general end of The Faerie Queene, an epic or heroic poem as called in the Renaissance, is "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline"(A Letter of the Author's). Thus, the adventures of Britomartis, the central figure of Book 3, embody her struggle to become the ideal champion of chastity. Britomarits in the end appreciates not only the complexity of sexual love but the necessity of heroic efforts to generate and integrate her diverse physical, emotional, and cognitive powers to combat the perversions of sexual love. Spenser's handling of the theme of chastity is both analytic and pragmatic.

A question concerning the gender of the heroine has always puzzled the reader: Is there any special reason why the exemplary knight of chastity should be female? Britomartis' encounters with Sir Guyon and Florimell at the beginning of Book 3 seem to suggest why a female knight especially suits the role of pursuing the virtue of chastity. Sir Guyon's fierce attack on Britomartis ends in his shameful defeat, exposing Britomartis' tough masculine militancy, without which a woman cannot protect herself in the world where male aggressiveness prevails (Berger, The Faerie Queene 413). Chastity is clearly not a passive virtue. But the similarity between Sir Guyon and Britomartis in their wholehearted use of strength cannot blur their difference. While Sir Guyon eagerly pursues beautiful Florimell, Britomartis, being a woman, calmly resumes her own journey. Her feminine demureness saves her from futile entanglements with fleeting beauty. Therefore, in a sense, Britomartis obeys the two ironic commands shown in the House of Busirane: "Be bold" and "Be not too bold"(3.11.54); the integration of masculine strength and feminine self-restraint in Britomartis greatly sustains her throughout the series of trials she encounters in Book 3.

But Britomartis' unique ability to integrate masculine and feminine virtues does not automatically transform her into a perfect knight of chastity impervious to the challenge of any kind of sexual perversion. There is much difference between a simple lovelorn maiden in Canto 2 and a mature lady knight capable of withstanding the subtlest form of perverted and destructive love in Canto 12. Being mindful of the danger of interpreting the development of her character in a dramatic or novelistic sense, I will trace her growing maturity through her experiences at the three key places: Merlin's Cave, Castle Joyous, and the House of Busirane. These three places deal with aimless passion, perverted lust, and deluded fear respectively. The three enemies of chastity challenge Britomartis to examine the possibilities and limits of her own physical, emotional, and cognitive powers in conjunction with her awakening to sexual love.

I. Britomartis at Merlin's Cave

Merlin is responsible both for Britomartis' awakening to sexual love in the form of aimless passion and for her awareness of the larger pattern which her love is part of. First, his magic glass lets Britomartis glimpse the sight of her future husband, Artegall. Spenser especially emphasizes the overwhelming power of sexual love that wholly destroys proud Britomartis' self-sufficiency:

But as it falleth, in the gentlest harts

Impervious Love hath highest set his throne,

And tyrannizeth in the bitter smarts

of them,

(3.2.23)

She instantly falls to inexplicable melancholy: "Sad, solemne, sowre, and full of fancies fraile / She woxe,"(3.2.27). She can hardly sleep, and she is also tormented by horrible sights when she briefly sleeps. What is striking is that Spenser describes her disordered state mainly in physical terms, which is not inappropriate because Spenser fully admits that chastity is solidly based on the human body. Chastity is not some ethereal form of love but "kindly flame"(4. Proem. 2) arising from the human body. However, it is in danger of being transformed into aimless passion --"the furie of her cruell flame" (3.2.52)--which is even capable of destroying the body, its very foundation. Glauce's "idle charmes"(3.2.51) can never wipe out Britomartis' deep-rooted bodily passion nor help the lovelorn maiden understand the significance of her suffering.

Merlin's prophecy about Britomartis' descendants enlarges her narrow self-centered vision and enables her to place her physical love in a larger historical scheme. Before Britomartis reaches Merlin's Cave, Spenser presents her passionate torment as a cruel and inexplicable accident worked by Cupid's whim. But at the cave Merlin reveals the hidden destiny behind her seemingly aimless passion.

