Archimago's Role in The Poem
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(All the material in this section comes directly from pages 33-54 of an article: Harry Berger, Jr., "Archimago: Between Text and Counter-Text," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 43.1 (Winter 2003): 19-64.)
At the beginning of canto 2, after the "feigning dreame" and "faire-forged Spright" tell Archimago they failed to seduce Redcross, the enchanter first throws a fit and then moderates his behavior in a swerve that duplicates Redcross's swing from "fierce despight" to "sufferance wise" (1.1.50). The futility of his threats sends the mage back to "his balefull bookes," and from these he gets the idea of transforming the dream spirit into an airy semblance of what in later cantos will be the very image of our truant hero undone by the witch's wiles,
- a young Squire, in loves and lusty-hed
- His wanton dayes that ever loosely led, Without regard of armes and dreaded fight.
Archimago places this figure together with "that miscreated faire" in a "secret bed . . . to joy in vaine delight" (1.2.3). The deep Spenserian resonance of "vaine delight" is worth noting. The delight is vain both in the sense of worthless or idle and in the sense of errant, vitiating, and self-destructive, but it is also vain because the "lovers" are incorporeal spirits with merely spectral bodies and questionable sexes.
The Squire-spirit on which Archimago spread "a seeming body of the subtile aire" is several times called "he" (1.2.3). No pronouns mark the gender of the Lady-Spirit, but Archimago's relation to it gives a clear indication: he
- made a Lady of that other Spright,
- And fram'd of liquid ayre her tender partes
- So lively, and so like in all mens sight,
- That weaker sence it could have ravisht quight:
- The maker selfe for all his wondrous witt,
- Was nigh beguiled with so goodly sight:
- Her all in white he clad, and over it
- Cast a black stole, most like to seeme for Una fit.
- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . .
- And that new creature borne without her dew,
- Full of the makers guile, with usage sly
- He taught to imitate that Lady trew,
- Whose semblance she did carrie under feigned hew.
It is clear that "she" is under male instruction, and that Archimago behaves like a new Pygmalion, "transfixed by a lady of his own devising." 39 But owing to several slippery words and phrases, other things are less clear. What is it that ravishes the weaker sense, makes sight goodly, and beguiles the maker, the specter's verisimilitude or its pulchritude, its lifelikeness or its desirability? The answer is both, working together, for the triumph of this art of idolatrous construction is at once to dissemble "nature" and to replace "her" with an image that fully externalizes and gratifies erotic male fantasy. The emphasis on scopophilia and the glance at Pygmalion combine to suggest the autoerotic and misogynistic pleasures of androgenesis: a "new creature," better for being "borne" without maternal "dew," and filled instead with "the makers guile" by which the maker is "beguiled."
The new creature is false for several obvious reasons: first, because it resembles a woman, second, because it resembles Una, and third, because in imitating "that Lady trew"its mandate is to represent her as untrue. But beyond that, the passage rubs off on "that Lady trew" with peculiar effect. The reader may initially be prepared to fix on the reference to Una's virtue, her "trouthe" or troth, but may, on second thought, recall the ontological contrast between Una, who truly is a "Lady," and the spright, who is not. That second thought, however, turns out to be a boomerang for anyone who takes seriously the identification of Una as "Truth" in the arguments of cantos 1 and 3, and who is thereby encouraged to position her as a figure in the "continued Allegory" of holiness and religious reform. Una has one thing in common with Archimago's "miscreated faire": she may be said to carry the semblance of Truth "under feigned hew" of "that Lady trew." Whenever the allegorical project presses countertextually on the narrative, the "Lady trew" modulates toward the status of a medieval personification, the "lady Trew." But whether one sees her as a "Lady trew" or as the "lady Trew," Una is no less a specter and no less under male instruction than Archimago's spright.
