In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book IV, Canto V, there is a contest of knights’ ladies to determine ‘the fairest of them all’. The prize is a girdle which was made by Vulcan for his wife Venus, which he endowed with the ability to make the wearer virtuous. Apparently, he knew his wife was a wanderer. And so she was. One day she removes it so she can go play with Mars, and it is found and then possessed by a woman named Florimell. Previously in this story of The Faerie Queene, this Florimell has disappeared and been replaced by a totally false version. She’s not even human but made of physical materials with some magic thrown in. At the real one’s disappearance someone had found this girdle, and now it is being offered as a prize at this event. The thing to know about this girdle is that, at least now, not only will it make the wearer virtuous, it also recognizes if she is already virtuous.
So each knight escorts his lady in a procession, with each one being deemed more beautiful than the one presented before. They thought they had finally seen the fairest of them all in a woman named Amoret until a less than honorable dude named Blandamour presents who he thinks is the true Florimell, who we the readers know is actually the false Florimell. Not only is she not that woman, she’s not even a human. But she is all glowy and other-worldly beautiful (as she has been forged to be), and they are so in awe that they award her the top prize. We are told that they were so happy to see Florimell, yet they all were thinking that they didn’t remember her being this beautiful. But, hey, you say it’s Florimell, we’ll believe it is Florimell. Spenser tells us that the ‘guilefull Goldsmith’ will throw on ‘more goodly glosse…to hide his falshood, then if it were trew’, and that what they were looking at ‘seem’d to passe’ the (real) Florimell, as ‘forged things’ so often do. The fake things often look better than the real deal, and even though we should know better, we will believe in it.
So guess what happens when they put that grand prize girdle on this fake woman? It will not stay. Yes, the girdle knows lack of virtue when it sees it. And, also, with the real Florimell being its previous owner, it most likely recognizes that this one is false. But then many of those other beautiful girls are trying it on, and it will not stay on them either. All these beautiful women that so wowed the crowd, none are deemed virtuous by the girdle that knows. Until it’s put on Amoret — you know, the one that almost won the prize before the fake one showed up — on her it stays…..until false Florimell snatches it off. But I’m going to stop the story right there. I’m sure you’ve had enough. And now I want to share some thoughts about outside appearances and true virtue.
Reading this Canto this morning has got me thinking about how often I have been fooled by the outward appearance of people, thinking that they are just as bright, kind, honest, and thoughtful as they ‘appear’ on first meeting. And as I said in the title, on second, third, fourth, and on. Then one day you find out something quite different, and you wonder ‘where did that come from?!’ It has happened to me many times in my 6 decades, and perhaps it’s because life is speeding up, but it seems that it is happening more frequently to me. Is it because we’re in this age of appearances with our clever words on Twitter, and pretty faces and pictures and snappy reels on Facebook and Instagram? All the flashy graphics and filters. Who are you really?
I also wonder at what kind of people we are ‘creating’ from our education system, both public and private, as well as in the church world. The public school world may be awash with situational ethics and gray areas and PC jargon, but the world outside of those walls in private schools and home schools and the churches have been less than successful in producing truly virtuous people. Often what I’m finding (after those 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on meetings) is people who present (somewhat) virtuously on the outside — they know all the proper answers and vocabulary and dress, but it does not go deep inside. Here’s something Jesus was compelled to say to some religious leaders:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
And so they teach their people to be.
In the private school world, particularly amongst the religious ones, there are curricula written specifically for studies in Character. Often they use stories to teach these ‘lessons’. And if you’ve been around me enough you know that I am convinced that using stories is a bad, bad thing. Just yesterday I shared a CS Lewis quote on ‘education without values’ on social media and commented that I hesitated to share it because people would think, ‘Oh, we must purchase a Character curriculum or preach a specific moral when reading a fairy tale with our children‘, and I continued, ‘but that’s not it AT ALL. In fact, that’s a good way to rear an unloving, judgmental prig with tons of hubris.’ I have seen this over and over with kids raised on these kinds of characters studies and memorizing of facts. Here and here I wrote about such a thing.
So when do we stop being fooled by outward appearance? What is the cost, really? We all have different neurologies (my made up word, I guess, because it gets the squiggles), so there are different levels of hurt and damage done. I do not want to become so jaded that I immediately suspect the one who appears friendly, honest, and open on the outside. But I have grown weary of the disappointments.
And then we should ask, ‘Am I such a person? Do I try to appear virtuous on the outside, but inside I am full of bad, bad stuff?’ Why might that be? As I said here, do you want to get well? (Yes, Jesus said it before me. Go read the post. I do give him the credit.) What can you do to get well? Throw out that lame curriculum and Sunday school type lessons, for one. Learn to read rightly. You might want to get away from certain influencers — both on social media and in real life. Lord have mercy that we have such a label as influencer. What do you do for a living? I influence. I got nothing inside, but I sure do influence. I don’t do anything, but I sure do influence.
I want to end with a brief message on Story. As I said, I do not believe in using Story, but you might think that’s exactly what I did in this post. I used the story to illustrate a point. But, you see, that’s the ‘magic’ of story, the transformative power of story. I did not go into it looking for ‘the point’ — ‘what is Spenser teaching us here?’ I was reading it because, well, it was my assignment for my class. But the images and metaphors got into my mind and heart (and maybe my belly, too!) who went to work on it, and it got me thinking about my own life and how I see similar things happening. Stories have many, many layers, my people. Images and metaphors, also. Stories will save the world. If we let them. Learn to read, my people. And stop tearing the stories apart, but rather allow the stories to work on you. “In the beginning,” the greatest storybook of all begins. Read it. Learn the images and metaphors. Be changed. Be genuinely like the One in whose Image the story tells us we were made.
[No picture because I really want you to see these words in your mind’s eye.]