Overreaching Animals: Hateful Hybridity in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

Essay by Katy Lau

Art by Natalia Mohar

Spenser’s The Faerie Queene has its fair share of typical animal-human hybrids. From Error, to Duessa, to the transformed men in the Bower of Bliss, its pages overflow with human characters that are physically part animal or strongly associated with animal motifs. The hybridity of these characters is meant to be an outward manifestation of their inward beastliness, of the ways in which these monsters are lesser in virtue or morality than fully human characters. These literal hybrids, however, are not the only hybrids present in Spenser’s epic poem; there is another type of hybrid that has been overlooked. If humans who behave like animals are considered hybrids, then animals who behave like humans should receive the same consideration. In his depiction of the dragon, Spenser most clearly engages with the aspect of bestiary tradition in which dragons are linked to Satan as bearers of “evil, death, and misfortune” (Diaz). This is likely the reason why he condemns it as an abhorrent beast. Yet his portrayal of the dragon may reflect subconscious unease with a broader tendency to elevate dragons above other beasts. The dragon, when compared to the other animals not only in The Faerie Queene but in greater literary tradition, is far too human. Numerous physical descriptions liken the dragon to a human, and the dragon displays many characteristics that are not “animal” in nature. Spenser’s dragon takes on so many human qualities that it must be considered a hybrid, regardless of whether Spenser intended for readers to draw deeper connections between the dragon and Redcrosse that go beyond simple visualisation. By examining aspects of the dragon’s behaviour and overwhelming power, we gain insight into “animal” and “human” nature. The dragon’s animal-human hybridity challenges the assertion that animals and humans are two distinct and separate categories, revealing this separation to be nothing but fiction. 

It is striking how often Spenser describes the dragon as if it were human. Again and again, its appearance is compared to that of an armoured warrior: it is introduced as having “brasen scales…like plated coate of steele” (1.11.73-74) with plumes that clash against each other like “armour bright” (1.11.80), and burning eyes that are like “two bright shining shields” (1.11.118). The dragon is even said to shake its scales as if making sure that it is “to battle ready drest” (1.11.133). This portrayal of the dragon as some kind of warrior or knight leads to a moment when, in the heat of battle, the dragon and Redcrosse become mirrors of one another. The dragon unseats Redcrosse from his horse, and in retaliation, he attacks the dragon with a stroke “so furious and so fell, / that nothing seemd the puissance could withstand” (1.11.210). While Redcrosse has previously acted with “furious force, and indignation fell” (1.10.348), up until this point in Canto 11, “furious” and “fell” are descriptors that have been almost solely applied to the dragon (1.11.14, 1.11.146, 1.11.196). “Fell” is especially significant for its many negative connotations, and is a much more conventional descriptor of a fiendish dragon than it is of a holy knight. The dragon then catches Redcrosse’s blow on its “crest”: this describes a plume or ridge atop its head, but it also evokes the image of a shield bearing a coat of arms (1.11.211-12). In this moment, then, the fight between Redcrosse and the dragon is no longer a fight between a human knight and a monstrous serpent. The differences between the two figures melt away, and it becomes a fight between two equally vicious warriors.

 If it were only the dragon’s outward appearance that is human-like, it would be an unsatisfying hybrid. Yet the similarities between the dragon and humans run deeper, and we find that the dragon often behaves in a way that is not “animal.” Dragons are often defined by their great love of gold, and though it is not made explicitly clear that Spenser’s dragon is the same, this quibble matters little. What is important is not the exact details of what the dragon is hoarding, but the mere fact that the dragon is hoarding something for which it seems to have no immediate use. It invades Una’s kingdom and lounges about examining its “dayly spoyle” (1.11.12). Both “spoyle” and “forwaste” (1.11.3) evoke the sense that the things taken have been left to waste away in the possession of a victor who has little actual need for them. This means that the dragon is collecting spoils for the sake of collection itself, and not because it is necessary for its survival. To understand the significance of this behaviour it is instructive to consider arguments made in Plutarch’s Gryllus regarding animal and human nature and the superiority of the first over the latter, a work whose titular character Spenser explicitly condemns (2.12.780-791). Gryllus claims that animals—free from the allure of “empty illusions” (Plutarch 989c)—are focused purely on the desires that are directly connected to their natural purpose: survival. It is because of this single-mindedness, this narrowing of the temptations that they feel, that animals can be said to display more temperance than humans (989b-f). They have no need to indulge empty desires which are non-essential to survival and which produce nothing. According to this account, then, a beast should not be concerned with material goods which are not related to its survival. To hoard something is to believe in its value, and the dragon’s hoarding of its spoils reveals that it is susceptible to the same kind of deceptive desires that humans are. The dragon experiences a desire that is alien to animals, falling prey to illusions to which other animals are immune (989d). Thus, its desires are more akin to those of humans rather than to those of animals. 

