The Faerie Queene 9: Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Guyon, by Palmers governaunce (1895-97), print, 'Spenser's Faerie Queene', ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In the third episode of Book 2, Sir Guyon and Prince Arthur travelled together to the House of Temperance, where they first had to rout a thousand fiends who had been laying siege to it for seven years. Once inside they met its mistress Alma, who took them on a tour of its rooms.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Why wonder ye, Faire Sir? (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

They ended up in its lofty tower, where they each selected books from the library held by Alma’s sage on the past: Arthur chose one titled British Monuments, and Guyon one on Antiquity of Faeryland.

Canto 10

A chronicle of Briton kings,
From Brute to Uthers rayne.
And rolls of Elfin Emperours,
Till time of Gloriane.

Prince Arthur’s book traces the history of Britain, claiming the British people settled with Brutus, who was descended from the rulers of Troy. They overthrew the native giants, and led to a succession of kings including Leyr [King Lear], following whom there was division and civil war. Donwallo re-established peace in the realm, and he and his sons fought in Europe, subjugating all its countries from France to Italy and subduing Scandinavia.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), A Chronicle of Briton Kings (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

It was King Cassibalane who was reigning when Julius Caesar invaded Britain, before Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail and Christianity to the country. There followed ravages by Huns and Picts, after which came Saxons, until the sons of Constantine restored the monarchy, leading to the great Uther Pendragon, whose reign ends the book.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), But Guyon all this while his booke did read (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Guyon’s book describes how Prometheus had created a man named Elfe, who found and married Fay in the Gardens of Adonis. Their descendants formed the race of Faery and its monarchs, resulting most recently in the mighty Oberon, who was succeeded by the most gracious and beautiful Gloriana [the Faerie Queene herself].

Canto 11

The enimies of Temperaunce
besiege her dwelling place:
Prince Arthure them repelles, and fowle
Maleger doth deface.

After an evening with Alma, the following morning Sir Guyon and the Palmer take their leave and head towards the coast in a boat steered by Alma’s ferryman. Arthur remains in the castle, which is soon surrounded by the thousand fiends as before. The ghouls divide into twelve troops, seven using rams to batter its gates, the remaining five attacking its bulwarks, named Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste and Feeling.

Alma’s concerns grow at these attacks, so Arthur rides out from the main gate resplendent in full armour. He deflects a rain of arrows with his shield, cutting a swathe through the hideous creatures with his sword. Maleger, captain of the foes, rides in on his snarling tiger, wearing a skull as his helmet. Behind him are two aged hags named Impotence and Impatience. Maleger launches a series of toxic arrows at Arthur, who fends them off with his shield. The prince then readies his lance and charges at his attacker, who turns and flees.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The enimies of Temperaunce (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur then binds one of the old hags. Her sister catches him off guard, and he’s quickly attacked by both the women and Maleger. Arthur’s squire removes the hags, and the knight squares up to Maleger, who can’t escape this time. Arthur knocks the ghoul to the ground with his mace, who responds by throwing a boulder back. Dodging that, the prince buries his sword in Maleger’s chest, but despite further deep wounds the fiend won’t fall.

Arthur then crushes Maleger’s body, but still he gets up and carries on unaffected. The prince realises this is the result of his opponent contacting the ground, which ensures his recovery. He then crushes Maleger to death, holds the corpse aloft, and casts it into a lake. It finally dies in the waters, together with the two hags, and Arthur returns to the castle to tend to his wounds.

Canto 12

Guyon through Palmers governaunce,
through passing perilles great,
Doth overthrow the Bowre of blis,
and Acrasy defeat.

Sir Guyon and the Palmer reach the coast, and sail for two days without landfall or sight of another vessel. On the third day, they see mountainous waves in the Gulf of Greediness, opposite the Rock of Vile Reproach, which lures vessels to their loss. The ferryman gingerly navigates their craft between the two hazards, and Sir Guyon then sees land nearby. Asking the ferryman to head for that, the knight is told that these are the Wandering Islands, which would only trap them into wandering forever without escape. The ferryman then negotiates a tricky passage between the Whirlpool of Decay and the Quicksand of Improvidence, in which a large merchant vessel is already caught.

