The Villain Who Shut Down an Epic

By Jeanne Murray Walker

Recently, as I was on the way back from our usual early morning at the gym, I told my husband that the editors of New Ohio Review had asked me to write a piece about a villain in a poem.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, it’s interesting, don’t you think, that poems might have villains? Like murder mysteries?”

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “In Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ the villain is the wall.”

“No.” I laughed. After all, how can a wall be a villain? I had been thinking of narratives like The Odyssey and “My Last Duchess.”

But when I re-read Frost’s lyric, I saw what my husband meant. It is the power of evil, both the shadows of the trees and darkness of the heart, that builds and maintains the wall between Frost and his neighbor. I began to feel deeply curious: What can we learn from watching villains in poetry?

For my money, the most perplexing villain in any poem is a character named Archimago, who plies his evil in the first book of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. These days, even well-educated readers never crack Spenser’s poem. But for centuries the F.Q. was considered one of the great epics in English. Spenser conceived of the poem as an allegory in twelve books. Each book was intended to tell the story of a different knight who is on a quest to achieve a different virtue. In the first book of the F.Q., Redcrosse Knight is commissioned by the Faerie Queene to find and kill a dragon. He travels with a virgin named Una (widely interpreted as the “Truth”) whose parents are imprisoned by this dragon. Before he can kill the dragon, Redcrosse must become “holy,” which the critic, Harry Berger, has suggested means he must become “whole.” He must gain integrity; he must learn to see through false appearances. This quest is not unlike Frodo’s quest in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy or Harry Potter’s in the novels of J. K. Rowling.

In quest stories, the enemy is not physical, like the wall in Frost’s “Mending Wall” or the Duke in Browning’s poem. Instead, Archimago is a name for the proclivity we human beings have to lie to ourselves and to present false faces to others. So Archimago exerts power that is not only greater, but qualitatively different from that of many villains in literature. He does not stay within the boundaries of the fiction. He is a force in the world of history. His name yokes arch with image and an image, of course, is a representation or an appearance, a duplicate, or an icon. As for arch, it derives from the Anglo Saxon, meaning prototypical or extreme, wielding authority over others (as in archrival or archenemy). For Spenser, Archimago is the impresario of deceptions.

At the heart of the F.Q., opposing Archimago, stands Queen Elizabeth I, whom Spenser calls Glorianna, The Faerie Queene. She commissions the quests of the knights and occupies the moral center of the poem. In historical fact, Elizabeth ascended to the throne after her older half-sister Mary had butchered hundreds of religious dissenters and plotted against Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth managed to halt the cycle of revenge and mayhem with a policy of reasonable religious tolerance. She handled the men in her court by cleverly playing one suitor off against another, maintaining her power by remaining unmarried. The conniving competition of her courtiers she managed by skillfully channeling their energy away from civil war (which broke out after she died) and toward brilliant cultural enterprises. At court she sponsored dances, musical ensembles, feasts, games, jousts, and literary competitions. Courtiers like Sir Walter Raleigh braved the brutal and largely unknown ocean to discover new lands; but he also entered the competition with Sydney and Spenser to write great poetry. The cultural riches and thrill of the court were undeniable, but in the close quarters of the palace endless plots simmered. Intrigue often ruled.

Spenser’s rivals, at least some of them, were notorious for their simpering, craven pretenses, and plots against Elizabeth’s life were periodically uncovered. The perfidious courtiers danced with her, along with the faithful, ate at her banquets, dedicated their poetry to her, jousted in her tournaments. (Elizabeth must have been supernaturally gifted with discernment, or she would not have survived the duplicity in her court.) It is telling, then, that Spenser decided to define the first of the F.Q.’s quests—that of Redcrosse Knight—as a fight against false images.

In Book I, Spenser asks a deeply troubling question: How is it possible to tell which courtier is loyal to the queen, which is pretending? On the answer to that question—How should the court deal with its various Archimagos?—hung the future of peace and prosperity in Elizabethan England.

When Archimago first appears in the F.Q., Spenser reveals the sorcerer’s power to deceive, describing him as a humble hermit who carries a book and knows the terrain, who offers evening prayers, a safe bed, and good advice to the exhausted knight and his lady:

Then with the Sunne take Sir, your timely rest,
And with new day new worke at once begin:
Untroubled night they say gives counsell best.

Archimago appears to be similar to Gandalf in Middle Earth, an experienced wizard who grasps hidden knowledge, who comprehends wisdom that Frodo and the company of the ring do not. Unlike Gandalf, Archimago is a priest, and so, presumably, even more trustworthy. But after many earnest stanzas that narrate the happy meeting between Redcrosse, Una, and Archimago, Spenser discloses Archimago’s disguise to reveal the wizard’s deceit: “For that old man of pleasing wordes had store, / And well could file his tongue as smooth as glas.” Spenser controls the fiction of the poem so the reader is tricked by Archimago, learning how difficult it can be to tell who is false and who is true.

