As it stands, The Faerie Queene is well worth reading, full of exciting adventure, profound doctrines, and lots of historical/cultural interest for students of history. I feel that perhaps this series of reviews has been focusing too much on the last two, and too little on the first. So, to amend that, let me quote from Book I:
But full of fire and greedy hardiment,…And you can read the outcome of that epic battle in Book I, Canto I.
The youthful knight could not for ought be stayed,
But forth unto the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistering armor made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half like a serpent horribly displayed,
But th’other half did woman’s shape retain,
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.
And as she lay upon the dirty ground,
Her huge long tail her den all overspread,
Yet was in knots and many boughts upwound,
Pointed with mortal sting. Of her there bred,
A thousand young ones, which she daily fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, each one
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill-favoured:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone.
Their dam upstart, out of her den afraid,
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous tail
About her cursed head, whose folds displayed
Were stretched now forth at length without entrail.
She looked about, and seeing one in mail
Armed to point, sought back to turn again;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darkness to remain,
Where plain none might her see, nor she see any plain.
Which when the valiant Elf perciev’d, he lept
As Lion fierce upon the flying prey,
And with his trenchant blade her boldly kept
From turning back, and forced her to stay:
Therewith enrag’d she loudly gan to bray,
And turning fierce, her speckled tail advanced,
Threatening her angry sting, him to dismay:
Who nought aghast, his mighty hand enhanced:
The stroke down from her head unto her shoulder glanced.
Much daunted with that dint, her sense was dazed,
Yet kindling rage, her self she gathered round,
And all at once her beastly body raised
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Then wrapping up her wreathed stern around,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge train
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stir he strove in vain:
God held the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train.
Edmund Spenser holds a particular interest for bibliophiles, because he was a great influence on CS Lewis, perhaps more than any others except George Macdonald and JRR Tolkien. It could certainly be argued that the Chronicles of Narnia were deliberately written as a Faerie Queene for twentieth-century children. The setting (a forest kingdom), milieu (dwarfs, witches, dryads, and river-gods), and structure (one book per virtue/planet) are all very similar. Then, as I’ve mentioned previously, it always used to surprise me when people talked about CS Lewis’s “innovation” and “daring” in using pagan mythology in his Christian allegory/fantasy. And the reason why it surprised me was because I’d read Spenser, and knew that Lewis, far from being an innovator, was more traditional than his critics…because Spenser did it first, and many others before him.
Which brings us to the question of the use of pagan imagery in Spenser, which is even more obvious than in Lewis. In Spenser, the gods are characters in the epic, and occasionally our characters even visit their temples. The question that immediately arises in post-Enlightenment Christian minds is, Why? Accustomed as we are to think of pagan gods as something totally evil and wrong, it’s hard to see why Spenser (and later, Lewis) could have included them.
However, this is because we modernists have been stripped of all the layers of doctrine and imagery which had been built up around classic mythology by medieval Christendom. The fact is that the medievals had redeemed the gods and transformed them into something quite different from what they were to begin with.
|While some classical creatures are clearly evil, like these ladies.|