Animals are supposedly only concerned “with Nature” (Plutarch 990d), meaning—in this instance—procreation. They are constructed as creatures whose main purpose is the preservation and perpetuation of life. The dragon, however, is described as being opposed to all things that maintain life (Spenser 1.11.434-435). In this it acts directly against its animal nature, instead being swayed by its sinful origins as a “deadly made” beast from Hell (1.11.434). In other words, it opposes life because its actions are dictated by vice. This behaviour is not unique to the dragon, but shared by humans as well. Humans often endanger the survival of themselves or of others based on matters such as greed or pride. Possessed of rational mind, we can reframe and justify our actions according to abstract ideals, leading us to behave contrary to animal instinct and in accordance with “empty illusion” (Plutarch 989c). In this regard, of all creatures who live, humans first and foremost can be described as opposed to life. Human reason and logic have been used time and time again to excuse acts of mass destruction according to constructed ideals of progress, or national pride, or “natural right.” Humans, too, can be called “deadly made” for we, like the dragon, usher in death when no other creature would do so. 

If animals are defined by their preoccupation with life and survival, humans are defined by their ability to demonstrate their dominion over other animals. Animals within The Faerie Queene are almost entirely subordinate to humans—even the mighty lion that protects Una, associated with King Henry VIII, is said to wait upon her “with humble service to her will prepared” (Spenser 1.3.79). Animals occupy a position beneath humans, and we see that Satyrane, when endeavouring to “make his powre approved more”, subordinates animals to his will with such force that “his behest they feared, as a tyrans law” (1.6.221; 1.6.229). To be a proper human, according to The Faerie Queene, is to be powerful, and to demonstrate that power through acts of harsh domination. To be a proper animal, by comparison, is to submit to human authority. Yet the dragon is unquestionably a figure of awesome might and sovereignty. It not only renders Redcrosse helpless for the majority of their fight, but is also able to force nature itself into submission. It can “shake the stedfast ground,” “forcibly divide / the yielding aire,” and produce natural “scorching flame” on its very command (1.11.30; 1.11.155-56; 1.11.231). The dragon is so powerful that even “all the heavens stood still amazed with his threat” (1.11.90). If being human requires being dominant over nature, there is no question that the dragon is qualified to join the ranks of humanity. 

It is only when Redcrosse receives divine aid that he is able to kill the dragon. Read as religious moral allegory, this is a clear message that man can only overcome the devil when he has faith in God. Yet with regards to our subject of animal-human hybridity, Redcrosse’s fight with the dragon signifies two things: first, that innate human superiority over nature is a fiction, and second, that the so-called distinct binary between animals and humans is actually a scale with varying degrees of “beastliness” and “humanness.” Those lines in which the dragon is figured as a fearsome knight all describe it when it is in a position of dominance. Once Redcrosse significantly wounds the dragon, it slips into being a mere beast. Whereas it previously roared “as raging seas are wont to rore,” as if to “boldly threat to move the world from off his steadfast henge,” the wounded dragon is reduced to braying like an ass (1.11.181; 1.11.188; 1.11.227). The hybrid dragon is no more; it is now only a “hell-bred beast” (1.11.354). In its death, it is reduced in status even further and becomes a mere spectacle to be marvelled at. It is still large and terrifying, certainly, but in its immobility and its inability to assert its power over man and nature as it once did, the dragon becomes akin to a “heaped mountain” (1.11.186). It becomes an inert landmark for humans to gaze upon—a mere object.

 We must consider what it might signify to us when Spenser figures the dragon as an overthrower of “incorrupted Nature” (Spenser 1.11.418-419). He certainly states this to reinforce the connections between the dragon and the devil, but we can also take this to refer to the dragon’s hybridity. It occupies a position that is too close to that of the human, and so it perverts the “natural order”. The dragon, in its “outragious pride” (1.11.171), refuses to remain in its animal place. Instead, “presuming to contend…above his hable might” (1.11.167-168), it overreaches and intrudes into the realm of the human. The dragon is not only loathsome because it is connected to the devil, but because it is an animal that challenges human sovereignty. It threatens the idea that humans are naturally superior to animals, for it is a beast that can confront a human and win. Its innate physical gifts not only outstrip human equivalents, they also “exceeden farre” (1.11.99) human technologies that attempt to compensate for this difference. Most importantly, however, the dragon renders tenuous the distinction between animals and humans as two separate species. It reveals that beings on either side of the so-called animal-human binary can move along the scale when they perform the proper displays of subjugation. Gain power, become human. Lose power, become beast. As an animal that takes on human attributes and powers, the dragon endangers notions of human superiority and exclusivity. It is decried as an arrogant beast that oversteps its bounds, yet it remains true that of all creatures, it is humans who overreach themselves most severely. Spenser’s condemnation of the dragon inadvertently reveals a human anxiety rooted in the fear that we may not be the masters of nature that we claim to be. 

Works Cited 

Diaz, Zachary. “Separating Myth from Legend about the Medieval Dragon.” Getty Iris, 2 Nov. 2020, blogs.getty.edu/iris/separating-myth-from-legend-about-the-medieval-dragon/. Accessed 17 October 2022. 

Spenser, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene, Book I.” Edited by George Armstrong Wauchope, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I, by Edmund Spenser, Et Al, Project Gutenberg, 7 Mar. 2005, www.gutenberg.org/files/15272/15272-h/15272-h.htm. Accessed 17 October 2022.

Spenser, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene, Book II, Canto 12.” Representative Poetry Online, University of Toronto Libraries, rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/faerie-queene-book-ii-canto-12. Accessed 22 Mar. 2024.

Plutarch. Gryllus. Translated by Bill Thayer, 10 May 2018, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Gryllus*.html. Accessed 17 October 2022.