It was not, Britomart, thy wandering eye,

Glancing unwares in charmed looking glas

But the streight course of heavenly destiny,

Led with eternal providence, that has

guided thy glaunce, to bring his will to pas:

(3.2.24)

As her physical torment transforms into a deep sympathy for her own descendants (3.2.43), Britomartis comes to have an enlarged perspective that awakens in her a new sense of responsibility for the future (Berger, The Structure 50). Thus, she overcomes her self-centered physical torment and passion only when she understands its significance in the larger scheme of man's history guided by the Providence. She comes to realize that her body, the cause of her suffering, is destined to be the very means by which she fulfills her historical mission.

II. Britomartis at Castle Joyous

Britomartis' experiences at Castle Joyous pose to her a far more difficult task of distinguishing chaste sexual desire from perverted lust; moreover, there is no Merlin who can do it on behalf of Britomartis. To Britomartis Castle Joyous appears to be an unharmful place to visit: "A stately Castle farre away she spyde, / To which her steps directly she did frame" (3.1.20). But the narrator becomes both fascinated and slightly sickened by the too gorgeous decorations inside the castle:

But for to tell the sumptuous aray

Of that great chamber, should be labour lost:

For living wit, I weene, cannot display

The royall riches and exceeding cost,

Of every pillour and of every post;

Which all of purest bullion framed were

And with great pearles and pretious stones embost,

That the bright glister of their beames cleare

Did sparckle forth great light, and glorious did appeare.

(3.1.32)

Spenser's use of the adjective "exceeding" and the outrageous alliterations of the lines--"That the bright glister of their beames cleare / Did sparckle forth great light, and glorious did appeare"--betray the problematic nature of the place. But regrettably Britomartis cannot penetrate into its true nature. She only vaguely feels that something is wrong (3.1.55)

The myth of Venus and Adonis depicted on a tapestry is not a picture of healthy sexual love but of lust artfully cultivated and sadly wasted:

And whilst he slept, she over him would spred

Her mantle, coloured like the starry skyes,

And her soft arme lay underneath his hed,

And with ambrosiall kisses bathe his eyes;

And whilest he bathed, with her two crafty spyes,

She secretly would search each daintie lim,

And throw into the well sweet Rosemaryes,

And fragrant violets, and Pances trim

And ever with sweet Nectar she did sprinkle him.

In this picture Venus tries to satisfy her sexual desire by voyeurism; all the parts of Adonis' body are at the mercy of her lewd eyes. Significantly enough there is no actual sexual consummation but only lustful expectation of it. The subsequent scene of dead Adonis turned into a flower underlines the sad consequences of Venus' perverted lust: the hopeless states of sexual frustration and emotional freezing (3.1.38). Malecasta, the mistress of the castle, too imitates Venus as she secretly enters Britomartis' room and lies beside her; her attempt turns out to be a comic disaster for her. In Castle Joyous there exists no true fulfillment of sexual love; there are only endlessly repeated images or fantasies of frustrated lust.

Therefore, the central problem Britomartis faces at the castle is how to discern "chaste desires"(3.2.49) from "fleshly lust"(3.2.48). Spenser strongly emphasizes their fundamental difference; love breeds "bounteous deeds" and "desire of honor" while lust brings out only "a loathly sight"(3.2.49). However, Britomartis is not sufficiently capable of detecting the lustful hue of Malecasta's seemingly earnest display of her passion. Britomartis easily identifies Malecasta's lustful passion with her own former aimless passion (3.1.54); moreover, her innocence allows her to be blind to Malecasta's guiles (3.1.53). Not only Britomart's perception of Castle Joyous and Malecasta is flawed but her emotional responses to the place and its mistress are seriously confused. Her emotional bewilderment at the whole lustful perversions of sexual love displayed in Castle Joyous shows that she needs to have some penetrating insight into the nature of perverted lust, which should not be confused with chaste sexual desire.

