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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 191-196
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Teaching Spenser As Fantasy Literature;
or, How to Lure Unsuspecting Undergraduates into a Spenser Course
Susannah Brietz Monta
It is a truism that a good teacher meets her students where they are. The problem for the teacher of Spenser, however, is that there may be no common ground on which to arrange a rendezvous. While few students arrive on campus eager to immerse themselves in Spenser's faerie, many do have a love of fairy stories of another kind. Accordingly, I attempt to bridge the gap between students' existing enthusiasms and The Faerie Queene by teaching Spenser alongside the fantasy writing of the Oxford Inklings, literature that many undergraduates already know and love. 1 The lure of fantasy writing allows a course that spends a month and a half on Spenser to compete successfully with other upper-division offerings in my department's curriculum. Students can delve into the literary past by excavating a generic history whose most recent layers already engage them. My students and I discover that we all share a love of quest romance, and they graciously permit me to draw them backward into an old faerie world that looks at least somewhat familiar to them.
Because the territory shared by fantasy writing and The Faerie Queene lies in the land of genre, mine is essentially a course in romance. Theoretical readings are taken from Northrop Frye (1990) and Fredric Jameson (1981). We also read J. R. R. Tolkien's (1966) "On Fairy Stories," the first half of his work "Tree and Leaf," which theorizes fantasy writing in ways similar to Frye's treatment of romance. I use these readings to raise a number of core questions: Is romance a conservative and/or escapist genre (a question both Tolkien and Jameson tackle, from radically different directions)? What are the politics of the quest form? How may genre best be defined: Through formal features? Implicit contracts with a reader? A writer's framing gestures and engagements with literary history? How can we speak of genres across time and cultures? How can we track and explain generic continuity and change? Setting Tolkien's essay against Frye and Jameson helps sell the more difficult, unfamiliar authors and make theory less foreboding. Tolkien's essay is useful in other, more substantial ways as well. Because "On Fairy Stories" links important romance topoi with Christian mythology, it is particularly helpful [End Page 191] for the study of Spenser. The essay enables me to point out the tensions between the timelessness of the Christian allegorical quest's beatific goal and the temporal entrapments of the Christian militant—precisely the tensions that Spenser exploits in book 1. Tolkien also provides a useful vocabulary, as in his concept of romance's "eucatastrophe." With a Greek pun familiar to all readers of Sir Thomas More, Tolkien means the romance ending or turn that is both "no" catastrophe and a "good" catastrophe.
Most importantly, Tolkien supplies an apt model for approaching Spenser's archaic faerie world. Tolkien's insistence that the worlds created in fairy stories have their own rules and expectations helps students grasp how Spenser's poem constantly negotiates its own chivalric fiction and the implicit rules thereof. The Errour episode is the most famous case in point. Redcrosse acts according to the rules of the chivalric fiction, the only rules he knows: be brave in facing threats; virtue gives knights guidance; when you see a beast, kill it. His actions are not entirely flawed: he does kill Errour and win the praise of Una, the woman he most desires to please. Yet he is unaware of another set of rules operative in his world, in which his battles have or ought to have moral and spiritual significances. The notion of a self-contained world governed by its own rules can keep students from judging Redcrosse too harshly, as they are usually predisposed to do: if they can triumph over one of Spenser's confused and confusing characters, they will seize the...