The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Foil 2 key examples

Book I: Canto VIII
Explanation and Analysis—Duessa and Una:

Duessa serves as an important foil for Una in Book I of The Faerie Queene. Una represents truth in the allegory of the poem, and Duessa represents falsehood and deception. Duessa’s early success in seducing Redcross and separating him from Una demonstrates the ease with which deception clouds our judgment and leaves us blind to the truth. Both Una and Duessa appear to be beautiful and virtuous young women, though Duessa’s guise is exposed as a superficial illusion. After Arthur defeats Duessa and Orgoglio, Una calls for her rival to be stripped naked. The narrator states: 

Which when the knights beheld, amazd they were, 
And wondred at so fowle deformed wight. 
Such then (said Vna) as she seemeth here, 
Such is the face of falshood, such the sight
Of fowle Duessa, when her borrowed light 
Is laid away, and counterfesaunce knowne. 
Thus when they had the witch disrobed quight, 
And all her filthy feature open showne, 
They let her goe at will, and wander wayes vnknowne.

Despite their apparent similarities, Duessa is ultimately the inverse of Una; her deceptions and falsehoods underscore Una’s unimpeachable virtue. Once her magic charms and spells have been extinguished, Duessa is revealed to be a “deformed wight” or hideous monster. In her true form, her “filthy features” are exposed, and, humiliated, she is left to “wander wayes unknown.” Una herself comments upon Duessa’s deceptive nature, stating that hers is “the face of falsehood” and her beauty only “borrowed,” unlike Una’s true beauty. Duessa’s role in Book I is to serve as Una’s foil and to demonstrate the seductive but ultimately superficial nature of deception, and in particular, what Spenser regards as the attractive lies of the Catholic Church. 

Book II: Canto II
Explanation and Analysis—Medina:

Medina serves as a foil to her two sisters, Elissa and Perissa. Guyon and the Palmer encounter the three sisters with very different personalities at their home, a castle constructed on a rock by the sea. After describing the joyless Elissa and the pleasure-craving Perissa, the narrator presents a portrait of the moderate Medina: 

Betwixt them both the faire Medina sate 
With sober grace, and goodly carriage: 
With equall measure she did moderate 
The strong extremities of their outrage; 
That forward paire she euer would asswage, 
When they would striue dew reason to exceed; 
But that same froward twaine would accourage, 
And of her plenty adde vnto dieir need:
So kept she them in order, and her selfe in heed.

Spenser’s narration here emphasizes Medina’s moderate and reasonable personality. Through her “equall measure” of traits, she is able to “moderate” the “strong extremities” of her two sisters. The oldest sister, Elissa, whose name means “too little” in Greek, eschews all enjoyment. The youngest sister, Perissa, whose name means “too much” in Greek, is the inverse of Elissa, immoderately taking pleasure in food, drink, fine clothing, and male company. The middle sister, Medina, is appropriately at the center of her two extreme sisters, compensating for their extreme personalities. Medina keeps her sisters “in order” with her own “sober grace, and goodly carriage.” Spenser suggests that Medina is the most temperate of her sisters, able to enjoy simple pleasures and good company but without falling into excess and decadence. 

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