Spenser’s “Faery Queene”: The Sanctity of Life

ENGL 23, Final Paper, Vered Arnon

Dedicated to Shane

The segment in Book 1, Canto 9, from stanzas 20 through 54, tells the story of Redcrosse Knight’s encounter with Despair, and how lady Una rescues him from a terrible demise. While Spenser’s poem is full of symbolism and Christian allegory about suicide as a mortal sin, the most important content of this scene isn’t the mere fact that suicide is a mortal sin. The speeches that the characters give, and the way that they speak to each other and interact with each other, illustrates how the beauty and sanctity of life is expressed in the interactions between people. The compelling, logical words of Despair, offset against the way that Una leaps to her knight’s rescue, show how complicated, and yet simple, the issue of suicide is. While Spenser implies that the fact that life comes from God is what makes it sacred, his poem clearly demonstrates that the relationships between people make the sanctity apparent. The words that people speak to each other are the most powerful thing, not faith or fate or destiny.


 Leaving the shadows of the House of Pride far far behind, Una and Redcrosse Knight bade farewell to Arthur and resumed their journey. Although Redcrosse was now very eager to leap into a glorious battle for the sake of his lady, the long months of imprisonment in the House of Pride had taken quite a toll on him. Weak and emaciated, he seemed a mere shadow of his former self. He had been rescued from the dungeon that bound his body, but Una feared his soul had not yet shaken itself free of its heavy shackles.

Suddenly a knight appeared on the road ahead, galloping towards them as if pursued by a terrible monster. His horse sped so fast that he barely remained in the saddle as he anxiously stared over his shoulder. As he approached, he hardly looked like a knight at all. Pale and sick for fear, a noose hung around his neck, and he sat upon his horse unaware of either his knightly armor or the rope.

Redcrosse immediately hastened to stop him. The miserable wretch halted his horse, but made no sign that he even noticed the pilgrims. “Sir knight,” Redcrosse called out. “What are you running from? I’ve never seen a knight flee in such terror.”

For a long time, the stranger sat in a daze, caught in the whirlwind of his inner turmoil and unable to speak. He seemed intently focused in on himself, and whatever he was finding inside, only scared him even more, so that his body began to tremble. Finally, with a faltering tongue, he spoke. “For the love of God, sir, please don’t keep me here. He’s coming after me.”

He would have turned and galloped away, if Redcrosse hadn’t grabbed the horse’s bridle. “You must stay, and tell us what this grave danger is,” the young man commanded.

“Am I safe now?” the scared knight asked. “Are you sure I’m safe from he who would kill me? I cannot tell you anything while my life is in peril.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Redcrosse told him. “There’s no danger here.”

The knight sighed heavily. “I’ll tell you then, what I’ve been so unfortunate to witness, and almost partook in. I had a companion named Sir Terwin. He was a good knight, bold and brave. But he was in love with a lady who was too proud and haughty to love him back. She enjoyed torturing him. He returned very distressed from a visit with her, and we went on our way together. We were greeted by that cursed villain from Hell who is called Despair. Like a cunning serpent, with his forked tongue he lured from us details about our cares and deeds. When he learned our deepest fears and deepest pain, and discovered how weak our hearts were from the torments of love and grief, his bitter tongue unleashed foul words cleverly crafted to wound us to the quick. We abandoned what little joy we had left in life, as he convinced us that death would free us from further anguish. Then the heartless Despair gave me this rope, and gave poor Sir Terwin a rusty knife. My poor friend took that sad instrument and slit his throat wide open, letting his life pour away quickly. But either fear or luck made me flee from the dismal sight of one who had spilled his own precious blood. The horror of this gruesome death brought me to you, and I warn you, don’t take like for granted! You could very well share the same weaknesses as my poor friend, and risk the same dreadful fate. Pray to God that you never hear the seductive words of monstrous Despair!”

Redcrosse listened to the tale and shuddered, but he shook his head defiantly in disbelief. “How can a man destroy himself merely on account of someone else’s words? How can a man destroy the flesh that God created to house his humble soul?”

The trembling knight stared at the young man. “Oh sir! Do take heed! I learned by hard experience how powerful this monster’s words are. His venom drips from his forked tongue into the hearts of his victims like rich honey, melting into each vein, finding every weakness. Oh, sir, you would never want to face his treachery.”

