Monday, September 29, 2014

A Return to the Faerie Queene

Was this a
It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queene. I left off on May 23rd, with the last canto of the first book. So, my intention to blog through the book carried me for just under two weeks. Since then, I’ve kept The Faerie Queene in mind, intending to returning to it.[1] Several things kept me from going back:
  1. Travel. They’re tough pieces to write when away from my normal routine, even though all I use is the text itself. I’m done with travel for a bit.
  2. Response. In those early days of the blog, the Faerie Queene posts were guaranteed to get fewer readers than anything else. People voted with their clicks, and I wanted to give them what they wanted.[2]
  3. Scheduling. For a while, I was writing and publishing, writing and publishing. I’m breaking that cycle. By the end of a day, when I had tried to fill the blog with things people might actually read, I was either done with writing for the day, or had gone on to other things.[3]
After months of “I will return to the Faerie Queene tomorrow,” that day has come. I’m easing myself in gently, since each book starts off with just a few stanzas in prologue.[4]

Spenser was writing during the Age of Discovery, when Europeans found that their massive landmass wasn’t the only land on the planet. I suspect the subsequent division of the world into seven continents was done in part because of the significance of the number seven.[5] Of course, there are only four: Eurasia,[6] the Americas, Australia, and Antarctica. The Americas had been discovered not long before and were in the process of being carved up and claimed by the European powers.

The Faerie Queene predates Plymouth Colony by thirty years. Maps of the era were wildly inaccurate and contained large areas for which the map makers had no information to go on. I recently visited the Globe Museum of the Austrian National Library. One of their exhibits allows users to compare a Mercator globe of 1541 to modern contours. They don’t match up; get one point aligned, and nothing else fits. Even Europe was wildly inaccurate.

Given the state of map making when The Faerie Queene was published, it’s no surprise that Spenser is defending the failure of anyone to find the Isle of Faery; it is one of those lands yet to be discovered. My only question is why did Spenser wait until after Book 1 to actually justify the existence of the land in his poem? Did Elizabeth ask him it was located?

In the end, while the signs place Faery “in sondrie place” (sundry, or various), it’s real point is to be a reflection of Elizabeth and England:
In this fayre mirrhour maist belhold thy face,
And thine owne realmes in lond of Faery,
And in this antique ymage thy great auncestry.
Fair enough: Faery is England and Spenser is doing what writers of fantasy have done all along, writing about the here and now (which is neither from my perspective) in terms of the elsewhere and other time.
He concludes with the introduction of a new allegorical character, Sir Guyon, who we are told in the text of of the poem is an allegory of Temperance. (The Red Cross Knight is described as Holiness in the title of the canto, but not in the text itself.) Spencer makes no bones here:
0! pardon, and vouchsafe with patient care
The brave adventures of this faery knight,
The good Sir Guyon, gratiously to heare;
In whom great rule of Temp’raunce goodly doth appeare.
Like the Red Cross knight, Sir Guyon is a knight of Faery. Unlike the Red Cross knight, he actually gets a name. That will make typing easier.

Back again. We’ll see what I’m up to in two weeks.

If you want to look back, I started this project here.
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  1. “Intending” as “intentions,” as in what “the road to Hell” is paved. There have been a lot of days on which I’ve said, “I didn’t write about The Faerie Queene today, but I will tomorrow.”  ↩
  2. As long as it doesn’t conflict with what I want. This blog is not a democracy. Also, I suspect this post will have fewer readers than some of the other things I write about. I had to write it anyway.  ↩
  3. Not everything I’m working on is for immediate publication on the blog. Be patient.  ↩
  4. I confess that actually read this part in May, making a few notes. I re-read it in writing this post. If I were diligent, I would go back and re-read the first book. I’m not. Besides, if I took the time to to that, I’d only procrastinate more on getting this started again.  ↩
  5. Days of the week, virtues, vices, and so on.  ↩
  6. Europe, Asia, Africa, and India are all connected by land. It’s hard to come up with a sensible definition of “continent” that splits at one mountain range, but not any other.  ↩

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