|Walter Crane illustration of The Faerie Queene book I. Image care of The Folio Society.|
Genre: poem, quest, adventure, Arthurian romance
Topics: virtue, honor, love, nobility
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser is one of the longest poems in the English language and an allegorical work about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Now, I know what you're thinking: "A long-ass poem that's an allegory? Kill me now." I know because I would have thought the same thing before I started listening to it. BUT! I promise you, The Faerie Queene is so kick-ass awesome that I weep for the people who haven't read it. I WEEP.
Book I introduces us to the Knight of Red Crosse, who grew up in Faerie. He's traveling with a woman named Una back to her kingdom so he can help rescue her parents from a vicious dragon. Along the way, they're separated by an evil sorcerer name Archimago, Redcrosse is tricked by a witch into thinking he's still traveling with Una, and Una believes Redcrosse is dead. Eventually they're reunited with the help of King Arthur, and go to Una's kingdom to defeat the dragon.
I listened to this on audio (Project Gutenberg only has Book I; Librivox has Books I-VII) and it was soooo much fun. I didn't know anything about it when I started other than it was an epic poem extolling Queen Elizabeth, so I wasn't sure what to expect; but the language is beautiful and the story is incredibly romantic--in the traditional sense of the word, full of adventure and magic. I loved the descriptions, especially of the Duessa when she's finally revealed to be a witch, and of Arthur. Actually just the fact that Arthur is in this is enough of a reason to read it, don't you think? There are also dragons, talking trees, lusty giants, a dwarf, curses, several other knights whose names are all similar, lions who help people, satyrs, and three-headed serpents.
As for Una, she does have the prototypical fair maiden thing going on, and she faints at one point (which, come on)--but she's not passive or helpless. She's the one who goes to find Redcrosse, rescues him from Duessa, and manages much better than he does while they're separated. She's not exactly Buffy, but she's no damsel in distress, either.
Now, I'm not going to say I understood everything that was going on here, and when I read the other books I'll probably try to find a summary before I start so I have a clearer idea of what's happening; but you definitely don't need to know anything about the reign of Queen Elizabeth to appreciate The Faerie Queene. It may be a political allegory, but it works purely as a story. Mainly it seemed to me a book about how to be honorable and virtuous, and in tone it reminded me a lot of the Narnia books.
If you have any fondness for fantasy or Arthurian stories, you have to read The Faerie Queene. You just have to; you'll be cheating yourself if you don't. I know a 16th-century poem is a tall order for most people, but listening to it on audio made it go by really quickly for me, and it's totally worth it.