Snakes and Ladies

Back to posting some bits of my past scholarship. Here’s a reading of the first portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene that sketches in the relationship of Error, false Una, and Duessa to the lamia as found in Burton and, later, in Keats. What is lacking, here, is the solid connections back to Keats that would “cash out” the parallel in really fruitful criticism. Also, I think Dr. Hunt thought that treating succubus and lamia as variants of the same thing was mistaken. Nonetheless, here you have my first extended exercise in reading in terms of proper allegory, rather than the coarser Bunyanesque labels-and-discourses sort. Thanks to Dr. Hunt for getting me started down that path!

Here, then, is “What Dreams May Come”:

Preliminary Paper
(Short Presentation)
Dr. Maurice Hunt
November 8, 2000

“What Dreams May Come”: Spenserian Succubi in Book I of The Faerie Queen

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.[. Milton, Aeropagitica.]


Beauty is truth, truth Beauty.[. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”]


Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But wander too and fro in wayes vnknowne.[. FQ, 1.1.10.]

When Spenserian heroes enter the magic woodland of Renaissance lore, they do so with considerably more baggage than their counterparts in Shakespeare’s bright comedies; coming in love or in service of quests, they find themselves in an allegorical dreamland where only by becoming masters of the story–by usurping the poet’s pen and the reader’s eyes–can they hope to survive with their virtue, the very essence of their allegorical being, intact. Keats longed for a life of allegory, and Milton refused his praise to “fugitive and cloister’d virtue,” but for Spenser’s characters, the exercise of virtue is survival. In Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight (RCK) and Una find themselves in a veritable wonderland of doppelgangers and doublings, in which what “seemde” wise and safe a moment ago may turn into deadly danger without warning–except those who, like the reader, hold the key to discernment, the text, in their hands. The order and characteristics of the RCK’s female adversaries reflect the classical myth of the lamia, using it as a recognizable structure by which the reader (and the Red Cross Knight) lay hold on the truth needed to “prefer that which is truly better.”

The lamia, generally held to be a Greek variant of an old Sumerian legend, arrived in English literary culture through two paths: the classical mythologies, with their incubi and succubi, and medieval Jewish thought, which features the legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and of the many liliths often held to be her spawn (among other demons). Both branches share the same essential elements, though with significant variants. The medieval Jewish variant explains the existence of liliths and glosses the Genesis account of Creation by postulating an original wife for Adam who was created from dust, as was Adam, and who, refusing to be subordinate to Adam, fled the garden and became the consort of Satan. She is most feared as a killer of infants, but also comes to men in their dreams in order to breed demons from their nocturnal emissions. As both infanticide and succubus, her effect on the victim is a vampiric wasting as a result of lost body fluids and the suffocating of the spirit. As consort of Satan, she also bears him demonic children, among whom are other liliths.[. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.] The classical variant includes the general idea of the succubus, as well as the more sustained illusion referred to by Burton:

Lycius, a young man . . . met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, “he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she being fair and lovely would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold.” The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius, who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia . . . when she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she . . . vanished.[. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,]

Burton’s recounting of this lamia encounter recorded by Philostratus provided the source material for Keats’ narrative poem Lamia; it also provides a suggestive context in which to examine Spenser’s use of serpent and dream imagery in portraying RCK’s female enemies. While it is difficult to verify the likelihood that Jewish myth directly affected Spenser’s writing, it is certain that both the Jewish and the classical milieus contribute to the lamia legendary, so that both should be remembered in readings of The Faerie Queene (FQ).

When RCK and Una enter the forest, they do so “with pleasure forward led” into what “seemes” a “faire harbour.”[. FQ, 1.1.7-8.] The experienced reader of Spenser knows that “seemes” is an immediate warning that the characters have misread the descriptive passages, that they do not understand their surroundings; but the characters themselves have not yet learned by experience the way to distinguish truth from appearances, and the naive reader projected by Spenser’s “fashioning” project will only discover the danger of what “seemes” in retrospect. A more direct warning comes when Una, or Truth, warns RCK that the place “breedes dreadfull doubts.” Having plunged in thus far, however, to their walk into allegorical dreamland, the forested dark which starlight cannot penetrate, RCK and Una do not turn back; instead, they press forward, and immediately encounter the first lamia figure in Book 1, the female serpent-fiend Error.

Given the analogic structure of allegory, Error is best seen as a representation of the outcome of RCK’s and Una’s choices: to ignore the textual (scenic) clues to their danger, to be led on by pleasure, and to press on even when the nature of their mistake becomes apparent. Etymologically, “error” derives from the Latin erro, “to wander”; RCK and Una err (exercise bad judgment) when they err (wander about). Given that RCK is a knight errant, as are all of the primary heroes in FQ, it is significant that the tendency to wander and to misjudge is the first adversary he must overcome.

