Anyone giving it five stars has not read the whole thing, if it were half as long it would be twice as good.
Despite its pretensions to depth, the wealth of its pleasures come from lightness and air, and nothing is more terminal to froth than darkness and excessive length. The darkness being, not the costumed shade of Nights 'Yron Chariot' trundling across the stage of rhyme, dragging a velvet curtain, but the inner darkness of the creator. The meta-dark.
Perhaps the only way that the second half of the Faerie Queene is superior to the first is that it is a deeper, more telling and much more suggestive portrait of its maker. But the things it tells us are not things we want to know.
So, like the text itself, I will speak in two halves, one full of joy, the other 'both signed and sealed with blood, Wherein darke things were writ, hard to be understood.'
BOOK ONE - THE BOWRE OF BLISSE
|Uwins, Thomas, born 1782 - died 1857|
It’s a great Anime series, or comic book, or Flash Gordon news-reel serial. It's fun. It has good fights.
You would not believe how many great works of literature have terrible, or no, fight scenes. Mallory is a serious offender in this. For a book largely about men fighting other men, the fighting itself is shit. In the Morte men come together 'like two wilde boars', they trace and traverse nigh ten houres' then one gets a spear in the gut, which is pulled out 'and the gore rushed oute thereby', and that's it. And that's it ten or twenty times because I have just described 80% of the fights in the Morte D' Arthur.
Spensers fights are little like the fights of life, but they are great fictional fights. They have structure, identity, vividness, they exhibit unique arms, different tactics and movement between places. Participants act intelligently, or at least, not pointlessly stupidly, and inventively, with their weapons and without.
Monsters, villains and remarkable creatures exhibit 'special moves' and particular actions, exactly like an anime series or computer game. Foes are linked together in complex patterns of relationship and response, presenting problems of comprehension and adaptation to the heroes.
Furor, the embodiment of fury, is taunted to levels of rage-imbued super-strength by the hag 'Occasion', the can only be beaten once she is bound. Arthur fights a giant with three bodies and strikes them through all at-once. Malegar flees on tiger-back and fires arrows, caught and returned by super-fast hags who much likewise be trapped, Malegar himself can't be beaten till he is lifted from contact with the earth. The Souldan in book five rides an uncatchable weapon-strewn chariot but the steeds that pull it can be blinded by light and crashing the chariot impales the Souldan on his own weapons.
These are not just problems, but elements of a sermon and specific allegory, while still managing to be more cinematic and exciting fights than anything else written around the same time, and many written now.
At least for the early books, Spenser acts as a (reasonably) decent show runner - he can move people on and off stage, set up thrilling denouements, arrange unspeakable revelations, raise heroes up and cast them down, only to be caught in a third-act reveal. He can throw in villains, damizells and fools and have us recognise and understand, intuitively, immediately, understand them at once. He gives us archetypes filled up with living breath and burnished with particularity. Eternal yet distinct, abstract but alive, far-flung polarities tied together in verse.
And the Verse is very good.
Even when the Faerie Queene is terrible, in the late books, it’s still possible and likely that you could open the book at random and get something between good and amazing. Let me try;
"How many flyes in whottest sommers day
Doe sieze upon some beast, whose flesh is bare,
That all the place with swarms to overlay,
And with their little stings right felly fare;
So many theeves about him swarming are,
All which so him assayle on every side,
And sore oppresse, ne any him doth spare;
But he doth with his raging brand divide
Their thickest troups, & round about him scattreth wide."
In a line or a pair he clambers smoothly from the pseudo-archaic to the demotic. He talks high and he talks low, all in one go, and smooth. He enriches his line with clear, flowing half-irregular patterns of alliteration locked within regular rhyme like ripples on a Koi pond bordered by mosaic. He can end lines like drum beats, pounding through a verse like a military step, or enjamb them, looping them like snakes back and forth, all neatly, as if at play. He can flow through diverse sounds within a verse like a painter spinning their easel on fingertip, then drop us into distant thunder with near-Miltonic repetition;
"Lest she with blame her honour should attaint,
That everie word did tremble as she spake,
And everie looke was coy, and woundrous quaint,
And everie limbe that touched her did quake"
And he is doing this continually, relentlessly, while doing every other thing in the text at the same time. He does it for a thousand pages.
