|Art selected to prevent misconceptions about pink tutus and sparkly wands.|
Although Edmund Spenser has been in my pantime of favourite authors since the first time I made his acquaintance at the age of sixteen (and thus came to him at the ideal age, according to CS Lewis!), I’d never actually managed to get through the entire Faerie Queene. I’d always meant to finish the epic, and so scheduled it for my 2013 Annual Christmas Hols Epic Reading.
Granted, not even Spenser himself got through the entire Faerie Queene. As is, it comes in six and a half books each depicting a Christian virtue as embodied in a knight who has been sent on some terrible quest by the Faerie Queene of the title, Gloriana. According to the decrees of Divine Providence, Spenser—who originally planned twenty-four books—had only written six and a portion of the seventh when his untimely (vntymely?) death put an end to the plan. His fans on earth can only hope to read the updated and finished edition in the New Jerusalem.
Edmund Spenser was a contemporary of Shakespeare, writing during that dazzling Elizabethan Age, which so many people still consider to be the golden age of English literature. Certainly, Shakespeare stole the spotlight, but Edmund Spenser’s contribution to English letters should not be underestimated. His writing is not as quotable as Shakespeare, as it is less concerned with word-juggling than with keeping the flow of the story swinging along. Reading Shakespeare is like a nature-walk; one is always bending over to inspect a word or phrase more closely. But reading Spenser is like a dance; the delight comes in motion.
Spenser’s one of the most delightfully Christian writers you will ever come across, deeply concerned with the pursuit of holiness and discipline in the Christian life, together with the various threats posed by sins like pride, lust, and despair. John Bunyan is the obvious comparison, but apart from the fact that both were Puritans who wrote allegories on the Christian life, the differences are also obvious. Spenser came from the upper, Bunyan from the lower strata of society and so while Bunyan’s allegory is plainer and simpler, Spenser’s is more elaborate in its rich language, imagery, classical allusions, and meaning. Bunyan depicts a plain man setting out on a journey; Spenser shows a knight riding on a quest. Bunyan’s simpler imagery and language makes him more widely-read today, but his allegory is fairly basic. Spenser is more challenging, and his allegory is far more subtle and multi-layered. Unlike the simpler x = y allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the symbolism in Spenser may be taken both politically and morally; and often in two or three moral senses at once.
Spenser’s epic has deep roots in the past: the very first stanza contains homages both to Virgil’s Aeneid and to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The language would have seemed archaic, even to the Elizabethans! Stuffed as it is with literary references and famously difficult language, The Faerie Queene can be a real challenge to read. But don’t fear.
For one thing, the story itself is well worth reading. As I hope to show this week, if you think the Puritans were boring killjoys, are you in for a surprise. The rhythm of the poetry bears you effortlessly along through epic quests full of nail-biting battles, buckets of gore, thrilling adventures, heart-stopping terrors, tear-jerking defeats, pure damsels (both the fighting and the fainting kind) to say nothing of conniving seductresses and ill-intentioned satyrs. (If anything, I suspect that not just the difficult language but also the racy content contributes to the strange way modern Christians have let The Faerie Queene slip past them, instead of seizing on it and treasuring it up as the brilliant work of Christian literature it is! That’s us, modern Christians—more uptight than the Puritans.)
For another thing, there are plenty of ways you can make it easier to read Spenser. First, if you can read Shakespeare or the Authorised Version of the Bible without too much trouble, Spenser will stretch you but not stump you; a good tip is to read it aloud. Second, if that proves a little difficult, try an audiobook version. This will eliminate many of the interesting spellings (“Vna” for “Una”; “Soueraine” for “Sovereign”) and keep the story rolling so you don’t get bogged down in the details: Librivox have a free recording here, and I’m sure there are other options. Third, get an edited, well-footnoted edition to help explain and define tricky words or passages.
A number of these are available, but the very best you can choose for the first two Books of the work (of six and a bit) are the Canon Press revised editions, which deftly update the spelling, define the trickier words, and include wonderful footnotes to explain tricky passages or allegorical allusions, and also provide enthusiastic commentary (such as “Uh-oh,” “Really bad move,” or “Woohoo!”). The solid Reformed Christian worldview of the editors, Roy Maynard for Book I (Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves) and Toby J Sumpter for Book II (The Elfin Knight), means that Spenser’s intent and worldview comes across loud and clear, while their informal style prompts you towards exactly the right kind of gleeful enjoyment of the epic. These versions are particularly suitable for younger students, and I love them.
I’ll end this introduction with a quick review of the letter which Edmund Spenser wrote to another great Elizabeth—Sir Walter Raleigh. In this letter (I’ve updated the spelling a bit), Spenser laid out his intention for his work:
The general end therefore of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline…I labour to portrait in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues, as Aristotle has devised.Like Bunyan after him, Spenser defends his choice of storytelling as the mode of communicating these “disciplines” and virtues:
To some I know this Method will seem displeasant, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, than thus cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devices. But such, me seem, should be satisfied with the use of these days, seeing all things counted by their shows, and nothing esteemed of, that is not delightful and pleasing to common sense. … So much more profitable and gracious is doctrine by example, than by rule.Spenser’s answer is simply that allegory and story are teaching by example, and that this is both more memorable and more pleasant than “sermoning”. As I shall hope to show over the next few days, Spenser’s doctrines, being presented in story form, take on unusual depth and complexity from their allegorical medium, which—being presented with many knights and epic battles (Look! Justice and Equity initially fight, but the moment they realise each other’s true nature, they fall madly in love!) become that much more memorable.
Dim the lights. Pass the popcorn, the opera-glasses, and the power-ballad cigarette lighter—we’ll need them all. Let the fierce wars and faithful loves begin.