Book II in 4D and the Brilliance of Justin Gerard

I’ve spent the last month reading through a stack of commentaries on Book Two of The Faerie Queene–a section of the epic that has baffled critics for centuries.

The theme of Book One seems fairly clear in comparison–a well-meaning but naive human (The Red Cross Knight/St. George) learns to lean upon strength beyond his own while pursuing the virtue of holiness. In Book Two, however, Spenser’s exploration of the virtue of temperance goes 4D. After watching The Red Cross Knight fumble repeatedly, we begin Book Two expecting another relatable hero who makes flagrant mistakes. Instead, we meet Sir Guyon, a knight who initially projects a sense of flawlessness—possessing what seems to be superhuman moral restraint.

During my first reading of this book, I hated Guyon for what felt like clinical, soulless goodness. He seemed like the sort of guy who would take you to a French bakery and then order only a small black coffee while you’re itching for a flat white, pain au chocolate, and a millefeuille. For the longest time, I imagined actors like Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) from Parks and Rec or Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter) from the BBC Pride and Prejudice speaking Guyon’s lines. This hero was too nice for me. Too robotically pristine. I halfway hoped a dragon would eat him up, though he was likely to be stringy and tasteless as a dried up rooster.

Yet, halfway through Book Two, a strange event occurs–a sudden shift that has long incited debate among Spenserian scholars. On my second dig through the text, I started noticing clues I’d missed. On the third read, I became intrigued with this story. Once I finally understood what I think is happening in Guyon’s tale, my mind was blown–though I’m not going to reveal that yet (you’ll have to wait for the book).

I will tell you about some resources I’m loving this week, though.

1. Erik Gray’s introductory essay to Hackett Publishing Group’s 2006 Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene: Book Two. Meaty. Accessible. Concise. Everything an introduction should be. Bravo.

2. Harry Berger’s The Allegorical Temper (Archon Books 1967) is beautifully written. I don’t agree with him on every point, but the work he’s put into this assessment is phenomenal, and my understanding of Guyon’s narrative has been changed by Berger’s writing.

3. If you’re looking for a reader-focused exhortation on how to approach any historical text, Darryl Gless’s  Interpretation and Theology in Spenser (Cambridge 2005) is full of helpful checks and balances. He also presents the difficulties of claiming a single historical/theological take on what was happening in England during Elizabeth’s complex reign.

4. I loved Tracy Borman’s rollicking discussion of Elizabeth I with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook on the podcast The Rest is History. (Borman is the author of Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen.)

5. And, while working out at the gym, I’ve been listening to The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir.

I’ll limit sources to five with this post, but my stack of books grows weekly now, and JSTOR is offering 100 free articles a month during the pandemic. Deciding what information to include in footnotes isn’t going to be easy.

Today I was trying to balance too many open books on my tiny desk, desperately needing a shower, my stomach growling because I skipped lunch to read when my publisher wrote to ask if I’d seen the new drawings from our illustrator Justin Gerard.

Friends, I shouted when I saw them. Finding such beauty in the midst of all this meticulous research was incredible. Gerard caught Una’s sober, sad, intelligent beauty. He caught the valiant young eagerness of The Red Cross Knight. And because I’ve seen the rest of his preliminary sketches for Book One, I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. I’m so honored to watch his talent engage with this project. Absolutely remarkable.