It is evident that Britomartis needs more than physical and emotional powers to resist perverted lust. This point is well illustrated in the portrait of her emotional state after her departure of Castle Joyous:

With such selfe-pleasing thoughts her wound she fed,

And thought so to beguile her grievous smart;

But so her smart was much more grievous bred,

And the deepe wound more deepe engord her hart,

That nought but death her dolour mote depart.

So forth she rode without repose or rest,

Searching all lands and each remotest part,

Following the guidance of her blinded guest,

Till that to the sea-coast at length she her addrest.

(3.4.6)

The fact that her "self-pleasing thoughts" about Artegall ironically only deepen her frustration clearly indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong about her self-centered love. Her emotional states of intense suffering and despair show that she is ignorant of the nature of her own sexual desire. Britomartis' sense of destiny she achieved at Merlin's Cave is almost lost as she is completely subject to "her blinded guest', that is Cupid. Moreover, her frustrated sexual love can be easily turned into its opposite: perverted sexual abstinence. Her subsequent encounter with Marinell, who embodies the very vice, illustrates the point. Her defeat of Marinell, however, does not indicate that she is in control of her emotional extremes. She needs more time and experience to have a proper insight into the potentials and perversions of sexual love. Her sudden disappearance after Canto 4 marks a new search for the true meaning of chaste sexual love on the part of Britomartis, who has reached an emotional impasse despite her victory over Marinell.

III. Britomartis at the House of Busirane

While the first two places chiefly deal with Britomartis' physical and emotional reponses to sexual love, the House of Busirane is especially concerned with delusion--a cognitive error, which has come to trouble Britomartis more and more through her experiences in the two places. Britomartis' problem is shared by Amoret, who is kidnapped and tormented by Busirane. What torments Amoret is not so much physical or emotional as cognitive in origin: her lack of insight into all the unsubstantial threats of perverted sexual love. The Mask of Cupid. is the culmination of the danger. The House of Busirane as a whole is an extremely intricate place that encompasses the first two stages of Britomartis' struggle against the perversions of sexual love, thus providing Britomartis with a comprehensive test for the strength of her chastity she tries to embody.

After defeating Marinell, Britomartis disappears and does not show herself until she comes to seek shelter at Malbecco's castle. The most impressive change occurred to her during her absence is her full confidence in her being a woman. She does not hesitate to show herself as a beautiful lady to other knights (3.10.20), which sharply contrasts with her former jealous disguise of her sex at the beginning. Spenser uses the phrase "careless modestee"(3.9.21) to describe her psychological state, a state in which the antagonistic tendencies of masculinity and feminity, bold self-confidence and demure self-restraint are well harmonized. She is capable of both being bold and being not too bold. And this harmony is exactly what both Scudamour and Amoret painfully lack; Scudamour is always too bold and Amoret has no nerve to directly confront the threats of aggressive male sexuality. On the other hand, Britomartis is bold enough to attack the flame at the entrance of the house and wary enough to protect herself carefully with her ample shield. But in the house Britomartis has to face the greatest enemy of chaste sexual love: the delusion that creates all the distorted perceptions and conceptions of sexual love.

The House of Busirane is a place where every distorted form or image of love is employed to destroy will to love (Roche 72). Therefore, it should be carefully distinguished from Castle Joyous where love, however distorted, is encouraged: "And Cupid still emongst them kindled lustfull fires" (3.1.39). In the House of Busirane, "kindly flame" itself is in danger of being extinguished by a guileful and sinister power.

