The Faerie Queene fits in the category of important books so big that they often stay in our “to read” pile for years on end. I still haven’t read Ulysses by Joyce, which is only as long as a Stephen King warm up. Still, these longish books tend to gather too much dust.
The Faerie Queene is an important book—really a collection of books. Spenser was writing The Faerie Queene at the same time as Sidney’s Arcadia was thrilling Elizabeth’s court and Shakespeare was filling the stage with wonder. Spenser invented his own metre and translated Arthurian legend into a multi-layered allegorical poem that clocks in (I would estimate) at over 300,000 words—just a little less than Stephen King’s It; though, to be fair, that is only about a quarter of what Spenser intended.
I have wanted to read it—The Faerie Queene, that is; I read It in high school–and I have recently had the excuse to move it to my “read now” pile. I am going through C.S. Lewis’ great work of literary history, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Though not a breathtaking title, this important addition to the Oxford History of English Literature series—what Lewis called the O Hell! volume on his more cynical days (see OHEL title)—is actually quite readable. Funny in places, thrilling in others, Lewis’ analysis of nearly all the poetry and prose of 16th century England is filled with delightful commentary and his classic upside-down look at the world.
I am coming up to the chapter in OHEL on Spencer and Sydney, the masters of golden age Elizabethan poetry. So I wanted to read some of Sidney and finally tackle The Faerie Queene. Once I got into it, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The Faerie Queene is much more intimidating in my mind than in print, and I have come to love its poetry and the battle scenes. Though the sheer number of characters and the allegorical layers leave me still a bit muddled, the Arthurian stories are much fun. Reading The Faerie Queene is a great way to peak into Elizabethan society, giving us the ideal view while Shakespeare handles the mud and mire and satire. And the poetry—wow! Often times I am left reeling by its beauty.
If you are like me and you are a little intimidated by the language, length, and lyric of The Faerie Queene, this little guide will hopefully break down barriers for you moving Spenser from the perpetual “to read” list to your bedside table.
1. Toughen Yourself Up
If you are well versed in early modern poetry, then you probably won’t be intimidated by Spenser to begin with. For the rest of us, it can take a bit to get into the swing of things. There are three great ways to get a feel for the pattern of The Faerie Queene before you start.
First, dig out those college volumes of Shakespeare and slide back into the great characters, sublime poetry, and gripping stories of the Bard. Start with where you are most comfortable. For me, that is Romeo and Juliet, but any of the comedies will do. Then move to Midsummer Night’s Dream—a funny and accessible way into the faerie folklore of the time. When you are warmed up, move into the court tales. It was Queen Elizabeth who said, I think, “I am Richard III,” so start with that play. The first Henry IV would probably be valuable, but any of the monarch stories get you the taste of Spenser’s world.
Second, read Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in a modern version. Though it is written a century earlier, it is written in prose, and this is the era that I think that Spenser was trying to capture with his poem. Malory can be occasionally dull, but it isn’t hard and much of it is very good. Malory’s Arthur tales provide the framework for the whole English tradition that follows, including The Faerie Queene.
Third, and this may be surprising, read the King James Bible. If you are more courageous, read a digital version of Tyndale’s Bible or any of the Psalms translations in the 16th century. But even that old version of the KJV you have laying around will give you a taste of the late Elizabethan era. Read some of the Psalms and the books of Samuel and get a sense of the language.
Purists will hate me here, but if your goal is to get the story and infuse the poetry into your soul, then find a modern version that updates the spelling. I don’t know of an ePub version in totally modern spelling, but the Project Gutenberg and other eText versions are hybrids, giving us only English letters we use today—translating, for example, the “thorn” (þ = th) and the “integral s”—(ʃ = an “s” inside a word, like “Shakeʃpeare”—it looks like an “f” without the crossbar). Carol V. Kaske’s version with footnotes of difficult words is exceptional (Hackett Publishing).
If you can’t get a modern text, worry not. By the 1590s, many of the French words have slipped away or are Anglicized, and Shakespeare uses a far wider vocabulary than Spenser. You will know most of the words. You just need to get past some of the funny spelling, especially in vowels and dipthongs. Since 1950, our “u” and “v” have switched (mostly)—I find this the hardest thing to switch in my mind—and “i” and “j” as well as “i” and “y” look a bit mixed up in the old texts. The result is a phrase like this: “the vnciuile chaunge of an yvile mynde that loueth not a booke of vertue” = “the uncivil change of an evil mind that loves not a book of virtue.”
