Born in 1552, in London, he served as a young man as a secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, the Earl of Leicester, and later Lord Grey de Wilton, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Along the way, he authored several pastoral works. Aged 38, he was brought before Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh to present the first three volumes of his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene (1590). In 1596, he released the second three volumes of The Faerie Queene. The poem was intended to total twelve volumes in all, but sadly Spenser would not live to complete his epic; he died in 1599 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Though he was recognised by the Queen, and awarded a pension of 50 pounds a year for his work (an extraordinary sum for the time), Spenser did not achieve the heights of fame in life that he perhaps deserved. Though he was honoured in death with burial at Westminster and achieved status among academic circles, he is still largely unknown to the majority of readers, students, and lovers of fantasy literature. I mention this latter group specifically, for this is precisely from whom Edmund Spenser deserves most recognition yet receives very little. Without The Faerie Queene, fantasy as we understand it today, as a genre, could not and would not exist. He is, in many respects, the forefather of all British fantasy.
Such a claim must needs be supported with evidence, but first I must explore the fantastical nature of The Faerie Queene, as it is not a sufficiently read work to assume knowledge. The Faerie Queene is divided into six volumes, which represents half of what it could have been. Personally, I believe that despite the fact it is allegedly unfinished, much like Virgil’s Aeneid, The Faerie Queene ends in an eerily perfect way, one that predicts the coming of modernity; however, that is certainly a thesis for another time!
Each volume follows a different hero or heroine on a quest, and each hero of heroine represents a different virtue. The first of these is Holiness, the second Temperance, the third Chastity, the fourth Friendship, the fifth Justice, and the sixth Courtesy. Spenser’s imagination, however, often seems to occlude any easy allegorical reading. Unlike simplistic moralistic tales, which spell out their meanings, Spenser’s epic is full of moral ambiguity and symbols that shift like warped reflections; this simultaneously gives the narrative its depth, but also prevents easy digestion. In addition, whilst it is clear that many of the characters within The Faerie Queene were intended as specific ciphers for his contemporaries, some of which he viciously satirises, the lasting legacy of Spenser’s work is less in deciphering his allegorical allusions and more in appreciating the vast depths of his imagination. Whilst there is more than a trace of the courtly romance tales of France and Italy, which clearly influenced Spenser, and the Arthurian legend so totally realised by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (this came a century before), Spenser quickly departs from typical Arthurian scenes. He blends pagan mythology and witchcraft, Greco-Roman theology, and his own constructions into a whirlpool of mytho-morphic magic. Even more surprising and stunning is Spenser’s protofeminist leaning. He achieves this not only in the eponymous figure of the Faerie Queene, Gloriana, who is ruler of the kingdom of Faerie, but also in the creation of heroes such as Britomart, a female knight armed with an indestructible lance who bests even the greatest male warriors in the saga. In fact, a huge proportion of the characters driving the action in The Faerie Queene are female, both villainous and good, which makes it unique and extraordinary not only in the realm of classical literature but even when paired against contemporary fantasy works.
In my view, it is clear that, up until this point, no writer in the English language had attempted anything of the scope and imagination of The Faerie Queene. The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s by Geoffrey Chaucer, took the form of a series of episodic tales narrated by individuals travelling on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Though some tales feature knights and ladies, the tone of the tales is predominantly comic, satirical, and ribald. In addition, there is very little in the way of fantastical or magical occurrence; often things perceived at first to be magical instead prove to be machinations resulting from human deception and wit. The Canterbury Tales, therefore, may not be considered fantasy or contest The Faerie Queene’s imaginative scope. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, whilst epic and moving, is very much a reinterpretation of existing tales and mythologies, the lineage of which can be clearly traced. If we were to stretch even further back in time, to the Anglo Saxon period somewhere around 900 A.D., we might regard Beowulf as a worthy progenitor of British fantasy. Beowulf certainly more accurately fits the bill. It has monsters, dragons, heroes of near-superhuman strength, and treasure-hordes. In many ways it not only sets a precedent for fantasy literature but also fantasy gaming, with the iconic role-play experienceDungeons & Dragons arguably owing its title to an ageing Beowulf’s encounter with a dragon toward the poem’s close.
