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Androgyny and tbe Epic Quest:

Tbe Female Warrior in Ariosto and Spenser

Elizabeth J. Bel/amy
The University of Alabama
at Birmingham
To understand fully the character of the combative androgyne
Britomart as she moves towards participation in Britain's dynastic future,
specifically the founding of Troynovant, in The Faerie Queene, books 3-5,
we must also consider what Spenser was trying to accomplish by using a
female warrior as both an emblem of chastity and dynastic heroine. There
is no question that Spenser's Britomart and her immediate imitative model,
Ariosto's Bradamante, achieved a significance not adumbrated by previous
representatives of the female warrior. In ancient Greece, Amazons were
viewedas dangerous perversions of womanhood and were believed to reside
outside the boundaries of Greece, inhabiting the peripheral lands of the
barbarians. Perhaps as a result of the actions of Theseus, Achilles, and
Heracles, it became a mark of prestige for a warrior to kill an Amazon
in battle. However, in his "Life of Nero" (Lives of Emperors) Suetonius
records that Nero viewedAmazons as allies and insisted that his concubines
clip their hair and dress as Amazons. The third century Roman emperor
Commodus dubbed himself "Amazonius" and frequently dressed as a
Amazon. Clearly, with the passage of centuries, the Amazon was gaining
a new status.
In the Aeneid Virgil made use of the female warrior in the figures of
Penthesilea and Camilla, formidable combatants who nevertheless suffer
crushing defeats in their efforts to save Troy and Latium, respectively, and
who are not granted participation in the founding of imperium. Thus, it
was unprecedented for Ariosto as an epic poet to cast a female warrior,
Bradamante, in the role of triumphant dynastic heroine as, Aeneas-like,
she becomes the cofounder of the House of Este at Ferrara. In imitation
of Ariosto, Spenser too appropriates the female warrior Britomart-as his
dynastic heroine, and her long, frustrating search for her dynastic partner
Artegall is a close parallel to Bradamante's search for her dynastic partner



In his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, Edgar Wind has traced the
development of the iconography of the VenDsanuata, whom Wind describes
as a "hybrid figure in which the two opposing goddesses, Diana and Venus,
are merged into one," and clearly Bradamante and Britomart are embodiments of this "hybrid. ".Several scholars, namely R.E. Neil Dodge and,
more recently, William Nelson, Paul Alpers, and James Nohrnberg, have
discussed Spenser's borrowings from Ariosto, in particular for his female
warrior, identifying several passages from the Orlando as obvious models
for some of Britomart's adventures.2 What has not been fully articulated,
however, are the reasons behind Spenser's borrowings from these episodes,
nor has there been an investigation into the method governing Spenser's
imitations. More than simply a passive imitation of Bradamante, Britomart
is being used by Spenser to recapitulate and ultimately "redeem" the limitations of Bradamante as a female warrior. The figure of Britomart both subsumes her epic predecessor Bradamante and goes beyond her to present a
new interpretation of how the female warrior may participate more fully
and meaningfully in the epic quest. In particular, in my investigation of
the female warrior in Ariosto and Spenser, I wish to analyze the special
nature of Bradamante's and Britomart's androgyny and how, in Britomart's
case, this androgyny is ultimately accommodated into the founding of
Let us turn first to Bradamante and also Ariosto's other female warrior in the Orlando, Marfisa (whose name translates as "fixated on Mars"
and thus serves as an indication that she, unlike Bradamante, will not be
permitted to resolveher hermaphroditic discord). It is noteworthy that both
women are frequently involved in what I would refer to as miscarriages
or misfirings of justice caused by their status as skilled warriors who are
nevertheless decidedly female. The adventures of Marfisa, who wants
nothing more in life than the opportunity to practice the chivalric code,
are often grotesquely ineffectual and illustrate the inability of the female
warrior to effect true justice and resolution of conflict. Shipwrecked with
a group of knights on Laizzo, ironically a kingdom of Amazonian menhaters, Marfisa learns that she and the other stranded knights can be freed
only if a member of their group can defeat ten of the Laizzans' captive
knights in combat and then survive a night of seduction and love-making
with ten Laizzan Amazons (19-20). Absurdly, Marfisa insists on being
chosen to accept this challenge, apparently unconcerned that the reality of
her womanhood, "what Nature had omitted to accord" (19.69), as Ariosto
so delicately states, would prevent her from successfully completing the second phase of the challenge. Thus, in place of a solution for the problem
of her imprisonment, Marfisa unwittingly poses a further conundrum; the
fact of her womanhood cannot resolve, only obfuscate.


