The Faerie Queene
Book I, Cantos xi & xii
At last, Una leads Redcrosse to her native soil. As they approach her parents' castle, they hear the terrible roar of the dragon. Redcrosse has Una stand aside at a distance, and then he confronts the beast. The dragon is covered in a flawless coat of scales, stronger than any metal, has a long tail with razor sharp spikes, and powerful wings that carry him to meet the knight. Redcrosse charges at him and strikes, but his spear glances off the dragon's impenetrable hide, and both knight and horse fall to the ground. The dragon grabs them in its massive claws and lifts them into the air. Redcrosse struggles until the dragon is forced to let them down; thrusting once more with his lance, he happens to strike one of the beast's wings, and finally manages to leave a wound. Furious, the dragon knocks Redcrosse off his horse. Undaunted, the knight takes his sword and slices at the dragon's head, but it only stuns the dragon; angered, it lets out a fiery breath that scorches the whole field. Redcrosse's armor is heated so much that it burns him; he writhes in agony. The dragon knocks him backward, moving in for the kill, but the knight is fortunate enough to fall back into the Well of Life, which has great powers to heal wounds. The dragon, however, simply assumes it has won, and Una fears the worst for her hero.
The next morning, though, Redcrosse emerges as good as new. Better, in fact, because through the magical power of the water he and his blade are stronger, and confronting the dragon again he cuts a deep wound in the beast's head. In retaliation, the dragon wounds Redcrosse's shoulder with its tail and then tries to pull away the sacred shield with its claws. The knight manages to cut off the claws, but as he retreats he again falls, this time into a mire where a sacred tree grows, which, like the well, has magical healing powers. Another night passes, as Una frets and the dragon nurses its wounds. On the third day, Redcrosse emerges from the grove refreshed and healed. The dragon is furious to see the knight still alive; it bends down its open mouth, intending to swallow its opponent whole. But Redcrosse holds his ground and rams his sword deep into the dragon's throat. The beast crashes to the earth like a mountain falling from heaven, and it is dead.
Una's father and mother, the King and Queen of that land, see the defeat of the dragon and rush out to give thanks to Redcrosse. The whole kingdom, which had been hiding in fear of the dragon for months, now comes out and celebrates with music, parades, feasting, and many gift for the victorious knight. All expect him to marry Una, but Redcrosse announces that he still has a duty to serve the Faerie Queene for six years in her battle against a proud king. Una's father agrees that after that time, his daughter shall marry the knight. At that moment, though, a messenger runs onto the scene; he claims that the engagement cannot be made because Redcrosse has already pledged his hand to another woman. The king demands an explanation; Redcrosse tells him that the woman is Duessa, who only got his pledge by deceit and witchcraft. He gave his love to an imaginary woman, Fidessa, played by Duessa, and now he sees the truth and so he is free to love another. Una seconds all of this and also suggests that they examine the messenger to see if he is disguised as well. In fact, it turns out to be Archimago. The celebration of the engagement continues until Redcrosse must sadly leave to fulfill his duty and destiny.
The final battle between Redcrosse and the dragon brings the allegory of the entire first book to a climax and encompasses all the different levels of religious and political meaning that Spenser has put into the story. Redcrosse's victory represents three distinct events: Christ's victory over death and the devil in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the triumph of the individual Christian over the temptation of sin, and the "defeat" of the Roman Catholic Church by the Church of England and all Protestantism. We have already seen much evidence establishing Redcrosse both as the Christian "Everyman" and as the champion of Protestants against Catholics. Here in Canto xi, he is also portrayed as a Christ figure, because he falls and triumphs on the third day and because the dragon he defeats is damnation; its mouth was "like the griesly mouth of hell (I.xi.12)." Just as Christ had to descend to Hell to defeat it, Redcrosse had to enter the hellish mouth of the dragon to finally kill it.
Redcrosse is not victorious alone, however; he is saved twice by very timely help. In this respect, he better represents the individual Christian in need of God's aid. The Well of Life he first falls into is Baptism, always symbolized by immersion in water. The Tree of Life is the Eucharist, the symbol of Christ's body and blood. Both well and tree represent the grace that God bestows on mankind through the sacraments, which help a Christian in danger of falling prey to sin. Redcrosse's lucky stumbling into these two places of healing almost seems too lucky; even in Faerie land, does Spenser really expect us to believe that a miraculous swell or tree simply pops up behind the hero when he is about to get killed? In fact, the poet emphasizes that this was no coincidence at all: "eternal God that chaunce did guide (I.xi.45)." Spenser's point is that no matter how well a Christian is equipped or prepared, he is no match for sin and death without the undeserved grace of God. Because Redcrosse is saved through such miraculous circumstances, we cannot give him full credit for the victory; all the glory is to God. Thus, Spenser's message about the Christian life is one of humility; we can never take the credit for God's victory.
Finally, Redcrosse is again established as the hero of Protestantism against Catholicism in the last Canto. Even though he has conquered the dragon, his marriage to Una must be delayed; his work is not yet finished. The knight must "Backe to return to that great Faerie Queene / And her to serve six yeares in warlike wize, / Gainst that proud Paynim king (I.xii.18)." This brings the allegory back from the general to the specific and back from the purely religious to the political. We know that the Faerie Queene represents Queen Elizabeth; thus, the "proud Paynim king" whom she is fighting must be either the pope or a Catholic king; either way, the enemy is the Roman Church. Spenser is bringing us back to his own time where, although England now is Protestant, the Catholic Church is still powerful. Redcrosse will be united with Una only when the battle against false religion is over--we see that Duessa is still working her evil ways in defeat. And the battle, of course, will not end until the end of the world, when Christ will reveal which religion is false and which is true.
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