Slithering Goddesses: Reptilian Codes in The Faerie Queene
Written by Elizabeth Howell Brunner at Cal Poly, 1997, for English 512: Sixteenth Century Prose, taught by Professor Linda Halisky.  Posted online November 1999. 
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Page Seven | Page Eight | Works Cited
New Gods and New Demons
       Ironically, at the close of Book I, while serpent-derivatives and wombs remain evil, Spenser re-assigns the reproduction capacity to a male dragon.  In the twelfth canto, as the Protestant Knight celebrates his victory over the ultimate dragon foe, the populace races forward to gaze on the hero but instead spots "where that dead Dragon lay, / Stretcht on the ground in monstrous large extent" (I.xii.9).  One townsman warns the onlookers not to touch the slain beast, for "in his wombe might lurke some hidden nest / Of many Dragonets, his fruitfull seed" (I.xii.10).  Suddenly, Errour's offspring can potentially be resurrected inside the womb of a male dragon.  Spenser deliberately assigns this belief in male wombs to the commoners of Fairy Land.  Note that a townsman speaks, rather than the poetic narrator, and that the scene moves forward without any evidence of a Dragonet nest.  I theorize that in this passage Spenser attempts to counterbalance the patriarchal evils assigned to Errour by showing the dangerous fruit of the male seed, while also mocking the willingness of the gullible populace to transfer folk legends to new gods and new demons. 
     For if Spenser uses his extensive scholarship to carefully and deliberately layer symbolism for multiple interpretations, then certainly he recognized connections between divinity, fertility, sexuality, gender, and monsters within his poetry.  Within the allegory, the Protestant Knight fights personal demons, catholic witches, maternal serpents, male dragons, and assorted other villains.  With so many foes representing so many varieties of evil, I speculate that Spenser pondered changing definitions of the diabolical and emerged less certain of his religious convictions. 
       Playing with myth results in an increased awareness of how myths evolve, with gods and goddesses moving underground, only to re-surface in new incarnations.  Patrick Cullen postulates that "[t]he Legend of Holiness belongs to a sub-genre of romance, the literature of Christian pilgrimage," which makes Redcrosse's mission inevitably into "a war against the Flesh, the World, and the Devil" (xiii).  In crafting this challenging work, Spenser chose which allegorical characters would represent Flesh, World, and Devil at each stage of the knight's journey.  And in making these decisions, Spenser became myth-maker himself.  Donald Cheney argues that "[o]nly by recognizing the full force of his human condition, only by falling through the successive stages of his decay" (82) will Redcrosse be capable of receiving redemption.  Likewise, the poet travels through these stages of decay as he shapes symbolic meaning.  By reflecting on the changing role of the Serpent, Spenser must have noticed the impermanence of the gods and goddesses. 
Unfinished Mutability
      The ability of new religions to redefine the old beliefs leads quickly to what E.M.W. Tillyard documents as the Elizabethans' terrified obsession with "the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability" (13). Prominent Renaissance scholar Harry Berger writes: "The controlling literary form of the first book is that of apocalypse, which means literally a stripping away, a rending of the veil in which 'the substance of things to be hoped for' is manifested in its visible embodiments" (51).   After stripping away the veil from hypocrisy, heresy, deceit, pride, and false faith, Spenser must envision what remains behind the shroud. 
      Spenser left Book VII of The Faerie Queene unfinished; we only possess the fragmentary Mutability Cantos.  Within these verses, Spenser illustrates the battle between gods and goddesses for control over earth and heaven, the same battle which underlies Errour's struggle against Redcrosse Knight.  The Goddess Mutability challenges Jove's right to rule in the court of Dame Nature.  Appearing with her serpent Order, Nature adjudicates from behind "a veile that wimpled every where" (VII.vii.5), just as Errour hid from sight.  As his work comes to a premature and unfinished close, Spenser hesitates to remove the final veil required by Revelations.  Nature grants that Mutability rules earthly life through decay and rebirth, but decrees in favor of essential life, an unchanging essence which defies Time and Destruction, an essence which anticipates perfection and immortality. 
       Nonetheless, I sense Spenser's exhaustion as the unperfite canto reflects on Mutability and our lives, "so fading and so fickle" (VII.viii.1).  Perhaps this exhaustion arose in large measure from the overwhelming task of the Christian Humanists.  Reconciling mythological traditions which were originally forged from animosities between competing cultures requires more than one man's poem.  And in drawing upon ancient mythology, Spenser may have felt his Protestant faith shaken by the mutability of belief and of doctrine.  Feminist Barbara Walker creatively defines the Latin root of religion, religio, as "re-linking or reunion, a restoration of the umbilical bond between nature and man, or between the Mother Goddess and her son-consort, typified by human sexual union" (850).  Although I doubt that Spenser abandoned Christ and the Father for a return to the matrifocal goddess, he certainly desired union and reunion.  In the final line available to modern readers, Spenser prays: "O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight" (VII.viii.2).  While the poet years for rest and redemption, I picture him slithering into an internal world, snaking into a personal sanctuary, waiting for the next epoch. 
Author: Elizabeth Brunner
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