Later MarflSaencounters the ugly, treacherous hag Gabrina (20.117ff.),

and, reasoning that every "knight" must have a "lady," she appropriates
the hag as her lady companion. When the knight Zerbino understandably
laughs at the improbable pair, the enraged Marfisa demands a fight to determine who will "win" the hag. When Zerbino reminds her that the winner
of such a challenge traditionally is rewarded with what he desires, not what
he loathes, Marfisa then grotesquely adjusts the terms of the combat: the
loser of the combat must accept Gabrina. Zerbino is defeated by Marfisa,
and he is doomed to that which he never wanted in the first place, a foul
hag previously in the protection of a lady knight. In her status as female
warrior, Marfisa has absurdly insisted on chivalric "justice" where no injustice had occurred to begin with; and, again, her masculine aggressiveness
is to blame for the unsatisfying sense of irresolution that characterizes the
The ambiguity of Bradamante's sexuality creates similar misfirings of
justice. Traveling with the lady Ullania, in yet another parody of knightlady companionship, Bradamante seeks sheltet a,t Tristan's Castle (32).
In order to gain admittance, Bradamante defeats three knights outside the
castle. Once inside, however, Bradamante and Ullania are told that only
the fairest woman will be allowed to stay. Ullania is about to be thrown
out of the castle when Bradamante steps forward and demands to be considered a knight and, thus, Ullania's escort, removing the basis for competition. Although justice is momentarily achieved for Ullania, the ambiguity of Bradamante's sexualityremains unresolved; she must fight in the guise
of a masculine knight in order to gain admission to the castle and must
remain in the role of masculine knight for Ullania's sake. Bradamante seems
farther estranged than ever from her womanhood and, more ominously for
her epic quest, farther removed from reunion with her dynastic partner
Moreover, Bradamante's androgyny at Tristan's Castle fails to achieve
ultimate justice for Ullania. In fact, the inadequacies in justice resulting
from Marfisa's and Bradamante's androgyny are perhaps best illustrated
in the episode in Marganorre's kingdom (37.25ff.). Bradamante and Ruggiero (united only temporarily at this point) and Marfisa encounter the much
put-upon Ullania and two other women, half-naked and utterly humiliated.
They have been victimized by the tyrant Marganorre, in whose kingdom
men hold women in brutal subjugation and exile. Bradamante, Ruggiero,
and Marfisa defeat Marganorre's forces, and Marfisa captures Marganorre
himself, who is then subjected to public humiliation. The episode concludes
with Marfisa changing the laws of the kingdom so that women now
dominate the men-aU this with Bradamante's silent consent. The result mu~t
be perceived by the reader not as the achievement of ultimate justice for


Ullania, but rather as an ironic recapitulation of Laizzo, where the Amazons

terrorize their male captives.3 Again, justice has not been achieved, and
the androgyny of Marfisa and Bradamante is directly implicated in this persistence of miscarried justice.
The relationship between androgyny and irresolution becomes the key
to a fuller understanding of a number of Britomart's adventures in The
Faerie Queene, especially the ones directly imitated from the androgynous
adventures of Marfisa and Bradamante.4 In 3.1.60-63,the lustful Malecasta
falls in love with the knightly Britomart and eventually climbs into bed with
the sleeping warrior, an unwitting, yet frankly lesbian encounter which, as
Alpers and Nohrnberg have suggested, Spenser most probably lifted from
the Orlando (25.27-40), in which Fiordispina, enamored of Bradamante's
masculine appearance, desiresa sexualencounter with the warrior maid such
that Bradamante's twin brother Ricciardetto must intervene and, allowing
himself to be dressed as a woman, provide a new outlet for the unfortunate
Fiordispina's ardor.' That Fiordispina ultimately is united with a loved one
cannot erase the fact that her initial attraction to Bradamante is responsible for incestuous and transvestite undertones to the episode and a glaring
irresolution of Fiordispina's sexual impulses. Malecasta fares worse than
Fiordispina as she is left in the miserable paradox of desiring a man, while,

