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Faith, folly, and ‘The Faerie Queene’

Once a byword for Protestant sobriety and moral idealism, Spenser is now better known for his irony and elusiveness. Yet his sense of humour is still underestimated and misunderstood. Challenging the bias behind this neglect, this study shows that humour, far from being peripheral or superficial, goes to the heart of Spenser’s moral and doctrinal preoccupations. It explores rifts between The Faerie Queene’s ambitious and idealising postures and its Protestant vision of corruptible human nature. Figures to be comically ‘undone’ include the hero, the chivalric lover, the virgin, and the ideal monarch – as well as Spenser’s own epic-poet persona. Yet bathos has a positive significance in Christian theology, and Spenserian humour proves to be an expression of tolerance and faith as well as an instrument of satire. On this basis, Comic Spenser contends that the alliance of humour and allegory in The Faerie Queene affirms the value of the creative and ‘errant’ imagination.

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Victoria Coldham-Fussell

The introduction surveys historical patterns of interest in, and resistance to, the humour of The Faerie Queene. It introduces comic theory via its traditional schools (‘superiority’, ‘incongruity’, ‘relief’) and by exploring three largely interdependent principles that have been linked to humour since antiquity: ‘reduction’, ‘ambiguity’, and ‘play’. The second half of the introduction characterises Spenserian humour in relation to these latter principles. It draws a connection between The Faerie Queene’s insistent bathos and the Christian – and especially Protestant – understanding that humans cannot be heroes. The central role of Spenser’s humble and unreliable narrator is emphasised.

in Comic Spenser
Victoria Coldham-Fussell

This chapter moves Spenser to the centre of the comic Renaissance. It documents the wealth of influences operating together during the Elizabethan period, and engages with the wider Spenser canon in order to demonstrate the breadth of his engagement with, and contribution to, comic literary culture. This survey emphasises the period’s humanist preoccupation with linguistic play and wit; its ‘rediscovery’ of classical authors such as Lucian, Apuleius, and Ovid; and its love of jestbooks and mock-encomia. It also represents medieval traditions of humour, both secular and religious, as typified by the semi-parodic chivalric romance tradition and the comic dimensions of religious drama. Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is considered for its profound and influential fusion of medieval and humanist traditions. The energy of the Elizabethan period’s comic literary culture is contextualised by entrenched patterns of hostility to humour and laughter and the intensification of these after the Reformation. The humour of The Faerie Queene – a national epic with canonical aspirations – emerges as both typical of the period’s generic freedoms and notably provocative.

in Comic Spenser
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Victoria Coldham-Fussell

This chapter reflects on the conflict between heroism and holiness in Book I of The Faerie Queene, and demonstrates Spenser’s use of mock-heroic humour to expose the inappropriateness of classical ideals of self-sufficiency in a Christian context. In particular, the chapter investigates Spenser’s comic handling of three conventions associated with classical epic: the exemplary qualities of the hero, the superiority of epic over pastoral, and heroic violence. The primary target of the book’s satire is Red Crosse, but Spenser’s own authorial persona as a newly invested epic poet is ironically implicated. Both Red Crosse and ‘Spenser’ rise above their humble backgrounds to serve a queen, and both have pretensions to a heroic vocation. While Spenser’s narrator explicitly renounces pastoral for the higher calling of epic, pastoral will not stop ‘interrupting’ his hero’s progress. Initially, such interruption has derogatory implications, but bathos ultimately proves to be spiritually restorative.

in Comic Spenser
Victoria Coldham-Fussell

This chapter challenges two traditional assumptions about the story of Red Crosse’s infidelity to Una in Spenser’s ‘Legend of Holiness’: first, that this infidelity has, allegorically speaking, little to do with sexuality, and, second, that the book’s sexual satire (such as it is) is directed at lust and infidelity. Rejecting both these premises, this chapter contends that what the book really satirises is Red Crosse’s bodily shame. Its core argument is that, as an allegory of idolatry, the knight’s affair with Duessa in part represents a misled and hypocritical commitment to celibacy. This counterintuitive play on Spenser’s part is underscored by bawdy symbolism, wordplay, and innuendo. More than a vehicle for talking about something else – something elevated and spiritual – sexuality emerges as a touchstone for the very condition of embodiment that ‘holiness’ must negotiate.

in Comic Spenser
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The Faerie Queene III–IV
Victoria Coldham-Fussell

This chapter highlights Spenser’s talent for communicating the comic vulnerability of lovers through acute psychological observation and situational comedy. It argues that romantic love epitomises the intersection of sin and redemption in Christian life, and that humour foregrounds this intersection in the central books of the poem. Specifically, it shows how Spenser characteristically blurs the distinctions between love and lust, noble suffering and self-indulgence, altruism and self-interest even in heroes such as Britomart and Arthur. If there is cynicism in this amusement, it tends to be directed at the notional ideals themselves (and at the conventions of chivalric romance) rather than at the human imperfections that belie them. Working from the premise that a narrative and its allegorical suggestions are mutually revealing, the chapter as a whole defends our impulses to read The Faerie Queene ‘literally’ as well as allegorically.

in Comic Spenser
Victoria Coldham-Fussell

This chapter analyses The Faerie Queene’s images of Elizabeth I in detail. It acknowledges that grotesque caricature is not necessarily closer to what ‘Spenser really thought’ than idealisation, and finds that both distortions can be equally funny. Distinguishing between veiled, critical satire and the more self-inclusive tendencies of Spenserian humour, it argues that while Elizabeth I is not exempt from comic treatment in The Faerie Queene, neither is Spenser himself. Perhaps in recognition that his own ambitions as a poet depended upon panegyric, Spenser’s images of the queen often incorporate elements of self-satire.

in Comic Spenser
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Victoria Coldham-Fussell

The epilogue reflects on the close relationship between Spenser’s sense of humour and his authorship of allegory. It argues that allegory does not merely facilitate humour (through irony, naïveté, incongruity, and so forth); it also focuses us on what Spenserian humour is, in a far-reaching sense, ‘about’. Readers of The Faerie Queene are not simply asked to see through a story to its moral applications; they are asked to engage with a mode of representation whose secondariness, limitations, and pleasurability are philosophically and theologically suggestive. This concluding piece reviews the strategies by which Spenser accentuates these suggestive traits, in effect pulling together the foregoing chapters’ key observations regarding the intersection of allegory and humour.

in Comic Spenser