A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
The Faerie Queen (Canto I) by Edmund Spenser
Today is Saint George’s Day. Also known as the Feast of Saint George, it is celebrated by the English and by the various churches and nations of which Saint George is patron. The day is marked by festivities celebrating the triumph of good over evil and is especially noted for the story of St. George, the dragon slayer. His brave and courageous character is the epitome of nobility, emboldened by moral imperative, eschewing the timidity of guilt and shame.
That is wholly ironic, for many of us were raised by guilt and shame. As corporal punishment decreased from generation to generation in disciplining children, the method of choice became expressed disappointment. From the Baby Boomer generation forward, virtue was shaped by stoic self-discipline, and our religion was defined by the list of things one does not do.
In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said:
For most contemporary people, holiness is a negation. Holy people don’t. The “holy” student will not go to the bacchanalia of Spring Break; the secular kid will have all the fun. Being virtuous has become all about “not sinning.” Reading Spenser should remind Christians that virtue is empowering. Holy people can.
The story of St. George and the dragon reminds us that, as Virgil said Audaces Fortuna Iuvat – Fortune favors the bold. In Tremendous Trifles, G.K. Chesterton wrote:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
Were you raised by adults who used guilt as a technique?
How has that shaped your worldview?
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
D I G D E E P E R
On Faith and Romanticism
John Mark Reynolds
I first read Edmund Spenser because I loved C. S. Lewis, and C. S. Lewis loved The Faerie Queene. Sadly, I never really recovered from the first line of the book. A knight “pricking on the plaine” didn’t communicate to my junior high mind as Spenser intended.
The poetry required learning many new words and spellings, plus a boatload of history. The language made seventh-grade favorite The Lord of the Rings seem as simple as Nancy Drew by comparison.
I had to come to accept that The Faerie Queene was hard work without granting easy access to the beauty that seemed to drip from the Narnia books or was the heart of Phantastes. The plot was simple; the characters, contrived. The book did not seem worth the effort, and I quit.
Years of teaching The Faerie Queene suggests my first reaction is a common one. The plot and the good bits likely don’t seem worth the labor it takes to reach them, while the constant sucking up to Queen Elizabeth is annoying when not risible. Rare is the student, and fortunate, who loves this book immediately. For the rest of us, there is only the promise that Lewis saw something in it.
That alone might not have been enough to get me to try again, but any reader of romantic literature, and every lover of Faerie, finds Spenser turning up as an inspiration for favorite writers. I was missing something, and I knew it.
It turned out for me, as it has for so many of my students, that we’d never been taught to read a poem like The Faerie Queene.
The story is about the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur; so many of us expect Malory or Tennyson plotting. It is set in Faerie, so we hope for Narnia. Instead, we get simple tales “disguising” an allegory about topics like “holiness.” Spenser strained my piety to the breaking point as I longed for swords and sorcery over sermons.
At least the allegory seems easy. Anyone named Sans Foy (“faithless”) will not be a good guy, though on one occasion someone with a good name is a baddie in disguise.
Lest we be confused for a moment, Spenser clues the reader into the “secret” right away. Saint George seems likely to kill the dragon, since that is what Saint George famously does. Saint George is indeed (at least) a stand-in for England, and he does indeed learn the ways of holiness.
I had an epiphany at Disneyland. I was walking through Sleeping Beauty Castle, looking at dioramas, and I thought, Still-life scenes like this are becoming rare in our CG special-effects world. For some reason this “clicked,” and I suddenly saw how to appreciate Spenser’s effects. He presents me, the reader, with a series of images, set pieces, that as a whole (and in detail) are meant to convey an overriding effect. Lewis, of course, had made this point better in his scholarly work on Spenser, but somehow I’d missed it.
Spenser is like an old-fashioned parade, and his scenes are like floats. One enjoys the float as a discrete whole and then moves to the next one. The connection between any two floats may be slight, but both are connected to the theme of the parade.
So the connection between the parts is there, but Spenser’s design is not like with a modern novel. Each “shot” or image in the text must first be enjoyed for itself and only then picked apart or joined to the whole.
Nevertheless, doing this also requires learning Spenser’s iconic vocabulary. As Lewis and other commentators have pointed out, his images drew on the familiar church and classical literature of the educated class of his time. When Una, a woman symbolizing the unified truth of the orthodox Christian faith, is first seen with her lamb and a dwarf, the informed reader understands that “the image” is part of “the Image.” We do not expect to keep hearing about the lamb or the dwarf, and if they simply “vanish” in the next few scenes, well, this is to be anticipated in a parade.
The plot gives the reader the bigger meaning of each scene, and the details unlock the inner teaching. Once I found this way of seeing Spenser—and educated myself in the language of stained glass and coats of arms—I fell in love with The Faerie Queene and never looked back.
The obvious allegory is still there: Spenser loves Elizabeth, Anglican Protestantism, and romantic life. However, those are the shallow concerns of the poem, which is connected with deeper and older streams of catholic (general) Christianity. He rebuilds the unified cathedral of Christian thought, Dante’s vision, as a Saint Paul’s in London and not as Saint Peter’s in Rome.
Spenser’s “effects” are more suited to Handel and Tudor science than to chant and scholasticism. There also is less mystery in Spenser than in Dante, but likewise there is a greater attempt to let in light at every turn. In his vision, the clutter of the medieval cathedral is cleared away. That images and relics are exposed as tricks (of Archimago) allows the Christian to see true faerie in nature and in orthodoxy without being deceived and distracted by false loves.
Further, Spenser sanctifies the English story. He places the classical tradition within the deep myths of England using the tale of Arthur and so allows the romantic heart to be as enchanted by the English countryside as by the Greek or Italian landscapes. Spenser claims, and uses, the vocabulary of fifteen hundred years of Christendom, proving poetically that this is just as much the heritage of the Church of England as the Church of Rome.
What is more, Spenser is very Protestant, and the Catholic Church comes in for all sorts of attacks, most of which are uncharitable or unfair. In his defense, we should remember Spenser was living in a world where a Catholic queen of England had recently roasted Protestant heroes at the behest of Rome. He lived in the era of religious wars, and his pope was not, for instance, the blessed John Paul II.
Does this work?
It did work for romantics like George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, enabling them to remain content Protestants and still find themselves part of the greater catholic faith.
It did not work for G. K. Chesterton, who made his way back to Rome by way of Faerie.
So, Spenser makes it possible to be a romantically fulfilled orthodox and Protestant Christian . . . perhaps.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.