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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early
Modern Europe. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
Purkiss, Diane. Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories.
London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2000.
Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century
Representations. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.