Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

Suzannah Rowntree got me hooked on Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene a couple of years ago.

I'll be honest and say I never expected to like it as much as she did.

After two years of procrastination, I have now finished this epic classic. Today I'm proud to write a review of my reading experience. It may be rather meandering, but I'll point you to an in-depth study guide at the end.

The Book 
In the 1500s, Edmond Spenser set out to write a fantasy book about twelve Christian virtues. But he didn't want this to be a sermon book; he wanted a swashbuckling portrayal of virtues and vices illustrated by the lives and adventures of twelve knights in the time of King Arthur.

He certainly pulled it off. Jousting knights, pet lions, raging giants, and epic tales of battle, love, and chivalry, as each virtue triumphs over its contrasting vice. Sounds cool? Even cooler, he wrote each adventure in rhyming Middle English poetry.

Wait. Come back. It's not that bad!

The Journey 
This has been my baby for the last two years. The only time I've really, badly procrastinated for two years on something I need to get done. Like the guilty, feel-yucky procrastination. Somehow the first two books didn't click. Each canto took forever to finish, and there are twelve cantos per book, and 6 books for the whole Faerie Queene, so...you get the idea.

I took it to election working. I tried reading it on the computer. None of the methods stuck for long, but I still had fun along the way. I loved all the reactions from various people. The army veteran who remembered reading The Faerie Queene in highschool. The stylish older lady who rolled her eyes at the bad memories. The howls of laughter from my family every time I read another lofty, unintelligible stanza about virtue's decline in the modern world. The time my brother asked "are you reading that to punish yourself?"

No, actually.

Two weeks ago, I was done with my writing goals for the month, I had finished my big epic novel's fourth edit, and my computer went to the shop for repairs. I think, all of a sudden, I had brain space for The Faerie Queene. Instead of struggling through one canto per week (with twelve cantos per book, and six books...never mind.) I stared whipping through six cantos a day. I wanted to get it done, and I wanted to get it done before we went out of town to the Creation Museum.

Friends and fellow bibliophiles, I met my goal. And I am now a proud fangirl of the Edmund Spenser club.

It feels elite.

A pet lion. A PET LION.
Basic Impressions: 
First of all, Spenser's imagery isn't hard to get. I still bungled it, though. I was reading along in book 4, about a knight getting mad, because he was trying to sleep next to workers pounding away at an anvil. My first impression was wondering how much of an imbecile he could be not to get up and move. But when I read the names of the workers (Pensiveness and Sighs), I realized it was an allegory for those dark nights when you're lying awake, and you can't shake off thoughts of grief and sorrow. Everybody has nights like that. Spenser explains exactly what he means; it doesn't take a genius to understand it. (Which..is good. Because I don't get the obvious.)
Second, his characters are so vivid. I did burst out laughing by about the sixth maiden in distress who claimed she was the 'most sorrowful maiden in all the world'. But in spite of that, the characters are varied and endearing.
Thirdly, his Christian living and teaching are challenging and true. I dog-eared many pages of passages that struck me (this book is so huge I would never find them just by underlining) and rejoiced at the joy, vigor, and consistency with which his characters lived the Christian life.

I did skip a few cantos--the parade of all the sea gods didn't add to the story, and I'm not interested in that kind of religious folklore. Some of Acrasia's scenes in book 2, and one description of hell in book 1 were things I didn't want to read. Use your discretion in skipping around as you need to. The Middle English I found easy to understand as I got into it, but that may be an extra challenge for some readers. Also, Spenser occasionally goes on unimportant side tangents. If you persevere through that you'll love the book as a whole. But side tangents in Middle English poetry are more unforgivable than modern prose. ;)

Favorite Book
Each book had a different virtue. The first book (Holiness) had the tightest story plot, while the second was quite rambling. The first two didn't really resonate with me, but each one got better and more gripping as they went along. I have the most dog-eared pages of things I want to remember in Book 4 (Friendship) and Book 5 (Justice). The combination of justice and chastity, and the illustrations of wise friends, foolish friends, reconciliation and visionary work brought joy to my soul.

