Extended Introduction to Book One and the Project as a Whole
MY TARGET AUDIENCE
My interest in transposing The Faerie Queene began when I was teaching a portion of the poem to ninth graders. Spenser’s world full of enchanters, monsters, fumbling knights, and mighty women is enthralling; his imagery is life-giving; yet, Spenser’s original text is simply too difficult for most freshmen to read. Students who could handle Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet truly struggled with Spenser, though after I walked them slowly through his first canto, they wanted more. Providing a text-faithful, contemporary prose rendering teenagers could enjoy was the dream that launched this endeavor.
While working on this project, however, I’ve also encountered many adults who have attempted The Faerie Queene at some point, only to get bogged down in its thirty-six thousand lines of Elizabethan poetry. The language Spenser chose was archaic, even for the 1590s, and his sentences were complicated by the constraints of poetry. So, my original goal has morphed a bit. I now hope this rendering will help both younger students and curious adults with busy lives who simply don’t have the time or training to untangle four-hundred-year-old language.
Of course, my rendering doesn’t scratch the surface of historical and linguistic information necessary to master Spenser. I’ve attempted to create something fundamentally sound for new readers, and I’ve employed the assistance of experts in reaching that end, but The Faerie Queene is a massive poem. Not only do I lack room to explore every connection I’ve found, I’m also certain to have made some mistakes. Every time I reread the original text, I find another phrase I’d like to revise. My publisher has graciously assured me that we can consider this project a work in progress, and I’ll probably be correcting these volumes for the rest of my life. Therefore, whether you are an Elizabethan scholar or a precocious teen, please let me know if you find an error. Where I’ve failed, I’m willing to improve, incorporating changes in subsequent editions. And if you catch a problem before I find it, you might even get your own footnote.
Despite its limitations, I hope this project will stir up interest in Spenser’s epic, allowing readers who have never walked through Faerie Land to catch a glimpse of it for the first time. It’s a humble beginning, to be sure, but sometimes a humble beginning can provide the first steps of a lifelong journey.
WHAT IS THE FAERIE QUEENE?
If only this were easy to answer. In some ways, it’s a massive epic poem, though it’s not fully an epic. While listing the genres and cultural forms found in Book One, William Oram mentions: “allegorical pilgrimage, pastoral, epithalamion, satire, dream vision, Ovidian metamorphosis, sermon, apocalypse . . . procession, marriage-feast, allegorical tableau.” Throughout Spenser’s poem, pageants, vision narratives, and historical/geographical catalogues appear intermixed with thrilling stories about dragons, enchanters, knights, monsters, gods, and goddesses. The result is a unique literary hybrid that’s tough to categorize.
- S. Lewis wrote: “The Faerie Queene is perhaps the most difficult poem in English. Quite how difficult, I am only now beginning to realize after forty years of reading it.” He wasn’t referring to Spenser’s archaic language, though this certainly creates challenges for the twenty-first-century reader. Instead, Lewis was reflecting on the poem’s complexity, for it first appears to children as a string of exciting adventure stories, then offers more nuanced layers of meaning to those same readers as they grow into adulthood.
As you progress, you might notice elements that inspired William Wordsworth, John Milton, James Thomson, Alfred Tennyson, John Keats, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, L. Frank Baum, or even William Shakespeare. Looking backward, you will find connections to writers like Virgil, Ovid, and Chaucer, as well as historians like Geoffrey of Monmouth. Therefore, don’t be surprised if entering Spenser’s world feels both new and familiar at once, like walking for the first time in the country of your ancestors.
Hasty readers sometimes dismiss Spenser’s poem as the sort of knights-and-monsters tale that went out of fashion long ago. Maybe so. But if William Nelson is correct, such stories of “high moral purpose” were largely out of vogue by the time Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in the late 1590s. According to Christopher Dean, “after 1500 . . . Arthurian subjects were no longer looked upon favourably by writers, so that with the exception of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene no Renaissance work of the first rank even indirectly derived its inspiration from Arthurian material.” The idiosyncratic life was not new for Spenser, a man who passed through Cambridge avoiding its two most fashionable movements, Puritanism and Classicism. As an epic poet, he continued walking against the current, breathing new life into unfashionable, tired old clichés—sometimes inverting, sometimes deconstructing the very tools he uses to build his world. The result is tender, funny, rare—simultaneously archaic and innovative—and rather addictive to readers who find themselves falling in love with Spenser’s fictional world. In fact, Lewis wrote, “The Faerie Queene never loses a reader it has once gained. . . Once you have become an inhabitant of its world, being tired of it is like being tired of London, or of life.”