Error’s lamia characteristics are obvious; she is a disgusting creature, “Halfe like a serpent” and half woman.[. FQ, 1.1.14.] While RCK is portrayed as awake, the shift to interior action as RCK, belatedly and ineffectually warned of his wanderings by Truth, confronts Error suggests that the darkened wood is also RCK’s darkened–whether by sleep or by moral confusion–consciousness. Error’s nakedness is so blatant as to be unattractive, and while there is definite sexual potential in her entwining of RCK, it is thoroughly diffused by her entirely beastly behavior, including her use of vomiting as a defense mechanism. Error is the lamia stripped of seduction, a naked but hideous creature (much like the syphilitic Lust portrayed in the House of Pride) whose assault is through venom and suffocation, and whose children glut cannibalistically on body fluids until they burst.[. FQ, 1.1.25-6.]

Una congratulates RCK on his victory, and the episode ends with their escape from the woods. Having defeated the obvious Error, however, the RCK has yet to learn how to distinguish truth from error–no great compliment to RCK, as he is travelling with the beautiful lady Truth herself, and has seen hideous Error face-to-face. Una, as Truth personified, is placed in an unenviable position; like truth presented to the human mind, her ability to act her role is completely dependent on the ability of the reader–and RCK as reader–to distinguish her from false appearances. Should RCK fail to recognize Truth when presented with a choice, Una herself is left helpless, subject to being used (or abused, which for a person is very much the same) by any who have the power to bend her to their will. This vulnerability, hinted at in the Error episode, becomes the major problem with which both RCK and Una must grapple throughout the rest of the book.

Upon leaving the forest of Error, RCK and Una encounter the hermit, known to the experienced reader as Archimago but appearing to the naive (hence to RCK) as a “holy father” who “seemed . . . sagely sad, / . . . as one that did repent”[. FQ, 1.1.29-30.] RCK and Una have not learned that what “seemed” right in the Error case and “seemes” right about the Hermit will inevitably turn out to be false appearance; their ability to “read the text aright” is impaired by their inexperience, and they are prevailed upon to sleep at the Hermitage. Una, Truth herself, is used by Archimago to persuade RCK to stop, despite his hesitancy;[. FQ, 1.1.32.] it is RCK’s duty to make the distinction, and his inability to do so leaves Truth free to be manipulated by the deceiver. Sleeping at the Hermitage, RCK encounters the second lamia figure, the false Una conjured by Archimago.

The false Una, because of her brief appearance and specifically sexual appeal, is the most obvious succubus to the reader, though not to RCK. In the middle of troubled dreams of error and temptation, which RCK does not awake to confront, the false Una is introduced. Posing as Una, and attempting (as Venus and Juno do for Dido) to give the ambience of marriage without the fact, the false Una directly attempts to seduce RCK, who is already morally compromised: in true lilith fashion, the lustful “sprite” so works in his dreams that “nigh his manly heart did melt away.”[. FQ, 1.1.47.] RCK has learned the true face of Error, though; confronted directly with the seduction, he “start[s] up” and avoids the deed itself; to him, the idea of “doing ought amis” is as shocking as Error’s vomit assault.[. FQ, 1.1.49.] The first lesson has been learned, it seems: RCK will not be “with pleasure forward led” even by Una herself. The second, and harder, lesson, however, has yet to be learned: RCK does not know Truth sufficiently well to distinguish her from an impostor, and not only cannot differentiate between the false Una who seduces him and the Una he knows but is deceived by Archimago’s shadow-play into believing that Una had left seducing him only to go on to another sexual encounter.[. FQ, 1.2.5.] The total effect of this lamia encounter, both in sleeping and in waking dreams (for Archimago’s sprites are but temporarily embodied dream-creatures), is once more consumptive: RCK “did his stout heart eat, / And wast his inward gall with deepe despight, / Yrksome of life, and too long lingring night.”[. FQ, 1.2.6.]

RCK’s failure to note the use of the word “seemed” with reference to the Hermit’s godliness and his concomitant failure to recognize a false appearance of truth lead to his abandonment of Truth altogether. Fleeing the scene of what he can only perceive (given his faulty perceptions) as a humiliating betrayal, RCK leaves Una “wandring in woods and forests”;[. FQ, 1.2.9.] without a discerning reader, Truth herself becomes lost in the maze of error. Una’s misadventures with the false RCK, Archimago in disguise, and her subsequent captures and rescues, demonstrate the vulnerability of Truth when unaccompanied by a reader able to recognize her.