If it is not obvious that the narrative labors to make truth seem what it is not, the virgin daughter of a king, Archimago's false semblances draw attention to that labor by their parody of it. They also draw attention to the feature David Norbrook picks out as a symptom of Spenserian and Protestant misogyny: the equation of Una's purity with her non-display of "female sexuality." This equation is so clearly a donnée of the allegorical countertext that it would make Archimago's slanderous mumbo jumbo seem comic were it not for two considerations. First, Archimago's deep and troubling power resides in his laying bare the unavoidably idolatrous basis of book 1's allegorical project and narrative rationale. The narrator committed to this rationale can't avoid being contaminated by, consanguineous with, that dark power. Second, Redcross's vulnerability to Archimago's magic tricks reminds us that even at the level at which the countertext informs and polices narrative action, the enchanter is Archi-mage, the man with the power. His misrepresentation of Una's truth is marked as entrapment, and Redcross's response as the jealous rage of his victim. But at the level of textual action there is the more complex scenario I have discussed elsewhere and will merely glance at below: the scenario centered on the protagonist's fear of his own sexuality, on his need to defend himself against self-distrust and guilt, and on the conflicted nature of his relation to Una and her quest suggested by the opening stanzas of canto 1.
At this level complicities are redistributed. Although Archimago's infernal credentials seem impeccable and "Legions of Sprights" (1.1.38) are in his service, the magical tricks he actually performs consist only of image making and shape shifting. His allegorical function, "Hypocrisie" (1.1.arg.), refers as much to theatrical as to moral performance and—this is the main point—his enchantments seem cooptive rather than coercive. Redcross is tricked but not forced into the position he takes. Assaulted first by an erotic dream of Una and then by a matching apparition, he wisely "stayde his hand, and gan himselfe advise / To prove his sense, and tempt her faigned truth" (1.1.50). In this, his finest moment, he reassures the apparition of his love and loyalty, and persuades her to go back to bed, thus assuming the enviable position of the upright but clement judge, the object of desire, the chivalrous consoler who wields both moral and sexual power and can afford to be magnanimous, can afford to feel sorry for the poor lovelorn wretch: "Much griev'd to thinke that gentle Dame so light" (1.1.55). What makes the episode most interesting is that its rhetoric casts doubt on the completeness of Redcross's recovery from "unwonted lust" (1.1.49) as well as on the success with which he manages to persuade himself that in his prudence and magnanimity he has really risen above it all. The absolute duplicity of "To prove his sense, and tempt her faigned truth" explains why he was only "halfe enraged at her shamelesse guise" (1.1.50, my italics) and why the spectral scene of copulation in 1.2.4-6 so troubles "his guiltie sight" that he abandons Una. These subtly modulated descriptions of affect offer an alternative to the picture of the powerful enchanter and his helpless prey. They present Redcross not as a mere victim but as a co-agent whose relation to Archimago is better expressed by the middle voice of shared responsibility than by the passive voice: he gothimself deceived. It was he, then, who empowered Archimago.
The disparity between these two levels and their respective messages is conspicuous. Its effect is to make the representation of Archimago and Redcross as complementary figures (villain and victim) in a romance plot verge on diegetic self-parody, for the plot is patently inadequate to the meanings the text uses it to convey. And this inadequacy rubs off on all the major allegorical sites—on the representations of antipapism, woman, and the patron of true holiness. The inadequacy thus translates into a critique of Protestant iconography. Though the satyrs' worship of Una in 1.6 "as Queene," "as Goddesse," and as "th'Image of Idolatryes," is explicitly an antitype of proper reverence, the episode mischievously betrays the pagan and Petrarchan sources that inform, deform, or reform the sublimation of sexual desire into religious desire.
Such textual mischief leads me to conclude that the effect of book 1's political rhetoric is wrongly described as the "defense of reformed Christianity against idolatry." On the contrary, it is the critique of that defense. The text parodies the tendency of antipapist iconoclasm to slander woman by making her an idolatrous embodiment—an embodiment not only of the Catholic idolatry it criticizes but also of the reformed faith's own iconoclastic aspiration to invisible truth. In this new iconography the mechanisms that assure the transmission of faith make common cause with the mechanisms that assure the transmission of property: if religious truth is idolized as a beautiful and chaste virgin, or as a married and prolific daughter, or as a godly "matron grave and hore," it enters into the discursive arena of sexual and patriarchal politics, where it is defined by the interests of fathers, heroes, and husbands (1.10.3). Book 1 rewrites apocalyptic rhetoric—and here I borrow Donald Cheney's wonderful concept—as a eucalyptic rhetoric; eucalyptic (well hidden) in that it makes a show of pretending to veil its sexual basis even as it exposes the structure of displacements by which the hero's weakness and fear of self, his autophobia, are evasively translated into gynephobic fantasies. These fantasies are assimilated into the reformed iconography from well-marked Ovidian and Petrarchan sites—assimilated and sublimated but by no means disabled.