The first room of the house is designed to show love's tyrannical power--"To shew Dan Cupids powre and great effort" (3.9.46). The altar and idol of blind Cupid, who randomly shoots his arrows, represent the power of aimless passion. Britomartis has already experienced this when she was shot by Cupid in front of the magic mirror (3.2.26). Cupid's blind power is too evident in the horrible pictures on the wall; the gods themselves become beasts and helpless mortals, their victims. But the real danger of the first room lies in its highly ambiguous nature:

For round about, the wals yclothed were

With goodly arras of great majesty,

Woven with gold and silke so close and nere,

That the rich metall lurked privily,

As faining to be hid from envious eye;

Yet here, and there, and every where unwares

It shewd it selfe, and shone unwillingly;

Like a discolourd Snake, whose hidden snares

Through the greene gras his long bright burnisht backe declares.

(3.11.28)

The image of "a discolourd Snake" represents both attraction and danger. Its seductive charm hiding dangerous snares behind creates the highly ambiguous atmosphere of the room. Confronted with this sort of perplexing ambiguity, Britomartis has hard time figuring out the real meaning of all the pictures of aimless passion and destruction shown in the room. The fact that she is even fascinated by these (3.11.49) suggests that she still does not possess the insight into the sham of violent passion masquerading as a true one.

The second room recaptures the gross spirit of Castle Joyous as its tapestries are filled with images of perverted lust.

A thousand monstrous formes therein were made,

Such as false love doth oft upon him weare,

For love in thousand monstrous forms doth oft appeare.

(3.11.51)

On the other hand, the "wasteful emptiness" and "solemne silence" (3. 11. 53) pervading the room aptly characterize the final stage which perverted lust leads man to. But again Britomartis' reaction is questionable: "(she) did greatly wonder ne could satisfie / Her greedy eyes with gazing a long space"(3.11.55). It is true that in this room Britomartis admirably exercises both her bold resolution--"She was no whit thereby discouraged / From prosecuting of her first intent, / But forward with bold steps into the next roome went" (3.11. 5)--and wary caution--"Yet nould she d'off her weary armes, for feare / Of secret danger"(3.11.55). But it becomes evident that what she needs is a clear-cut insight into the nature of this whole house of sham and intimidation. The Mask of Cupid provides the opportunity for Britomartis to test her insight.

As Roche adequately points out (73), the Mask of Cupid can be seen from various points of view. To the wedding guests, this represents a triumph of love by which the long-sieged virginity of Amoret is to be rendered to the victor (Roche 76). But Amoret watches the mask with the horror of the vengeance of male sexuality (Roche 77). For example, Cruelty and Despight, the two personifications tormenting Amoret, can be interpreted either as her former self-protecting masks or as expressions of male sadism. Whatever their true import is, Amoret is deluded into believing in their real existence. The grotesque image of her heart drawn forth, laid in a silver basin, and transfixed with a deadly dart (3.12.21) suggests how confusedly Amoret equates a metaphor with a fact. A familiar Petrarchan metaphor becomes a nightmare for Amoret.

The insubstantial nature of all these fantastic personifications of the mask is suddenly revealed when Britomartis boldly breaks through the third room, from which the mask issued:

But lo, they streight were vanisht all and some,

Ne living wight she saw in all that roome,

Save that same woefull ladie,

(3.12.30)

Britomartis' two austere watches enable her to sharpen her insight and to penetrate into the false nature of all the images of perverted love which Busirane has produced by means of his devilish magic. The following lines clearly indicate the strength of Britomartis' newly acquired vision.

in went

Bold britomart, as she had late forecast,

Neither of idle shewes, nor of false charmes aghast.

(Emphasis added) (3.12.29)

Her new power of discernment finally makes her capable of challenging the most formidable enemy of chaste sexual love: Busirane.