Spenser intended to write twelve books, but he only completed six before he died. Each book focuses on a different virtue, though these separate adventures interconnect to tell an even larger story. Every completed book of The Faerie Queene is made up of twelve cantos, and every canto is made up of nine-line stanzas. (The number of stanzas per canto varies, but most cantos have between fifty and sixty.) Each canto begins with a brief argument—a four-line poem providing a preview of the plot.
Spenser often harnesses the constraints of meter and rhyme to bolster meaning and mood. In fact, he created a new stanza form for this project, a structure that maximized his creative flexibility by allowing him to vary emphasis in pacing, setting, action, and emotion while providing coherence for his story. This “Spenserian stanza” contains eight lines of iambic pentameter that lead to one alexandrine, an iambic line of twelve syllables. The stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc. For example:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine,
The cruell markes of many’ a bloody fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foaming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemed, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
- S. Lewis explains how this unique structure enhances the poem beyond the capabilities of the simple ottava rima—an eight-line poetic form used by many Italian poets, as well as Byron and Shelley: “The more complex interlacing of the rhymes and, still more, the concluding alexandrine, which gives to each stanza the effect of a wave falling on a beach, combine to make it slower, weightier, more stately. Of all Spenser’s innovations his stanza is perhaps the most important. . . . It dictates the peculiar tone of The Faerie Queene.”
How This Rendering Handles Archaic Poetic Forms, Extended Sentences, Willful Obscurity, and Attribution
Because Spenser’s form often enhances his meaning, dismantling the structure of this particular poem kills one of its fundamental mechanisms. Offering a prose Faerie Queene is a bit like removing the music from an opera while performers stamp about on stage, shouting their lines. Sadly, however, the form that makes this poem so beautiful also makes it inaccessible to many readers. Spenser’s meter and rhyme force certain syntactic gymnastics. If you’ve ever attempted to read his original text, you’ve likely run into pronoun/antecedent confusion as well as long, wandering, convoluted sentences that have left you hunting for subjects, verbs, and objects.
To make things even harder for the reader, Spenser frequently (and suddenly) moves back and forth between description and dialogue without quotation marks, verbs of attribution, or other clues alerting readers to the shift. He also adopts some language from the Middle Ages, giving the impression that his work is from an earlier era than Shakespeare’s, though Spenser was only twelve years older than the Bard of Avon. Tonkin describes Spenser’s diction as “a kind of all-purpose archaic speech, situated in no particular stage in the development of the English language, but simply conveying a sense of tradition and continuity.”
Also confusing is Spenser’s tendency to withhold the names of new characters for stanzas or even pages after they first appear. Furthermore, he intentionally obscures pronouns throughout the poem. In other words, if you’ve already tried to tackle the original text of The Faerie Queene and found yourself discouraged, you have a good excuse.
When deciding how to adapt such complexity for the contemporary reader, my first impulse was to create a hard-and-fast rule, consistently applying a single method throughout the text. However, this methodology produced wooden language—a text I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading. So I revised, keeping Spenser’s tangles where they felt absolutely necessary for content or artistry and simplifying elsewhere to prevent exhaustion.
These variations shift from canto to canto, stanza to stanza, depending on content. In Book One, Canto Ten, the Red Cross Knight walks through a metaphysical realm called the House of Holiness. Here, I took very few liberties with the text, for as Mark Rose notes, Spenser’s “pervasive irony disappears,” and his language turns “simple and straightforward with few flourishes or formal similes.” In fast-moving action scenes, I exercised a bit more freedom. For example, you will find several footnotes indicating that I have turned a section of description into dialogue, helping the modern reader keep pace with what’s actually happening in the story. Attribution was a bit tricky at times since glosses from past scholars regularly overlap and many of these are common knowledge. When I intentionally borrowed from the remarks of another writer, I mentioned this in my footnotes.
Also, as I worked from Book One to Book Six (and the fragments of Book Seven), I slowly integrated more of Spenser’s language and form while offering less interpretative commentary. Hopefully, this gentle graduation will strengthen your independence as a reader, preparing you to tackle the original text more easily by the end of the series.
What I Have Lost While Turning Poetry into Prose
I’ve already explained how Spenser’s innovative nine-line stanza is critical to his poem as a whole. Yet within this unique framework, Spenser generally serves the broader narrative above the glory of individual lines, rarely attempting the witty economy of Donne or Shakespeare. According to Lewis, Spenser “has in view an audience who have settled down to hear a long story and do not want to savour each line as a separate work of art.” The Faerie Queene does contain wit and wordplay, but more often, readers are simply invited to fall into the story, codiscovering the wonders of a new world with Spenser walking beside us.
