By: Dayna Plehn
As our class has started studying works predating the official “birth” of the horror genre, I started thinking about other Renaissance literature that might fall into this same “pseudo-horror” category. One that came to mind immediately was Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, published in 1590 (around the same time that we think Shakespeare wrote his earliest play). It traces the story of a young man, newly knighted, named Redcrosse, and a beautiful noblewoman who accompanies him, named Una, as they travel on a mission to kill a dragon. At the beginning of their journey, Redcrosse is very inexperienced, but he is forced to learn quickly; within the first few pages, he encounters his first real monster: A Naga, a serpentfolk, “half like a serpent horribly displayed, / But th’other half did woman’s shape retain…” (Spencer 723). Her name is Error.
The Faerie Queen is what we might now call high fantasy. It is a completely fabricated world, in which we expect to see fantastical creatures such as goblins, trolls, or, perhaps, the occasional Naga. They belong in this universe; by this definition, our friend Noël Carroll would argue that The Faerie Queen is not horror, and he’d be right. We aren’t horrified in the same deep-seated psychological ways that we are when we watch, for example, The Exorcist, because in this poem, “monsters are part of the everyday furniture of the universe” (16). However, even if The Faerie Queene is not a horror story, individual scenes can be, in the same way that a piece of art on a canvas can be perfectly serviceable horror. This scene is one of those still-life moments; Spencer does his best to slice his readers apart with his vivid portrayal of the “most loathsome, filthy, foul” (723) monstrosity that is Error.
Error is, obviously, a fusion monster, a creature that “[transgresses] categorical distinctions” (Carroll 43). She crosses the boundary of species, being part mammal and part snake (is she warm- or cold-blooded?) Snakes are also traditionally thought of as wicked and deceitful, and still the subject of phobias today. She is also huge, with a tail is long enough for coils to be piled everywhere in her den, and, if a giant snake wasn’t intimidating enough, that far-reaching tail is also “pointed with mortal sting” (Spencer 723). Error has both disgust and threat in her arsenal.
Since Error’s den is dark, Redcrosse can only see her vaguely in the shadows because of the light reflecting off his armor – but honestly, that view is more than enough, because Error is not alone, but “of her there bred / A thousand young ones…” (Spencer 723).
That’s right. This fiend has babies. Hundreds of wriggling, squirming, suckling babies, en masse. They disdain the light as much as their mother does and retreat from the dull glint of Redcrosse’s armor – and they all creep into Error’s mouth. Error isn’t happy about being intruded on, and after almost losing the fight, Redcrosse strangles her – and she vomits up her children again, except that they come out in the form of books, papers, and ink, all smelling rank.
Aside from the blatant “ick factor,” this consolidation of Error with her children seems to be a sort of horrific massification – especially since, in the allegory of the poem, Error and her children together represent teachings contrary to the dominant religion at the time (Anglicanism). The Faerie Queen was published in a time when the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism in England was at a head, and the printing press, invented just over a century before, was gaining quickly in popularity. It was easier than ever for alternative philosophies to be produced in large quantities (something we can relate to now). If Error reproduces through books, then more creatures like her can appear at an alarming rate – and Redcrosse had enough trouble dealing with just the one.
Error is scary on a physical level, but she also isn’t the sort of horror that a modern reader can get past by thinking about it long enough. This is because she represents ideas – and how do you kill an idea? For Redcrosse, the winning strategy was to “add faith unto [his] force” (Spencer 724) – i.e., trust in his original beliefs instead of letting himself be led astray by heretical texts. But in our day and age, we frown upon clinging to our beliefs when there is new information and reasoning available. While Redcrosse is able to defeat Error by more or less ignoring what her offspring have to say, we are more inclined to sift through and consider every one of her children – just to be sure they’re actually borne from Error. Our problem has gotten much more difficult with time, and in this way, Error is exponentially more dangerous.
Carrol, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.
Spencer, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Eds.
Stephen Greenblatt et al. Vol 1. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 719-902. Print.