Book I, Canto IX
I am moving to Los Angeles in a few days, so there won’t be any updates for several weeks while I am moving, job-searching and house-searching! Keep checking back, I will strive to get my life together so I can resume blogging next month.
As the group gets ready to depart, Una asks Arthur’s “name and nation” (we knew who he was because of the Merlin hint, but he hasn’t officially introduced himself yet). Arthur responds that he doesn’t know the story of his own origin, since he was taken from his parents at birth and raised by a Sir Timon (this is Spenser, not Malory!). Between Timon and regular visits from Merlin, Arthur was educated, trained, and told that he would someday be king.
Una must recognize the story somehow, since in stanza 6 she is the first to refer to him as Prince Arthur. She asks what he’s doing in Faery land. Arthur waxes philosophical about the mysteries of heaven, which leads into the story of his recent past…
Once upon a time, Arthur was cynical about love and avoided all of Cupid’s darts. Of course this couldn’t last. One day while out riding, he lay down for a nap and encountered in a dream vision a “royall Mayd”. He fell in love with her. Before she disappeared, she told him that she is the Faerie Queene herself. When Arthur woke up, he vowed to seek her out. It has been 9 months and he is still looking.
Una and Redcross respond encouragingly to his tale, and they exchange gifts. Arthur gives a diamond box of healing cordial to Redcross, and Redcross gives a holy testament to Arthur. They go their separate ways, Redcross still weak from the previous canto’s dungeon episode.
Redcross and Una see a knight galloping towards them. He keeps looking behind as if in fear of pursuit, and they notice a noose around his neck. Redcross stops him to ask what his deal is, and has a hard time getting a story out of the terrified knight. After Redcross reassures him of his safety, we hear the knight’s tragic story…
He had been friends with another knight named Sir Terwin. Sir Terwin had the misfortune to love a cruel and haughty lady who scorned his love. While this knight and Sir Terwin were returning from the scorning incident, they happened to meet Despair personified.
Despair started a conversation that turned their thoughts to suicide, and provided Terwin with a knife and our sad knight with his noose. Terwin gashed his own chest open, the sight of which dismayed our knight so much that he fled with the noose still around his neck.
Thus ends the knight’s explanation of his fear, and he questions Redcross’s ability to withstand Despair’s seduction should they ever talk to each other. Redcross asks defensively if mere words should be the sole cause of suicide for an otherwise healthy man, and the knight assures him that Despair’s words are pure poison. Foolishly, the still-weak Redcross decides to go and challenge Despair, and asks Sir Treuisan (that’s the noose knight’s name) to lead him there. Treuisan agrees as long as he can leave before Despair begins to speak.
So the hero and his posse arrive at Despair’s lair. They see grisly corpses all around and finally the man himself, with a hollow face and stringy hair, dressed in rags. Beside him dead Sir Terwin lays in a pool of fresh blood.
What follows in stanzas 37-54 is a really interesting dialog on death. Despair twists humanistic, moral, and religious teachings to support suicide. When Redcross counters with the concept of God’s sovereignty (regarding the timing of one’s death) Despair shifts the conversation to remind Redcross of his many failures and sins:
Witnesse the dongeon deepe, wherein of late
Thy life shut vp, for death so oft did call;
And though good luck prolonged hath thy date,
Yet death then, would the like mishaps forestall…
Why then doest thou, o man of sin, desire
To draw thy dayes forth to their last degree?…
Is is not his law, Let euery sinner die…
Is it not better to do willinglie?
Treuisan was right, and Redcross is deceived. Despair brings him an assortment of tools that he can use to kill himself. When Redcross doesn’t choose, Despair hands him a dagger. After seeing Redcross attempt to stab himself, Una intervenes. She is furious at his continued weakness and reminds him of his dragon-killing quest and the mercy and grace of God. They leave together.
When Despair sees Redcross get away, he hangs himself, but ironically: “it could not doe him die, Till he should die his last, that is eternally.”