Look at the picture and guess what has happened:
If you guessed that a very lovely Book Warrior has given me my very own copy of The Faerie Queene, you are right. I am happy. Thank you very much, Yash!
But forcibly wrenching myself from the bliss of a new and beloved book (my own copy! With smooth edges and undented cover! That I can write in if I choose to! That I never have to return to the library! That is very pretty and ALL MINE FOREVER), let’s take a look at why I admire Una and why I can boldly avow that she is awesome.*
To review what has happened in The Faerie Queene so far (please note that all my Faerie Queene posts talk about the text with very little regard for potential spoilers. If that bothers you, read the book and come back to tell me what you think): The Lady (Una) and the Red Crosse Knight (St. George) and the Lady’s dwarf (unnamed**)are traveling. They get lost in a forest; the knight slays a monster; and they meet a hermit. The lady and the hermit give wise advice, and the four of them repair to the hermitage for the night. During that night, the hermit, who is actually an evil wizard-type, uses demons from hell to deceive the knight as to the lady’s character/virtue. The distraught knight mounts his horse and flees, followed by the dwarf. The lady awakes to discover that he is gone.
And after him she rode with so much speede
As her slow beast could make; but all in vaine:
For him so far had borne his light-foor steede,
Pricked with wrath and fiery fierce disdain,
That him to follow was but fruitlesse paine;
Yet she her weary limbs would neuer rest,
But every hill and dale, each wood and plaine
Did search, sore grieued in her gentle brest,
He so vngently left her, whom she louest best. (1.2.8)***
Up until this point in the story, the lady hasn’t been given much of a role. We know she’s the daughter of a king and queen whose lands have been taken and befouled by a dragon; presumably her mum and dad are dead, since she’s come a long way to seek the Red Crosse Knight’s help (1.1.3-5).**** She’s a virgin (126.96.36.199) and she has a dwarf companion (188.8.131.52), and she is innocent, beautiful, and sad. (Not surprising.) We also know that she gives sound and practical advice (1.1.12-13, 19, and 32-33) and has a stout lady’s heart (1.1.27), i.e. she is intelligent and wise as well as courageous. She loves this knight (184.108.40.206).
What we don’t know is her name. That isn’t revealed for one more stanza (220.127.116.11).
Such is the sum of our knowledge of this lady. What Spenser hasn’t said, because he’s focused on the knight, or maybe because he takes the fact and our perception for granted, is that Una (I’m going to call her Una from now on, because in my opinion 1.2.8 is the stanza where the lady comes into her own and becomes a character named Una) is extremely brave. She has lost her family, her realm, and her throne. She is grieving (and not just for her own loss; you can be sure that when the dragon came it killed a lot of people, including people she knew and cared about), yet she has set out on the very long journey to find a champion to slay the dragon, and having found him, is making the long journey home. She travels with a dwarf for company; I’m betting that he doesn’t do all the chores himself; and he probably isn’t an intimidating guard. Una is probably pretty sheltered, but practical. She took the initiative, after all. She’s nearly alone in the world but has dignity and a sense of station; even in grief and travel, she maintains the appearance and demeanour of a lady. She’s innocent, and either Archimago (the evil wizard-type) knew he wouldn’t get anywhere with her or he didn’t think her worth his while (probably the former). Either way, he doesn’t disturb her slumber but targets the more vulnerable knight. (It is later revealed that Archimago hates Una, and deceives the knight both to break him and to cause Una pain, since Archimago cannot harm her directly. See 1.2.9)
Una could easily be read as a meek push-over up to this point, but she isn’t. Shat she is is courageous, true-hearted, and gentle. She has a strong sense of how the world should be, and is sensitive to deviations from that shouldness, that rightness. She follows the knight because she loves him and because something is wrong and she is determined to make it right. That wrong is her father’s kingdom laid to waste by a dragon. That wrong is also the wrong done to her by the knight whom she loved and who is, apparently, sworn to deliver her lands and people from the dragon (and presumably, to defend her personally until then), who now “vngently” i.e. against the laws of chivalry and all gentility has left her without explanation or cause. He left her – left her people in the lurch – and he has left himself behind. When the knight abandoned Una he hurt her gentle (just/right/honourable/sensitive) heart not merely in the cruelty of her insult to herself, but because that very insult was a transgression and betrayal of his own gentle (honourable/chivalric/knightly/just) nature. She is troubled and pained noy only by the injury to herself but because it is an injury to what she has accurately perceived to be his true nature.
The first thing that we learned about the knight, after all, was that he is gentle: Book 1, Canto 1 begins in earnest with “A Gentle Knight.” He shares the same sensibility, the same sensitivity, that Una does, which is why they were so perfectly suited companions and so devotedly, silently, in love with each other, and why the other’s betrayal (real or illusory) tears at them inwardly with such fierce agony.
I can only speak for myself when I confess that it is one thing to say that gentleness is a kind of strength, and another to believe it. Spenser’s portrayal of Una makes real and believable that saying. Una weeps when she discovers that her knight, who is not only her beloved but the hope for her people, has betrayed her and himself. Then she gets up and searches for him with as much speed as can be achieved on her slow horse. She is utterly thorough. She persists and is faithful to herself, her parents, her quest, and to her knight, determined beyond hindering by physical and emotional exhaustion. She is placed in peril of her life more than once, by multiple enemies. She is nearly raped, is rescued by beings who adore her and want to worship her as their queen forever. She teaches and arranges her own rescue from being venerated via a very interesting ally***** who commits himself utterly to her safety and the success of her quest. When her dwarf companion reports the defeat and imprisonment of the Red Crosse Knight, Una meets, debates with, accepts the wise counsel of, and enlists Arthur to rescue her champion. (Her story is revealed in greater depth at this point, as she narrates events to Arthur.) Finally, Una exercises mercy tempered with justice toward her defeated enemy.
Is she not extraordinary and worth emulating?
I think so. I think also that the word “awesome,” which is dreadfully misused in common speech (by myself, included), can be used to describe Una in truth: she inspires awe.
* If you noticed that the title of this post is modeled after the chapter titles in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle books (see also the chapter titles in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles), bonus points to you!
** Unnamed as of Book 1, Canto 8, which is where I am right now. (But not for long!)
*** 1.2.8 means Book 1, Canto 1, verse/stanza 8. If I had written 18.104.22.168-9, that would indicate Book 1, Canto 1, verse/stanza 8, lines 6-9. Which, not by chance, are the lines of this stanza that I like the best.
**** 22.214.171.124 says that her parents and the court were “expeld,” which indicates they were exiled instead of slain. What everybody else is doing then, I don’t know. (Surely Una cannot be the ONLY person to see the necessity of finding a champion to slay the dragon and restore the monarchs to their thrones and health to the land?)
***** Satyrane is a very interesting ally indeed. I love this description of their relationship: “Thenceforth he kept her goodly company,/ And learnd her discipline of faith and veritie.” (126.96.36.199-9) Anyone know more of him?