Beowulf hugely influenced writers such as William Morris and J. R. R. Tolkien, who both understood and studied Old English and incorporated many Old English words, cultural ideations, and stylings into their work. However, despite Beowulf’s undeniable importance, especially for Tolkien, its beauty is largely in brevity, meaning that it lacks the sprawl and complexity of The Faerie Queene, a complexity that modern fantasy fans recognise in the lengthy sagas of George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and Robert Jordan. Whilst it is not to say that length is always an indicator of quality or worthiness, it is clear that Beowulf doesn’t provide all the pieces of the puzzle to assemble what we understand as fantasy today. Elements of Beowulf have been expertly extrapolated by subsequent writers and developed into larger narratives. For example, the brief encounter of the nameless “thief” in the dragon’s cave in the final third of Beowulf is thought to have been Tolkien’s influence for the encounter of Bilbo Baggins with Smaug in The Hobbit. In this way, Beowulf is mythopoeic. It speaks a dream-language we all understand: man versus monster, the bright light of civilisation represented by the Mead Hall threatened by the things that come at night; it holds Jungian weight.
But whilst the influence of Beowulf is well documented and understood (especially by fans of Tolkien’s work), the influence of The Faerie Queene is less so. Most people who love fantasy could give a good summary of Beowulf if asked, despite not knowing a lick of Old English. The same cannot be said for Spenser’s epic. Yet, arguably Spenser has been even more influential than Beowulf, and that influence has gone largely unacknowledged.
Tolkien, in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, wrote, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” This remark seems almost a direct dismissal of Spenser’s work, as Spenser described The Faerie Queene as “a continued Allegory, or darke conceite” in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. As much as I adore Tolkien’s work, this seems a churlish remark when we consider how much, both linguistically and conceptually, Tolkien borrowed from Spenser’s poem. Gollum’s “ill-favoured look” is stolen directly from the way Spenser describes the offspring of the dragon “Errours” as “all ill fauored” (1.15.7). The legendary “olyphants”, elephants of magnificent size (that especially awe Samwise Gamgee), appear first in The Faerie Queene Book 3. In addition, whilst Tolkien clearly owes a great debt to William Morris, including taking things wholesale from the 19thCentury author’s oeuvre such as the place-names “Dead Marshes” and “Mirkwood”, there is much to be found in Spenser that must also have been hugely influential. For example, Prince Arthur carries on him a shield that emits a blinding beam of light; this light is frequently used to turn stun and turn back evil forces, much like Gandalf’s light, and the light of Earendil gifted to Frodo, turn back evil. In Canto IV of the first book of The Faerie Queene, the Redcrosse knight comes to a palace built on sand, in which a queen, Lucifera, reigns supreme, served by six wizards. Each wizard rides a different steed, wears a different coloured robe, is cursed with a deadly vice, and seems to possess a power correlated to that vice. For example, the wizard “Envy” wears a green robe and rides on a wolf chewing a poisonous toad covered in eyes. Whilst at an allegorical level, the wizard’s name and bearing clearly tell us this is a potent symbol of the deadly sin of jealousy, the concept of a group of wizards, each possessing remarkably different traits, seems a precursor to Tolkien’s five wizards, each of which also were distinguished by their coloured robes, and some of which turned to darkness.
It is not just on Tolkien, however, that Spenser exerted great influence. Clearly John Milton borrowed a great deal from Spenser in the construction of his 17th Century epic in blank verse, Paradise Lost. Milton’s description of Sin, daughter of Satan, invokes the description of Spenser’s dragon, Errours. Milton’s version of Death is equipped with two mortal darts; this seems to echo Spenser’s character, the varlet Attin, who appears in Book 2 as an envoy who precipitates disaster. Even Milton’s personification of “Sin” as an individual is Spenserian, as Spenser tells us that the manipulative sorceress Duessa is the daughter of “Deceit and Shame”. Milton’s creation of “Old Night” is partly owed to Spenser, who introduced Night as the grandmother of Duessa. In Canto V of the first volume, Night takes the wounded warrior Sans Joy into the depths of hell to be healed by the Greek physician and necromancer Ǣscupalius, who was thrown down to the pits of Hades whilst still living for learning the secret of raising the dead (a tale which Spenser certainly borrowed from Ovid). Naturally, this example shows that all “great artists steal” as Picasso once observed, and that there is truly nothing new under the sun; Spenser himself borrowed extensively from Roman mythology (particularly Virgil’s Aeneid), Arthurian legend, and the Italian poets such as Petrarch and Dante. However, where Spenser shows his brilliance is in his reinvention of these concepts for new narrative purpose. The story of Ǣscupalius had already been re-told many times before (Ovid’s version is itself a recounting), but Spenser does not merely re-tell the story: he conceives a new warped adventure into hell to seek out the necromancer and use his powers once again for evil. Spenser never just reuses, but always remakes.
