Patrick J. Cook. Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition. Aldershot: Scolar P, 1996. 201 pp. ISBN 1-85928-271-7 Cloth.
Wayne Erickson. Mapping the Faerie Queene. New York: Garland, 1996. 150 pp. ISBN 0-8153-1658-5 Cloth.
John S. Pendergast
Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy

Pendergast, John S.  "Review of Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition and Mapping the Faerie Queene." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 17.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_pend.html>.

  1. The two great epics in English, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, have long suffered from a refusal of critics to treat them as epics. Although numerous critics have discussed epic themes and parallels in the two English epics, more profound and deeper questions have not been sufficiently asked. For example, what ontological distinctions need to be made between primary epics (i.e. those of Homer) and secondary epics (those of Virgil, Ariosto, Spenser and Milton)? What specific cultural and/or historical factors are influential on these secondary epics? As the two books under review here remind us, there are important spatial and temporal qualifications to be made when defining either The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost as epics, and it is these very qualifications which give the two poems much of their depth and significance.

  2. Wayne Erickson’s Mapping the Faerie Queene: Quest Structures and the World of the Poem deals primarily with The Faerie Queene and this focus allows him to unfold his discussion in light of past Spenserian critics (especially Thomas Roche, Edwin Greenlaw, C. S. Lewis and Harry Berger). Erickson is primarily concerned with the distinctions between romance and epic in relation to the contours or boundaries of the poem, and the critical history of the poem’s treatment as a romance and an epic by these critics is revealing. Erickson unpacks some of the most important distinctions between history/fiction, public/personal, and epic/romance and bases much of his argument on Spenser’s Letter to Raleigh. Much of his discussion centres on questioning what constitutes the "inner" and "outer" realms of the poem. Erickson, however, never questions the letter itself as external to the poem and leaves its relation to the poem unquestioned. Similarly, Erickson refers to the "public" voice of the letter, but does not discuss how that voice is intrinsic or extrinsic, or inherently different, from the voice of the poem itself. Although I would consider these to be minor quibbles, and not faults of the book per se, they are important questions deserving further consideration.

  3. This is an extremely learned book. The author’s most important contribution to Spenserian scholarship is his focus on reality vs. fiction, and by emphasizing it he has done critics of The Faerie Queene a great service. The complexity of juxtaposing questions of verity with spatiality is seen in the following from the introduction: "Spenser situates Faeryland within a multiform fictional universe, including a syncretic epic cosmos stretching from heaven and the abode of the classical deities to demonic underground realms and a complex terrestrial setting comprising a generalized fallen earth and a specific spatial and temporal political geography" (3). As any critic knows, problems arise when the "temporal political" realm of the poem must be dealt with alongside the poem’s "multiform fictional universe," and Erickson’s solution to this problem is to largely ignore the political realm of the poem with a summary dismissal of contemporary historicism. Given the brevity of his treatment, and the complexity of the questions he does undertake, such a dismissal is certainly understandable, although it does disallow some potentially interesting debate between "fact and fiction, real and ideal, and epic and romance" (9).

  4. Erickson rightly takes issue with the majority of Spenser critics who refuse to acknowledge a difference between Britain and Faeryland, and he notes that only a few, including Harry Berger and Isabel MacCaffrey, properly understand the overall geographical structure of Spenser’s poem. Erickson does not consider Faeryland to be coexistent with the world of the poem and considers Eden, Britain and Cleopolis, for example, to be places from which characters depart as they go in search of their destinies, only to enter Faeryland in order to act out their parts in Spenser’s epic historical romance. The focus on this movement and its thematic implications helps to recreate the imaginative world of the poem in the reader’s mind. Although my own conception of allegory resists positivist distinctions between inner and outer fictions, Erickson’s thorough explication of the different quests of the heroes of the Faerie Queene from different locales, and the corresponding literary allusions and sources for them, added yet another level to my understanding of the poem and its relationship to the epic.