in fact, in love with a woman.6

Bradamante's and Ullania's adventures at Tristan's Castleare paralleled

by Britomart's and Amoret's encounter at a similar "castell" (4.1.9ff.),
where Britomart must fight and defeat a knight who challenges her for
Amoret's hand, and then paradoxically must unveil herself as a woman so
that this same guest knight may be paired with a lady in accordance with
the host's rules.7 Thus, Britomart fights as a man to protect Amoret from
the advances of the unpaired knight, then establishesher identity as a woman
for the benefit of the same knight, only then to revert to her original role
as protector knight of Amoret as she and Amoret spend the night together
in the same bed.' Moreover, Britomart's androgyny is no better illustrated
than in the stanzas just prior to the castle episode, in which Britomart, determined to preserve her masculine disguise, puts herself in the grotesque position of sexually teasing and intimidating the frightened virgin Amoret, only, as we have seen, to end up in bed with her later on.'
By focusing on these episodes, we are in a position to reconsider the
unusual nature of Britomart's chasity throughout The Faerie Queene. I
would argue that too much emphasis has been placed on the virtue of
Britomart's chastity, and not enough on one significantresult of her chastity,
her often unresolved androgyny. Thus, although she maintains a bodily purity for Artegall, in the process she ironically finds herself involved in lesbian and transvestite episodes which are, like her would-be seductress,

"malecast," or "badly chaste." Kathleen Williamshas written, " Britomart
is the one person in the third book who has solved the problems of duality

in herself,and consequently...
in her relationswithothers." I 0 Williamsinterprets Britomart's hermaphroditic nature as a symbol of concord, a harmonious union of the male and female principles, but the episodes we have
just looked at do not support such a view. Britomart's androgyny is a source
of tension and irresolution, not concord. The Malecasta episode, in particular, is an indication that Britomart's androgyny attracts, rather than
repels danger, often inviting disastrous consequences. It is incorrect to
allegorize Malecasta simply as lust; she is literally "badly chaste," i.e., she
perverselyseeksout the one mate she cannot have and, thus, servesto parody
right loving between a man and woman. Ironically, even though she
perceives Britomart to be a male, Malecasta's behavior dooms her improbably to chastity, and there is grotesque coinedy in the action of each
woman perceiving the other to be a male.' IBritomart's androgyny poses
a similar problem for Amoret, who, running from Scudamour, seeks safety with Britomart. Like Malecasta, she perceives her protector to be a male,
but, unlike Malecasta, she suffers when Britomart, preserving her knightly
disguise, flirts with her.
Donald Cheney has written that one traditional interpretation of the

figureof the hermaphroditeis "the perfection,the union of contraries."I 2

However, I would maintain that Spenser is not so interested in the perfections of the hermaphrodite as he is in the imperfections inherent in its androgynous nature. Throughout most of her appearance in The Faerie
Queene, Britomart is not a resolution of dualities, but is rather an incomplete
entity, neither wholly male nor wholly female, at times even an unwitting
sower of discord who has the potential to humiliate both men and women.

I 3

Though Dodge, Alpers, Nohrnberg, and others have all been diligent
in pointing out the influence"of Bradamante as a prototype for Britomart,
there have been no suggestions offered as to how Bradamante's and
Britomart's unresolved androgyny stands in relation to their epic quest to
find their dynastic partners, Ruggiero and Artegall. This relationship needs
to be fully articulated. The epic quest in general is characterized by the iter
durum, the long, hard road which sets up obstacles to completion of the
quest. I would argue that the delays of the prototypical dynastic progenitor
Aeneas in encountering the "false Troys" (pergamea, Buthrotum, Carthage,
etc.) which block his founding of Rome have their specific counterparts
in Bradamante's and Britomart's "false" sexual encounters, their androgynous, lesbian, even transvestite episodes--all of which obfuscate their
distinctly feminine characteristics and, more significantly, delay their "right
sexual" encounters with their dynastic partners. Ferrara and Troynovant
become endangered by the entanglements of the female warriors in their


Furthermore, one must finally consider the puzzling relationship between androgyny and injustice and how this relationship factors into the
epic quest. It is interesting to consider the extent to which Spenser uses
Britomart to "redeem" the miscarriages in justice of Marfisa and
Bradarnante. Spenser's use of Britomart to surpass Bradamante may be seen,
in fact, as one manifestation of the impulse of the epic poet to, as Giamatti
has observed, "contain and include all that went before."" Though
Britomart is frequently entangled in the same androgynous misadventures
as Bradamante, her eventual reunion with Artegall is a much richer resolution of her androgyny and a much more complete restoration of justice
than is Bradamante's eventual marriage to Ruggiero.
Let us first reconsider the importance of the very concept of justice
in both epics. In the Orlando Merlin's prophecy to Bradamante includes
a vision ofthe return of Astraea to earth during the reign of Alfonso (3.51).
The injustices which characterize so much of the Orlando, however, serve
as a disappointing reminder that Astraea's return will be a long time coming. In The Faerie Queene Astraea too has fled, leaving her pupil Artegall
to struggle with injustice. However, his campaign against injustice collapses
ignominiously with his imprisonment and emasculation by the Amazon
Radigund, who dresses the knight in women's clothing and forces him to
perform menial tasks, and it is important to consider at this point that,
Britomart-like, Artegall's ineffectual justice becomes associated with his
incomplete sexuality, his compromised masculinity. It is, therefore, that
much more significant that Artegall's rescuer, Britomart, is herself suffering the effects of incomplete sexuality, her androgyny. Britomart rescues
Artegall by conquering Radigund, and Donald Cheney has interpreted the
episode as symbolic of Britomart's defeat of the Radigund-like elements
in her.. SHowever, it is important that we understand exactly what it is that
Britomart is defeating in Radigund. Jane Aptekar offers as a source for
the Amazon's name, "Saint Radegund, [who] was remarkable for her

