Jesus’s parable known as ‘The Prodigal Sonne’ (1560 Geneva Bible) is about a father and his two sons – the younger and elder son (Luke XV: 11-31). The younger son demands his inheritance from his father who is still alive. He then ‘toke his iorney into a farre countrey, and there he wasted his goods with riotous liuing’ (Luke XV:13). With no money and, as the gloss in the Geneva Bible’s margin points out, with ‘no man…pitie vpon him’, the younger son ends up in a pig sty. He is lost far from home, and eventually returns to his father expecting to be his servant. Instead, when the youngest son is nearing home, the father rushes out to give him a robe, sandals and a ring to wear. He then orders his servants to prepare a banquet to celebrate his youngest son’s return.
The elder son stays at home to labour in the field. He is obedient to his father and, to all appearances, is the model son. However, as Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God, for people like the elder son ‘The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment’ (Keller 50). I will add that elder sons also use their faultless life to boost a sense of moral superiority that allows them to judge people they consider inferior to themselves. The elder son’s response to his younger brother’s return reveals not only his envy, but his repressed anger and bitterness towards his father.
The parable is an allegory that enables Jesus to preach an important moral message about sin. It is important to understand what an allegory is in order to recognise Jesus’s complex use of this literary device, which also illuminates an understanding of Spenserian allegory. The literary critic J. A. Cuddon defines a basic allegory as:
a story in verse or prose with a double meaning: a primary or surface meaning; and a secondary or under-the-surface meaning. It is a story, therefore, that can be read, understood and interpreted at two levels (and in some cases three or four levels). (Cuddon 22)
Allegory, as J. A.Cuddon implies, substitutes characters and/or phrases from the primary meaning with related terms that reveal an underlying signification. There is only a thin veil separating the primary from the secondary meaning so that the allegory is self evident. Therefore, the father in the parable also represents God who is the father of the human race. Therefore, his home signifies Heaven. The younger and elder sons represent Jesus’s audience who are listening to his parable. The audience are divided by Luke into two groups: the sinners and tax collectors who become the younger son and the Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious leaders and teachers of the law, who represent the elder son. The allegory allows Jesus to address two types of sin that are appropriate to each group; the younger son’s obvious sin, and the elder son’s concealed sin. However, at the end of the parable, Jesus not only introduces a tertiary allegorical level but also inverts it so that the ‘under-the-surface’ meaning becomes the ‘primary or surface meaning’. The inversion allows Jesus to make allegorical interpretation itself part of the Pharisees’s and scribes’s sin.
The potential for allegorical interpretation to become a sin is Edmund Spenser’s primary concern about allegory. In his letter to Ralegh appending the 1590 publication The Faerie Queene, Spenser writes that his epic poem is ‘a continued allegory or darke conceit’ (Spenser ‘Letter’ 714). The adjective ‘darke’ can be taken literally in that the allegory is concealed in darkness because it is so disturbing. The First Book of The Faerie Queene Contayning The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse or Of Holinesse is basically Redcrosse’s quest for the one true religion (probably Protestantism, though Spenser never specifies) in a land of false interpretations. Spenser’s ‘darke conceit’ is illustrated in Book I’s first major episode – Redcrosse’s battle with the half woman/half serpent monstrosity called Errour.
Errour lives in a dark cave because ‘For light she hated as the deadly bale,/Ay wont in desert darknes to remaine,’ (I.16, lines 7 & 8). The phrase ‘desert darknes’ relates to being spiritually lost and blind like the Israelites who, because of their disobedience, were punished by God in the Boke of Nombers to ‘wander in the wildernes, fourtie yeres’ (Numbers 14: 33). They were destined to die from their continuous sinning that wasted away their fleshly and spiritual bodies. The only light in Errour’s cave is from Redcrosse’s ‘glistring armor’ (I.14, line 4) that enables him to see ‘the ugly monster plaine’(I. 14, line 6) or the personification of spiritual error. In the battle that follows, Redcrosse becomes trapped in Errour’s serpentine lower body. All looks lost until -Continue Reading>