Woodcock, Matthew. Fairy in The Faerie Queene: Renaissance Elf-Fashioning and Elizabethan Myth-Making. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. 162pp. ISBN 0 7546 3439 6.

Marion Gibson
University of Exeter

Gibson, Marion. "Review of Matthew Woodcock, Fairy in the Faerie Queene". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 13.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revwoodc.html>.

  1. As Matthew Woodcock points out, there have been many studies of queenliness in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, but very few that made sense of the poet's use of fairy. Readers and critics have often hacked quickly through the allegory of faerieland to get at the 'real' meanings beyond, neglecting to wonder why and analyse how Spenser used the world of fairy. Woodcock's book sets out to remedy that omission.

  2. Previous writers on the subject had suggested that the setting in faerieland was a compliment to Elizabeth's Welshness, or that it represented an Elysium where the ancestors of Spenser's patrons inhabited a noble paradise. But for Woodcock faerieland is a vibrant, living place, with all the ambiguities and tensions of a mortal world. Perhaps then, as Greenblatt suggested, it could be read post-colonially, representing empire, Ireland or Spenser's England itself? As Woodcock's subtitle slyly suggests, this self-fashioning reading is hard to escape. But whose self is important here? And what of the text that both joins and separates fiction from reality?

  3. Woodcock analyses the fictiveness of fairy stories in Spenser's world, basing his approach on recent studies of the ontology of witches. While witches are not fairies, there is much to be said for this reading. Looking at fairies through the lens of Stuart Clark's Thinking with Demons or Diane Purkiss' The Witch in History is an illuminating process that reminds us how important are the context and form of narratives. An analysis of their linguistic structures and internal textual logic is as important as gesturing to the historical "facts" of cultural politics or popular belief that may lie beyond. With this in mind, Woodcock reads The Faerie Queene intertextually with Arthurian myth and Elizabethan entertainment, concluding that Spenser is writing about writing about the Queen. This may not be entirely new, but the qualities of that writing about writing are explored in a way that reveals new possibilities. Woodcock suggests that the artificiality of his faeries is also self-consciously that of Spenser's panegyric poetry. The poem creates new bodies, histories and new selves for Elizabeth, as it proliferates stories of and out of her. Faerieland and the readings of fairy become queasily multiple. What is particular striking is how Gloriana recedes further into the poem as Spenser writes. Like Gloriana, Elizabeth is a distant and unreliable figure for her subjects (including Spenser). Like all fairies, she is ontologically uncertain and unstable, visible only in fragmentary stories told by others -- such as Spenser himself.

  4. Spenser as subversive is a compelling figure, telling a fairy story about Elizabeth and highlighting his own power as mythmaker in the process. Woodcock explores the negative associations of the fairy world -- its deceits and betrayals -- as well as the naughtiness of the fairy queen herself. Gloriana begins to look like Acrasia in this account, just as the fairy queen was sometimes used by early modern tricksters to lure men into sexual sin and the loss of dignity, mastery and self itself. This reading makes perfect sense alongside Jonson's The Alchemist (where Face, Subtle and Doll make a mockery of Spenserian mysticism in high camp), while suggesting that twenty years earlier Spenser was already parodying the cult of Elizabeth while actively engaged in its creation. Likewise when we read the contemporary story of Judith Phillips, the cunning woman who -- promising a visit to the fairy queen -- bridled, saddled and rode a rich man before robbing him, we can now see an echo of Spenser rebelling against the dominance of his Queen. Elizabeth appears as fantasy fairy mistress (fay), and thus as Morgan-like sorceress. She is indebted to Chaucer and Malory, but also to Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft and Protestant demonology: a literary and cultural problem for the reader to solve as he or she negotiates the text.

  5. This is an engaging, detailed and useful book. It has a narrow focus, but it promises much. Working within the new historicist constraints of subversion and containment, it offers a fresh and thoughtful close reading of The Faerie Queene that does justice to the central word of the title. Readers who want a general history of fairy will not find it here: Diane Purkiss's Troublesome Things offers a wider, mature study. But this book carefully and conscientiously addresses nagging questions and offers some satisfyingly suggestive explorations of the answers.
Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).