insistenceon remaininga virginafterher marriage." I 6 SaintRadegundand,

by implication, Spenser's Radigund are "malecast" or guilty of "bad chastity." Thus, Britomart's victory over Radigund is as much a defeat of
Malecasta, with whom her androgynous adventures began, and symbolizes
that she, unlike Saint Radegund, will not remain "badly chaste" after her
marriage to Artegall. Her defeat of Radigund endows Britomart with a new
femininity and redeems Artegall's masculinity, in the process.
The usual critical impulse at this point in The Faerie Queene is to
allegorize Britomart's and Artegall's reunion as a marriage of masculine
Justice with a more feminine Equity, and as a fresh starting point for
Artegall's continuing quest for justice.. 7However, it is just as important


for us to focus on Britomart and interpret the episode as a new beginning

for her, i.e., an end to the injustices and irresolutions which have specifically
resulted from her androgyny. In the Isis Church episode in book 5, Spenser
reinforces Britomart's and Artegall's embodiment of justice by specifically associating them with the myth of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris. However,
more than simply representations of justice, Isis and Osiris also represent,
quite literally, the end of sexual fragmentation. In Plutarch's De Iside et
Osiride, Spenser's source for tQeIsis Church episode, Typhon periodically
dismembers the body of Osiris and scatters the fragments, and it is Isis who

must collectthesefragmentsand makeOsiriswholeagain.I In particular,

Plutarch's account emphasizes how Isis, unable to find the dismembered
god's phallus, must fashion one from wood in order to restore Osiris completely. In the myth of Isis and Osiris, justice and sexual wholeness become
associated with one another at the moment Isisrestores Osiris' phallus. Thus,
Britomart's rescue of Artegall by defeating the forces that emasculate him
is a recapitulation of Isis' ritual of making Osiris whole again, and, in the
process, Britomart symbolically defeats her androgyny.
In interpreting the rich iconography characterizing the Isis Church
episode, we must not forget that associated with Britomart's coming to terms
with her own sexuality is her role as an epic quester and dynastic progenitor.
Like Aeneas lured by the false resting places of Buthrotum or Carthage,
Britomart and Bradamante have allowed their androgyny to make them
"malecast" and purveyors of false resolutions. However, Ariosto and
Spenser eventually subordinate these parodies of right loving and justice
to the constraints of their Christian epics, and, at the furthest point of their
wanderings from their feminine, procreative functions, Bradamante and
Britomart are restored to themselves. Furthermore, through her experience
in Isis Church and her subsequent rescue of Artegall, Britomart, in particular, resolves her androgyny and, in the process, becomes an instrument
of justice. Thus, Britomart redeems Bradamante, whose resolution of her
androgyny is only arbitrarily solvedthrough her marriage to Ruggiero. More
completely than Ariosto, Spenser has drawn a direct connection between
the female warrior's resolution of her androgyny and her preparedness to
serve as dynastic founder. Britomart's "hard begin" (3.3.21) in founding
Troynovant can begin again, free of the entanglements of unresolved
'Edgar Wind, Paean Mysteries In tbe Renaissance (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.,
1968), p. 7S. Wind's analysis of the dlscordla conc:on paradox of Mars and Venus as "a union
of sweetness and sting" is also embodied in Bradamante and Britomart, who unhorse, defeat,
and humiliate knights even as they search longingly for their beloveds.
'R.E. Neill Dodge, "Spenser's Imitations from Ariosto," PMLA, 12 (1891), pp. ISI-204;
William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963),


