The Development of the Character of Redcrosse
In Edmund Spencer’s epic, The Faerie Queene, many of the characters have been previously introduced and briefly described in A Letter of the Authors. “Of which these three bookes contayn three, The first of the knight of the Redcrosse, in whome I expresse Holynes” (p. 518). Here, Spencer relates to the reader that, in the first book, he expresses the quality or virtue of holiness in the knight of Redcrosse. The subtitle to The First Booke of the Faerie Queene conveys the idea that the tale of Redcrosse is also a tale of holiness. The subtitle to Canto 1 of the first book strengthens this idea in that it depicts Redcrosse as the “Patron of True Holiness” (p. 520).
Despite the descriptions and subtitles which serve as testament to the knight’s holiness, Canto 1 contains evidence to the contrary in a handful of subtle, yet insightful lines. While the evidence in the first Canto may only be apparent with the aid of hindsight, Canto 2 provides further, more obvious indication of the knight’s shortcomings and flaws. Upon reading this Canto, the fallibility of Redcrosse becomes apparent.
When the villainous Archimago finds that his plans have been ruined by the virtue of Redcrosse, he promptly proceeds with another scheme in an attempt to cause both Redcrosse and Una hardship. He again calls upon the aid of a “Spright,” whom he disguises as a squire, and places him with the other Sprite, who had failed in tempting Redcrosse in the guise of Una. He then lays the two together “In wanton lust and lewd embracèment” (p. 533, l. 41), and brings Redcrosse to watch as the Lady stains her honor. “Which when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire, / The eye of reason was with rage yblent, / And would have slain them in his furious ire…” (p. 533, ll. 42-44). Thus, “The Patron of true Holinesse” succumbs not only to jealousy, but to a murderous jealousy and blind rage, in which he would have smote the two Sprites, if not for the restraint of Archimago. After these events transpire, Redcrosse’s distress causes him to leave Una; in essence, to abandon Truth:
Her name means “one, unity.” Elizabethan readers would know the Latin Una Vera Fides (“one true faith”) and also the proverb, “Truth is one.” (p. 530, footnote)
Later, in his infuriated temperament, Redcrosse encounters a Saracen and is immediately challenged in battle. During his confrontation with the Saracen, who carries the motto “Sans foy” on his shield, Redcrosse escapes even the most furious of the Saracen’s blows. “‘Curse on that Crosse,’ quoth then the Sarazin, / ‘That keepes thy body from the bitter fit’” (p. 535, ll. 154-155). Perhaps it is the Saracen’s curses which remind Redcrosse where his true power lies. Just as Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross keeps the faithful from the corrupting hands of death, so too does Redcrosse’s shield keep him safe from the crushing blows of the Saracen’s sword. Reminded that Faith provides and maintains his strength, Redcrosse summons the power to strike the Saracen’s helmet with such force that it cleaves his foe’s head. “Who thereat wondrous wroth, the sleeping spark / Of native vertue gan eftsoones revive” (p. 536, ll. 163-164). Although Redcrosse does not immediately repent and begin to seek Una at this point, it seems that much of his bitter rage has left him. He continues on his way with Fidessa, the Lady who rode with the Saracen, until he encounters the man trapped in the form of a tree. He beseeches the man-tree to tell him how he can be of service and rid him of the witch’s curse; a sure sign that his strength and holiness have at least partly returned.
Although the knight no longer seems to be a flawless bastion of holiness, this does not detract from his character. In fact, it seems to enhance and add depth and dimension to what would otherwise be an uninteresting, albeit near-flawless protagonist. The doubt and sin to which every person, including Redcrosse, is subject makes him a more believable and vital character. It is this very weakness which allows for the rather moving scene between Redcrosse and the “faithlesse Sarazin” because the reader is better able to relate to one who has lost and then found his strength, than to one who is flawless and strong throughout.