The Faerie Queene: An Invitation to Discover a Forgotten Epic
By REBECCA REYNOLDS •
It’s mid-July and unusually hot for Oxford. Sweat rolls down your spine, and your feet are on fire. Half a block down, you see an indie bookshop. No air conditioning, but they have a basement.
Eighteen slapdash shelves—children’s books and clearance—this is going to be a hunt. Still, there’s that library smell. Oh, glory. It makes your arms tingle. A rattly dehumidifier gurgles in the next room.
You can hear the owner and his son upstairs, arguing about the book of Exodus. Puccini is playing on Radio 4. Time is slow here. It could be 1936, or 1952, or whatever it is now. You’ve forgotten. Doesn’t matter.
You thumb through the shelves, daydreaming about finding a long-lost epic. Imagine—a story forgotten by all but a few dusty old folks who name their cats “Winfred” and smell faintly of breakfast sausages, rose powder, and menthol.
Then, you see it—two volumes, leather-bound book, nearly a thousand pages total. On the spine, faded letters you can barely make out…The Faerie Queene.
A Lost Epic
That’s not how I discovered The Faerie Queene, but it’s how I want you to feel when you discover it. For the most part, this story has been forgotten for over 400 years, just waiting for us to find it.
Perhaps that’s been for the best. Perhaps a story this dangerous and powerful needed to sleep for a few centuries before waking up again. Perhaps The Faerie Queene is our generation’s Excalibur, holding still until the perfect generation of souls arrived. After all, most treasures are worth more after being underground for a while.
My favorite writer, C. S. Lewis, loved The Faerie Queene dearly. He once said that it should be enjoyed on a rainy day by young men and women “between the ages of twelve and sixteen.” I agree with him completely, though I’m still smitten at forty-seven. (The best fairy tales get better as we age.)
Still, there’s a reason most twelve to sixteen year-olds haven’t read this epic. Though The Faerie Queene was written about the same time as Shakespeare, for most readers, Spenser’s original language is much more difficult than the Bard’s. (I’ll explain more about why this text is particularly difficult in my next post.) When the rare lit teacher assigns an excerpt of The Faerie Queene, it’s often used as a brief exercise in old language. Two or three bookish girls get excited. Everyone else is miserable. I tried teaching original Spenser once, but very quickly, I realized most of my students were missing the joy and awe of the tale. They could not drink it down in delight like Lewis had hoped they would.
His language is different from mine, but his story still resounds.
Genre differences come into play here. While etymological labor almost always pays off for young folks reading Shakespeare, meticulous, line-by-line research can kill the natural and healthy, young delight of a fairy tale. When you are twelve years old, you usually can’t hold your breath (and your reader’s trance) while a monster attacks—as you search the OED for the nuance of a forgotten adjective. That’s not how stories should work at that age. At twelve, you need a comfy chair, a steaming mug of tea, your imagination, and permission to be a child on a dangerous journey. Engaging with original Spenser, my students learned that Elizabethan language was tough, but they never fell in love with the story. This broke my heart.
So after school was over, I spent most of a long night transposing several pages of the text. Could I catch every textual nuance? No. But when I read these pages to my students the next day, they loved it. And they wanted more. From that moment on, I knew this had to be done large scale.
Why am I using the word “transposition?” Somehow it just seems to fit better for this project. It’s a smaller, gentler term. We use the word “translation” to refer to a story interpreted from an entirely different language—something like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, or Dorothy Sayers’s Dante, or Julie Rose’s Les Mis. In this case, I’m doing more of a “key shift.” I’m taking English from the late 1500s to 2020.
In this transposition, I’m trying to keep the heart and heft of the text. Some loss of meaning is inevitable of course, and I grieve when I can’t catch the full weight of an idiom or pun. But I can walk as close to the original language as possible while whetting appetites. I can show older readers why they should go back and hack through Spenser’s original text. And I can give them a tool that will help you on that journey. Consider my work an introduction to a party you can attend for the rest of your life.
What will this entail?
Over the next two years, I will be creating a text-faithful transposition of Spenser’s entire epic. I’ll be keeping you updated here on the Rabbit Room so you can follow the process and be a part of some decisions I’m making along the way. I’ll also be asking a few twelve to sixteen year-olds to participate in the Order of the Red Cross—a special group of young readers commissioned to give wise and honest feedback as we go. (You Rabbits are good folk. I can’t think of companions I’d rather have on this journey.)
Thanks to the brilliant artistry of renowned illustrator Justin Gerard, this story is also gaining gorgeous new illustrations. I’ve had so much fun brainstorming with Gerard and my publisher, deciding which scenes should be incorporated visually.
Warning: Dangerous Fairy Tale Ahead
I should give you one warning before you continue, though. Don’t let the delicate title lull you into a false sense of security.
The Faerie Queene is not a safe story. It’s bloody, and it’s scandalous, and it’s complicated. You will meet seducers, spirits, monsters, and beautiful, deadly women. You’ll need the stomach for dismemberment, and exploding bodies, and ghastly battles. Heads will be split in half and chopped off. Hellish creatures will tear the flesh of good men, and brave souls will make terrible mistakes.
Yet, through all of this, you’ll learn about courage, and humility, and discernment. You’ll learn that it’s possible to grow through your mistakes. You’ll find out who you can trust and who you shouldn’t. You’ll walk away wiser and hopefully a little braver—understanding more about yourself and the world you’re about to face.
While working on The Faerie Queene, I’ve often found myself sitting at a library table, surrounded by books written by Spenserian experts—covered in goosebumps—because a particular story element had caught my own fears, failures, and hopes so accurately. His language is different from mine, but his story still resounds. I have needed his images during the chaos of the last few years as a call to keep fighting, keep getting back up when I fall, keep confessing, keep growing. For as Chesterton once said, monsters can still be defeated—even when we feel small and stupid—and even when the world feels so very dark.
Rebecca Reynolds taught Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Rabbit Room website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song.