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Humanimals in the Renaissance (Jenny Noyce)

November 18, 2009

In my other seminar this term, I’m studying Edmund Spenser’s 1596 epic poem The Faerie Queene.  I’ve been surprised by the number of connections that exist between Spenser’s material and our texts for our contemporary environmental literature course.  In regard to Indra Sinha’s 2008 novel Animal’s People, a particular passage from Spenser’s poem comes to mind.  In Book III, Spenser narrates the story of a jealous old man who holds his young wife (Hellenore) captive inside their castle, so that her beauty may not tempt other men.  Eventually, a wandering knight enters their home, flirts his way into Hellenore’s heart, and the two run off together.  When he abandons her (typical!), she takes up with a group of satyrs, in the “thickest woods.”  They make her their “May-lady,” and give her plenty of praise and kisses.  Her husband sneaks into the forest and sees Hellenore cavorting with her new admirers, and hides in the bushes while Hellenore and a satyr have sex nine times throughout the night.  At one point, he wakes her, apologizes, and asks her to return to their castle.  She “it all refused at one word,” and opts to stay in the woods.

nymphs & satyr

nymphs & satyr

One of the most obvious connections here to Animal’s People is the presence of human/animal hybrids.  The satyr, in particular (like Animal), is a lustful and virile animal (as indicated by his sexual performance with Hellenore).  Also, Hellenore, like Animal (at the outset of the novel), opts to stay outside of human territory.  She is happy living with the animals!  As their leader, she has more power and respect than she was afforded at home with her human husband.  She and Animal are the rulers of their realms, though they receive ill treatment in the world of humans.  In The Faerie Queene, the Book in which Hellenore’s story takes place is the Book of Chastitie.  Her story is meant to illustrate to husbands that jealousy will drive their wives away; had her husband treated her fairly and given her access to the outside world, she may not have been drawn into the knight’s charms.  For Animal, his perception that sex is off limits to him makes him want it all the more.  I think that both characters’ stories point to the complicated nature of sex for human beings; it is oh so much more complex than the emotionless mating engaged in by animals.  Hellenore gains happiness through the sexual attentions of an animalman.  Animal yearns for the sexual attentions of a human female.  Perhaps SEX (and its very tenacious corollary, LOVE) is one dimension that might complicate Animal’s willful insistence that he is animal, not human.  Our drives are perhaps “animalistic,” but aren’t humans the only “animals” that have sex for pleasure (or for love)?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kmckimps permalink
    November 18, 2009 6:20 am

    Good connection between sex and animals. I’m finding a similar concept in “The Taming of the Shrew,” but it’s more sublimated. I’m reminded of Jeanne Roberts’s work with hybrid creatures as threshold guardians/markers for interstitial areas between culture and the wild.

    Your posts also reminds me of the tendency for literary, and especially Biblical, women to head into the wilderness for relief and freedom. Not sure where to go further with this.

    I worry that juxtaposing sex-for-pleasure with humanity might be a stretch. Research into various animals (I’m thinking dolphins and chimps) has revealed “play” sexual behavior, as well as homosexual play in pre-adult males of several species, though again, primates seem most dominate.

    Last, points for the Bouguereau, though I think he might be a little anachronistic for “Faery Queene” 😉

  2. December 1, 2009 6:59 am

    On an unrelated tangent serving my own nefarious purposes, I will wrangle Battlestar Galactica into the equation. In their quest to understand reproduction, the Cylons believe the only way they can procreate (they can handle the mechanics of it quite well) is if love is involved. So perhaps it’s not sex alone (as Karl mentions, I think the bonobos in particular have a lot of non-procreative sexy times), but the relationship implied by the consensual sex act between humans.

    That said, I think your comparison between Animal’s People is interesting and could prove really fruitful. If nothing else, I find the connections between the Early Modern and contemporary in literature. It may be fruitful to look at these “animals” in terms of monsters–werewolves, vampires–which also seem to be deeply connected to sexual anxieties?

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