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The Faerie Queene
4.15.2003 by Julian, every Tuesday.

The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser, is one of the most ambitious works of literature in the English language. Spenser set out to write a great epic poem, following in the footsteps of Virgil. He wanted to write the Great British Epic, and so he chose Arthur as his subject.

Spenser originally intended to write 24 books chronicling the adventures of Arthur before and after he became king, but given that it took Spenser about three years to write each book it was a slightly unrealistic goal (they didn’t live that long in the 1500s). He only managed six books (and the beginning of a seventh), but it’s still pretty damn impressive. Each book contains 12 cantos, and each canto is made up of around 50 stanzas. Spenser invented his own 9-line stanza form (called the ‘Spenserian stanza’) for the poem, and uses a variety of different rhyme schemes.

Each book has its own patron knight, and each knight has a virtue associated with him or her. Book One stars Redcrosse Knight, and his virtue is Holiness. His mission is to kill a dragon (we later find out that Redcrosse is actually St. George). But before he can confront the dragon he must overcome many obstacles and side-quests along the way. His first battle is with Error, a horrible monster: “Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide, / But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine.” The The Faerie Queene is heavily allegorical, so overcoming Error the snake-woman represents overcoming his tendency to commit errors in general. You get how it works?

Book Two stars Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance. His quest is to destroy the Bower of Bliss, a garden of sin and decadence, ruled over by the evil enchantress Acrasia. If you ask me, Spenser had a little too much fun describing the sinful acts that go on in the garden. In one scene, for instance, Guyon comes across a fountain with two naked chicks wrestling in it:
Two nake Damzelles he therein espyde,
Which therein bathing, seemed to contend,
And wrestle wantonly, ne car’d to hyde,
Their dainty partes from vew of any, which them eyd.

Sometimes the one would lift the other quight
Above the waters, and then downe againe
Her plong, as over maystered by might,
Where both awhile would covered reamine,
And each the other from to rise restraine;
The whiles their snowy limbes, as through a vele,
So through the christall waves appeared plaine:
Then suddeinly both would themselves unhele
And th’amarous sweet spoiles to greedy eyes revele.

The wanton Maidens him espying, stood
Gazing a while at his unwonted guise;
Then th’one her selfe low ducked in the flood,
Abasht, that her a straunger did avise:
But thother rather higher did arise,
And her two lilly paps aloft displayd,
And all, that might his melting hart entyse
To her delights, she unto him bewrayed:
The rest hidd underneath, him more desirous made.
Fortunately Guyon is accompanied by a holy pilgrim, who saves him from the evil temptations of the Bower, and he is able to defeat Acrasia.

Appropriately enough, the virtue of the third book is that of Chastity, and it’s patron knight is Britomart. Britomart is a female knight, but when she is in her armour everyone thinks she is a man. This makes for all sorts of misunderstandings and homoeroticism. Britomart's main quest is to free the maiden Amoret from the evil enchanter Busirane. Busirane is the type of guy who likes to seduce women by ripping their hearts out of their still-living bodies and using magic to make them love him, but he’s no match for Britomart and and the powers of Chastity.

Book Four has two patron knights, Cambel and Telamond, and the virtue is Friendship. Much of the book is taken up with knights fighting other knights. A tournament is held at which all the characters from the previous books gather to have it out in a huge battle royale. The half-man, half-satyr knight, Sir Satyrane does pretty well for himself, but Britomart is declared the overall winner. At the tournament, Britomart meets Arthegall, Arthur’s half-brother, and they fall in love. This book is less focused than the previous ones. Cambel and Telamond don’t actually come into the book much, and it ends with a weird side-tangent about two rivers getting married.

Book Five stars Sir Arthegall, the true-love of Britomart. He is the knight of Justice. His side-kick is an iron robot-man called Talus, who is a kick-ass fighting machine:
His name was Talus, made of yron mould,
Immoveable, resistlesse, without end.
Who in his hand a yron flale did hould,
With which he thresth out falshood, and did truth unfould.
By “thresht out falshood” Spenser means “kill lots of people.” Whenever Arthegall wants someone killed he just sicks Talus on them. At one point, Talus takes on an entire castle by himself and Arthegall just stands back and watches. Britomart returns in this book and goes to the Church of Isis where she has sex with a crocodile (don’t ask me). Meanwhile, Arthegall is imprisoned by sexy amazons and Britomart has to come and save him.

The final book of the six is about S. Calidore (the S. might either stand for Sir or Saint). He is the patron knight of courtesy and his quest is to kill the Blatant Beast who has been causing carnage all across the land. This is one of the weaker books, but it does have cannibals in it.

Anyway, The Faerie Queene is full of fantasy and adventure and sex. If you can get past Spenser’s terrible spelling (ba-dum-ching), it’s well worth reading, especially if you’re at all into fantasy. This is where a lot of fantasy tropes originated. It’s where Tolkein got a lot of his ideas, and for an epic poem it’s surprisingly fast-paced. The first three books are better than the second three, maybe because Spenser spent more time on them (it took him ten years to write books I, II and III and only six years to write books IV, V, and VI). If you get a good annotated edition it’s not too difficult to read. A lot the words are just spelled phonetically, so it doesn’t take long to catch on. The Faerie Queene is a staggering achievement by any standard.

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