Spenser seems to write like an autodictat and a clever commoner rather than someone from The Culture. In his references he flies to the heights of classical allusion and intermixes thoughts and sensations of the commonest kind - seeming to be drawn from life. The child in the crowd reaching out to touch the dragons claws, the huswife raging at an animal sneaking in to lick her milk, the shepherd lying around in the sun and offering the passing knight a drink.
His verse is patched. Not just the references but the words themselves, and not just the words but the structure. His thought is not 'what does is mean, or signify, that I am using this particular reference, euphonic structure or word?' but 'what can I do with this? Can I jam it in here? Can I jam it in there?'
He is with the audience somehow, a showman deliciously pulling back the curtain, enjoying the tension. Some poets swing open the door to a private world, but we feel Spenser there with us as the story unfolds. I know what faces he would make.
His Characters, the human ones at least, at not great. Britomart and Glauce are good. Arthur is amusingly crafty.
His monsters, villains and fools are amazing. Just from memory;
Braggadochio and Trompart – marvellous, insane, boastful loons. Barggadochio, the false knight gains False Florimell, the freaky artificial sex-golem, and sadly loses her.
Archimago - the OG anti-knight, multiply disguised, always-plotting, never-gives-up all time best supervillain. Also the catholic church.
Duessa - the ultimate hot but not. Also, the Catholic church.
THE DRAGON! - Remember that guy? (Also the Catholic church and maybe Satan)
Orgoglio - successfully boned Duessa and had a stable relationship for a while in their child-sacrifice castle. Lets hear it for this guy, and for all those other Gyants that got murdered.
Radigund - number-one RadFem Amazon. Now has her own Youtube channel.
Pyrochles - 'burnt doe I burne' dumb as a post, hyper-confident and ALWAYS ANGRY.
Mammon and his Amazing Cave.
The Spanish Inquisition Sphinx Monster.
Acrasia and her Porn Island.
Phoedra the deranged manically-rowing chatterbox (my favourite).
The Iron-Toothed, poisonous, multi-tongued Blatant Beast.
Sex-Bot False Florimell.
Distain! - In both his forms. Don't actively call him 'Distain', for he distains to be so called, and all who so him call.
The Souldan and his wacky-races hyper-chariot, and don't forget his rage-tiger wife (still out there).
Malegar - the tiger-riding unkillable badass with an army of shadowy chaos mutants and a pair of backup hags.
Furor and his messed-up hag relationship.
Night! and her yron-wheeled chariot.
Woodwose - both good and bad.
Cupid - Demon Prince of Slannesh, and a massive dick.
Despair and his amazing intro, also has a cave.
Turpine! - What a fucking tool.
Many, many pseudo-Irish cannibals, slavers and thieves.
And finally, cosmic-level Kirby-Esque female badass MVTABILITY!
What a list! And that's not all of them. It's the best run on Batman ever.
Amongst the most interesting elements are the interrelationship (literally) of many of the monstrous and villainous characters and the use of processions and courts. These are both RPG-applicable enough that I will probably end up doing posts on them both.
So there you have it, a beautiful, energetic, inventive classic of the English language, packed full of amusement and incident, and a vital seed text for pretty much all of Anglo-derived adventure and genre fiction. What’s not to love?
BOOK TWO - THE CAVE OF DESPAIR
I’m not Christian, a well-read Renaissance courtier, or capable of, or interested in, gaining the level of knowledge required to effectively simulate either, and this hugely limits my ability to appreciate whatever Spenser was trying to do.
Firstly the Faerie Queene is meant to be a sermon, a moral, philosophical and theological text in which everything, (EVERYTHING), has a specific dual spiritual and moral meaning. I’m not Christian and even if I was the closest culturally to me, through my dad, and by temperament, is Catholicism, which obviously presents its own difficulties with this obsessively anti-Catholic work.
So I am only half-reading it really, even through I am playing close attention. Christianity is already a big, powerful, complex story/artefact that exists bedded down into the structure of the believer – like a harp in the head.
I also haven’t read the European Renaissance canon, but I’ve read enough to know that they are all constantly referencing and commenting on each other. It’s a big shared universe and if you haven’t read the background then you miss maybe 20% of what’s going on. You can pick some up from notes and google but its not the same as the information goes in sequentially, instead of responding in parallel.