Much to Una’s dismay, Redcrosse sat up straight and tall in his saddle and stared directly at the knight. “I surely will not rest until I’ve seen this monster’s forked tongue, and cut it off perhaps! Now, tell me your name, and lead me to where I might find him.”

“I am called Trevisan,” the poor knight said woefully. “And I will lead you back, as a favour, but neither gold nor powerful rhetoric could persuade me to stay with you when we get there. I’d rather die than see his deadly face again.”

When they finally reached the abode of wicked Despair, they found themselves before a low dark cave that gaped like an open mouth in the craggy cliffs as if hungry for carrion flesh. An owl, messenger of death, perched on the jagged rock face and shrieked balefully. Its ghastly noise drove any other birds away. Mournful ghosts howled and sighed around the entrance of the cave, creating a terrifying cacophony.

The knights shuddered, reluctant to approach the grim scene. Gnarled stumps and leafless, branchless trees clung to the rock face like withered fingers. Ropes hung from the splintered wood, and bodies of wretches who had been hanged or who had broken their own necks were strewn over the gullies and crevasses. Trevisan prepared to flee, but Redcrosse urged him to stay, so that they might offer each other comfort and support.

They entered the cave, and found the cursed Despair sitting on the ground. His long tangled hair hung in greasy locks about his gaunt shoulders and shrunken, pale face. Tattered rags hung from his emaciated body, held together by thorns, barely covering his naked skin. Beside him lay a grisly corpse, in a pool of luke warm blood that still oozed slowly from a ragged wound. A rusty knife stood fixed in the hapless corpse’s throat.

The piteous spectacle was exactly what Trevisan had described in his woeful tale. Gentle Redcrosse was so overcome by the horror of this sight, that fire blazed in his veins, and he reached for his sword, determined to avenge the dead Terwin even if it cost him his own life.

“Damned villain!” the young knight exclaimed. “You caused this tragedy, and now we shall see justice dealt! Your own blood will pay for his!”

Despair gazed up slowly, his melancholy eyes dim and hollow in his wasted face. “What frantic fit has overcome you, poor fool, to throw yourself into such a rash demise? What is justice, but that men who don’t deserve to live should die? Nothing drove this man to die, but his own guilty mind which told him he deserved death. Is it unjust, then, to give him what he was due? Is it unjust to let a man die who loathed every breath he took? To let him die and rest, and finally be at ease, when alive he could find no peace? When a weary traveler is in a hurry to get home, is it not right to help him cross a flood that’s in his way, or should one let him get his feet caught in slick quicksand? You must be jealous, to grieve so at another man’s fortune. You are foolish to cling to sorrow as if it were joy. Don’t be loathe to see him pass. He’s stood on the bank waiting to cross the flood for so long! Now he’s enjoying eternal rest and happiness. Eternally rest and happiness. . . you want and crave it so much, yet you wander farther away from it every day. Are you afraid of the little bit of pain your flesh would feel in passing? A short pain is worth it, to lay your soul to quiet sleep in a soft grave. Like sleep after hard work, like coming to port after sailing through stormy seas, like peace after war. . . Death after life is a great pleasure.”

Redcrosse was amazed at Despair’s words, but he was seized by sudden inspiration. “A man’s life is limited, he can neither lengthen nor shorten it. God’s soldiers may not forsake their watch and dismount from their steeds until the Lord their Captain gives them the command.”

“He who created the limits on life, knows best the terms he established,” Despair responded. “He who appoints the watchman, gives him license to leave his post when the morning drums sound. Did the almighty not create everything in heaven and earth? Did he not create it all to die again? Everything that begins will end. Certainly he has written down the exact dates and times in his book of fate. Who can work against his will? Who can evade the death that destiny has set? When the hour of death arrives, let none ask why. The longer life is, the greater sin becomes, and the greater sin is, the greater punishment will be. All the great battles you boast that you’ll win, through violence and blood-shed and vengeance, which now you praise, will cost you bitterly and you will repent. Life must pay for life, blood for blood. Is the evil you’ve already done not enough? He who misses the right way once only proceeds to stay farther and farther away from the path.”

