On Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ by C.S. Lewis

“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.”

A number of us are going to be reading The Fairie Queene beginning sometime in April and, considering the difficulty of the poem, I decided to do some pre-reading investigation.

Although C.S. Lewis is known for his books on theology, his actual expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He has a number of essays relating to The Fairie Queene, and when I stumbled on this one, I thought it a perfect beginning.

Lewis writes that the optimal experience with The Faire Queene is created if one reads it between the ages of 10 and 16, with a large illustrated edition and then grow with the work, starting with mere wonder at the story and advancing to a critical appreciation of it, cultivating a relationship with the work that will remain and flourish throughout life.  But while advocating this process, Lewis realizes many may come to The Faerie Queene later in life, and he is writing to give guidance to the mature reader with his first experience of this great work.

Una and the Lion (c. 1860)
William Bell Scott
source Wikimedia Commons

Lewis instructions begin very simply; as the child does, one must begin with The Faerie Queene.  Next, even if one does not have a large illustrated edition, one should imagine the book they do have to be a heavy volume that should be read at a table, “a massy, antique story with a blackletter flavour about it — a book for devout, prolonged, and leisurely perusal.”  The illustrations would be not only fantastic and beautiful, but also wicked and ugly.  While the book is new, it is also old, ancient yet original.

“All this new growth sprouts out of an old, gnarled wood, and, as in very early spring, mists it over in places without concealing it ………….  And it is best to begin with a taste for homespun, accepting the cloth of gold when it comes, but by no means depending on it for your pleasure, or you will be disappointed ….”

Lewis reveals that Spenser’s friends wanted him to conform to the Puritan perspective of the time, being only a “servile classicist”, yet his poetry appeared to naturally break out of this mould.  After being cautioned by a his friend on touching too closely on papist and medieval themes by his references to “Ladies of the Lake” and “friendly fairies” in his poetry, Spenser remained true to the natural appreciation he harboured for the Middle Ages, and taking “all his renaissance accomplishments with him”, produced The Faerie Queene.  In blending the two ages, Spenser in effect “became something between the last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists.”

As a child one may have a uncomfortable feeling that one has met many of The Faerie Queene’s characters before, but as a mature reader one has the apprehension to discover the moral allegory within the work.  While critics aren’t in agreement as to how much emphasis should be placed on it, it is not necessary to analyze the poet’s exact meaning.  Instead we should simply have an impression of regions within the poem that are not always what they seem.

Lewis ends with William Butler Yeat’s quote on Spenser’s House of Busirane, saying that Spenser’s characters are “so visionary, so full of ghostly midnight animation, that one is persuaded tht they had some strange purpose and did truly appear in just that way.”

And so I can now step into Spenser’s world with a little more imagination and expectation.  I’ve already been exposed to the world of King Arthur and so I’m looking forward to some more fantastical adventures.  And honestly, a few fairies would be very welcome.

13 thoughts on “On Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ by C.S. Lewis

  1. That line about an illustrated edition struck me too, when I read it…and is there a lavishly illustrated FQ out there? Not for less than $300 or so, there ain't! Sigh. I do actually have the Walter Crane illustrations in a Dover book all by themselves, so maybe I'll have that nearby while I read.

  2. I am really becoming a fan of Lewis…His insights and summarizes are very very interesting and unique. An illustrated Faerie Queene would have definitely made it more of an absorbing read during my Eng. Honors days!

  3. Ack! I guess in Lewis' time you could run out and buy an illustrated version for £5. 🙁 I'm going to keep my eye out for one though. I'll have to look online for illustrations as I read. I really love that one of Una and the Lion. There must be some really wonderful ones still to discover!

  4. He's really great. I don't always agree with him but most of the time he makes very good sense. And he also has a beautiful creative side to his writing, which is quite lovely.

    I didn't know that you'd already read it too, just like Jean! O and I will perhaps be the only amateurs, that is unless she's read it too and I don't know about it. In any case, we'll be depending on you two to prop us up!

  5. Happy to help! But my Eng Honors teachers, well some of them, made me leave English after undergrad and switch to International Relations for Graduate Studies…My Medieval English Prof was of those "some" and his Faerie Queene left a lot to be desired. However I will be happy to share anything I can recollect, especially some of reading references that helped me navigate in the mire of darkness that my Prof. led me too!

  6. Hang on a second there–don't go thinking I've already read the whole FQ! Nope. I read *some* in college–one of the basic English classes everybody took was Chaucer/Spenser/Milton–but we can't have read the whole 6 books. We probably read Book I plus some selections (and I know we read some other, smaller things). I wrote a paper, but I don't remember what Spenser thing it was on. And that was about 23 years ago. So don't go thinking I'm some sort of pro!

  7. Ha, ha! Don't worry. I would imagine reading it once would merely give you a familiarization of the poem === it would take numerous readings to really delve into it. No pressure! And thanks to your Arthurian challenge, I think I've at least had some sort of introduction into Spenser's world. We'll see …….

  8. There's nothing too intricate about the read-along. There are about 6 or 7 of us who are going to read The Faerie Queene in mid-April. Anyone is welcome to join in!

  9. This essay was nice introduction. I'm also reading Lewis' Spenser's Images of Life; it's a read brain twister. I'm probably understanding about 50% of it, but that's better than nothing. Faerie Queene, here we come! 🙂

  10. I need this book! I'm going to try and buy it and read it before we start.

    Actually getting nervous about this read-along! My first read was a disaster: I just read my initial review of it on my old blog – "excruciating" was how I summed it up! 🙂

    But I do live in hope… 🙂

  11. This is just an essay (Lewis has a couple more of them on Spenser), but if you really want some help with the poem, get Spenser's Images of Life by Lewis. A good amount I feel is over my head, but it may become clearer as I read the poem. I'm a little nervous too so we can all feel overwhelmed together. And I didn't know that you'd already read TFQ too!!! I'm the only newbie, I think….. actually Ruth probably hasn't read it either. Sigh! I feel like I'll be swimming in a pool of my own ignorance, but that's okay, because when I'm finished I'll be on some other level. Where, who knows, but hopefully I'll have gained some understanding!!! :-Z

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