Christianity is a harp in the head and the assumed canon is another harp in the head so when the imagined Christian, educated and protestant reader absorbs any particular idea in the Faerie Queene they sense and respond to its specific implied multiple meanings simultaneously, in parallel, not sequentially, one after the other, separated by time, and this concentration, layering and intensifying of meaning may be something that, in the right circumstances, makes allegory a good thing.
Because in every other circumstance, allegory is shit. And the fact that this is an allegory is a bad thing about it. And bad for me particularly.
I am also not a huge fan of the Elizabethan colonisation project in Ireland, especially when it comes to enforced famine, ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation, all of which I think were recommended by Edward Spenser.
So those are my limits in reading and understanding the Faerie Queene, and we should take them into account when considering my criticisms of it.
If we are to love directly, should we not also hate directly? They are, after all, beats of the same heart. And I responded directly, emotionally, to the bits that I thought were good, and we saw the results of that above.
SO, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER;
The repeating of things.
"To say again."
Meet Edmund Spensers biggest influence; Edmund Spenser. The man never had a good idea that he wouldn't go back to. Or a bad idea. Everything in the book is in there at least twice and is in there too much except for Archimago and Phoedra who should have their own book. Would you like to go to Disneyland? Yes? About to leave? Well would you like to go back for another week, for free? Well you don't have a choice. And another week. And another. And another. Reading Spenser is like being a prisoner in an automated chocolate factory.
There is no good thing in the Faerie Queene but that there is too much of it. It numbs, bores and degrades.
ANTI-CATHOLIC MADNESS - To be fair this did provide a huge number of really good villains and monsters, but Jesus Christ. It's there in the beginning and it’s not that bad, but as Edmund settles into his new life as despised colonial landowner, in book 5 especially, and in book six, the pure, unadulterated, racial, cultural and religious hate he held for almost all the people in the place he was living seeps into the text like a house filling with sewage. Reading this stuff makes me feel like I am wading through diarrhoreatic shit.
Would you like to go to Disneyland, but it goes on too long and all the rides are about how the Jews should be exterminated? And also you can’t leave?
MISOGYNY! Like everything bad in the book, this is there in the beginning in foetal form, but then seems to gestate through the middle of the text and be born as some kind of Xenomorph monster in the later texts. Did you really need to bring in a RadFem Amazon to literally forcibly cross-dress men just so your most likeable (female) character could kill her? Did you have to have about 30% of all the female characters raped by someone? A woman gets raped by the sun. What the fuck? Oh my Christ it’s a grind.
ARTHEGALL - Arthegall is so fucking terrible. All of the knights are relatively boring but as well as having no personality, he's a horrible butchering, mutilating, murderer. And as well as that, it’s not even him doing the murdering, he just orders his robot to do it.
Having the main character of a Book be someone who is not only dull, but a shit, and not only a shit, but doesn't even do his own shit-work, but orders an automaton to do it... It plunges new depths of badness. It's so fucking bad. It’s bad on every level. I can't believe he got with Britomart. Life = RUINED!!!!
THEY NEVER DO THE FUCKING QUEST!!! - Fucking dithering narcissistic knights and fucking swiss-cheese Cantos where the plot fucks off for most of it. Did I say he could do structure? I lied. He is ffffuuucking AWFUL. He brings on super-hero characters to kill the possibility of dramatic action from the 'main' cast, forgets about them, and then has to bin them off hurriedly in the penultimate cantos to half-heartedly finish the story. Calidore is barely in his. Arthegall is in his, but doesn't do the thing he was sent to do, spends several Canto's dressed as a woman in prison and is generally awful. Britomart is good but her story is stretched over two Canto's with a bunch of beta-ass B-List extras wandering around doing nothing that interesting. Plus the end of her story is her ending up with Arthegall. Guyon spends a Canto reading, and another looking at allegorical architecture.
Its true that the endless shadowing of archetypes, with powerful major characters having shadows or partial doubles, and those people sometimes having doubles, and all of those interacting as separate people, is pretty interesting, theoretically. Multiple layers of reality all interacting. The same is true with the poems-inside-poems where someone stares at a tapestry or a carving or something and we get a handy DVD-extra animated intermission about whatever its about.
