- Fairy in The Faerie Queene: Renaissance Elf-Fashioning and Elizabethan Myth-Making
One of the few lacunae in contemporary Spenser scholarship is the dearth of attention given to fairy mythology in The Faerie Queene. Matthew Woodcock's study sets out to correct this problem, arguing that fairy is central to "Spenser's overall mythopœic project," a project that revisits the Galfridian construction of a mythic genealogy for the British monarchy. For Woodcock, Spenser's engagement with fairy mythology is a "self-conscious commentary upon the whole process of using fairy to represent and celebrate the queen" (2). Thus Woodcock concentrates on self-referential passages in which writing about fairy or about Elizabeth I is either the topic or the tenor of metaphoric language. Although this focus limits the [End Page 734] scope of the book, it generates a nuanced exploration of the making of meaning in Spenser's poem that enriches investigations from the usual theoretical frameworks of allegory, romance, Protestant theology, and Irish affairs.
Woodcock deploys a rhetorical and semiotic analysis of the function of fairy, avowedly borrowed from two revisionists of new historicism (Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representations  and Susan Frye, Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation ). The first two chapters of Fairy in The Faerie Queene helpfully examine the function of fairy in Protestant demonology, in Arthurian romance, and in Elizabethan entertainments. Fairies emerge here as functions of narratives and of interpretation. In Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft fairies are signs in an interpretive struggle, and it is this function that Spenser adapts in both The Shepheard's Calendar and The Faerie Queene: "fairy is a sign with a negotiated referent . . . that actively invites interpretation to which varying meanings . . . can be assigned" (28). Woodcock acknowledges the wide range of significance that fairy has in Arthuriana, but he singles out the politically empowering function of Oberon in the Huon of Burdeux cycle and traces analogous fairies in his survey of several aristocratic entertainments for Elizabeth I. From this selective, systematic examination of contexts emerge two strengths. First, Woodcock touches some of the wider cultural implications of fairy and second, his discussion of the heterogeneity of sources for fairy mythology helps explain the instability of meaning that exercises Spenser in The Faerie Queene.
Woodcock's methodology pays off most richly in chapters 3 and 6, "Spenserian Fairy Stories" and "The Fairy Chronicle," which examine Spenser's engagements with history. Chapter 3 sets The Faerie Queene (particularly the letter to Ralegh and the proems to books 1 and 2) in the context of Polydore Vergil's Anglia Historia, a skeptical critique of the Galfridian tradition of British history. Spenser's concern with fairy attenuates Polydore Vergil's skepticism by asking readers to reconsider how we imagine history rather than to reject Geoffrey of Monmouth's history wholesale. To fashion a gentleman requires that we fashion something of a historiographer — one who, like Spenser, engages a variety of conflicting sources in the process of creating a narrative. Chapter 6 examines the two fairy chronicles (Antiquitee of Faery Lond and Briton Moniments) discovered by Arthur and Guyon in the House of Alma in book 2 of The Faerie Queene. In contrast to the prevailing critical tradition, which focuses on the differences between the two fairy chronicles, Woodcock argues that the Antiquitee and Briton Moniments are meant together to be taken as a commentary on the poet's role as historiographer; moreover, the Antiquitee reflects on the construction of mythical genealogies in the Galfridian tradition. Again, Woodcock's sensitivity to Spenser's heterogeneous fairy mythology teases out a subtle reading of Spenser's observations on the process of composing a narrative. Chapters 4 and 5 examine primarily the imaginative space of fairyland and Spenser's representation of the Fairy Queen, topics central to much Spenserian scholarship, but again Fairy in The Faerie Queene reveals a close relationship between spatiotemporal indeterminacy, polysemy, and Spenser...