Busirane represents not so much lust as a sadistic and intellectual perversion of sexual desire. He should be carefully distinguished from the group of lustful characters in Book 3--Malecasta, the old fisherman, and Ollyphant--because he does not aim at immediate sexual satisfaction like them; Amoret suffers for seven months without being violated in his house. He intends to destroy her sexual love itself and ultimately to kill her: "There he tormenteth her most terribly, / And day and night afflicts with mortall paine" (Emphasis added) (3.11.17). Busirane superficially resembles Merlin. When Britomartis and Glauce visits his cave, they find him

Deepe busied bout worke of wondrous end,

And writing strange characters in the ground,

(3.3.14)

Britomartis finds Busirane

Figuring strange characters of his art,

With living bloud he those characters wrote,

(3.12.31)

Despite their resemblance there exists a fundamental difference between them: their opposite attitudes towards their common tool of magic. Merlin uses it to awaken "kindly flame" and give a sound direction to it; Busirane uses it to delude man's vision and destroy the flame itself. Britomartis' defeat of Busirane not only reveals her ability to overcome sexual delusion generated by Busirane's sinister magic but culminates her efforts to penetrate into the complex nature of sexual love itself.

As the knight of chastity, Britomartis embodies human efforts to overcome dangerous physical, emotional, and cognitive tendencies inherent in human sexual love, which obstruct the natural growth of love. To cope with them, it is not sufficient for Britomartis to have control over her body and heart. She also needs clear insight into the nature of false love that enslaves lovers in fear and suffering. Equiped with these positive qualities, chastity can be the foundation of the great chain of love that extends to friendship in Book 4 and further to courtesy or charity in Book 6.

(Soongsil University)




Works Cited

Berger, Harry, Jr. "The Faerie Queene, Book III: A General Description." Criticisms 11 (1969): 234-261. Rpt. in Essential Articles: Edmund Spenser. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1972. 395-424.

--------------------------. "The Structure of Merlin's Chronicle in The Faerie Queene III, iii." Studies in English Literature 9 (1969): 39-51.

Grellner, Mary Adlide, S. C. L. "Britomart's Quest for Maturity." Studies in English Literature 8 (1968): 35-43.

Heale, Elizabeth. The Faerie Queene: A Reader's Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Kane, Sean. Spenser's Moral Allegory. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1989.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936.

Nelson, William. The Poetry of Edmund Spenser. New York: Columbia UP, 1963.

Nohrnberg, James. The Analogy of The Faerie Queene. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Renwick, W. Edmund Spenser: an essay on Renaissance poetry. London: E. Arnold, 1925.

Roche, Jr., Thomas P. The Kindly Flame. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964.

Sinfield, Alan. Literature in Protestant England, 1560-1660. London: Croom Helm, 1983.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. London: Longman, 1977.









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Abstract

Britomartis' Heroic Love in Spenser's

The Faerie Queene, Book 3

Hoyoung Kim

Book 3 of The Faerie Queene is about sexuality. But Spenser's primary aim is not so much investigating the complex nature of sexual love as showing how one could heroically overcome various enemies of chaste sexual love as The Faerie Queene is a heroic poem. The adventures of Britomartis, the central figure of Book 3, embody her struggle to become the ideal champion of chastity. Britomartis in the end appreciates not only the complexity of sexual love but the necessity of heroic efforts to generate and integrate her diverse physical, emotional, and cognitive powers to combat the perversions of sexual love. Being aware of the danger of interpreting the development of Britomartis' character in a dramatic or novelistic sense, the essay traces her growing maturity through her experiences at the three key places: Merlin's Cave, Castle Joyous, and the House of Busirane. These three places mainly deal with aimless passion, perverted lust, and deluded fear respectively. Merlin is responsible both for Britomartis' awakening to sexual love in the form of aimless passion and for her awareness of the larger historical pattern which her love is part of. The central problem Britomartis faces at Castle Joyous is how to discern "chaste desires" from "fleshly lust". But her emotional bewilderment at the whole lustful perversions of sexual love displayed at the castle shows that she needs to have some penetrating insight into the nature of perverted sexual desire. Thus, Britomartis' defeat of Busirane not only reveals her ability to overcome sexual delusion generated by Busirane's sinister magic but culminates her efforts to penetrate into the complex nature of sexual love itself. The three enemies of chastity challenge Britomartis to examine the possibilities and limits of her own physical, emotional, and cognitive powers in conjunction with her awakening to sexual love.