We can see further evidence of Spenser’s influence on Milton in the dialogues between characters. For example, Ǣscupalius is at first unwilling to help Night, as he was damned for the practice of his necromantic arts, but he is persuaded when he is told that, as he is already damned for all eternity, things cannot get any worse; he has nothing to lose by breaking the laws of the universe again. These nihilistic arguments might be viewed as progenitors for the compelling persuasion Satan uses on his devilish peers in Paradise Lost when convincing them that his new conceit—to dupe mankind out of Paradise—is worth the risk.
An argument could even be made that Spenser also gives us a first window into science fiction. He reworks the Greek myth of Talos, the man made of bronze, by creating his own “iron man”, Talus, who serves the Knight of Justice, Artegal. Talus never tires and has no emotions, hence why he is the perfect dispenser of Justice, for he reasons without being clouded by emotion. Several times Talus’ artificial nature leads to surprising narrative solutions. The interactions between Talus and Artegal very much resemble the human-robot dialogues between Asimov’s famous Detective Elijah and his companion the robot Daneel.
I would argue that many of the conceits and narrative strategies that Shakespeare delighted in, and that made him famous throughout the world, can also be found first in Spenser. No one is who they seem to be in The Faerie Queene. This is twofold. Firstly, Spenser often wrong-foots us in the way he presents descriptive information without commentary. For example, in the very opening stanza, in which the Redcrosse knight is introduced and described for the first time, we are told that he was, “Ycladde in mightie armes and siluer shielde, / Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine; / the cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde; Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield”. So the armour is “dinted” and bears the marks of “wounds”, yet the knight, up until this point, has never wielded his sword… Does this then mean that the armour is stolen? Or is the armour beaten by virtue of the knight losing many fights without striking back? Or is the armour simply old and hand-me-down? Spenser never spells it out. He leaves us with the uncertainty of who the Redcrosse really is. He allegedly represents “Holiness”, but frequently we question whether his actions reflect that, and whether it is not rather Una who embodies those virtues. Shakespeare also does this. The ways Shakespeare’s characters describe themselves and others are not always accurate, and in fact are often ironic, such as King Duncan’s description of Macbeth as a “worthy gentleman” when he has just finished splitting someone in half with his sword from groin to chops.
We see something even deeper in Spenser’s work, too. Similarly to the Redcrosse Knight’s distinct lack of holiness at times, Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, is ironically the most quick to anger of all Spenser’s knights. There is perhaps a deeper philosophical point here made by Spenser, which is that true virtue is not the absence of sin, but our ability to wrestle with it and ultimately integrate it into our personality. We see this time and time again. Britomart is allegedly the Knight of Chastity, yet she sets out on her quest because she has been ravished by a vision of a naked man in her enchanted mirror. Spenser slyly tells us how “large of limb” the man is. It’s clear that Britta finds that quite exciting. Is this a coy sexual euphemism? Later in Book 3, Britomart has a lesbian encounter with the Lady of Delight Malecasta. Could it be that Britomart is actually a very sexual creature indeed, but she tempers her desires, and that is what makes her chaste? Again, Spenser teaches a profound lesson here. He understands that our desires are what make us human, and we are not supposed to remove them, and in fact, if we channel our desires into noble pursuits, we can actually become greater human beings. It is the opposite to the current modern worldview that if you make any mistake you must instantly delete yourself from existence. Spenser shows us men and women who are extremely angry, or sacrilegious, or supersexual, and how they better themselves by channeling those negative traits into positive actions. The sacrilegious man turns his killing hand upon a dangerous dragon. The angry man uses his fury to resist falling into hedonistic decadence. The supersexual woman channels her passion into loving one man with all her heart.
