When Allegory invited me to a read and feed, I hesitated. He is a thin man, easy to overlook, his yellowish skin almost transparent. He wears a mishmash of musty, old-fashioned clothing: a toga and a biblical robe, medieval hose and cod piece, moccasins and a romantic scarf. Nothing modern, except maybe the combination.
At his table, I’ve read, he constantly changes seats and hats; one minute he sports the tangled wig of a whore, the next a crown. Pontificating endlessly on weighty matters of Vice and State, he tells you exactly who he is and what he means and never gives you a chance to speak at all, so didactic and bossy he barely seems human at all.
At least that was what I thought, until Allegory’s Invitation came. Invitation was a lanky page named Spenser, who bowed and said, in a charmingly antique way, “On behalf of Allegory and The Faerie Queene, you are cordially invited to a feast and recitation of poetry at Kilcolman Castle in North Cork at which many doubty knights errant and ladies fair and foul will in attendance be. Will you?”
I said yes.
I confess I didn’t care what he meant, his matter didn’t matter to me. He didn’t leave me space to wonder about his purpose, however, because the page stated clearly, “The generall end therefore . . . is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” (Letter to Raleigh). He must have sensed I didn’t wish to be disciplined, gently or otherwise, and felt that no one could fashion me, a modern man, except myself, because he added quickly, “Which for that I conceiued shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which for the most part of men delight to read” (Letter to Raleigh). It’s true I didn’t want or need to read a guidebook on how to be a gentleman, thank you very much, but I was attracted by the medieval pageantry, the romance of it all, so I accepted.
He bowed again and said, “Another guest, most deadly he, will wait on you, Despayre!” At first I thought the last word was a command. When I realized it was a name, I knew who was meant, end of story, not a threat. So I followed the handsome page to the castle hall. When he exchanged his page’s cap for a battered white helmet, I recognized my host. The pageant had begun. He dashed around the table, Red Cross Knight, King Arthur, Archimago, Una and Duessa, even a dragon named Errour, a spectacle more exciting and astounding than I’d expected, but easy to understand, as Allegory is.
It wasn’t until he was putting on the dreaded locks of Despayre that I noticed that the dome of Allegory’s head was clear as crystal and in that instant I saw, not meaning as I might have expected, but myself.
I had underestimated Allegory. Allegory was leading me not out of the world to some ideal realm in the clouds, some neo-Platonic heaven of perfect gentlemen who meant well but lacked their own voices. He was leading me to myself: unfaithful and untrue, a thief and a murderer. I realized suddenly that there had only been one person at the dinner. I was Despayre.