RCK, having abandoned Truth, soon encounters Duessa, the third lamia of Book 1.[. FQ, 1.2.13.] Whereas Error was raw, with no seductive cover, and false Una was an imitation of Truth, Duessa’s appearance as Fidessa is a complete fiction. With Una as a basis for comparison, Fidessa’s duplicity would be readily visible; having abandoned Truth on the basis of appearances, however, RCK is now vulnerable to mere appearances with no resemblance to Truth; mearly calling “false Duessa” by the name “Fidessa” is sufficient to change her entire character in his eyes, and he is unable to correctly read the repeated clues in such lines as “Her seeming dead he found with feigned feare, / As all unweeting of that well she knew.”[. FQ, 1.2.44-5.] He continues acting on the basis of his quest, but his actions are now entirely inappropriate for the actual conditions masked by the waking dream cast by Duessa. The Fradubio and Fraelissa episode underscores Duessa’s lamia nature, as Duessa is shown in a typical succubus role (“false witch”), enchanting the lover’s vision so as to win him away from his true love, before revealing her true appearance as another, more hideous Error–loathsome woman above, misshapen monster beneath. Duessa’s final treatment of Fradubio–the dream-potion and poison–is one more variant on the classic lamia / vampire motif; Fradubio and Fraelissa both become undead creatures themselves, condemned to “waste” away while “Banisht from liuing wights.”[. 1.2.34-42.] Despite all that has gone before, however, at the very end of Canto 2 RCK has been rendered “all passed feare”;[. FQ, 1.2.45.] as it was the “wonted fear of doing ought amis” resulting from his encounter with Error which woke RCK from the dream of false Una, this sudden fearlessness is ominous.[. FQ, 1.1.49.]

Duessa’s treatment of RCK is reminiscent of the story from Philostratus recounted by Burton; the victim, a noble youth who is of good judgment except in affairs de coeur, is led to an enchanted home by the lamia, where he lives in careless pleasure (though RCK’s encounter with Error has inoculated against openly allying himself with Lucifera and Satan, he does not withdraw from Duessa when she does so).[. FQ, 1.4.2ff.] The entire House of Pride episode, like the confrontation with Error, is so structured that it must be viewed not only as a scenario in which RCK is one character, but also as a display of RCK’s internal conflicts upon his abandonment of Truth. He is humiliated and enraged at Una’s apparent betrayal, and abandoning Truth he is deceived by appearances which have no relation to truth–they are chimeras out of his psyche, realized by Duessa’s ability to enter sleeping dreams and create waking dreams. Duessa clearly reveals her close affiliation with Hell through her appeal to the gods of the underworld to save Sansjoy, and also adds another level to the allusion to Scylla that runs throughout the lamia characterizations in FQ.[. FQ, 1.5.19ff.] As in the lamia story from Philostratus, RCK is only alerted to the danger when another character (the Dwarf here serves for Apollonius) sees the grisly reality behind the charade and warns him to flee: as in the case of Error, the Dwarf correctly realizes that “this is no place for liuing men.”[. FQ, 1.1.13.] Stirred once more to fear, RCK escapes the final evil.

RCK, however, is still vulnerable to the lamia. Lying down to rest after the escape from the House of Pride (where he has done deadly battle with Sansjoy), he is once more overtaken by the illusion of Fidessa, and lulled by her enchanting conversation and the pleasures of nature, is won back to friendship with her in a startlingly short period–little more than a single stanza. Duessa’s lamia behavior now becomes even more clear; having come to him in sleep, she leads him to a pool which causes the familiar consumptive symptoms–chills like fever, frailty, and emasculation–suffered by victims of a succubus.[. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.] Duessa is finally successful with this treatment; exhausted, and having repeatedly escaped positive moral or physical destruction, RCK is unable to prevent his capture by the giant Orgoglio.

Arthur’s reuniting of RCK with Una and his stripping of Duessa–rendering Duessa the raw, naked Error that Fradubio perceived her to be too late–resolves the narrative plot; but one of the most important lessons of Book 1 lies in its education of RCK, and of the reader, to the importance of noticing the textual features–in the narrative, the scenery and characterization–for the protectors of Truth from false appearance that they are. Only if RCK–and the reader–learn to distrust all that is introduced with “seems” and to look instead for Truth; only if the reader–and RCK–truly espouses truth in a way which foils Archimago’s use of a false Una and prevents future rudderless encounters with the powerful Duessa can the reader, or the Knight–and in the end, Spenser considers them one and the same–hope to survive life or poetry with intact virtue.


  1. Milton, Aeropagitica.
  2. Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  3. FQ, 1.1.10.
  4. Filomena Maria Pereira, Lilith: The Edge of Forever (Las Colinas, TX: Ide House, 1998), 80-81 and passim.
  5. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy,
  6. FQ, 1.1.7-8.
  7. FQ, 1.1.14.
  8. FQ, 1.1.25-6.
  9. FQ, 1.1.29-30.
  10. FQ, 1.1.32.
  11. FQ, 1.1.47.
  12. FQ, 1.1.49.
  13. FQ, 1.2.5.
  14. FQ, 1.2.6.
  15. FQ, 1.2.9.
  16. FQ, 1.2.13.
  17. FQ, 1.2.44-5.
  18. 1.2.34-42.
  19. FQ, 1.2.45.
  20. FQ, 1.1.49.
  21. FQ, 1.4.2ff.
  22. FQ, 1.5.19ff.
  23. FQ, 1.1.13.
  24. The scene strongly suggests, in fact, similar passages in Keats, attesting once more to the influence Spenser has exerted on English poetry.