Favorite Characters
Artegall and his Tin Man, who went marching through the realm dispensing justice...Triamond and Cambell with their lady loves by their sides...the romance of Florimell and Marinell...King Arthur's squire. There were so many people to know and love. It would be hard to choose a favorite knight, but Artegall (Justice), Triamond (Friendship) and Calidore (Courtesy) were my favorite for the way they lived with purpose, fought as men, and protected women. And the women were pretty special as well. Many of them carried swords and killed evil people within their God-given position of biblical womanhood. If you want visionary womanhood, this book has lots of examples.

Chivalry in the Faerie Queene
I don't think I've ever read a book that embodies chivalry between men and women so well as The Faerie Queene. I'm a bit tired of the arguments about chivalry between the sexes in modern society. The Faerie Queene didn't argue or make exceptions. It just illustrated how good men should treat good women, and how good men should treat evil women. Each knight faithfully dispensed his duties with bravery and chivalry for each damsel he found in distress. There was nothing more important to a knight than rescuing a lady in need, and it didn't matter if the lady was in the most compromising or embarrassing of situations. I think this book gave me an appreciation like none other of the comfort and security God designs for women by giving them the love and protection of men. What a precious, precious gift.

Sexuality in the Faerie Queene
Sir Artegall and the Tin Man. <3 td="">

Dealing with issues of lust, chastity, love, friendship, and temperance, The Faerie Queene has several frank discussions about sex. Christian knights rescue ladies from capture, unwanted love, and attempted rape. One girl is based off of Helen of Troy, and leaves her husband for an affair. Acrasia, in book 2, has a bower of bliss where she lures in weak-willed knights for sexual pleasure, like the adulterous woman in Proverbs. The last book, especially, has several rape attempts and mentions nakedness.

While this may seem frank, I didn't read it for no reason. Spenser's handling of sexuality has some of the soundest thinking I've ever read. It trains your mind into truth. Instead of focusing on handsome blue eyes (and yes, The Faerie Queene had some rugged knights) he instead solemnly hammers into readers the importance of purity, chastity, male headship, and the beauty of sexuality as God intended it. He doesn't glorify sexuality or provocative behavior. You won't find lengthy bedroom scenes. He simply uses an appropriate level of detail for the subjects he is dealing with. Spenser wants his readers to have a Christian mindset in every area of life, and he can't train readers without talking about it.

As I remarked to a group of friends this morning, sometimes in creating something 'clean' we miss creating something 'biblical'. While The Faerie Queene can make people uncomfortable, books like this with true, mature, biblical love, create a much more mature mindset and appropriate comfort level than clean books with shallow attractions.This is a full-blooded, adult, mature Christian novel. It doesn't shy away from any aspect of  love life. I wouldn't have read this at a younger age, but now I think it's beneficial and rewarding. It may not be for everyone, and that's OK. But I would give my daughter The Faerie Queene before I would give her a stack of modern romances.

Obviously we need a longer article on this. I have one in drafts for the future.

Suzannah Rowntree's Guide
I would never have picked up The Faerie Queene without the Faerie Queene feature week at Vintage Novels. Suzannah wrote in-depth posts and answered a lot of my questions about different aspects of it. That piqued my interest, and I went out and purchased my own copy. She compiled her posts into a handy book, so if you want more information about the virtues and vices, plot lines, and vision for this story, check out her guide The Epic of the Reformation on Amazon.

In Conclusion
There is so much I want to include in this review, and I simply can't for length's sake. I can only hope that you'll give The Faerie Queene a try, and discover it to be just as rich and enjoyable as I did.

This book is one of the most talented, solid Christian stories that I have ever read. Middle English and all, I consider it a privilege to have finished a copy of this story. I give it five stars and heartily recommend it to dominion-minded readers.


  1. Schuyler, this sounds fantastic! Thank you for sharing such an in-depth review. When I read, "Even cooler, he wrote each adventure in rhyming Middle English poetry" I got seriously excited. My gut reaction was "That's so cool!" Middle English poetry is seriously my cup of tea and I am definitely adding this to my reading list. :)

    Dani from A Vapor in the Wind

    1. I'm impressed, Dani! A love for Middle English poetry is really neat. :) I think you'll enjoy Spenser. Wonderful stuff!