The hero, Redcrosse, who doesn’t have the advantage of Spenser’s advice, does not grasp the con artist’s deceit. In Archimago’s house he suffers nightmares, and the next morning he goes forth into an increasingly baffling landscape. A phony version of Una (the Truth) appears: Duessa, with her long fake eyelashes, her padded breasts, and her simpering whine. This apparition of false truth created by Archimago charms Redcrosse and leads him to a paradise of sloth where he forgets all about his quest. He ends up in a dungeon, where he stays for several cantos before he comes to his senses.

In the F.Q., Spenser manages his fictional villain, but the poet himself was not impervious to the power of Archimago. He knew he could lose his way on his own literary quest. He was plagued by an awareness that his own writing might be false, as the F.Q.’s many references to books and papers suggest. We see this most clearly, perhaps, when Redcrosse encounters Error, whose blood and vomit were “full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw, / Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke / His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe: / Her vomit full of bookes and papers was . . . ” Spenser seems to be exploring his own fears about writing itself, and he grasped how awfully wrong a writing project might go. Archimago, after all, was loose in the world. He is not merely Redcrosse’s enemy. He was Spenser’s as well.

Spenser knew that the business of writing anything, but especially a national epic, was dangerous. His invocation to the Muse makes that clear; he thought of himself as “too meane” for the task. This kind of invocation is a trope, and Spenser’s humility has sometimes been dismissed as a mere formality of the form. But praising Queen Elizabeth brought with it grave problems of how to represent her, her court, and her courtiers. Status and power were slippery in Elizabethan England. Beyond that, Spenser was surely concerned about how to portray the court honestly, without excessive flattery and without unfair criticism. Perhaps that is why in the very first book, Spenser takes on this foundational problem of representation, going so far as to cast the impresario of artistic, pleasing falsehood as an arch-villain.

The poet understood, as any serious writer must, that writing is always a struggle between true and false images, and he articulated that struggle in his poem. His introspective brilliance allowed him to give a name to the tendency to exaggerate, to lie, to deceive—the tendency not only out there in the world, but also in himself. Perhaps he grasped the fact that the writer is never entirely in charge of his poem, and his own quest to be truthful resembles Redcrosse’s as he encounters personified deception, personified Error, and defends the lady, Una, Truth. The first step of that defense was to write honestly about his own dicey, complex, ongoing struggle—the grappling of any decent writer to create a fiction that can indeed portray reality.

I often think of Spenser, who was at work on the F.Q. around the time Shakespeare was becoming a big name at The Globe on London’s South Bank. Spenser lived far from the brilliant and dangerous capital, London, long weeks of travel away from the glitter of Queen Elizabeth and her court. He wrote the F. Q. in a drafty castle in Ireland, where he served as a secretary to a British lord. In Ireland he slowly graduated to a variety of other political posts, and in 1590 he travelled to England to offer the early books of the poem to Elizabeth. I think of him there, waiting for her response, her praise. She took the books and paid him very little.

Driven out of his home by Irish revolutionaries in 1598, Spenser died in mid-January of 1599, long before he finished the F. Q. Before his death, he’d fled to England, where the literary community revered him as the foremost poet of his day, but Spenser died for “lack of bread,” according to Ben Jonson. What he planned, what he had clearly set out, was to write twelve books of his poem, a complete epic. What he actually wrote: six books and part of a seventh.

It would be wrong to suggest that Archimago leapt out of the pages, secured a strangle-hold on the poet, and choked off the last half of Spenser’s F.Q. The villain stayed on the parchment, but Archimago is not just a character in a poem. The power that generates deceptions, the motive that creates false images, flourished in England, and Spenser returned to an English court in upheaval. The Earl of Essex, a dashing, ambitious soldier and the darling of the aging Queen, was avidly courting her at the same time he was surreptitiously gathering allies for a rebellion against her, through which he would be crowned king. After his attempted coup, he was arrested and executed for treason. Archimago—with his duplicity and falsehood—was running rampant in London. And even a poet of Spenser’s caliber couldn’t capture him.

Elizabeth must have been distracted from Spenser’s poem by Essex’s betrayal, by his dire challenge to her throne. Moreover, other writers, including Shakespeare, may have cut sexier, flashier figures. In any case, the Queen did not financially support the F.Q., though almost everyone who could read at the time concurred that it was timeless. When Spenser finally limped home from Ireland, he may have seemed to be depleted, perhaps sick, unable to maintain appearances in her court, where appearance counted for almost everything.

In Spenser’s poem, Redcrosse succeeded. At the end of Book I, the knight kills the dragon. But Spenser did not live to finish his own quest. Archimago, and the neglect caused by his influence, brought it to an end, and after Spenser’s death, in the world of the English court, duplicity multiplied and flourished.

Jeanne Murray Walker is a poet who wrote her PhD dissertation on Spenser’s Faerie Queene. She teaches English at the University of Delaware and serves as a mentor in the Seattle Pacific University MFA Program. Among her awards are a Pew Fellowship in Poetry, an NEA Fellowship, and the Atlantic Monthly Schol- arship to Bread Loaf. Her plays have been produced in the U.S. and in London. Her latest book is Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems (WordFarm Press). She lives with her husband in a 104-year-old house outside Philadelphia.

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