Though Edmund Spenser died before the completion of his epic poem, The Faerie Queene, the first two sections, Books I and II are considered to be among the finest representation of early Renaissance literature.
Originally written in the vernacular of Middle English and in what is referred to as the Spenserian stanza (nine lines, eight of which are in iambic pentameter, with a fixed rhyme scheme), the poem is indeed a testament to the multi-layered events of England during the time of Elizabeth I. The Faerie Queene should also be read with some understanding as to how it fits into our society today.
The Faerie Queene is probably at the top of the list if one is reading it for the purpose of understanding historical idiosyncratic themes. The first two books are filled with fierce, virtuous characters, such as the Red Knight, who battles all manner of evils in order to uphold the dignity of his Queen and the Christian (Protestant) ethos.
How does all of this translate into a modern-day sensibility, however? How does Spenser's vision of chastity, honor and integrity stand side-by-side with today's deep-rooted cynicism? One could ask these questions until the end of time and still not be able to reconcile the contrasts. Perhaps this is because the questions are not as important as the context in which they are asked.
A similarity between the Renaissance and our time becomes clearer if one focuses on the theory of humanisn. Humanism, a much misunderstood concept, and one that has been reinvented from a political perspective, was first and foremost, a literary movement.
During the Renaissance, the humanist movement was marked by an enthusiastic enchantment with all things classical, which included Roman and Greek poets, scholars, and philosophers.
When examined from this perspective, the passage of time becomes irrelevant as far as enjoying literature. This is because the prescient matter of all literature, both ancient and modern, is to educate.
Defining what a good and proper education is can be debated, but regardless of what one believes in terms of religion or politics, most everyone would agree that it's a good thing when a populace is literate and intelligent; likewise, it is a bad and ultimately dangerous situation when masses of people are not literate and, therefore, not intelligent.
Good and Evil
Spenser, arguably, had all of this in mind when he wrote The Faerie Queene. The fact that he embedded morals and ethics inside a complex poetic form and then layered it with allegorical images is something with which only an English major would be concerned. Whether or not the Red Knight was a Christ figure, or really St. George can be left up to religious scholars.
What is the most intriguing aspect of revisiting The Faerie Queene is that the reader can identify with the fierce struggle to remain a human being who embodies intelligence, integrity and forthrightness.
Throughout The Faerie Queene, the heroes are tormented, tempted and often torn between their emotions and reason. These are all quintessential and timeless themes in the fight between good and evil, something with which everyone can identify.
Spenser's Faerie Queene will continue to be relevant as long as society values language, storytelling, poetry, and myth as components that help to create a society of visionary and positive thinkers. This epic poem can be encouraging and inspirational during times of war and peace.
With its pages packed with adventure, romance, and battle, these books also have their place in teaching young people the virtues of chivalry and humbleness. The Red Knight is intent on protecting his Queen and is never boastful and never lets pride undermine his path. These are timeless lessons and ones best done through great, intelligent literature.
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