King, Andrew. The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 246pp. ISBN 0 19 818722X .

Joshua Phillips
University of Memphis

Philips, Joshua. "Review of King, Andrew. The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005) 7.1-6 <URL:>.

  1. Ambitious and much-needed, Andrew King's The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory aims to broaden our understanding of Spenser's epic poem by focusing on the poet's "native" medievalism. In trying to reconstruct what he calls the "corporate memory" of Elizabethan readers, King sheds significant light on the Tudor reception of the English medieval literary tradition and on many medieval romances that Spenser critics have been all too willing to overlook, such as King Horn, Havelok, Sir Bevis, Guy of Warwick and the "Eustace-Constance-Florence- Griselda Legends," to name just a few. But King is not interested in simply culling out scenes and passages that Spenser may have borrowed from these works. Rather, he tries to identify the "specific narrative patterns" of such Middle English romance that, he argues, Spenser found "uncannily appropriate for a dramatization of both the Calvinist paradigm of salvation and the Protestant historical interpretation of the English Reformation" (129). To this extent, King's book functions as both analogue to and extension of a work like John King's Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition: analogue in that it too tries to redirect our attention to "native English" traditions, but an extension in that it wants to provide a medieval, secular literary background for Spenser's religio-literary thought.

  2. For Andrew King, as his subtitle implies, understanding Spenser's poem requires that one take stock of the psychological and cultural processes of memory; indeed, his book asks us to remember a different Faerie Queene than the one we may know. As a repository, a material memory itself of earlier English romances, The Faerie Queene also directs our attention to the relation of memory and the imagination, a relation King intelligently explores in his discussion of Spenser's depiction of the chambers of Phantastes and Eumnestes (FQ, II. ix. 51-6). In this discussion, King shows Spenser's growing awareness of the imagination's power over memory, exploring how the poet's vision of his task of writing a historical/allegorical poem changed as a result.

  3. Despite his determination to focus on the specific narrative patterns of medieval English romance that Spenser exploited, however, King is really at his best when analyzing more traditional intertextual borrowings, as in his consideration of Spenser's use of the dragon from Bevis of Hampton in creating his own dragon at the end of Book I of The Faerie Queene. Here, in chapter 6 - the best chapter of the book - King's explanation of how Spenser's "revisionary memory" redeemed Middle English romance for Tudor Protestants and contributed to a providential paradigm is both fascinating and persuasive.

  4. When King lacks such clear examples of borrowing, his work suffers. Partly this is so because he never provides a fully convincing and encompassing definition of "native" romance. He does explain that such romance is characterized by its "recognizably English landscape" and sense of greater realism than non-English romances and by "two basic narrative-patterns: the orphaned, exiled or displaced male youth of noble birth but impoverished upbringing, and the female figure of virtue who is treacherously slandered and consequently outcast" (vii). However, as one notices immediately, and as King himself is forced to admit repeatedly, these two narrative-patterns are common not only to English romances, but also to Continental romances, as well as various other genres, for example classical tragedy and the medieval chanson de geste. To add to the confusion, King treats certain romances as "native" if they were translated into English (for example, Sir Degare, Sir Perceval, Lybeaus Desconus) but ignores others of greater importance to Spenser (Huon of Bordeaux, The Four Sons of Aymon) which were also Englished.

  5. The second great problem for this book is its structure. The title leads one to expect a concerted focus on The Faerie Queene, but serious discussion of that poem is forestalled until chapter six and takes up less than half the book. Dealing with so many works that remain unfamiliar to modern readers, King tends in his first five chapters to get caught up in lengthy plot summaries that slow the pace of his fine and learned work. While these summaries may sometimes be useful to readers who haven't read much medieval romance, the book often fails to fully exploit them, especially in chapter seven where Middle English romance seems to disappear altogether.

  6. Nonetheless, in tracing out how Spenser's attempt to imaginatively remember English history through its romances led him ultimately to disown the providential historical model of the nation, King has given us a work that contributes profoundly to our sense of Spenser's medievalism and to the ways that sixteenth century English people thought about, used, and remembered their medieval past.
Work Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

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