Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Strategies for reading Spenser's Faerie Queene

In my last post I described how I prepared to read aloud Spenser’s Faerie Queene to my children. It took some time, but it didn’t cost me any money at all, as the high quality, literary retellings for children that I used were written over a century ago and are available for free on the internet.

In this post, I’ll describe how I read the whole thing aloud over the course of two years. It took us that long partly because since we’d never read the longer children’s versions before, we were reading them before reading each book of Spenser. Subsequent readings have taken us a little over a year, reading two or three cantos a week during our school year.  

But before that I want to mention briefly how I first tried and failed to read The Faerie Queene so that you can avoid those pitfalls.

When I first started trying to read FQ, the only prior knowledge of the story I had was that “Saint George and the Dragon” was a part of it. I was intimidated by the poem, so I got an edition of Book I that had modernized spellings, and some modernized words, and included lots of footnotes and sidebars that were meant to be helpful. The biggest mistake I made was stopping to read all the footnotes and sidebars. This interrupted the flow of the story and took so much time that each time I started reading it I only made it through a few stanzas before I was too tired to carry on. By doing it this way, I lost the flow of the story so badly that I could hardly remember from one day to the next what I had read before.

Occasionally the beauty of the language caught my attention, but mostly it was unpleasant work. I don’t remember how long I struggled though it like this before I finally quit, thinking I just wasn’t capable of understanding it.

It was after that failure that I read what C.S. Lewis said about the story in various places. He said that up until the early 20th century, children’s versions of the story were pretty common, and he made it sound like something a regular person could read with pleasure—like it didn’t require any special training or knowledge, so I started over with my children, as I described last time, reading children’s versions.

This time, when it was time to read Spenser Himself, instead of reading from my modernized and annotated version, I read aloud from the fat Penguin book. This edition has a little commentary and plenty of notes explaining unfamiliar words, but they’re all located in the back of the book instead of cluttering up the pages of the text.


The method

Two or three times a week, during our Morning Time, I’d read aloud an entire canto, pausing occasionally to let the children narrate. Reading this much at one go is essential to the experience. Spenser’s poetry isn’t the kind where you ought to linger over individual lines or words, as you might do with Shakespeare or Donne. It is poetry, written with a very exacting meter and rhyme scheme, but the words aren’t the point—the images and the mood are. To enter this story, we must not only “surrender ourselves with childlike attention to the mood of the story,” but we must read it like Spenser’s original audience, “an audience who have settled down to hear a long story and do not much want to savour each line as a separate work of art.”



The one thing I did in the way of preparation was to look over the commentary and explanatory notes in the back of the book the night before I planned to read the canto to my children. If there were any unfamiliar words, I’d make a brief entry in the margin of the text, so that I would know what the words of the text meant. In this way I could read the whole line with understanding.

Sometimes there were particular words or names or literary allusions that were going to come up in the canto that I felt my kids needed to be acquainted with before they met them in the story. In this case I’d briefly say something before we started the canto.

On very rare occasions, while I was reading I substituted the translation for the original word. I did this when the original word might cause misunderstanding, but wasn’t the kind of word I wanted to spend any teaching time on.



Since all of this is easier done than said (heh) I’m going to share a recording of myself reading the first three stanzas of Book I, Canto 1. This way I’ll be able to show you several different things. Here’s the text, with my own marginal notes added (based on the notes from the back of my Penguin edition.


The first thing you’ll notice from this image is the crazy spellings, and not just words like “mightie” and “deepe.” Those are easy enough to figure out. The hard ones are words like siluer/silver, euer/ever, Vpon/Upon, and iolly/jolly. You’ll get used to it in time, I promise! The U/V swap happens often enough that you’ll probably have no trouble within just a few stanzas. The I/J swap takes longer to get the hang of because it doesn’t happen as often. It really is a learning curve, but stick with it! Before too long you’ll feel like you’re mastering a new language (and really, you are—Early Modern English isn’t quite the same thing as Present Day English).


Now you’ll notice that I’m pronouncing the words in my everyday read-aloud voice, not trying to recreate Elizabethan English or even stick to Spenser’s rhyme scheme. As I said, the poem is written according to a very strict meter and rhyme scheme, and those things are beautiful in themselves, but they aren’t the point of The Faerie Queene. The point is the story itself. I’m reading in a way that’s natural to the setting—reading aloud to my children so that they can experience the story.


And here’s a slightly different example from Book IV, Canto 1.

In this one, when I get to the word “sterve,” which is the word “starve,” I might go ahead and substitute “die” because the point is that the character is thriving off of her victims’ deaths, not their hunger. The meaning of the word has changed enough in the last few centuries, and this is an important enough aspect of the story, that I feel the change could be justified. Use your own judgement.


That’s it!  

  • Do a little prep work before you read aloud. 
  • Plan to read the entire canto in one sitting. 
  • Pause every once in a while to let the kids narrate. You’ll be surprised how much they’ve retained from reading the children’s versions.

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