A recurrent insight in commentary of the last few decades is that The Faerie Queene registers or betrays the inability of its narrator to prevent his art from being parodied, slandered, or appropriated by dubious artist figures of his own creation, figures whose power to feign images is in various ways comparable to his. Archimago is the first in a sequence that includes Despair, Merlin, Phantastes, Proteus, Busirane, and Scudamour, among others. Magicians, rhetoricians, storytellers, shapeshifters, framers of illusion in visual and verbal media, they have been loosely classified as types of false poets. But they also share another characteristic: haplessness. Although each of the trio of wizards who rumble and ramp about in book 3—Merlin, Proteus, and Busirane—stakes out an aggressive claim to authority or power, the claim is represented as inseparable from his vulnerability to or frustrated pursuit of the fair sex. " wanton man's excessive desire—concupiscence in any of its forms—bears the seed of its own impairment": it is telling that this aphoristic statement of the logic of castration Linda Gregerson finds packed into Malbecco's name and predicament applies equally well to our three wizards.
Does it also fit the portrait of Archimago? I have in the past played with the double sense of Archimago's name—Archi-mage, the preeminent enchanter, and Arch-image, the preeminent illusion—and on this basis asserted that the name authorizes a cultural imagination corrupted by its own impossible aspiration toward wholeness / holiness—toward heroic autonomy and tyrannical power—and thus torn by deprivation, anger, and the perpetual fear of impotence. 48 That assertion may have a nice ring to it, but it was nothing more than an assertion. It may find some support in accounts that designate Archimago as the hidden creator of Acrasia's Bower of Bliss or compare his illusion making to that of the witch who created False Florimell in 3.8. 49 But whether there is any interpretive substance to the claim that Archimago is one of the poem's many powerful have-nots—figures of castration—remains to be seen. At least in one respect, his record of accomplishments leaves something to be desired: after his first appearance in 1.1, whenever he intrudes in person his plots tend to misfire. This suggests to me that there is an inverse relation between his power on the one hand and his status as an embodied character, on the other. I turn now to his fortunes—or misfortunes—as a character, beginning with a glance at four critical opinions.
First, William Oram observes that when Archimago dresses like Redcross, the picture of Christian armor concealing his weak and skeletal body gives us a moral X-ray of Redcrosse's condition. Oram's conception of the moral X-ray is a profound insight into the metaphoric power of the image he describes. Yet it isn't the whole story, since, twelve stanzas later, that poor body loses its merely metaphoric status and suffers the comic consequences of materialization when Sansloy comes along and knocks it off its horse.
Second, according to Susanne Wofford, "Archimago serves . . . as a figure for an aspect of the internal life of the book's hero, but he also incarnates a force apart, not existing only internally but representing a kind of constraint or power over the mind." This "force apart" is nevertheless embodied in a fictional character. It has a local habitation and a name. The mundanity of this observation should not detract from its importance. But its importance should not prevent us from taking seriously the comic glee with which the text discomfits, and even makes a spectacle of, the character who embodies the Archimago force.