  2. Yaaaay! I'm so thrilled you loved it. I can definitely say I think this is a book to be read as quickly as possible :). I usually tackle an epic right after Christmas each year.

    You should totally read Tasso next! Epics are fun!

    1. Oh my, I think I should finish Tolkien's Lost Tales first. :P But I loved this one! At first I thought one read would be enough, but now I'm inclined to pick it up again a few years from now. :)

  3. O.o I think I'll...wait. xP It sounds cool though, and I'm glad you were finally able to finish it! (Btw, the illustrations are impressive too. :)

    Those personality traits (Justice, Friendship, and Courtesy) fit you perfectly. xD

    1. My dear girl! Wait! How could you possibly stand to? :P

      Don't you love the illustrations?

      And I didn't realize how funny my favorite knights were until you caught it. XD That is my aim in a threefold nutshell.

  4. This sounds like something I must read. Doctrine and symbolism and high deeds, not to mention Middle English and delightful names. I have always thought I would read this sometime in the future, and between you and Suzannah I feel my way is well-paved and my resolve steeled.

    Thank you!

    1. This is right up your alley, Elisabeth. You will need every ounce of resolution, but you will find it well worth it. As Suzannah mentioned, the faster you can read it the better. :)

  5. Oh, this is excellent, Schuyler! I was sceptical of ever attempting to try and read "The Faerie Queene" what with its stupendeous size and denseness, and with its use of Middle English, and when you mentioned you were having a hard plow through it (haha, your family's comments made me smile :D), I was even more intimidated by it, despite the wonderful positive stuff Suzannah has been sharing about it (I was thinking, "but you know, Suzannah is no ordinary reader! She seems to read those epics as though its all a breeze!!"). But conquering it, and reading your review has somehow made it feel more accessible and doable if only I put my mind to it - I also want to grow my mind and challenge myself to growing as a reader with richer texts, so this sounds wonderful. It sounds like a powerful piece of work indeed as well - a book with symbolism, spiritual themes about the virtues and vices, chivalry, knights and high deeds of great men and women would be so epic! Do you think the Middle English is readable? I've never tried, and I am afraid I wouldn't be able to understand the stanzas! :P

    I'd love to try :). Hmm, maybe my library owns a copy of Edmund Spenser's novel.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful and very captivating review of "The Faerie Queene", Schuyler - it's a well written post, and the illustrations are magnificent and make it more attractive. Congrats on finishing it too - it definitely is an achievement! ^_^

    1. Joy, I think you'd find a lot of wonderful themes, writing, Christian thought, and story elements to chew on in this book. It was a maturing and enjoyable experience for me. A worthwhile challenge, for sure. You may have more time to devote to it after you finish your PACE work, but if you feel ready for it, go ahead and get it started! The Middle English was quite readable. Only a few words did I find unintelligible, but on the whole I got the gist of the words by the meaning of the sentence. I'm here for reader support if you need it. ;D

  6. Joy - if you read the post carefully, you'll notice that Schuyler really clicked with Spenser once she began reading him at a higher speed :). The reason why I binge read epics, saving up my efforts for the quiet days after Christmas, is because I know they're much easier to read when you read them like that! So don't be afraid of Spenser, he doesn't bite!

    I would particularly recommend reading him in audio book format. Even quicker and easier that way. I played some of it aloud to my family on road trips and they were mesmerised. In fact a friend of mine has heard it two or even three times. So go for it!

    1. Right. And as Christmas is always a hectic time for us, and I only really take vacations for trips out of town or when I'm mentally bankrupt, I didn't really have a chance to devote to it. I might have found the audio book format a faster choice, and I'd like to give that a try sometime! :)

    2. Thanks for that encouragement, Suzannah! I totally see how speed-reading a book by Spenser or any of those rich classics would make it an easier experience - and I really admire your love of these classic pieces! I definitely found that when I read "The Silmarillion" :D. Somehow it's easier to carry the gist of the whole book and its themes when you read it in a few days/weeks/months vs. a longer time when you forget what happened in the previous chapter, etc.

      Like Schuyler said, I'd love to give the audio book format a go. Is there one in particular you'd recommend? :)

  7. The Librivox version works fine for us so far :)


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