  5. Patrick J. Cook’s Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition likewise considers the spatial aspects of the Faerie Queene. Cook is careful to highlight the "omphalos-based chronotope" (2) of the epic, that is, the centrally located delineation of sacredness typical of Western culture represented by the prominence of the acropolis or sacred city and the consistent horizontal action of epic heroes either away from or toward this point of sacredness. In Cook’s own words, the theme of his book is "the relentless questioning and challenging that lies at the heart of epic’s didactic rhetoric" (2). To this end he traces the shifting manifestation of the omphalic chronotope through Homer, where it is most clearly seen in the "forward pressing hero" (2), to Spenser and Milton, whose Christian epics introduce a conscious irony to the omphalic universe. It is in his discussion of Spenser that Cook’s study is most original, reminding us that Protestant readers and writers would be somewhat suspicious of a centralized concept of the sacred. To this end the writers of Christian epics, Ariosto, Spenser and Milton, turned to a "Christian sense of progress toward salvation" (62) as the dominant omphalic trope. Like Erickson, Cook notes that the uniquely Renaissance mixture of romance and epics problematised the consistent forwardness which characterized the classical epic. Medieval romances focussed on cyclical patterns of "proceeding and returning" (63), and when this is married to the forward pressing hero, we find a new type of Renaissance epic based upon typological comparisons "which allows us to see his various journeys as types of the unitary Christian quest" (86). In the end, the most striking theoretical achievement of this book is the use of typology to explain the specific movement and structure of not only specific lines of poetry, but larger units such as stanzas and whole cantos. Each smaller increment of the poem is subsumed into a larger one in a movement toward ultimate unity, a movement which mirrors that of the epic hero. Cook writes: "Unitizing, it should be stressed, is not a matter of removing an element from its primary matrix, but of assigning it a supplementary referential function that distinguished it from its neighbors at the same time that it continues to function within the primary matrix these neighbors define" (129). Although Cook does not acknowledge it, he is describing the operation of allegorical as much, if not more than, typological reading. This subtle distinction does not undermine his position, but it does suggest a layer not fully developed in his study.

  6. Although this is a very helpful model by which to read Spenser, it is important to remember that despite allowances toward Protestant exegetical theory, The Faerie Queene is an allegory, albeit a new type of allegory, and more attention levelled at the tensions between typology and allegory would have been beneficial. It is when Cook acknowledges that the Faerie Queene is structured around allegorical cores, such as Gloriana’s court at Cleopolis (which Erickson suggests lies outside of Faery Land), the House of Pride, and the Garden of Adonis, that his argument is most successful. Here Erickson and Cook complement each other, reminding us that throughout The Faerie Queene the movement of a hero from or toward a centralized sacred (or evil) centre is the poem’s most epic characteristic. Likewise, it is via this movement that Spenser was able to "adapt a genre to an ideology with which it was fundamentally incompatible," (128) an assessment with which both writers would undoubtedly agree.

  7. Cook ends his book with a reading of Paradise Lost which, although it does not break new ground for Milton critics, does serve as a satisfactory conclusion to his discussion. Milton makes Satan adhere to a very strict omphalic conception of power and movement: on the one hand he would like to be at the centre of all creation, but ignores God’s position as the sacred centre. "Tempted by proximity to the central deity, Satan believed that by rising one step higher he would become an independent omphalos" (141). Cook wisely quotes Paradise Lost 8.471-4 as an example of Eve’s sinful pride and narcissism: "so lovely fair,/ That what seemed fair in all the world, seemed now / Mean, or in her summed up, in her contained / And in her looks." By placing herself as the centre of creation Eve is illustrating the same pride that Satan manifested in his rebellion. Ultimately Adam and Eve are expelled from an omphalic garden into a chaotic world. Like Spenser’s heroes, the "path" to salvation for Christian epic heroes is dependent upon a correct understanding of their place in relation to the sacred centre.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 8 September 1998)