Arthur George Walker (1861-1939), Said then the Boteman, “Palmer, stere aright” (1900), engraving, ‘Stories from the Faerie Queene’, Mary MacLeod, Gardner, Darton, London, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Next, it’s raining sea monsters until the Palmer strikes the water with his staff, making them all disappear as they’re only phantoms sent by Acrasia to deter them. They pass an island on which there’s a maiden weeping, another lure from the sorceress. Eventually they reach a peaceful bay, in which five mermaids are singing in praise of Sir Guyon. The Palmer warns against their temptation to vanity, and the boat passes on.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Guyon, by Palmers governaunce (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.
Walter Jenks Morgan (1847–1924), This is the Port of Rest from Troublous Toyle (1885), illustration in ‘Spenser for Children’, MH Towry, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

As they near their objective, a fog descends as a final obstruction. Engulfed by that fog, they’re now attacked by many birds, until they reach their goal. There Guyon and the Palmer disembark and walk inland, past wild beasts, which the Palmer subdues with his staff made from same wood as Mercury’s caduceus. They reach their destination: Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss, which is guarded by a handsome young man who offers Guyon a drink. The knight promptly overturns the bowl and breaks the man’s magic staff.

Guyon and the Palmer enter the garden, which is rich with grass and flowers bathed in perpetual summer warmth. They reach an arch of grapevines which try to outdo nature itself, the grapes being formed from burnished gold. Sitting in a doorway is a woman named Excess, who offers Guyon a golden cup of freshly squeezed grape juice. The knight takes the cup and dashes it to the ground where it shatters.

In the middle of the garden is a unique fountain which appears to float on its own water. Dancing in its waters are two naked young women. When Guyon sees them, he is momentarily captivated by their beauty. Although one of them hides her body in the water, the other stands wanton and defiantly exposing herself to him. The Palmer warns his knight that they must soon confront Acrasia, and they move on into the heart of the gardens in search of her.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), With that the other likewise up arose (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

They pass by a place where beguiling music is playing, moving ever deeper into a series of thickets until they catch sight of their quarry. She is reclining lasciviously on a bed of rose petals, her thin silk gown revealing her body beneath, still glistening with drops of perspiration from her recent lovemaking with a young man who now lies asleep on her lap. She has bewitched him: although apparently a knight, his arms are hung on a tree, and the blazon on his shield is defaced.

Sir Guyon and the Palmer spring out at her in complete surprise, throwing a magic net over the lovers, from which they cannot escape. The Palmer then binds the man with ropes, and Acrasia with chains of adamantine to resist her sorcery. He talks with the man, named Verdant, until the spell is broken, when he frees him from his bonds. Meanwhile the knight is destroying the bower and razing the garden around it.

Once their task is done, Guyon and the Palmer lead their captives back towards where they had landed. As they pass the pack of wild animals, the Palmer again pacifies them with his staff, and explains that they are Acrasia’s former lovers. The knight asks the Palmer if they can’t be turned back into men, so the latter touches each with his staff and one by one they revert to their former selves. One, though, objects, saying that he had enjoyed being a hog more than a man. The Palmer reflects that some people will never change their ways, and they make their way back to their waiting boat.

That completes the story of Sir Guyon or Temperance, and is the end of the second book of The Faerie Queene.

Principal Characters

Acrasia, an evil enchantress who lures men to her wandering island, the Bower of Bliss. Sir Guyon has been sent to put an end to her wickedness.

Alma, the mistress of a castle, the House of Temperance, which has been besieged by a thousand foes for seven years. Her castle represents the human body.

Prince Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, bearer of a magic shield which blinds his enemies and turns them to stone, and future king.

Sir Guyon, hero of Book 2, “Temperance”, a knight at the Faery Queen’s court, who is sent to stop the wrongs of Acrasia.

The Palmer, an elderly man dressed in black, who is leading Sir Guyon in his quest to put a stop to the evil of Acrasia.


Wikipedia on The Faerie Queene, with a partial summary
Wikipedia on Edmund Spenser

Richard Danson Brown (2019) The Art of the Faerie Queene, Manchester UP. ISBN 978 0 7190 8732 5. (Note: this isn’t about visual art, but literary art and poetics.)
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