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If you think Spenser's Faerie Queene isn't for you, think again—this poem that has something for everyone. Want epic adventure and some serious battles? The Faerie Queene delivers. Prefer romance and stories of passionate love? Yep, The Faerie Queene has plenty of that too. Or maybe you're more into deep and penetrating considerations of morality and religion? Well, The Faerie Queene is all over that. It's Lord of the Rings meets Sleepless in Seattle meets Dostoyevsky plus some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in English. So, what's your excuse?
Written during the height of England's flowering in the Renaissance under Queen Elizabeth I, The Faerie Queene was Spenser's attempt to write the ultimate poem of his time celebrating both his beloved monarch and his beloved country, England. In fact, England came a little bit late to the whole Renaissance-flowering party that had been going on in Europe, so Spenser was also trying to make sure that England built a rep for being cultured and sophisticated by writing a cultured and sophisticated English poem about England, its values, and its history.
And just to make sure it fit poetic models trendy in Europe at the time, Spenser liberally borrowed some themes, characters, and plot points from another epic poem written in Italian, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.
But that's not to say that Spenser's Faerie Queene isn't chock full of innovation. Spenser chose to explore and expand upon his own world by totally inventing another: the world of Faerie. And this world doesn't work at all like our world—this world is an allegorical world, where virtue, vices, villainies, and ideals are all imagined to be actual beings that run around creating and preventing havoc as they see fit. It puts Westeros to shame in terms of sheer insanity… and crazed, weird sex.
So while The Faerie Queene is examining important issues about its own—pretty important—time, it's also very deeply engaged in narrating issues that transcend all times. You know, little things like justice, ethics, and love.
The big question The Faerie Queene asks of its readers is how its allegorical way of telling a story achieves this end. How is The Faerie Queene uniquely able to examine these Big, Timeless Themes by making them manifested as actual characters? In a sense The Faerie Queene is one of the greatest poetic experiments in the English language, so don't be afraid to evaluate the distinctiveness of Spenser's story while still enjoying its adventure, its romance, and its insights.
You know that moment in a horror movie when you wish could you tell the main characters to under no circumstances split up, or ohnoohnoohno don't go into that abandoned motel? That, dear Shmoopers, is exactly the emotion that The Faerie Queene is trying to get you to feel. Substitute "serial killer clowns" for "dragons" and "shuttered insane asylums" for "fake Garden of Edens" and you have The Faerie Queene: an epic poem that will have you shrieking and covering your face with a pillow, because you just know what's going to happen next.
Spenser is hoping that even when his characters fail to understand what's going on, you the reader will… and will be better for it.
Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene because he really cared about making people care. He imagined a poetic world that wasn't just about telling a story, getting some laughs, and moving right along, but that actively, even interactively, invited his readers to learn from and along with his characters.
So while The Faerie Queene completely delivers on the excitement, fun, and beauty we traditionally expect from Great Literature, it also has some of the appeal of a crossword puzzle or riddle that you just have to solve. Every character and every action is part of a massive and intricately designed network of allusion and symbolism, and as you read along, you can begin to piece together how they interact with one another and guess what Spenser might be trying to teach us through those interactions.
The point isn't that you'll agree with every lesson Spenser offers: the point is that understanding these lessons can offer you a pretty unusual literary experience. It will push you to rethink what you think you know about character, setting, and even story, but in the process, it will still offer torture chambers, beautiful women, extended cross-dressing sequences, weird spells and violent battles. Think Game of Thrones plus Sudoku, or The Lord of The Rings plus The Cabin In The Woods.
Read Your Romances
Check out this near online exhibit from the Bodleian which features rare editions of Romances, including—you guessed it—our very own Faerie Queene.
A great place to start for any aspiring Spenser-enthusiast.
Background on Britain
If you want to learn more about Spenser's historical context, this list of websites and resources from Renaissance Britain is not to be missed!
Book 1, Online
Book 1 of The Faerie Queene is the most important and well read of the six books: check it out on the always-awesome Project Gutenberg.
While there are exactly zero film or television versions of the Faerie Queene, there's tons of good stuff about Queen Elizabeth, who is such a central figure to the poem. This movie, Elizabeth, while it takes a lot of historical liberties, is one fun place to start.
The Faerie Queene and Modern Intellectual Issues
Here you'll find the transcription of a great lecture by a professor at Yale called "The Faerie Queene Among the Disciplines."
Images of The Faerie Queene
While it's not actually a movie depicting the poem itself (no one has tried this…yet), it is a lovely slideshow of nineteenth-century illustrations of The Faerie Queene.
The Lowdown on Spenser's Life
Listen to a major biographer of Spenser chat about his book and about commonly held views of Spenser's life.
Listening to The Faerie Queen
Check out this website for access to audio book versions of Spenser's poems.
The Man Himself
Here's an iconic image of our author.
The House of Holiness
A beautiful woodcut image from Book 1, when Redcrosse visits the House of Holiness.
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