Like a Hyena

Eftsoones out of her hidden cave she called
An hideous beast, of horrible aspect,
That could the stoutest courage have appalled;
Monstrous misshaped, and all his back was specked
With thousand spots of colours quaint elect,
Thereto so swift, that it all beasts did pass:
Like never yet did living eye detect;
But likest it to an Hyena was,
That feeds on women’s flesh, as others feede on grass.

— Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Book III, Canto VII, 22

In Spenser’s extraordinary allegorical epic in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and her government he comes up with striking image after image and kaleidoscopic incident after incident. I’ve only dipped into The Faerie Queene now and again but this incident came to mind when I was reading Philip Pullman’s first follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage. For those struggling with Spenser’s language, here’s a prose version of the circumstances surrounding the creature’s appearance, which includes a young innocent maiden fleeing from perils:

On foot, Florimell soon found herself in a deep and gloomy dale that held a tiny cottage, made of sticks and reeds […] the home of a witch […]. In a while the witch’s son returned home, a lazy and loutish youth who was as struck by Florimell as his mother. But in the youth the vision of beauty kindled lust rather than mere amazement.

Florimell tries to escape his threatening attentions:

And his distressed mother turned to her arts to save her son. She summoned a hideous beast, misshapen and spotted like a hyena, but swifter and deadlier than any natural creature. And she sent it after Florimell, either to bring her back or to destroy her. […] The dire race brought them to the sea [where] she saw a small boat at the edge of the water […]. She sprang in, using an oar to push herself to safety […]

— Douglas Hill’s modern prose adaptation

I shall try not to give away any big spoilers, but it’s interesting to see some similarities between this incident and the ongoing situation in La Belle Sauvage: a human lusts after an innocent, a hyena-like creature is part of the equation, and the innocent’s escape is made by boat. I’m not suggesting that Pullman copies the action exactly but that the jeopardy in the late 16th-century poem is likely to have suggested motifs in the modern fantasy.

The final page of the first volume of The Book of Dust ends with a quote from The Faerie Queene — which turns out to be the last stanza of Book I (“The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Of Holinesse”):

Now strike your sails ye jolly marniners
For we be come into a quiet rode,
Where we must land some of our passengers
And light this weary vessel of her lode […]

— Book I, Canto XII 42

This has led some reviewers into postulating that, in the same way that His Dark Materials was informed by Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spenser’s great work does the same for The Book of Dust. I suspect that there may be some truth in this, as the parallel I’ve noted above suggests. Spenser planned to “dispose” his poem into twelve books, each one illustrating a “morall vertue”; Pullman though on past form will be less explicit, the fashion for allegory hopefully having long past, but moral behaviour is not susceptible to fashion and I’m sure virtues like courage, empathy and compassion will feature strongly in the rest of the trilogy, as it does here.

As an aside, it’s interesting to compare and contrast Ishiguro’s treatment of Arthurian themes in The Buried Giant with Pullman’s here. Both draw on Arthurian legend (Ishiguro on a Dark Age Britain, Pullman on an Elizabethan version of it) yet the end results are in no way clichéd recreations of what might be expected; both are highly idiosyncratic and, I’m certain, very personal.


A review of the first volume of The Book of Dust will appear here very soon

The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, edited by J C Smith and E de Selincourt. OUP 1912
Edmund Spenser, The Illustrated Faerie Queene: a modern prose adaptation by Douglas Hill. Newsweek Books 1980
Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage. David Fickling Books / Penguin 2017

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9 thoughts on “Like a Hyena

    1. I’ve seen some reviews expressing disappointment, Dale, but it’s always hard to live up to universal expectations, isn’t it? This instalment zips along, I felt, but in many ways it must feel like a slow burner because it fills in the details of an outline we already know. I enjoyed it, neverthless!

    1. I’m sure you’ll love it, Lynn, I know I did! And the hardcover copy under its dust-jacket is intriguing with its text along the spine and speckles of gold — maybe it should be called … a Dust jacket!

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