This emphasis was largely due to the era in which Spenser wrote. Chaucer’s work had been brilliant in the 1300s; but the next two hundred years of British poetry were lackluster. In fact, Lewis describes Spenser’s endeavor as: “not a man laying the coping stone on an edifice of good poetry already half-built; he was a man struggling by his own exertions out of a horrible swamp of dull verbiage, ruthlessly over-emphatic metre, and screaming rhetoric.” England’s era of great poetic glory was only just beginning. Despite this unfortunate timing, Spenser still manages to find a unique and powerful writing voice. Certain stanzas are downright breathtaking.
When I began this project, I attempted to render the text in verse. However, I regularly found myself at an impasse, choosing between faithfulness to Spenser’s layers of meaning and modern terms that would fit within my established rhyme and meter. Not only did sixteenth-century polysemy prove tough to translate in a few syllables, but also, a single term referring to old battle gear or clothing might be obvious to an Elizabethan reader while requiring more explanation for a twenty-first-century reader. In the end, prose was more capable of flexing to capture this complexity, though it was a gain that came with inevitable losses, since elements reliant on their position within Spenser’s verse could not be preserved.
Furthermore, as much as I would love to offer a perfectly objective rendering, my own biases of time, belief, and place have certainly bled into these pages. Though I’ve employed the help of editors, attempting to increase interpretative accountability, I’ve surely left my own impressions on Spenser’s good work. Rosemond Tuve warns about the “undisguised pleasure in symbol-hunting” as well as the “re-makings of masterpieces, accompanied by much deceptive paraphrase” leading to meanings “imposed upon works by later readers rather than deliberately written into them by their authors.” Of this, I am surely guilty.
So, while this book offers a gentle introduction to Faerie Land, it can only be the beginning of your journey. University students should purchase Hamilton’s deeply-annotated Faerie Queene, as it contains not only Spenser’s original text but also rich historical and literary information that a work like mine cannot begin to provide. (In fact, anyone who falls in love with Spenser should purchase his book, university student or not.)
SOME KEY ELEMENTS
Throughout my rendering, I have italicized certain bits of text to help the modern reader distinguish between major plot moves and conventions Spenser uses to link his work to classical epics. These italicized sections include: epic similes (long comparisons), epic catalogues/lists (extended inventories of some sort), and invocations to a muse (appeals to a supernatural figure for inspiration). When you run into an epic convention in the text, check footnotes for tips on how to navigate this element without getting bogged down inside it.
Most modern writers keep the tense consistent within a single paragraph, but Spenser moves fluidly between past and present, shifting without warning. Though such irregularity breaks contemporary writing rules, it seems to enhance the mystical nature of this old story, giving the plots a sense of once-upon-a-time-but-also-right-now. Therefore, I kept this inconsistency wherever I felt I could do so without jarring or confusing you. Otherwise, I unified verb tenses to help the story move more smoothly. When you feel ready to shift to the original text, be aware of this quirk in Spenser’s writing. I think you’ll find it interesting.
Common Narrative Structures: Metaphorical Spaces and Strategic Groupings
While telling the stories of The Faerie Queene stories, Spenser uses narrative structures to organize ideas and enhance meaning. For example, his locations often serve a metaphorical purpose. For example, Error’s Den of Book One, Canto One explains the dangers of pride and naivete. Such locations can stand alone or work in complementary or contrasting groups to communicate a single concept. For instance, the House of Pride contrasts against the House of Holiness.
Characters can also be grouped strategically to enrich meaning. Una’s integrity and Duessa’s duplicity are opposites held in tension. Appearances of both helpful and harmful versions of Venus and Cupid appear in significant moments. Sansfoy (without faith), Sansloy (without law), and Sanjoy (without joy) work together to demonstrate a lack of holiness. Taking note of such groupings as you read will enhance your understanding of the poem.
Because some of my footnotes analyze episodes in light of their ultimate outcome, I have labeled them “SPOILER.” These notes are likely to give you more clarity in the moment, but they can also reveal a little too much too soon. If you’d rather be surprised, ignore such notes on your first pass through the text.
Arthur appears in every book of The Faerie Queene, though he is still a prince—not yet the great king he will become. He is on a quest to find Gloriana, queen of the faeries, who has disappeared after their concubitus (a dreamlike love scene) in Book One, Canto Nine.
In his 1589 letter to Raleigh, Spenser explains that Arthur represents magnificence, Aristotle’s most perfect virtue—for it holds all others inside itself. Spenser plans to reveal Arthur’s magnificence through a series of deeds, while providing twelve patron knights to offer more variety as he tells his tale. How tightly Spenser’s virtues actually connect to Aristotle’s has been debated, but Spenser at least claims to be pursuing “the twelue priuate morall vertues, as Aristotle hath deuised, the which is the purpose of these first twelue bookes.”
