Mapping the Faerie Queene: Quest Structures and the World of the Poem.
Describing the spatial and temporal structures of The Faerie Queene, Wayne Erickson defends the epic nature of the poem against the complaint voiced by critics since 1580, when Gabriel Harvey wrote that Spenser had let "Hobgoblin runne away" with his developing poem. How can Spenser's work stand as an epic when its setting is so removed from earthly history and geography? Erickson responds that, while Gloriana's Faeryland may in its otherworldly way allegorize "individual conflict (erotic and ethical)" (43), much of the action in the poem occurs outside her realm. These other countries, particularly Britain, provide less allegorical, more historical actions that ground the poem in epic conventions. The British heroes who wander through Faeryland bring the concerns with dynasty and empire with them and then are fated to head back out of Faeryland into a world of national destiny and personal tragedy.
Erickson sets his argument against the rigid dualities of new historicism, aligning himself with the more flexible revisionist historicists who can see discourse not so exclusively centered on power: "By exposing the poem's multiplicity, the book challenges historicist critics to consider a pluralist perspective and to revaluate their most persistent assumptions: that cultural power conditions and controls representation and interpretation . . . and that all textual production is political production and all actions within texts political actions" (10). Nonetheless, Erickson's discussion promotes a dualism of a more structuralist kind when he splits the heroes and regions of The Faerie Queene into those belonging to epic or to allegorical romance, and he himself concentrates on the epic, more political side of this division. Ultimately, however, Erickson's interest lies not in how Spenser's text tangles with Elizabethan policy, but in the way the allegories of "interior worlds" of Faeryland balance the "transparent representations of historical times and places [that] exist outside Faeryland" (65).
That balance seems too rigid for the complexities of the poem. Still, the division allows Erickson to make enlightening observations. He establishes that Faeryland does not just allegorically represent England, but occupies England's place on the globe, bordered by Wales and Cornwall, whence the British heroes enter Faeryland. The epic concerns, therefore, of Britomart, Artegall, and Arthur as they enter Faeryland are those of fifth-century Celtic dynasties. When they quest outside Faeryland to the surrounding countries of Ireland, France, and Belgium, they exit into the sixteenth century. (Saxon Redcrosse's quest varies this pattern by serving religious, as opposed to political, history.) The Faerie knights, Guyon and Calidore, in contrast, never leave Gloriana's realm to explore beyond the boundaries of personal behavior and morality. By localizing Faeryland within the landscape of the poem, amid other countries with rulers other than Gloriana, Erickson provides a steady sense of Spenser's handling of geography and time.
Defining the borders of Faeryland throughout the poem, however, strains credulity. Erickson nudges Eden land and Radigund's realm outside Faeryland, pulls Acrasia's Bower inside, distinguishes the dissatisfactions of the British quests from the more self-contained Faerie quests, and finally pronounces upon the shape of Spenser's "epic design" as if it had been completed (107). These maneuvers require some special pleading and faith in the tight coherence of a poem written over the course of sixteen years in the face of varying and contradictory cultural pressures. Historicists and post-structuralist critics may not share that faith.
SAYRE N. GREENFIELD University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg
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|Author:||Greenfield, Sayre N.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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