Third, in his powerful revision of the meaning of Spenser's "pictorialism," Gilman locates book 1's version of "the deeper debate between pictorialism and iconoclasm" in the "paradoxical alliance . . . between the narrator of the poem and Archimago." He argues incisively that Spenser's "artful strategy of taking and yet disclaiming responsibility for . . . everything in the poem generated by the 'pictorial' Spenser of tradition" consists in "ascribing it to the machinations of an other, a false 'Spenser' who must be constantly held at bay." He reminds us that this other is an "Arch-imager" who snares "Spenser's heroes . . . through the creation of a false 'Una' and a false 'Red Crosse,' by an art that exactly replicates Spenser's own." The replication, however, is not exact, first, because the incentive to read-as-if-visualizing is marked as a countertextual defense against reading-as-if-textualizing, and second, because the Arch-imager is also an Arch-image and, as such, is part of that defense.
Finally, Archimago is held at bay chiefly by being "pictorialized" as a wicked old sorcerer and hypocrite. This is not an original observation. It was recognized by critics in a more traditional school of Spenser commentary. Thus Rosemary Freeman notices that Archimago "stands for much more than Spenser's drawing of his character first suggests . . . Only the action of the whole book can show how profound the wickedness is which he represents," and as his victim deteriorates, so the allegory "dwindles into the narrow plotting of a mere deceiver adopting a disguise."
If Archimago's favorite sport is to play wolf-in-sheep's-clothing, one of the narrator's favorite sports is to describe or mimic the enchanter's performances in a manner that emphasizes not only the perils of papist hypocrisy but also the gleeful enthusiasm with which the performer throws himself into his part. In the following lines the self-delighting mimicry works like indirect discourse to integrate the character's pleasure in impersonating a hermit with the narrator's pleasure in impersonating the character:
- An aged Sire, in long blacke weedes yclad,
- His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray,
- And by his belt his booke he hanging had;
- Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad,
- And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
- Simple in shew, and voyde of malice bad,
- And all the way he prayed, as he went,
- And often knockt his brest, as one that did repent.
- Ah my deare Sonne (quoth he) how should, alas,—
- Silly old man, that lives in hidden cell,
- Bidding his beades all day for his trespas,
- Tydings of warre and worldly trouble tell?
- Arrived there, the little house they fill,
- Ne looke for entertainment, where none was:
- Rest is their feast, and all things at their will;
- The noblest mind the best contentment has.
- With faire discourse the evening so they pas:
- For that old man of pleasing wordes had store,
- And well could file his tongue as smooth as glas;
- He told of Saintes and Popes, and evermore
- He strowd an Ave-Mary after and before.
After dispensing bromides of this sort for several stanzas, Archimago produces the desired narcotic effect, and "Unto their lodgings then his guestes he riddes" (1.1.36). "Riddes" is a remarkably wonderful word, expressing not only his contempt for them but also his own—and the narrator's?—mounting impatience to pack up the piety and take the evil to the next level.
Archimago's subsequent appearances all begin with strong attacks of guile and clever disguising, but each scenario reduces him to a sheep in wolf's clothing. The stanza that introduces the first of his adventures in shapeshifting once again rhetorically reflects the narrator's admiration for his skills: preparing to persecute his archenemy Una he
- devisde himselfe how to disguise;
- For by his mightie science he could take
- As many formes and shapes in seeming wise,
- As ever Proteus to himselfe could make:
- Sometime a fowle, sometime a fish in lake,
- Now like a fox, now like a dragon fell,
- That of himselfe he oft for feare would quake,
- And oft would flie away. O who can tell
- The hidden power of herbes, and might of Magicke spell?
The list of changes accelerated by anaphora and alliteration conveys the fervor of a frenetic practitioner who sometimes gets out of hand. The narrator no less than his subject is diverted by this fantasy of exuberant self-amusement, and by the esoteric power behind it. And yet, as A. C. Hamilton concisely notes, "hile the humor is obvious, the lines comment on the Knight who flees from himself." In the course of humoring the fantasy of metamorphic power the stanza executes a brilliant caricature of autophobia, anticipating the moment two stanzas later when we learn of Redcross's flight "from his thoughts and gealous feare." Both Archimago and Redcross lose control and scare themselves: the point of the analogy lies in the sharp contrast between the trivialized comic-strip version that reduces autophobia to buffoonery and the insidious power of the enchanter's art when its effects are alienated from the character and internalized by his victim. Placing these two moments back to back accentuates the limits of the narrative conventions of allegorical romance with their reliance on the localization and visualization of moral agency. Archimago, as we'll now see, is a paper tiger when he tries to carry out his initiatives in person rather than making himself scarce and entrusting the transmission of his evil to textual channels.