Inspired by Tasso’s Rinaldo, Spenser hopes to focus first on “Ethice, or vertues of a priuate man.” If his first twelve books are well-received, Spenser says he might be convinced to write additional books focusing on “polliticke vertues” after Arthur is crowned king. Spenser offers two reasons for choosing Arthur. First, as a commonly lauded figure, Arthur seems the best fit for the project. Secondly, he is the character least likely to evoke envy or suspicion from his readers.
The first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, a year after the Raleigh letter. How did Spenser’s intentions for Arthur’s role in his poem play out? Many critics now consider the first three books of The Faerie Queene (on holiness, temperance, and chastity, respectively) a study of private virtues and those virtues addressed in the second three books (friendship, justice, and courtesy) as public.
In his letter to Raleigh, Spenser confesses difficulty in staying on task while writing The Faerie Queene. After describing his lofty intellectual and moral goals for the project, he finally admits: “many other aduentures are intermedled, but rather as Accidents, then intendments.” The best stories have a way of fighting to tell themselves, don’t they?
- S. Lewis names Arthur as the “nominal hero” of Spenser’s poem, for though the prince appears in every adventure, he never serves as the central knight. Other critics, such as Alistair Fowler and Angus Fletcher, see those heroic knights as “subcharacters generated by Arthur.” For though each book provides a stand-alone plot centered around a unique protagonist (or several protagonists), Spenser refers to the whole poem as a single voyage. Each virtue explored in The Faerie Queene is needed to grow a competent king of Britain, so even if Spenser’s original plan for the poem yielded to characters demanding lives of their own, every knight somehow fits into Arthur’s larger story, helping develop the magnificence of a sovereign.
If you’re one of those readers who avoid C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia because it includes a witch, you aren’t going to like The Faerie Queene. In fact, this story is chock-full of conniving seductresses, pagan deities, and the doers of dark arts. Still, Spenser explores many aspects of orthodox Christian belief.
How can such opposites coexist? C. S. Lewis explains that Spenser’s Renaissance audience was accustomed to interpreting pagan iconography through the lens of faith, believing that “all myths and hieroglyphics” ultimately contain a message that aligns with Christianity. Hear this claim carefully. It doesn’t assume that all “truths” are the same; instead, it assumes that all truths (lowercase) serve the ultimate Truth (uppercase). This is why, as Anthea Hume writes, “an unperturbed mingling of Christian and classical material was common to many Protestant writers” in the late 1500s.
Allegory in Spenser: The Bully versus the Bard
- R.R. Tolkien wasn’t shy about expressing his distaste for allegory. He once wrote:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Any reader who has encountered the bullying of a stumpy, forced, didactic allegory understands this sentiment.
Spenser’s allegory, however, generally runs on a higher plane. Main characters are often assigned explicit symbolic roles, but they are given room to act and react as actual characters and not only as embodiments of abstract nouns. Una is Truth (as she is explicitly named in the Argument to I.ii) and the Church, but she is also a woman who can be deceived. Sometimes Gloriana clearly represents Elizabeth I (as do Britomart and Belphoebe), but more consistently, Gloriana is the image of a benevolent sovereign more broadly defined, an earthly placeholder for the prospect of glory obtained. Secondary characters such as the lion in Canto Three can represent both King Henry VIII and “nature’s nobility.” Even figures who appear for a single scene, like Fradubio, can operate on multiple narrative levels. Critics argue about when certain characters are representative and when they aren’t, but most agree that Spenser’s use of allegory varies throughout the poem.
Also, Spenser’s antagonists are capable of opposing a hero while mirroring his faults and struggles—exposing a psychomachia. For example, in Book One, Canto Two, the Red Cross Knight fights Sansfoy (without faith) after the hero proves unfaithful to Una by abandoning her. Here, an external physical conflict highlights the protagonist’s private moral turmoil.
I think this complexity buffers the reader from the sense of “domination of the author” that troubled Tolkien. Whatever his didactic intentions, Spenser offers up a living, breathing world that often allows us to discover truth experientially. According to Sidney’s Defense of Poesie, poetry transforms “dead truism into vital experience,” and Spenser’s allegory often works this magic. Or, as Lewis writes, “what looks like a platitude when it is set out in the abstract may become a different sort of thing when it puts on flesh and blood in the story.”
Not all critics take this view, however. B. E. C. Davis, for example, writes that “Spenser’s allegory does unquestionably cramp and stiffen his romantic invention. Confronted with so plain an issue between abstract right and wrong we are prevented from judging each character according to his deserts.” The politics of Elizabethan expansionism definitely distort Spenser’s plot here and there, damaging his tale. Book Five is particularly impacted by such biases, as we will discuss in a later volume. When such distortions occur, we find the dark side of allegory; the natural mechanics of a plot are interrupted, and characters are ripped from their established personalities by an author-turned-tyrant, a dictator who commandeers the meaning of all completed and approaching actions to serve his own ends.
