Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shakespeare meets Twilight: The Serious and the Sensational in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (an academic essay by an orthodox rebel)

I think that, if anything else, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ought to be an encouragement to other writers. We often think that a true literary work must avoid the ludicrous trivialities of "sensational" literature: one needs to be serious, and very serious about one's seriousness. Spenser, however, was not ashamed to dress up his "seriousness" in children's clothing. He took the best of what would have been considered "sensational" to the Elizabethan culture of England and used it to make a masterpiece. To put it in contemporary terms, it is as though he dressed up Shakespeare in the garb of Twilight.

Of course, Spenser dealt with extremely "serious" issues, e.g., archetypes, Platonic imagery, and various moral, theological, and political themes. However, he felt it necessary to dress them all in the imagery and language of a fairy tale: knights on quests, princesses in peril, wizards and sorceresses, dragons and monsters, giants and dwarves. There were even elements of conventional patriotism and nationalism (like St. George the Dragon Slayer, the patron saint of England). Spenser did this on purpose: a fairy tale would capture and keep his audience's attention faster and better than anything else.

C.S. Lewis, in his book Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, said that if one is to properly understand and enjoy The Faerie Queene, one must approach it as a fairy tale first. To approach it primarily in any other way (viz., scholastically) will only result in you drowning in the dense layers of meaning behind every image and event. A good example of this is the Giant Orgoglio. In an essay titled "The Orgoglio Episode in The Faerie Queene," S.K. Heninger, Jr., argued that Orgoglio must be seen as emblematic of God's judgment against the Roman Catholic Church specifically, the Anti-Christ in general, and Pride ultimately. All of those elements, however, no matter how true, must not distract us from the fact that Orgoglio is first and foremost a giant: a foe of knights, a thing of myth and fairyland.

Thus, Heninger, Jr., rightly points out that "Spenser has done an admirable job of sublimating the serious argument so that on the level of simple narrative-plot Orgoglio is quite convincing in his role of giant in a fairy tale. He carries His heavy allegorical burden without impairing the childlike wonder and excitement which attends the adventure" (emphasis mine). That is the necessary point. Spenser had a very "serious argument" to get across, but he also wanted that argument to be heard by all. Therefore, he used the "sensational" elements of his own period to endear his "heavy allegorical burden" to a mass audience, an endearment that worked in his time and can still work in ours.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. As I've already commented with you, I usually don't read poetry; natural difficulties, I think. So, unfortunately, I think I'll not read The Faerie Queene (highly recommended in this book I've just finished reading), although it's the kind of book for me.

    God bless.

  2. Don't feel bad, Cristiano. Most versions of The Faerie Queene are still (for some reason) written in the older English style that existed before standardized spelling, so even for us native English speakers it's difficult to get into.

  3. Any book by G. E. Veith is a great book. :)