After he sends Redcross packing and completes his metamorphic warmups, Archimago disguises himself as "his late beguiled guest" (1.2.11) and sets out to persecute Una. This turns out to be a pointless and counterproductive exercise: he is forced to do battle, which isn't his strong suit, and, ironically, to fight as Una's protector against the predatory Sansloy, who unmasks and nearly kills the "lucklesse syre" (1.3.33-9). In his next personal appearance he takes a walk in the woods of canto 6 dressed up as a dusty pilgrim, lets himself be seen by Una and Satyrane, and gives Una an account of Redcross's death at the hands of a "Paynims sonne" that we recognize as a muffled version of his own luckless encounter with Sansloy. He manages to oppress Una "with huge heaviness" but he also helps Satyrane find Sansloy, so that Una's new friend can try to avenge the hero's death (1.6.40). Now why would Archimago want to do that? The logic of the episode suggests that he wants Sansloy to beat Satyrane and recapture Una. But it may equally well suggest that he wants Satyrane to give Sansloy the comeuppance he deserves for spoiling Archimago's debut as Redcross in canto 3. In addition, Archimago gives Sansloy the chance to refute his lie and claim that it was not Redcross but the "enchaunter vaine" that he defeated—a piece of news that, if it got back to Una, would restore her hope and defeat his purpose (1.6.42).
As the two knights hack furiously away at each other, and Una flees, Archimago hides
- In secret shadow, all this to behold,
- And much rejoyced in their bloudy fray:
- But when he saw the Damsell passe away
- He left his stond, and her pursewd apace,
- In hope to bring her to her last decay.
His departure leaves the combatants deadlocked in another of Spenser's endless works. The deadlock reflects Archimgo's own confused motivation for arranging the fight. His hope of catching Una remains unrealized; she meets up with Arthur in the next canto while the enchanter drops out of sight until canto 12. There, in his final cameo appearance in book 1, Archimago tries to disrupt the nuptial ceremony by masking as a messenger who bears a letter from Fidessa/Duessa charging Redcross with infidelity. Since, as he might have anticipated, Una and Redcross easily defuse this threat and again unmask the culprit, he gets thrown into prison for his pains.
This is hardly an enviable record, and it makes one wonder what the reasons are for Archimago's cachet in literary history. In three of his four personal interventions he gets himself into situations that he either cannot win or cannot resolve. If the author of The Faerie Queene thought it mandatory to include an evil magician as part of his romance machinery, he doesn't appear to have taken the convention seriously as it stood. The brilliance and simplicity of his solution was to take seriously his inability to take it seriously and to show how its comic inadequacy may itself be made meaningful. In its parody of antipapist imagery, the poem characterizes Archimago as a figure torn between the desire to fulfill his conventional function and do harm, and the desire to enjoy the performance of harm-doing. It relishes his relish in spookery, hypocrisy, masquerade, and the occasional bizarre scenario in which, enchanted by the props and apparatus of his mystery, the enchanter gets caught up as in a net.
The guiler beguiled—and self-beguiled—is an old saw that makes contact with the Christian commonplace of the self-destructiveness of evil. But Spenser gives the motif a new twist. Because Archimago's exuberant deployment of his power after his opening appearance renders him powerless or hapless or—as in the Satyrane/Sansloy episode—beside the point, his personal appearances compose into a pattern that conveys the message of Christian comedy: crime never pays and the wicked are their own worst enemies. The narrative does his evil work better than he does, and we could say that it doesn't really need him except to serve as a scapegoat so that his personal failures prompt the reader to look elsewhere for the true source of evil. His claim to be that source is interrogated by the textual devices that represent the techniques of allegorical romance—localization, visualization, personification—as machines of comic reduction. Thus the character named Archimago is a countertext, an idol constructed and animated by the Protestant polemic that drives the allegorical narrative.
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