Spenser, Edmund. The First Booke of the Faerie Queene Contayning the Legends of the Night of the Red Crosse or Of Holiness, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. with C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr.
(This first book was originally written in 1590.)
Well, who would’ve ever thought The Faerie Queene would be a page-turner? Certainly not I when I (somewhat hesitantly) agreed to join Heather’s 2009 challenge to read the epic poem. I thought it might be beautiful. I thought it might be educational. I thought I might get totally lost, possibly not understanding a word of it. But staying up way past my bedtime, because I can’t believe what’s happening and must find out what’s going to happen next? Six months ago, I would have laughed derisively at such an absurd notion.
But before I continue with “Knights and Ladies and Dragons and Witches and Giants (Oh My!),” I’d like to comment on “Notes.” Am I the only one who often finds the notes in works to be terribly frustrating? First of all, I hate endnotes (and I know, having worked nearly fifteen years in the publishing industry, and having written papers for school long before that, how difficult footnotes are. I ought to be more forgiving, but the reader in me just can’t be). I most especially hate endnotes when the book I’m reading has 1070 pages before they begin. What’s worse is when the text doesn’t reference them anywhere, so a reader has to read a verse, then flip through 1000 pages to check out the notes to see if there’s any enlightening material there (giving bookmarks, which are obviously suffocating under all that weight, the perfect opportunity to leap from the pages and flutter into tiny crevices between chairs and radiators, hoping you won't find them).
Why is it that (once you’ve gone to all the effort to retrieve escaping bookmarks and have finally located the page you need), nine times out of ten, the notes do nothing more than inform you that “giust” means “joust” in this line, “As one for knightly guists and fierce encounters fitt,” while not bothering to define “puissance” in this line “To proue his puissance in battell brave”? (41) Since, as you can see, the “u” is most often translated as our present-day “v,” am I so weird that my reaction to that word is, “What the hell? Pavissence? Prowess? Presence?” (And don’t think “pissants” doesn’t also spring to mind, if I’ve been put into a certain sort of mood by annoying notes and fluttering bookmarks, especially when the word appears later in the text as “puissant.”) I can give you plenty of other examples of such words throughout the text.
However, in fairness to the notes, if I hadn’t had them, being as ignorant as I am about most works written pre-1900, I would have been completely lost while reading the opening stanza. Instead, I found myself immediately interested. In a nutshell, Spenser (following in the footsteps of other poets of his day) imitates Virgil by pointing out that he began his career with pastoral poems, moved on to more complicated structures, and is now giving us an epic. Of course, most, I bet, didn’t write epics that were six books long. That’s just one of the many things that has me marveling at Spenser’s genius. The fact that he could keep this up for so long -- using words so beautifully, without missing a beat -- is mind-boggling. Half the time, I can’t even get my prose to make any sense; forget poetry. (I’m assuming here, after reading only the first book, that he managed to keep this going, because I have no reason to doubt he could). Of course, the notes are also to be blamed for my desire to read about 100 other works now.
But let’s leave the notes alone to chat amongst themselves about easily-inferred word meanings and get on with the poem. I’d started this reading project (we were to read the first book in January) with the idea that I’d read 7-10 pages at a time, figuring I’d be struggling with it and trying to digest what I was able to decipher. After all, I remember struggling mightily with it when I was in college (and avoiding it like the plague when it came time to write papers). More evidence that my education was wasted on me at that age, because I dove right into it this time and found myself lost in a Dark Wood with a Knight, Lady by his side, fighting one of the most spectacular dragons I’ve encountered in a long time:
…Of her there bred
A thousand young ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, eachone
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone. (44)
I love that vision – all these hideously-formed offspring, terrified of the light (and even I’m not so dim-witted that I don’t know what the Light is) and hiding out inside her mouth. She eventually spews them all out, so instead of a fire-breathing dragon, we have, for all intents and purposes, a Pandora’s-Box-breathing dragon. And that’s just the first of many dragons (many dragons are a wonderful thing if you happen to be partial to dragons. Unfortunately, they do, of course, all die).
