Tuesday, February 14, 2023

How to read The Faerie Queene; or, You are already qualified to read Spenser's masterpiece

Many of you know that last school year I taught a year-long class on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. To help prepare myself for the classes, I spent hours and hours reading commentaries and scholarly essays on the poem, because I wanted to give my students (mostly adults, but a few high schoolers as well) value for their money. If you’re going to pay for a class, you should get more out of it than you can get just by reading something on your own.

Before deciding to teach the class, I had read The Faerie Queene aloud with my children three times over the previous several years. I loved the poem and wanted to share it with other homeschool families, so that, in my opinion, was my main qualification for teaching itI was familiar with it and I loved it.

But what qualified me to read it to my kids in the first place? I don’t have a college degree, let alone a degree in English. I didn’t have any specialized knowledge of Edmund Spenser or Elizabethan England or of the kind of poetry Spenser was writing.

The only qualification I had was that I wanted to read it. And I wanted to read it because I loved C.S. Lewis, and he loved The Faerie Queene.

The only specialized knowledge I had was that I knew the Bible pretty well, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, and with fairy tales and the legends of King Arthur. Really you can’t even call that specialized knowledge. All of that is what every child ought to have been listening to from birth, “building blocks of story,” as Angelina Stanford says, summarizing Northrop Frye and his brilliant commentaries on literature.

So, how do you, dear Homeschool Mama, begin reading this glorious masterpiece to your own children?

Here’s what I did with my four children who were still at home with me—my fifteen year old daughter, thirteen year old son, and eleven year old daughter, plus my nineteen year old special-needs son.

Charlotte Mason suggests having younger children read from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare before reading the bard himself so that they will be familiar with the stories. I felt it was even more important to do this with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, since the language in his poem is more difficult than in Shakespeare’s plays.

Most of us are familiar with C.S. Lewis’s mention of first reading The Faerie Queene from a large illustrated volume on a rainy day. Here is the quote in full:

Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably, illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen; and if, even at that age, certain of the names aroused unidentified memories of some still earlier, some almost prehistoric, commerce with a selection of “Stories from Spenser,” heard before we could read, so much the better.
(“On Reading ‘The Faerie Queene,’” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, p. 146)

I had been reading Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman’s gorgeously illustrated edition of Saint George and the Dragon since before some of these children were born, and Lewis’s words here spurred me on to find another high quality children’s edition of the whole story, for he says that that’s where even the mature reader must start, if not with the children’s versions, at least with the child’s unjaded appetite for stories like “Jack the Giant Killer,” and his lack of awareness of any allegory or moral purpose. In the same essay, Lewis says,

It may not be necessary for all readers at all stages of the narrative to know exactly what the poet means, but it is emphatically necessary that they should surrender themselves to the sense of some dim significance in the background—that they should feel themselves to be moving in regions “where more is meant than meets the ear.”


I found two beautifully written editions that served us well. The first and shortest is Stories from the Faerie Queen by Jeanie Lang. Her book is just a few chapters long, roughly one chapter per book of Spenser’s FQ, each taking 15-20 minutes to read aloud. The second is Mary Macleod’s much longer Stories from the Faerie Queene. The chapters are all “read-aloud” length, like Lang’s, but Macleod’s book covers the poem in much more detail than Lang’s book.

Our method was to read a chapter of Lang one day (kids narrating), then in the following days I would read aloud the corresponding chapters from Macleod (again having the kids narrate). Then I read aloud from my Penguin edition of The Faerie Queene (pausing occasionally for narrations). In this way we worked through FQ, one book at a time.

If your kids are much younger than mine were, say all under twelve, you could read aloud the whole Lang book, and later read aloud the whole Macleod. Do be sure to have your kids narrate both books. This way they’ll be so familiar with the basic outline of the story that when you get to Spenser they’ll be able to follow the Elizabethan poetry without trouble in the way that Lewis describes.

In my next post, I’ll give some tips for reading the full edition of The Faerie Queene.



  1. Thank you helping me open the door to this beautiful poem.

    1. You're so very welcome! It makes me so happy knowing more people are reading it with pleasure. <3

  2. I read aloud The Questing Knights of the Faerie Queene by Geraldine McCaughrean to my kids last year when they were 2.5, 4.5, 6.5 and 8. It really captured all of our imaginations so I've now started slowly reading The Faerie Queene myself. I'm excited to look at the other retellings you recommended. Like you we''ve been reading Margaret Hodges George and the Dragon for as long as I can remember and my boys in particular love it.

    1. I've heard good things about that edition too. Best wishes on your journey!


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