While a graduate student at a notable school in the great state of Georgia I participated in a seminar class that studied the works of Edmund Spenser. (“Why?” you ask. Holding down a full-time job allowed limited options. But you make the most of it.) We spent a little time on lesser works like Muiopotmos and “The Shepherd’s Calender,” but the bulk of the semester we spent on The Faerie Queene—a 1,000 (not a typo) page poem that addresses practically every aspect of Elizabethan culture. It’s actually fascinating, assuming would-be readers can manage to stay awake.
The Faerie Queene employs allegory in treating its subject. The allegory takes place on two levels: the Christian and the political. The former takes up the story of the Red Cross Knight and examines the moral, philosophical, and religious of the human condition. The latter draws from various allegorical manifestations of Elizabeth I while diving very deep into expressions of the political, social, and religious conversations of the day. But that’s not important. (I included it because I’ve waited more than 10 years to be able to find a way to use this information. Admittedly, it’s a stretch.) What is important, though, are the knights that represent Justice, Chastity, Courtesy, Temperance, and Friendship. Each has a charge to carry out and each has his, or in the case of Britomart, her, own personal villain—or obstacle standing between him or herself and his or her duty. It’s epic in a poetic, Renaissancey, got-to-read-it-so-I-might-as-well-enjoy-it kind of way.
Each knight has his own villain, that is, except Cambell and Triamond—the knights of friendship. In Spenser’s Faerie Land Cambell and Triamond must battle almost every character and practically every allegorical expression of social depravity, wickedness, and evil over the course of The Faerie Queene. And believe when I say, that is a long course. Presumably this is because true friendship, authentic community, stands to do the most damage to the many villainous plots and schemes both in the fictitious Faerie Land as well as the real world that it has been created to represent.
During my late 20s and 30s a friend and I would debate the merit of friendship and whether it belonged in the pantheon that includes justice, temperance, and chastity. He, ten years my senior, passionately believed that friendship belonged in the most lofty places. I, on the other hand, really just didn’t get it. Not only did friendship not belong on the grandest stage, but maybe it was even trivial. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends and loved them. And even though I had intimate friends I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand community. Maybe it isn’t until a little later in life that we can truly appreciate the depth of community, what its absence means to our spiritual health, and how God works through group life, authentic relationships, and intimate friendship.
It’s no happenstance that Cambell, Spenser’s Knight of Friendship, possesses a ring that renders him almost invulnerable because the ring had the power to heal Cambell’s wounds—his battle wounds. That’s because what was true in 1590 is just as true now. There is power in community. There is strength in community. God heals through community. Episode 7 of Small Group Life, Connections, in which we examine the many connections of our life, addresses the levels of community in our lives and leads groups on a journey into the ways we are connected, should be connected, and must stay connected. These connections represent the cords of Ecclesiastes 4:12—and Cambell’s ring.