Old Ed Spenser is a confusing allegorist. Some twit on Wikipedia misquoted Northrop Frye in saying that Spenser’s FQ is a “naive” allegory. That is one thing that it is not. Naive things need only be read once to be got: ask any confidence man. More to the point, naive allegories don’t really require much interpretive effort. In Prudentius Chastity faces off against Lust, and she does what any virtue would to do any vice–stab it in the eye and then take a leak on its corpse. The tableau doesn’t ask much of its reader. A battle has been won and the good guys are one step closer to hanging up their Mission Accomplished banner. But in Spenser’s reboot of the St. George legend, a local victory can be misleading with respect to the pilgrim knight’s overall progress.
In his first fight, Redcrosse Knight or George or Holiness (like the devil, he goes by a bunch of names) narrowly defeats a book-vomiting lady-dragon named Errour, while his lady, Una (or Truth) looks on. So one would think that after defeating a personification called Errour, he would stop making mistakes, he would stop erring. But that doesn’t happen. Immediately thereafter he is met by the wily Archimago and makes the biggest mistake of his life: he falls for Archimago’s little trick and believes that his lady Una has been unchaste, and abandons her in a huff.
Archimago doesn’t trick RCK the first go-round. It takes him three times. The first time he tries to undo the knight by having one of his demons show him an x-rated dream, in which Una tries to seduce him. The dream “melts his heart” and–good puritan that he is–he frantically awakes before anything untoward happens. But when he awakes, he finds himself in the same scene: for Archimago has given one of his demons the form of Una, and this demon is lying down beside RCK when he awakes from his dream. (Archimago probably saw Inception: he primes RCK with a sex dream and then sends him a succubus who is there to help him make the dream (ahem) come true.) So fake Una tries to seduce the groggy knight, but again: the puritan in him is strong enough to resist her blandishments, and he sends her packing and returns to sleep. Finally, Archimago hits on the right idea. He shakes RCK awake and tells him that he has discovered Una making the beast with two backs with a young studly squire. He leads RCK to a room, where fake Una is indeed getting it on with another demon. So RCK believes Una to be unchaste, and to have betrayed him. He is enraged and wants to kill her, but Archimago restrains him. So instead he flees the scene: will becomes his guide, and grief leads him astray. Astray = err… He kills Error but continues to err…
The description of Error (spewing books) suggests a specific kind of error. This is the knight’s mistake: maybe he misread Error, generalized her when in fact she was only one kind of error: the error of heresy. So how do we describe the kind of error he commits that parts him from the Truth (i.e. Una)?
Maybe the answer lies in the character of Archimago, who serves as the principle of separation, causing the Knight to part from Truth. In the preamble to the Canto, Spenser gives us the allegorical identity of Archimago: he is Hypocrisy. So Hypocrisy is at the root of the knight’s mistake. In short: Error cannot part him from Truth, but Hypocrisy can. This is interesting. In what way is the Knight being hypocritical in his decision to leave Una? He has “done” nothing wrong, but she has (or appears to have). He resisted the temptation of sex, but she (apparently) gave in. Where is the hypocrisy?
Maybe the hypocrisy stems from the very fact that even though he didn’t do it he badly wanted to. It’s the odd case–again, possible only with a puritan soul–that his flesh was willing (that is, to resist) but his spirit was weak. The outer victory is hollowed out by the inner failure. It’s not surprising that it’s a man who fails in this lame way and that it’s a woman who has to pay for it. Most men can’t rise above their conditioning to suck.
One exception might be Joyce’s Mr. Bloom. In Ulysses, Molly is actually unfaithful, while Bloom spends much of the narrative trapped in a bad infinity of adulterous dreams. Yet Bloom is not moved by grievance over Molly’s fling with Blazes Boylan. Rather, he goes home and seeks her forgiveness for a decade of distance deep within the melonous furrow of her bountiful bottom. There’s a model citizen for you…