If you need to read an older style text, the best thing to do is just read it aloud! “Full hard it is (quoth he) to read aright” you say (Book I, Canto IX). No problem. Reading aloud will cover over a lot of the gaps. A bit strange for neighbours and deskmates, but you will accidentally read most things aright. And in pronouncing it out loud you will guess at words you didn’t know you knew. Try it out with the first stanza of the prologue:
LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
Really, it’s not too bad. If you’ve learned to thumb-type or read a roadmap or follow the assembly instructions for an Ikea desk named “þündʃer,” then you can get used to some of the funny letters.
And, if all else fails, download the audio and listen with the text on your lap. Thomas Copeland does an excellent job reading The Faerie Queene, which you can get free at Librivox.org.
If purists are bothered by my suggestion to get a modern text—if you’ve ever tried reading a Shakespeare or King James Bible folio, you’ll know we are all reading modern texts—then the purists are going to seek legal help here.
I am an advocate of the “read for yourself” approach. Don’t read your introductions to Bible books or Wikipedia entries of that novel you are about to pick up. I want you to read for yourself and see how far you get before you get into trouble.
But with Spenser, I am going to suggest breaking the rules.
First, there are dozens of characters, mostly with names that have deep meaning in Latin, French, Greek, Hebrew, or Middle English. If you haven’t the time to learn those languages over the next couple of weeks, then find a character cheat sheet and slip it into the back of your book. If anyone knows of a family tree of Faerie Queene characters, let us all know. The characters keep moving in and out of action and have difficult-to-remember names. A character list really does help.
Second, I found it really difficult to keep track of the narrative flow. I love the poetry, and the action is often emotional or even gruesome. But Spenser will go on in a speech for 4 or 5 pages saying only “he” or “she” or “thou,” and I often got lost on who was speaking. Each of the 6 complete books are broken up into 12 cantos. I looked for canto summaries online, and would read the canto summary before reading the poem. The little summary helped orient me, and I was able to follow the action much more easily. Steer clear of “analysis,” but grab some summaries if you can.
Some think this is a cheat. Well it is a cheat—notice the title: “cheat sheet.” But even Spenser knew that it would be a challenge for some readers, so he included a stanza at the beginning of each canto to tell the reader what was coming. Later shortened to chapter titles in modern books, these little proems and epigrams help the reader navigate a story. If it will help you get into Spenser, I encourage you to cheat. If your conscience is bothered, confess your literary sin below in the comments.
4. Keep Up a Steady Rhythm
The Faerie Queen is a long book—have I mentioned that yet? But broken down, it is entirely conquerable. Each canto took me 15-30 minutes to read. I was trying to finish in 6 weeks, so I had to read 2 cantos a day. This mostly worked for me. Books I and IV went much more quickly, setting aside an evening and finishing off 5 or 6 cantos. This is the reading schedule that worked for me.
The best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to break the task down. There were times that, at the end of the day, I only had the mental space for a single canto. And there are a few duds in the batch, like a canto dedicated to a list of all the rivers of Great Britain, and their personalities. But I kept at it, day after day. And when the story was threatening to run away on me, I let out the reins and followed it.
The Faerie Queene is a mind muscle kind of booke. If thou art ynclined to meaner fare, by all means seek ye that path. But for the stubborn and committed reader, there is a lot of gold in these lines. Almost lost to history, fellow academics thought C.S. Lewis was nuts for spending an entire chapter in OHEL and The Allegory of Love on a fairy tale writer. But we have since set aside our disdain of fantasy, and Spenser was one of the early pilgrims to cross the threshold into a world where physics and metaphysics go astray.
And more than that, Spenser was doing something with this book. He was trying to change Queen Elizabeth—who is the Faerie Queene, after all. I don’t know exactly what he was trying to teach her, but he was trying to teach her something. So The Faerie Queene is definitely worth the effort.
What about you? Do you have any tips to add to the timid reader of Spenser? What things do you do to toughen yourself up to harder books, or to manage longer readings?