I don’t want to give you too many spoilers (right. Because I am sure you are all racing over to Powells to order your copies without bothering to finish reading this post), so suffice it to say that when you’ve got a couple who has been bamboozled by a magician and a witch, and who become separated through misunderstandings deliberately concocted by both, so that Lady is out searching for Knight (who is having plenty of adventures and misadventures) all on her own, you might suddenly discover that the ten pages you meant to read has become fifty. And that fifty might easily become another hundred when the Lady finds herself, in an interesting twist, about to be raped by Another Knight before the “Fawnes” and “Satyres” arrive (not in shining armor) to save her (yet again, most especially if you happen to be partial to “Fawnes” and “Satyres." Happily, unlike the poor dragons, they don't all die). And then the Lady meets King Arthur (as Prince here), and we are given one of the most magnificent (sorry Malory! You know I love you) portrayals of Arthur I’ve read. (Apparently, Spenser thought magnificence was a Christian virtue, just as many American “Christians,” residing in their 4000-square-foot homes, do today.)
Well, you get this far and just might find yourself asking your husband, “Are you sure [as he’s asserted] nobody reads this whole thing, because it gets boring?” And you might find yourself questioning friends who’ve told you they hate The Faerie Queene, wondering if they’ve confused it with, you know, something like “The Snow Queen.” Meanwhile, you have a new respect and deepened fondness for those you know who have studied the work in depth.
I could go on and on about Spenser’s brilliance (to think I’ve always been so impressed with the magic Faulkner spun from one soliloquy when he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Well, what Spenser did with practically every Western myth, epic, and writer before him makes Faulkner look like a pre-schooler using slight of hand to hide a coin), his passion, his facility with language (that is, if you ignore the occasional “puissance”), his psychological insight. I won’t go on and on, though. I don’t have near the talent with a pen (or keyboard) he had, and 1000+ pages from me would not be met with questions like, “Are you sure this gets boring?”
I suppose I ought to talk a little bit about the religious allegory, but my guess is that most of you don’t want to hear it (and besides, I’m not really all that qualified to do so. You need to talk to “The Rev” – you know, the one who doesn’t think anyone reads this whole poem – if that’s what interests you). Still, I can’t keep from commenting on the fact that we have the three evil brothers Sans foy (Without Faith), Sans ioy (Without Joy), and Sans loy (Without Law), none of whom lives “happily ever after.” I also must note how priceless dear Charissa (Charity) is. You see, when we meet her two sisters Fidelia (Faith) and Speranza (Hope), they are good virgins (as all never-married women should be). Charissa, however (which makes perfect literal sense, if you’re familiar with the Biblical reference), is not around, having been lovingly,
…lightened of her womb,
And hath encreast the world with one sonne more,
That her to see would be but troublesome.
Indeede (quoth she) that should her trouble sore
But thanks be God, and her encrease to evermore. (164)
Because we wouldn’t want Greatest-of-All-These-Love to be anything other than married and increasing to evermore (while making sure she doesn’t let people see her in her troublesome, post-birth state). Finally (besides noting that a feminist interpretation of this work just might not look too kindly on it at all), I’d like to note that Spenser could perhaps have been a tad bit more subtle when it came to his feelings about the Catholic church.
However, I’ll forgive Spenser his anti-Catholic sentiments (there I go, forgiving another author I’ve come to love), because, he was, like all of us, a man of contradictions. He might have been throwing darts at the Pope, but he could also be quite thoughtful. You see, he oh-so-kindly sums up the plot as a prelude to each canto, so even if you find yourself thinking “guess you had to be there,” as you try to understand some of the more archaic lines and references (while the notes are too busy telling you that "bloudy" is "bloody" to be of any help at all), you always have the “dumbed-down” main gist of what’s happening.
I can’t wait to see if Book II lives up to the first. It’s certainly going to be a hard act to follow