Edmund Spenser's the Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide

By Andrew Zurcher | Go to book overview

Preface: How to read The Faerie Queene

There are many battles in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene but the first battle of the poem is that of the reader. From the opening stanzas, the poem is swashbucklingly pacy, full of magic and mischief, and often weirdly beautiful. On the other hand, it is long and it may seem difficult, even intimidating. Should you plunge right into an unannotated edition, trusting yourself to get the hang of it as you go along? Or should you invest in a densely commented copy, and pick your painful way through its minutely charactered pages? Spenser anticipated questions like these no doubt he had asked them of himself, when considering how to read Ovid and Virgil and in the opening episode of the first canto he offers us some guidance on how to read the poem. Three people a knight, a princess and a dwarf get lost in a wood. In the centre of this wood, they discover a cave, inhabited by a fabulous monster, half-woman, half-snake, called Errour. The knight of holiness, Redcrosse, is all for charging headlong into the cave and taking his chances. Believing that his native valour will illuminate his reading of the situation, he tells Una, the princess, that ‘vertue giues her selfe light, through darkenesse for to wade’ (I.i.12.9). Una is not so sure. She counters, ‘yet wisedome warnes, whilest foot is in the gate, | To stay the steppe, ere forced to retrate’ (I.i.13.4–5). Both ‘errour’ and ‘retrate’ through its Latin root tractum, ‘writing’ are words closely connected with reading and interpretation, which suggests that Redcrosse’s headstrong rashness may offer readers not only an ethical warning, but a caution about how they read even, how they are reading this particular poem. To ‘stay’ a step is to interrupt or check it; but in the sixteenth century the verb could also mean ‘to support, strengthen’. Una may be telling her champion to pause, but she may also be telling us, the readers, to tread carefully and securely along the path (‘gate’) of a text that will weave, ply and knot in mystifying, even dangerous ways. Redcrosse, then, wants to get on with it, while Una wants him to (t)read more carefully. Meanwhile, the dwarf wants nothing to do with the poem at all: ‘Fly, fly (quoth then | The fearefull

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