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: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-2/revaking.htm>.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
King, John. Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1990.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.