Friday, November 12, 2010

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves ed. Roy Maynard

Edmund Spenser was an English poet and civil servant living in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a Puritan, a fantasist, and one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. His unfinished magnum opus, The Faerie Queene, is both an epic fantasy poem and an allegory of the Reformation, and all six and a half Books of it are in the fiendishly difficult poetic form he invented himself, the Spenserian stanza.

It tells the interweaving stories of an assortment of brave knights, each of whom represents some virtue, who are sent by Gloriana the Faerie Queene on a variety of missions to seek out and destroy various evils, sorcerers, monsters, witches, &c. What with hundreds of characters, epic battles, chivalry by the bucketful, distressed damsels, lady knights, a young version of King Arthur, and layers upon layers of symbolism, it's a wonderful read. Spenser's faith shines through strongly as well: a friend of mine called it "The Bible--With Knights!" and I have no hesitation in shelving it with The Pilgrim's Progress or The Lord of the Rings as one of the greatest works of Christian fantasy ever written. Like all great Christian books, it carries the echoes of eternal Life, sweet and satisfying.

If there is a problem with The Faerie Queene when it comes to today's readers, it is that it is written in extremely archaic language (Spenser wrote in a style far more archaic than ever Shakespeare used) with profound levels of symbolism that it would take a relatively well-educated Elizabethan to understand. Accordingly, even if you can read archaic language without too much trouble, footnotes will always make the reading experience better.

This is where Roy Maynard's Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves comes in. This slim, nonthreatening book presents Book I of The Faerie Queene with some of the spelling modernised, definitions of some harder words (who knew 'caitiff' could mean 'jailer'?) and insightful footnotes that explain the text and are often unexpectedly funny (when Una meets a lion, the footnote exhorts her, "Quick, Una! Throw it that lamb you've been carting around!"). There are also brief essays interspersed throughout the text, explaining, for example, how it is that Spenser's great knight-Faeries are not tinkly little gossamer things.

Despite these modernisations and explanations, the text remains intact. Each of the six Cantos of The Faerie Queene tells about the adventures of a certain knight. Book I tells the story of the Redcrosse Knight, a simple plough-boy who is given an immense task by the Faerie Queene: he must travel with the Lady Una to her parents' kingdom, which is besieged by a horrible dragon, and slay it. Disaster strikes when on their journey the magician Archimago succeeds in convincing Redcrosse that Una is false. Full of indignation, he rides off by himself and immediately falls into the clutches of the witch Duessa, while Una is left to fend for herself in the wild. Without Redcrosse to fight her dangers, how will sweet Truth survive? Without her guidance, how will Redcrosse stay out of trouble for more than five minutes and develop the Holiness he is meant to be a symbol of? Will Una find him before it's too late? And how will the Quest ever be fulfilled?

And that's only Book I!

As you can see, it's not the typical epic. It is pretty thrilling, and with Maynard's unobtrusive commentary to make the writer's meaning clearer, you can enjoy this amazing story just as much as the Elizabethans would have. While the book was designed as a textbook for home and mundane schools, it works equally well as the perfect introduction for anyone to The Faerie Queene. I highly recommend it.

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves ed. Roy Maynard
The Elfin Knight: Book II, coming soon!
Project Gutenberg etext of Book I of the Faerie Queene
Librivox recording of same

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