To Exist in Society

“Spenser not only creates a world in his Faerie Land and peoples it with characters who engage our imaginations, but also mirrors our own world and show us ourselves. Those characteristics can be seen n the way that The Faerie Queene, 400 years after the publication of its first three books, still holds the attention of readers, even those unfamiliar with, and uninterested in, the historical events that inform so much of the poem. The value of The Faerie Queene rests not just in the beauties and intricacies of Spenser’s poetry, not just in historical allegory, or even its superb moral coloration. Rather… its value rests on Spenser’s ability to draw us into his work, not just to appreciate and understand it, but to learn from it and to grow to a better understanding of the human condition.

“In the denizens of Faerie Land we see not just knights and ladies who must face their own deepest fears, but ourselves, just as clearly as Spenser’s contemporaries must have seen themselves in Redcrosse, Una, Guyon, Britomart, or Calidore. We need not identify directly with Guyon’s knightly accoutrements or the Redcrosse Knight’s deep religious devotion to see in them our own need to achieve temperance or behave faithfully to our God or to our companions. Here then is the true value of The Faerie Queene: it speaks directly to our deepest convictions and helps is better understand not just what to means to be human, but what it means to exist in society.“–Russell J. Meyer, The Faerie Queen: Educating the Reader

The Active Life

“[T]he knights Spenser uses as his examples ‘to fashion a gentleman or noble person’ are politically and socially involved, not merely contemplative. Their role is in the world of action, not the world of prayer,  although prayer always forms an important part of their lives. In the newly rediscovered classical literature the Renaissance humanists found precisely the examples for behavior that best suited their needs. The educated man… was trained to play important roles in governing the nation, an ideal expressed in such classical authors as Cicero and Quintilian. This classical concept did not fit well with the medieval ideal of the contemplative life, but, in this new era, it added the respectability of tradition to the necessity of practice…. Cicero and Quintilian furnished for the Renaissance… the importance of moral instruction as an integral part of preparation for the active life.”—Russell J. Meyer, The Faerie Queen: Educating the Reader

Una and the Fauns

In Defense of Faerie Tales

The fairy-tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralising… If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to present a cohesive defense of fairy tales in the Christian tradition, and I gladly leave the task to those far more able than I.

“The Ethics of Elfland” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

“Fairy Tales” (G.K. Chesterton)

“The Fantastic Imagination” (George MacDonald)

“On Fairy Stories” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be…

“The Red Angel” (G.K. Chesterton)

“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” (C.S. Lewis)

Growing into It

The Faerie Queen is growing on me—or I am growing into it. More and more frequently my mind is wrestled into the dim loveliness of Spenser’s world. I feel my thoughts tuned to its archaic cadence, its ordered beauty, its “actual avenging virtue.” This is not a passive or a tranquil world. But it is beautiful.

Questions for the Great Conversation

Prefatory Letter

  • To whom does Spenser write his letter, and why?
  • What is the purpose for which Spenser wrote the Faerie Queene? In what manner does he choose to realize this purpose, and why? What criticisms does he expect? Do you agree with his choice and reasons? Is there anything to be said for another method?
  • What difference does Spenser draw between Xenophon and Aristotle, and what conclusion does he reach?
  • What conception, or elements unify the twelve envisioned books?
  • What are the virtues outlined by Aristotle? In which virtue are all the others said to be contained? What is understood by that virtue? Do you agree with Aristotle’s idea?
  • Who, or what is represented by the figure of Prince Arthur? Why does Spenser choose Arthur to make this representation?
  • Who, or what is represented by the figure of Gloriana?
  • Who, or what is represented by the figures of the various knights?
  • How might a historian and a poet approach a story differently? What purpose do these differences serve?

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Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song.