Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reading The Faerie Queen with children: handling allegory

The many generations who have read and re-read The Faerie Queene with delight paid very little attention to the historical allegory; the modern student, at his first reading, will be well advised to pay it none at all.
~C.S. Lewis’s essay “Edmund Spenser 1552-99,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

I’ve been very grateful to have Lewis as a mentor on our journey through The Faerie Queene, especially as we read Canto IX of Book V this morning. In the canto, Duessa, the arch-villainess through much of the story, has finally been captured and brought to trial at the court of the great queen Mercilla. In her defense come Pity, Regard of womanhood, Nobility, and Grief, among others, who plead her case so well that Prince Arthur is moved to feel sorry for her. But then the prosecutor, Zeal, makes his case and brings Strife, Murder, Sedition, Incontinence, Adultery, and Impiety to testify against her.

All which when as the Prince had heard and seen,
    His former fancy’s ruth he gan repent,
    And from her party eftsoons was drawn clean.
    But Artegall with constant firm intent,
    For zeal of Justice was against her bent.
    So was she guilty deemed of them all.
    Then Zeal began to urge her punishment,
    And to their Queen for judgement loudly call,
Unto Mercilla mild for Justice gainst the thrall.

But she, whose Princely breast was touched near
    With piteous ruth of her so wretched plight,
    Though plain she saw by all that she did hear,
    That she of death was guilty found by right,
    Yet would not let just vengeance on her light;
    But rather let in stead thereof to fall
    Few pearling drops from her fair lamps of light;
    The which she covering with her purple pall
Would have the passion hid, and up arose withall.

[Spellings updated]

The notes at the back of my copy of the book go to great lengths to describe the historical background – all the conflicts between Catholic and Protestant during the Reformation in England – and explain that in this scene Duessa is Mary Queen of Scots, and Mercilla is Queen Elizabeth.

I usually keep Lewis’s admonition in mind, but even though this is technically our first reading, we’ve already met this scene in a children’s version that we read before approaching Spenser himself, given my children’s ages – 14 and 16 – after we finished the canto I decided to address the historical background just a little. Mainly I pointed out that though there are historical parallels, this shouldn’t be taken as plain allegory. I thought it would be a good idea to start letting them know about literary criticism and analysis of the kind that might kill the joy of the piece if we take it too much to heart.

I can’t tell you how much we’re loving reading The Faerie Queene. I wish I’d read it with my older kids when they were still at home.

If you’re interested, here’s another post I wrote a few years ago with quotes from the same Lewis book I quoted above: C. S. Lewis on Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

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