Overall, however, I find Spenser’s allegory doing the work of the bard, not that of the bully. Like the best storytellers, he was generally responsible in his use of symbolism, a language Lewis deemed the “natural speech of the soul, a language older and more universal than words,” a realm where truth rings clear without taking captives. For a more information about Spenser’s use of allegory,
Spenser’s Questionable Treatment of Race, Religion, Gender, and Nationality
Spenser made some grave mistakes as a writer and as an Englishman living in Ireland. Below, I share my methods of rendering bias in The Faerie Queene, as well as several perspectives on Spenser’s choices. I think it might be helpful for you to understand his shortcomings and how I handled them before beginning this book.
Where I didn’t sterilize Spenser, it was out of a conviction that we need an accurate record of the past to help us make our present and future better; I don’t think we can overcome wrongs by denying they existed. Where I muted him a bit, it was out of a desire to instill respect where there was once hostility. If you have insight on how this could have been done more effectively, feel free to write with suggestions, and I will consider implementing your wisdom in future revisions.
As a reader, I’ve given myself permission to shout disagreements with Spenser here and there. Simultaneously, Spenser has provided me with moments of deep self-realization—those beautiful, clear shudders of, My goodness. I’ve done that proud thing. God help me never do it again. I welcome you to both rage at him with me and glean alongside me as we read his tale. May our journey through this and all old stories be indignant and supple at all the right moments.
Allegory in Spenser: Quantum Entanglement, Polyphonic Narrative, and Elizabethan Pageantry
Spenser’s allegory is also moderated by unusual methods of storytelling. In particular, he adopts three creative techniques that keep his narrative from becoming heavy-handed, didactic, and clichéd.
First, Spenser allows certain connections to form over vast expanses within his poem. Perhaps you’ve read about quantum entanglement, the bizarre tendency of certain particles to link to other particles, no matter how far apart they exist in the universe. A similar interconnectivity is found here. Alastair Fowler writes, “Spenser’s imagination leads to pairs of iconographically similar passages in close moral relation, even at wide spatial remove. This may be why The Faerie Queen seems morally obscure to some, who perhaps read it too seldom to make those connections between disjunct passages on which its meaning depends.” To find these links, a reader must dig around and discover what’s happening inside Spenser’s world and then decide how she feels about it. Abraham Stoll describes Spenser’s allegory this way: “While there is a long roster of famous complaints about Spenserian allegory, modern critics have succeeded in showing it to be not a storehouse of dusty morals, but a startling source of beauty and poetic complexity.”
Second, in Spenser’s era, certain stories employed “a polyphonic technique, interweaving different narrative strands in an intricate way.” To imagine this, perhaps consider how modern dramas flip quickly between parallel plot lines. Spenser’s episodic approach heightens in Book Three, so prepare yourself for complexity that might feel a bit disorienting at first. Ultimately, however, this method can help a reader feel like she’s been dropped inside a real world in which events constantly flutter all around her.
Third, as Lewis claimed, Spenser’s tale is a sort of pageant, though a wild hurly-burly of a pageant, “ever harmonious in its diversity: dangerous, cryptic, its every detail loaded with unguessed meaning, its parts so interlocked that you can hardly take them apart.” We will explore pageantry more in the footnotes of Book One. For now, I’ll simply mention that understanding this old genre helped me relax and enjoy several sections of heavy allegory in The Faerie Queene that I might otherwise have snubbed.
Allegory in Spenser: Humor and Childlikeness
Before reading The Faerie Queene, I was told it was a moral epic exploring the Christian virtues. Consequently, I expected it to be terrible. Surely anyone writing stories about holiness, temperance, and chastity was a bore. Because I was familiar with The Divine Comedy and Pilgrim’s Progress, I anticipated stern, didactic allegory from Spenser. Instead, I was delighted to discover The Faerie Queene running on a much longer leash. Not only does Spenser offer comedic characters within his plot, he also pushes serious literary conventions to an exaggerated level—taking risks in moments where such behavior is perfectly audacious.
Until I understood this dynamic, I felt guilty about my inclination to laugh like a kid in church during certain scenes of this poem. Foolishly, I assumed I was the witty modern reader, aware of awkwardness that a religious writer from the late 1500s couldn’t possibly understand. Yet as I studied this text, I began to find Spenser’s humor more advanced than my own. In fact, for the most part, the joke’s been on me. I was one of those guilty readers Nelson accuses of being “reluctant to grant the necessary sophistication to writers and audiences of the past.”
As you read, it might be wise to remember Spenser’s affection for Geoffrey Chaucer, a writer Spenser cites and praises openly in his poem. Stories ranging from the sober to the perverse fill The Canterbury Tales, and Spenser seems to have adopted Chaucer’s narrative range. With the exception of a few painfully cerebral stretches, Spenser will push you to feel, to laugh, to repent, to grow—to engage with his stories exactly as you are.
