Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Spenser, Edmund

(1552-1599) English Renaissance poet. ES's noteworthy shorter works include The Shephearde's Calender (coll 1579), a cycle of 12 Pastoral poems about the lives of shepherds, and "Epithalamion" (1595), his delightful wedding poem; both include characters and imagery from Mythology and Folklore. But ES's greatest contribution to literature – and as model Epic Fantasy and Taproot Text to fantasy – is his massive epic poem The Faerie Queene (Books I-III 1590; Books IV-VI 1596; with "Mutabilitie Cantos" added 1609).

As originally planned, The Faerie Queene was to contain 12 books of 12 cantos, each book devoted to a Knight representing a specific virtue adventuring through Faerie. Uniting the books was to be the character of Arthur, who would appear at some crucial point to assist each knight and thus to display or acquire that knight's virtue. The poem would conclude with the marriage of Arthur, representing England, and the Fairy Queen, representing Queen Elizabeth I, thus solving the problem of the Virgin Queen by symbolically marrying her to her country. However, ES completed only six books plus the two "Mutabilitie Cantoes", evidently written as an episode for a seventh book. The existing books visibly depart from the plan: Book IV, nominally about Cambel and Telamond, the Knights of Friendship, actually continues the adventures of Britomart, the female Knight of Chastity from Book III; and Book VI ends on a most unheroic note, as the Blatant Beast subdued by Calidore, the Knight of Courtesy, escapes to ravage the countryside once again. (Some speculate that ES abandoned the project because he became disillusioned, either by the world in general or by the physical and mental deterioration of Elizabeth.)

The Faerie Queene is clearly an Allegory about the proper moral education of the ideal knight, but its meanings are by no means simple or straightforward, as ES immediately establishes: Book I begins with the Redcross Knight of Holiness rather handily subduing a monster named Error, only to fall victim to other, less obvious menaces. The lesson, for both knight and readers, is that events in Faerie will not always be easy to interpret.

Because of its extreme length (over 30,000 lines), most students read only Book I. This is unfortunate, since it is in some ways the most allegorical and least lively part of the whole. Book II, featuring Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, is much more memorable, with a remarkable final canto describing the Bower of Bliss. Britomart, heroine of Books III and IV, is a complex and well developed character, and many regret that she ends up marrying the rather stern and one-dimensional Artegall, Knight of Justice, in Book V Book VI, the adventures of Calidore (modelled on Sir Philip Sidney [1554-1586]), is the most Pastoral and arguably the most charming of all.

ES's poetry has two particular features of interest to fantasy readers. First, while ES wished to emulate the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, he lacked the linguistic knowledge to reconstruct Middle English; instead, he devised his own mock-archaic Diction, with many wilful misspellings and neologisms. Thus he was the first writer to create his own language to convey the distinct atmosphere of a fantasy world. Second, because ES worried that readers might have trouble understanding this language, he published The Shephearde's Calender with extensive explanatory notes by "E.K." (presumably his friend Edmund Kirke, though some believe ES wrote them himself), and each canto of The Faerie Queene opens with a couplet summarizing its plot – making ES the first writer to publish annotated editions of his works.

Only a few modern works explicitly refer to ES. L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Incomplete Enchanter series includes an interlude in ES's Faerie. Calidore and the Blatant Beast appear in John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949), and ES himself shows up in Myers's The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter (1981). However, the indirect influence of The Faerie Queene can be felt in countless fantasy epics about noble heroes and heroines battling against evil menaces to achieve worthy goals. ES was the first to produce an epic that both incorporated countless mythological and folkloric traditions and exemplified the careful design and poetic quality of written literature. [GW]

further reading: The standard edition of ES's complete works has long been Poetical Works (1912) ed J C Smith and Ernest De Selincourt. The critical literature on ES is vast; a good starting point is The Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) gen ed A C Hamilton. One fondly remembered critical study is Kathleen Williams's Spenser's World of Glass: A Reading of The Faerie Queene (1966).

Edmund Spenser


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.