But it ffffffffuuucckks narrative drive. I mean I actually wanted to find out what happened with a lot of these quests. You put the name of the guy on the front of each book. But Batman was not in the Batman movie. I want my money back.
THE BORING FUCKING KNIGHTS - Remember that old Redletter media video where they asked people to describe Star Wars prequel characters without saying their name, job, or what they looked like?
Describe Redcrosse like that. Try Guyon. Britomart - she's in love? Arthegall - is a shit. Caledore - narcisstic creep.
I know knights are always boring in Chivalric literature but come the fuck on, the book is about fucking Knights! None of them have a fucking hobby or something? Even Mallory did better and he was writing in fucking prison.
THE NOBILITY WORSHIPPING CLAPTRAP - I know it’s the 16th century but come the fuck on. Get up off your knees you fucking worm and stop nibbling Elizabeths clit. It makes me ashamed to fucking read you. They are not that great. And you were born poor you little class-traitor colonialist social-climbing bastard. The 'raskall many' indeed.
OH GOD THE RIVER MARRIAGES - JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT RIVERS GETTING MARRIED! NO ONE CARES! ITS A SHALLOW FUCKING IDEA!
THE WEIRD SEX STUFF – Sex Golem made from dreams and mist with carefully described nether parts. Another sex golem made from wires and gold who goes around enticing men. Lots and lots of bold women with carefully described breasts. Duessa being the Ultimate Catfish. Lots of women sweating. Lots of women bathing. Hot maidens wrestling naked in the Bowre of Blisse. That rapist giantess. That chick that ended up boning all the satyrs. Actually, I’m pretty much fine with all of this, move it to the + section above.
ALLEGORY IS SHIT - Ok, so, the allegory underpins, sustains and necessitates many of the more creative parts of the book, All of those monsters and villains are allegories of hyper-specific moral, theological or political elements. Same with those complex problem-solving fights I like. And the same with all the spiritual architecture that I enjoyed, Mammons cave, Despairs cave, the Brigants cave, and other non-cave spaces.
BUT ALLEGORY IS STILL TERRIBLE! It does not _possess_, it has no independent life. The great cause of Art is to unify and set afire the mind and heart with an experience that ordinary nature can only rarely, and unpredictably provide. And ALLEGORY DOES NOT DO THIS. It is merely an idea. It is a Wikipedia article about itself. It is a hyperlink, a meme, a dreamworks eyebrow. Allegory is trash, it is trash trash trash. There is nothing done in that form that would not be superior of it were merely a story and allowed to live. Allegory is a Damien Hurst pickle.
LORD GREY WAS GUILTY AS FUUUUUCCCCKKK! – They found the fucking skull Edmund! Everyone knows you killed those prisoners. Is your argument going to be that Grey used some kind of douchebag monkeys-paw verbal phrasing that meant he didn’t technically offer them safety? Well its 400 years later and nobody gives a fuck.
Stop banging on and on and on about how fucking unfair it is. There is nothing terrible that happened to you, in your whole life, that you didn’t somehow deserve.
Reputational damage? The Blatant Beast? YOU DID THAT SHIT. You got that castle and that free estate the same fucking way you got kicked out of it, by the sword. Don’t go running around crying about how unfair the world has been to you when you are that unfairness incarnated in human form.
WHY CAN’T YOU FEEL? – “Yet with all this, Spenser neither makes us laugh nor cry.” True. But why? You can take us to infinite spaces and great reaches of the visual and perceptual imagination, but you can’t go deep. I felt more reading the Morte than I did reading this. Why is that? Is it because of the allegory? Is it because you are a clever, talented flake? The two most powerful emotions I got from this are that you really loved your (second) wife, and we only got that for a moment in Book Six, and that you really hated the Irish.
Well, there you have it. Maybe the worst Great Book ever written, or the best terrible book ever written. There are few occasions where I would recommend damaging a text but if you want to just rip your copy in half and just read the front you will have a much better experience.
If you want to read my read-through in all its badly-spelled, poorly formatted, badly conceived glory, then click below for a PDF of every post;
If you would like to listen to me read the whole thing. Then click these words to go to the Internet Archive where I have the files stored. Sorry its a mess.