Lewis writes, “The poem is a great palace, but the door into it is so low that you must stoop to go in. No prig can be a Spenserian. It is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it.” Formal commentaries have spliced Spenser’s historical, moral, and philosophical connections to bits—and I’m addicted to those analyses. But as Lewis has advised, attempting to crack the entire cipher is probably the least desirable way to engage with this poem for the first time, for “many things—such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly—are done worst when we try hardest to do them. Allegory is not a puzzle. . . . We must surrender ourselves with childlike attention to the mood of the story.”
SPENSER’S QUESTIONABLE TREATMENT OF RACE, RELIGION, GENDER, and NATIONALITY
Glorification of Whiteness, Religious and Gender Bias
When we disagree with a living person we love, there’s always hope that our engagements and example can shift their perspective. Writers, however, must die with their bad takes in print, standing frozen forever. As dearly as I love many elements of The Faerie Queene, Spenser’s text also contains several biases that are rightly offensive in the modern era. Let’s look at a few of those directly before moving forward.
The tendency of old stories to affiliate the darkness of a body with the darkness of a heart has led to grave cultural consequences. When children are repeatedly taught to expect goodness from lily white characters and evil from black ones, real-world prejudices can calcify.
Spenser’s tendency to bend stereotypes seems to have protected him from some of the severity found in other old stories. Darkness in Spenser is often connected to a true lack of light—indicating an underworld or dungeon where vision is difficult. Evil characters are sometimes pale in Spenser, and several good characters are either dressed in or identified with darkness. However, I have found a few moments in which this text glorifies whiteness, and readers of color will likely notice additional elements of bias that have escaped me.
Because it’s important to acknowledge the faults of the past, I have attempted to remain true to the original text only when flagrant racism wouldn’t be perpetuated by doing so. To many of my revisions, I have added a footnote to acknowledge Spenser’s errors. I hope readers will let me know if additional notes of clarification should be added in future editions.
For complex political reasons, not just theological ones, Catholics and Muslims were considered opponents to the reign of Elizabeth I. The queen’s rule lasted for over forty years, and during this time, religion was weaponized to advance various political causes. There’s nothing new under the sun, eh? Therefore, Elizabeth’s early beliefs about freedom in faith had to be constantly evaluated in light of active threats to her reign. While I believe the queen’s faith was sincere, her understanding of Christianity was impacted by many events surrounding her life. (We can say the same for any of us.) British poets of the 1590s were aware of such tensions, and the biases of the court often bled into their work. As Tonkin writes of The Faerie Queene, “Its declared intention is to offer an education in virtue, but in the process it serves as a justification for England and English history, and it offers a vision of the past that is designed to explain a vision of the present.”
I think it is important for my readers to witness this combination of political and religious rhetoric since it influenced colonies that formed the fabric of many modern nations. On the other hand, I would never want to ignite racial, religious, sexist, or ageist animosity in young adults who encounter this text, and while a handful of you have taken the initiative to read this introductory material, most skipped to the story itself paragraphs ago. For those who fail to read footnotes, disclaimers, or preliminary clarifications, only the basic narrative will make an impact.
In light of these two competing considerations, I decided to keep most negative references while establishing historical narrative distance wherever possible. For example, I used the more archaic Saracen for Islamic characters because this was the term Christian writers used to describe Muslims in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I hope such choices will maintain an honest portrayal of the biases of the time without fueling unkindness in modern readers.
Yet, It’s Complex . . .
Spenser’s prejudices should be acknowledged openly, without excuse or apology. However, there are also instances in which he uses common theological, political, and cultural biases to identify weaknesses in his own culture. While describing the Red Cross Knight’s battle with the Saracen Sansfoy, Patrick Cullen provides one example of this dynamic. At first, this appears to be only “a combat between a pagan and a Christian knight, clear-cut moral polarities.” Yet Spenser utilizes Sansfoy to expose hypocrisy and faithlessness in the story’s Christian hero. Later in Book One, Canto Ten, Spenser judges the faults of his fellow countrymen more severely than those of other nations, writing: “Though they were guilty, he [the Red Cross Knight] remembered that God forgives us every hour for sins even worse than those” (Reynolds rendering).
To use a people group in this way still reflects bias within Elizabethan culture. Yet, in an era that unflinchingly promoted many bifurcations, Spenser boldly employs the stereotypes of his era to expose errors within the dominant faith group of his time instead of simply elevating it. Maybe we can learn something from this approach. Perhaps as we consider the splinters we presume to exist in the eyes of our opponents, we might also find the humility to confess the dastardly logs lingering in our own. In a world filled with hasty accusations and dismissals, this hard work of confession might do us some good.
