Book II, Canto XII
Hip hip hooray! After more than a year and a half I have finally finished the first two books – the only two books of this work that most English lit undergrad students have to worry about. They are also the only two books I had already read before beginning this blog. But I’m not finished yet! As you can see, my posting has picked up a bit. I’m on a mission to finish so please forgive me if my summaries become less detailed and more frequent.
Guyon and the Palmer are also on a mission. This book’s original quest was to hunt down the enchantress Acrasia. She is a formidable foe, an expert in magic, human psychology, and garden design. The journey has been the hard but Guyon and the Palmer are finally on their way. After 3 days of sailing they come to a mega-whirlpool. The Boatman explains that this is The Gulfe of Greedinesse. On the other side of the Gulf is The Rocke of Vile Reproch, harboring carrion seabirds waiting for their next meal. They pass safely through this first danger.
The second danger comes soon after – they spy dry land and Guyon suggests they make towards it. The wise Boatman knows these are The wandring Islands, shifting around the seas to entrap travelers forever. Soon they see a figure on one of the islands: Phaedria, our friend from Canto VI. She’s still the same, laughing and calling to the boat to come land on her shore. When they ignore her, she hops in her boat and paddles up to them. The Palmer rebukes her dirty mouth. Offended at his morality, she rows away.
The third danger is a section of quicksand, known as he quicksand of Vnthrifyhed. They pass by a partially sunken boat, laden with treasure but unable to move. On the other side was the Whirlepoole of decay – a black hole of waves. The steady Boatman gets them through this area safely,
Then the sea rears up, exposing giant waves full of crazy sea monsters. These waves rush towards the boat, with thousands of sea monsters inside. The Palmer recognizes this as a magic illusion and uses his staff to calm the sea and dispel the mirage of monsters.
The next danger comes from Guyon – he hears a maiden crying and asks that the boat steer toward the sound to help her out. Fortunately the Palmer knows better than to trust random maidens out on the sea.
Speaking of maidens, they come upon a flock of mermaids in a bay. Like sirens they sing to Guyon, imploring him to stop. Once again the Palmer is wiser than Guyon.
In stanza 34 the sea fogs up.
That all things one, and one as nothing was
And this great Vniuerse seemd one confused mas.
The fog makes it impossible to navigate, and tons of wicked-looking birds pump their wings through the mist above. At last the black mist dissipates and the Palmer sees the land they have been looking for.
The Palmer and Guyon leave the Boatman with the boat and step onto shore. They are attacked by a mob of wild beasts, but the Palmer’s magic staff stops the onslaught. They arrive at the Bower of Bliss. It is walled by a flimsy gate and decorated with all sensual pleasures. Spenser repeatedly reminds us in these passages that this place is Art’s imitation of Nature – an artificial, excessive version of the earth’s beauty. There is a deceptive version of our human Genius at the gate, whose wine bowl and staff (because staves are usually magical) Guyon breaks. They then pass the women Excess, whose wine bowl Guyon also breaks. Guyon is single-minded on his mission until they see a beautiful fountain with naked girls bathing in it. “Wanton” is a great word for their behavior. He is totally distracted by the girls until the Palmer reminds him they are there to kill Acrasia.
Finally they find her, lying on a bed of roses with her sleeping lover. They sneak up and capture Acrasia and the young man in a magic net. Acrasia is bound with adamant and the young man (named Verdant) is set free with some preaching. After all, she got him by sorcery and it wasn’t really his fault.
The book ends with Guyon and the Palmer leading Acrasia and Verdant back to the boat. Along the way they pass the wild animals. Guyon asks the meaning of the animals and the Palmer reveals that they are Acrasia’s past lovers, whom she enchants into beasts once she is finished with them. The Palmer undoes the enchantment, turning the animals back into people. One of the freed men laments his human shape, wishing he were back as a hog. Guyon and the Palmer make an observation on the terrible ability of the human mind to forget all reason.