As he paused, Redcrosse seemed about to speak, but he was so overwhelmed by the monster’s words that he didn’t know what to say. Una stood silently in the shadows, praying that her knight would be strong enough to bear this torment. His inner wounds from the House of Pride were still fresh. A hidden pain weighed heavily on his heart already, and she feared he wouldn’t be able to deal with such an onslaught.

“So stray no further!” Despair continued. “Lie down here, and rest, so that the evil that the rest of your life would cause will be prevented. What does life have that makes you love it? Life is full of reasons for you to leave it. Fear, sickness, age, loss, labor, sorrow, strife, pain, hunger, cold, all these things make your heart quake.” As he droned on, his vile words rang out hypnotically. “You wretched man, you need death more than any other. Be honest and look at the state you’re in. No knight that ever rode into battle has ever met such miserable failure. Why, think of the deep dungeon where just lately you were bound! Your life nearly ended, death was so close, yet luck prolonged your misery. Death would prevent you from ever falling into such wretchedness again. So why, sinful man, do you want to prolong the days of your life? Doesn’t the measure of your sins already outweigh your chances of rising up to heaven on Judgment Day? Is it not enough that you betrayed your fair lady with lies and sold yourself to the vile Duessa whose abuse has defiled your body and soul? The Lord is just, and looks down on all of this with an impartial eye. He knows all your sins. And isn’t his law ‘Let every sinner die, all flesh shall die’? It’s better to do what needs to be done willingly. Death is the end of all your misery. Die soon, oh son of the faeries.”

Redcrosse felt as if a sword had pierced his heart. Guilt overwhelmed him, choking him, as memories of all his misadventures flooded his brain. Ugly scenes flashed before his eyes one after the other, and his conscience told him that everything Despair accused him of was true. His hands trembled, and the crushing weight in his chest nearly caused him to faint.

As hellish anguish overwhelmed the poor knight’s soul, Despair observed how he wavered weakly, and showed him a painting of damned ghosts wailing and writhing in the sulfur and brimstone of hellfire, paying the price of endless pain for all the sins they had committed while alive.

As if the pain in his soul hadn’t already been enough, the picture further drove guilt and fear into Redcrosse’s soul. He had betrayed his fair Una. His soul seemed to him so defiled that he couldn’t bear to live anymore, and all his thoughts were fixated on death, and the wrathful punishment God would deal to him. Exulting in his triumph, Despair led the young knight, stumbling and unsteady, to a rack of swords, ropes, poisons, combustibles, and anything that could be used to help him meet his end.

“Choose which death you desire,” Despair instructed him. “You have angered God with your sins, and you must die.”

Redcrosse reached out with shaking hands, but couldn’t take hold of any of the instruments. Despair reached out and grabbed a sharp dagger, placing it in the knight’s shaking hands. Redcrosse’s fingers could barely curl around the handle to hold it. Taking a deep breath, he prepared to make his final move, and lifted up his trembling hand, pressing the tip of the dagger against his chest, finding a soft place between two ribs, pointing directly at his heart.

Seeing her worst fear unfolding before her eyes, Una’s blood ran cold in her veins. Rushing forward, she tore the evil dagger from Redcrosse’s hands before he could plunge it into his breast, and she threw the cursed weapon far out into the shadows of the cave where it disappeared with a loud clatter. Her voice rang loud, as if she was enraged. “Oh, you faint hearted knight!” she cried. “What do you mean by this? Is this the glorious battle you’ve been longing to fight, against a fire-breathing dragon? Is this the glory and the triumph you seek?” She gripped his broad shoulders with her pale tender hands and gazed up at him, tears gathering in her eyes. “Come away from here, poor soft creature, frail mortal flesh. Don’t let mere words pierce your heart. Don’t let devilish thoughts rob you of your true strength. Doesn’t God’s mercy grant you salvation? Why should you despair then, you who are chosen by God? Where there is justice, there is the grace of God. Let God’s mercy quench these flames that threaten to consume your heart. Come now, my dear knight, let’s leave this cursed place.”

Una’s sweet words, simple and true, ignited a spark of hope deep in his heart, touching him more deeply than Despair’s bitter venom. Clasping her hand, he followed her out of the cave and mounted his horse. They departed from the evil place without looking back.

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