pp. 236-55; Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry 01 the Faerie QueeDe (princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
1967), pp. 160-99; James Nohrnberg, The ADalogy 01 the Faerie QueeDe (princeton: Princeton
Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 447-48, 474-75.
'This perverse imposing of "feminine justice" has its counterpart in The Faerie QueeDe,
where Britomart, having freed Artegall from Radigund, forces the Amazons to "sweare fealty to Arthegall" (5.7.42).
'My intention at this point is not to discuss the hermaphroditic paradox of Britomart
in general, but rather only those episodes which combine androgyny and injustice. The sexual
double entendres which pervade Britomart's combat with the Amazon Radigund, for example, have been fully discussed in the past. (See A.C. Hamilton, The Structure 01 Allegory
ID The Faerie QueeDe [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 19611, p. 182; T.K. Dunseath, SpeDser's
ADegory 01 Justice ID Book V 01 The Faerie QueeDe [princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 19681,
p. 177; and Angus Fletcher, The Prophetic MomeDt [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 19711,
pp. 252-53.). What concerns me, rather, are those episodes in which Britomart's androgyny
is the cause of injustice, irresolution, and unhappiness.
'Alpers, pp. 180-85, and Nohrnberg, pp. 447-48.
Andrew Fichter offers an interesting gloss on Malecasta's grief at the conclusion of the
episode. He interprets Malecasta as a type of Dido abandoned by Aeneas, in this case
her lover Britomart (poets Historical: DYDastic Epic ID the ReDalssaDce [New Haven: Yale
Univ. Press, 19821. p. 160.). Fichter's interpretation indicates the extent to which the episode
parodies Britomart's quest for her true dynastic partner, Britomart's androgyny serving to
delay her union with ArtegaiI.
'The parallels between the two episodes have been noted by Alpers, p. 197.
'As Thomas P. Roche has observed, at the time the virgin Amoret faIls under the protection of Britomart, she herself, fearful of her own sexuality, has been avoiding her partner
Scudamour (The KIndly Flame [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 19641, p. 80.). Thus,
Britomart becomes a parallel to Amoret as she, too, is delaying union with her husband-to-be.
'The night in bed that Britomart spends with Amoret is the second of three unresolved
bedroom scenes that she is involved in throughout The Faerie QueeDe. As we have already
seen, she is approached by the seductress Malecasta while in bed, and much later, when the
Britomart is mistaken by Dolon for Artegall, whom he is seeking to entrap,
she is invited to spend the night at his castle (5.6). Her androgyny is never so apparent as
in the circumstances for which she beds down for the night.
I'Kathleen Williams, Spenser's World 01 Glass (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1964),


My interpretation of Malecasta's actions is in close agreement with that of Nohrnberg,

who characterizes the Malecasta episode as one in which "chasity embraces its own contrary"
(p. 434).
I 'Donald Cheney, "Spenser's Hermaphrodite and the 1590 Faerie Queene," PMLA, 87
(1972), p. 195. Giamatti also discusses the imagistic significance of the many scenes throughout
the OriaDdo and The Faerie QueeDe in which Bradamante and Britomart raise the visors of
their helmets to reveal their womanhood: "...the revelation is communicated in terms of opposites reconciled, here a masculine knight and a feminine beauty contained and displayed
in the single figure [of the female warrior]." ExIle aDd Change In ReDalssaDce literature (New
Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), p. 78.
I'Not only does Britomart's androgyny serve as a source of humiliation for Malecasta
and Amoret, but it also serves to humiliate men, as she defeats a number of knights, including
Artegall himself, at Satyrane's tournament (4.4-6), not to mention her unhorsing of Guyon
(3.1.6) and her defeat of the knights outside the Castle Joyeous (3.1.28-29). Furthermore,
Scudamour bears a grudge against her because he believes that she has stolen Amoret from him.

"A. Bartlett Giamatti, Play 01 Double SeDses: SpeDser's Faerie QueeDe (New York:
Prentice-HaD, Inc. 1975), p. 32.
I'Donald Cheney, Spenser'slmll8e 01 Nature: WUd MaD Shepherd In "The Faerie QueeDe"
(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 170-71.
"Jane Aptekar,lcoDS 01 Justice: IcoDography aDd Thematic Imagery ID Book V of The
Faerie QueeDe (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969), p. 97.
"Angus Fletcher, for example, states, " ...after she has rescued her lover from his misplaced
obedience, she reestablishes the bond of justice and male donimance"
(p. 253). However,
in addition to "male dominance,"
there results another significant byproduct of "the bond
of justice," i.e., Britomart's resolution of her androgyny.
I'Plutarch, De IsIde et Oslrlde, ed. J. Gwyn Griffiths (Cambridge:
1970), p. 121.

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