Objectification of Women
Spenser’s treatment of women sometimes employs the extremes of angelic young ladies and wicked old enchantresses, females typed instead of embodied. Here and there, women are traded like property without their consent. Virginity is affiliated with worth. Death is preferable to rape. Female leadership can be scorned—unless that woman has a divine or regal calling. As a strong female, I would love to stare eye-to-eye with my beloved poet and hash through his rotten assumptions.
Yet, once again, there’s a bit more to it. Perhaps in part because Spenser was writing for a powerful female queen, moments of feminine power can feel shockingly contemporary. Belphoebe and Britomart (introduced in Books Two and Three) are heroines, a hunter and a knight, able to terrify and conquer the strongest of men. We also find wise women discipling, protecting, guiding, and rescuing male heroes while holding positions of spiritual and civic authority. As I worked, I found myself arguing intermittently that Spenser was both a chauvinist and an early feminist.
Now and then, Spenser seems to write himself into a corner before attempting to wrap up questions about feminine roles with a solution that feels too quick for the complexity he has created. Other places, he seems to let the tension stand. His inconsistency leaves room for scads of scholarly young women to write brilliant, text-based, historically grounded papers about his work. (Ready, aim, fire, ladies. I want to read all of what you create.)
Throughout the text, I couldn’t resist including a few maternal footnotes for young female readers who may be encountering the jolt of objectification in a historic work of literature for the first time. Though I couldn’t address every instance of sexism, I want these intermittent messages to serve as a little hand squeeze for the youth wandering through these stories. Ladies, if you feel angry over how a female is treated in a given scene, I’m likely right there with you. Let’s stare unflinchingly into the hard realities that our foremothers have faced. Let’s learn from the past. Let’s make sure the world grows fuller of Britomarts who can stand before a monster and shout bravely, “No living man am I.”
Spenser’s Anti-Irish Behavior
Spenser’s treatise, A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland, is disturbingly hostile toward a land in which he had dwelt for over a decade. Written in 1595 and 1596, it wasn’t published until 1633—over thirty years after Spenser’s death—when James Ware softened a few of Spenser’s claims and gave it a new title: A View of the State of Ireland. Ware’s edits retained most of the document’s anti-Irish sentiment, and the treatise is abominable in both its original and its revised forms. Yet, without excusing Spenser’s horrible choices, it might be beneficial to recognize a few events that influenced his perspective.
Spenser grew up in a relatively poor home, and his education was funded by others, so he didn’t inherit the advantages of elite English society. After Cambridge, he moved to Ireland in the service of Lord Grey, where he served for seven years as the clerk of faculties in the Irish Court of Chancery. After this, he was also employed as a commissioner of musters, a deputy, and a secretary. In 1589, he began to live in Kilcolman Castle, occupying land once owned by the Earl of Desmond. This is where Spenser composed most of The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s right to this property was challenged by an Anglo-Irish Lord Roche, but Spenser established six English families on the premises. He traveled with Raleigh to visit Elizabeth I in 1589, read part of The Faerie Queene to her, and was granted an incredibly rare pension for life in 1591. In 1597, he bought the Renny castle and land for his son, as well as additional property near Kilcolman. He was established as sheriff-designate of Cork in 1598—the same year Irish rebels attacked and burned Kilcolman. It’s possible that one of his children died in this fire. Spenser died the following year.
Life in Ireland wasn’t Spenser’s first choice, but it was difficult to land a post in England at the time. (Judson 1945:71). And, since Spenser had married his first wife in 1579 and fathered two children in this union, he needed to provide for his family. It’s important to remember that Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene while longing to return to England, a move that would have required pleasing English rulers who had opinions about what should be done in Ireland. This doesn’t mean Spenser was insincere in the political opinions he expressed, but he was deeply invested in English politics, and he had formed alliances, dependencies, and allegiances accordingly.
When Spenser arrived in Ireland, its culture was quite different from that of England. The brilliant Irish golden age that had followed the arrival of Saint Patrick (around 430 CE) was brought to a halt in the late 700s when Norsemen invaded, destroying monasteries and land. (Judson 1945:73) Brian Boru began a restoration of Irish rule in his famed 1014 battle, though control of the nation shifted back and forth between the Irish and the Norse until the Anglo-Normans arrived in the 1100s. The English king, Henry II (supported by the Roman Catholic Church), then claimed sovereignty over Ireland, bringing feudalism. However, it was never fully integrated, and the nation remained fragmented. When Robert the Bruce of Scotland sent his brother Edward to challenge English rule in the early 1300s, they nearly succeeded. But Edward was slain in the Battle of Faughart. (Judson 1945:74).