The second way in which Spenser’s work resembles Shakespeare’s (or rather the other way around) is not only are our characters not always who they seem, but virtually all our characters actively go about in disguises of one sort or another. The witch Duessa seems a beautiful woman called Fidessa, but is really a hideous old crone addicted to ensnaring and torturing hapless souls. Archimago the evil sorcerer conceals himself in armour that looks identical to the Redcrosse knight to work the fair maiden Una mischief. This deception has a comic end when a warrior with a vendetta against the Redcrosse knight attacks Archimago and beats the old man to within an inch of his life. At an earlier point in the narrative, Archimago conjures two spirits that impersonate Una and another man, and shows the Redcrosse knight a graphically sexual liaison between the two, which the Redcrosse mistakes for the real thing, leading to him believing his lady has betrayed him. Anyone even passingly familiar with Shakespeare’s work will know that deceptions, disguises, confusion as a result of similar appearance, devious plots to confound and scupper romantic interests, and even the summoning of spirits, are themes not only common to Elizabethan literature but perfected by The Bard.
Shakespeare clearly had tremendous empathy which allowed him to write from perspectives not his own in almost shockingly rich and nuanced ways, but that is not to say that he had no literary models. Spenser’s Duessa, a cunning witch constantly whispering at the ears of the weak-willed men she ensnares, seems a clear antecedent to Lady Macbeth. They are both persuaders, and are similarly “unsexed”. Duessa is described as having hideously deformed “nether regions” in her true form; Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “take my milk for gall”; both represent the destruction of the organs of motherhood. Both characters persuade powerful men to violent deeds, and become hateful and scornful of their “men” when they start to balk at the tasks they are set. Spenser’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, feel alive because they are not merely static humours, but shift and change in response to circumstance and whoever else they come into contact with. They are chemicals that blast in reaction to stimuli, but sometimes, even more complexly, they decide to change of their own accord. They search themselves, they introspect, and then they manifest. The Redcrosse knight we see in Canto XII is not the same man as in Canto I.
Yet the power of The Faerie Queene is not merely in its ideas alone, but in the execution. Spenser’s gift for language is unique, exemplified in not only creating an entirely new nine-line stanzaic form (the Spenserian stanza), but sustaining this intense and challenging form throughout the entire poem without sacrificing narrative drive. His specificity of description, perhaps motivated by his allegorical framework, make his creatures and characters visceral, lifelike, and downright weird. For example, the blind toads that erupt from Errours’ mouth, along with books and scrolls of false prophecy, and the offspring that suckle poison from her “dugs”, create a dragon more disturbing than any found in Beowulf or Malory. Spenser’s metaphors are astonishing. During the battle between Sans Foy and the Redcrosse knight, he describes them as “two broken reliques of former cruelty”. To describe a human being as such is painfully incisive, yet we sense from all we know of both these characters that it is truth. Knights were “relics” by the time Spenser was writing. To him, far from the noble heroes occupying a faux-Christian mythos, they represented not righteousness, but the violence and barbarism of human history. The difference between science fiction and fantasy is arguably that one looks forward with anxiety and one looks back with hope. Here, and in many other places, Spenser demonstrates that his epic looks back, but perhaps not always with hope.
Spenser may never be accessible or popular widely. As our language evolves, we move further and further from the archaisms, phonetic spellings, and taut poetic forms that he employed to write his epic. However, if you’re reading this and you love fantasy, I would urge you to try at least once. His work is a rich cave, loaded with ore, that has yet to be fully discovered and mined. Within his weird and wonderful world, there is a glimpse of a fantasy that predates what we know today, and as a result, it is unusual, sinuous, often surprising. Whilst truth, beauty, and many other virtues hold a sacred place in Spenser’s work, and there is an innocence in that, there is a darkness too in his “conceite” like that of fertile Night, the atramentous mirror image and shadow self of the Faerie Queene whom he so adored.
This guest post was originally published in a slightly different form on 14th December 2021