Fantasy, Romance, and Power: The Faerie Queene and Beyond
Why do we so often turn to fantasy in order to understand reality? Living amidst the turmoil and traumas of the Elizabethan Age, with its rampant political and religious violence, Edmund Spenser turned to Arthurian romance to compose The Faerie Queene, an epic poem that, even as it pays homage to Queen Elizabeth I, presents a sustained mediation on the workings of vice, virtue, art, and power in a rapidly changing world. The Faerie Queene narrates the adventures of a cast of knights, ladies, wizards, and lords, whose trials and tribulations give rise to questions of lasting pertinence: what does it mean to be good? To love? To hate? To rule? Set in an Edenic “Faerieland,” the poem employs medieval myth to connect past and present, to explore continuity and rupture—in ways that would become typical of modernity, and which resonate with works of fantasy today. How can we understand The Faerie Queene, critically, politically, and poetically, in its time and ours? And what can it teach us about the uses of fantasy—of the enduring archetypes of fairies, wizards, monsters, and knights—in “disenchanted” times?
In this course, we’ll read long stretches of The Faerie Queene as we explore its archetypes, allegories, and reception history—and reflect on the continued salience of fantasy as a mode of representation and understanding. How should we read the poem’s complicated allegories? How should we understand an unfinished poem? What does literary form have to do with the poem’s moral, political, and religious aspirations? We will contextualize Spenser within his contemporary historical milieu and the work of his contemporaries, including Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, as well as trace his influence on poetry and literary criticism from Milton to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. And throughout, we will ask: How does The Faerie Queene mix poetical epic and fantasy and to what ends? What does it mean to explore (and cope with) the realities of the present via the romance of the past?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 06 — June 27, 2022