At the very end of the 1400s, the Tudors arrived on the scene. Their authoritative approach to leadership brought a bit of stability to England after the bloody civil Wars of the Roses, but they had a different impact on Ireland. Henry VIII shut down the Irish monasteries; Edward VI attempted unsuccessfully to implement Protestantism; Mary and Elizabeth claimed and developed Irish land without recognition of prior ownership. (Judson 1945:74) Internally, much of the nation’s own governance was focused on local leaders instead of central rule, and bandits were common. (Judson 1945:76) So, Spenser arrived in a land long contested and abused, fragmented and in flux, tossed about in an ebb and flow of English intervention–—intermittently conciliatory and severe.
The laws and customs of Ireland were strange to Spenser, and few Irish cared about the Protestantism so critical to Elizabeth’s rule. Spenser was taken aback by Breton Law and the practice of tanistry, and he was suspicious of Irish customs involving hair and clothing. Though many Irish were Catholic, Spenser declared: “they seem not to practice any religion at all”… “Papistes by theire profession but in the same so blindelye and brutishly informed for the moste part as that ye would rather thinke them Atheists or infideles” (2615-18).” LOCKEY _____
Unrest and conflict in Ireland, as well as cultural practices abhorrent to the English, led Spenser to claim a benevolent goal: “reducing that salvage [savage] nation to better goverment and civillity.” This goal was supported by “sixteenth-century theorists of just war” for whom “the crucial test of a people’s civility concerned whether its laws conformed to the edicts of natural law.” (Lockey 2001:368) Though Spenser wanted to introduce faith through gentleness, he felt this could only occur after obedience was gained through power.
Complicating Spenser’s view even more, he looked back on his own nation’s history, declaring past English ages equally savage and warlike. In Book Two, Canto Ten of The Faerie Queene, we watch Spenser confess the old ruthless and warlike ways of the English—admitting an ugly, violent, and unjust past in his native land. So, in presenting the state of Ireland in the 1590s, Spenser is arguing that England was once similarly uncultured and wild but has since been brought to a far better place—implying that the English now have a right to dominate and civilize others who have not yet arrived.
Yet, they went about this goal believing in the necessity of violence to “civilize.” Tales are told of English slaughter of women, children, the elderly, and the feeble—followed by plundering. In response, the Irish killed many English. Then, the English attempted to starve the Irish into submission, leaving its leaders weaker but resentful. So, Lord Grey (and Spenser) arrived in a land full of grief, hunger, rebellion, and resentment. The violence continued after they arrived, including a horrific slaughter in Smerwick. (Judson 1945:91). Yet, warfare in this time was conducted according to strange beliefs—for instance, that breaking a promise was worse than killing. (Judson 1945:92) Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s directions about how to engage fluctuated.
So, many factors were involved in Spenser’s approach to the Irish. He arrived financially dependent, not really wanting to be there, and his time in Ireland was marked with longing to return to his homeland. He considered the Irish population inferior, savage, and immoral—as England had once been. The land was already full of fragmentation and hostility. And Spenser, having come from a poor family, was led by powerful people who shared a similar goal for the land in which he had arrived.
Two Renaissance assumptions are also critical here. The first is that the enlightened, educated culture is inherently superior to native culture. In other words, humanism trumps primitivism. The second assumption is that all of humanity is naturally fallen, prone to terrible things, and that the nations will continue to do terrible things without being forced into “appropriate” behavior.
As secretary to Lord Grey, Spenser “was often a witness to and even participated in the trials and executions of native Irish and Anglo-Irish rebels.” (Lockey 2001:365) So, he wasn’t simply aware of what was happening—he was complicit. Should Spenser’s writing be ignored as a result of these terrible choices? Perhaps. I think The Faerie Queene is a vital teaching tool, however. By understanding how a writer so deeply committed to ethics could simultaneously fall into national rhetoric that led him to behave unethically, we can become aware of the dangers of our own biases. How might the poisonous nature of pride, or the complexities of our own national stories, blind us to the abuses of our own alliances? Spenser’s life shows us how such grave mistakes are possible—even when we have the best intentions.
There’s far more to A Vewe and to Spenser’s life than this, but perhaps this brief summary will offer context about a teacher of virtue who supported some notorious behavior. Isn’t it ironic? The English poet most intent on teaching ethics was also blind to many of his own worst errors. If that doesn’t make you quiver in your boots, I’m not sure what will. It’s possible for a single human to make both beautiful and terrible things, committed to the first while being blind to the second.
- S. Lewis, a native Irishman who loved The Faerie Queene, addressed this strain with honesty, naming Spenser’s civil and artistic sins in full force. He condemned what should be condemned in Spenser’s life while also advocating for what Spenser got right in the poem. Like Lewis, I think we have much to learn from both the poet’s moral strengths and his weaknesses.