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Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Spenser, Milton, and the Renaissance Arthur (Notes:23)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the literary landscape was mostly barren of Arthurian literature. It was a dry spell. However, Armstrong like to think of this period simply as writers catching their breath after several centuries of highly imaginative output; after all, the Victorians would bring the Arthurian canon back to life with renewed vigor.
But, this is not to say that there was no output during this period. As evidenced by Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene,’ composed during the second half of the sixteenth century, which examined the middle ages through a lens of nostalgia and concern for barbaric practices, the Arthurian tale was far from dead.
Spenser’s literary talents reflected this concern with his usage of words borrowed from Chaucer instead of more contemporary words which would have been more appropriate for his time. He was also deeply influenced by Italian works; works which have a bit of disdain for the Arthurian legend, such as Petarc, who saw the tales as socially misleading people into immorality. Others, however, such as Dante of ‘The Inferno’ were more sympathetic, if not critical of some of the tales incestuous focus and their subsequent social ramifications.
Spenser sought the favor of Queen Elizabeth the First, like many other poets of the time, by writing works which glorified her via linguistic devices. Spenser looked to the medieval Romance, a genre which was falling out of vogue at the time; Spenser inserted Queen Elizabeth into his text with the character Gloriana, a thinly disguised avatar for the real world queen. This fictionalized queen rules over a land of allegorical vices and virtues. Riding over this landscape is the knight Arthur whose exploits are all allegorical in nature.
Spenser’s work was highly political in nature. Throughout the text he would raise Protestantism to new heights while making the foes of Arthur Catholic in nature; this was done to help woo the Queen since she herself was Protestant.
John Milton, another Renaissance writer, joined Spenser in utilizing Arthurian legends. Alas, this project was not meant to be as Milton had originally planned to use the Arthurian legend as a blueprint for his seminal work—Paradise Lost—but ultimately abandoned it when he decided that he wanted this loftier idea of conflict between God and Lucifer; a move which was cheered by literary critics of his day since the legend, as previously said, was falling out of style—a move which, as a college of Armstrong once called, is “prephemeral,” something which was initiated by something but never followed through on that same basis. One can only imagine the sort of tale which Milton could have delivered had he followed through on his planned epic.
Although Arthur is not as popular as he once was, he and his stories still make news once in a while and there is still an interest in the historiography surrounding the legend. Some historians took aim at Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the founding of Britain by Brutus; historians instead sought to connect Britain, much like Milton, to Biblical origins but arguing that Britain, following Noah’s Flood was always inhabited by people, thus providing readers with not a secular reasoning for Britain’s habitation but a religious one which justified God’s mysterious ways. In doing this, however, some historians were acting on ulterior motives by also attacking Arthur at a time when Protestantism and Arthurian tradition were strongly connected; so, as a response, many historians sought to go out and prove Arthur’s existence, thus generating a surge in Arthurian scholarship and interest in the legend itself.
John Leeland, writing in Latin, wrote a history which sought to justify Arthur’s existence; however, unlike Monmouth’s narrative, which was inclusive in the twelfth century due to its status as a shared language among the educated European intellectuals, Leeland is being exclusive by writing in Latin due to its status as a dead language during the sixteenth century. This book was well-researched and took pains to acknowledge the reality of Arthur’s legend, but with a grain of salt with the over-the-top specifics of the legend.
Raphael Holinshed, a famous early modern historian, wrote The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1577. He would serve as a key source for both William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow. Holinshed, however, was firm in his resolve that Arthur was real.
During the 16-18th centuries Arthur’s popularity would rise some in popular ballads, songs, and plays. In 1765, a bishop by the name of Thomas Percy would publish his Relics of Ancient English Poetry. It was full of songs and poems from the middle ages and Arthurian material. In 1622, meanwhile, a play called The Birth of Merlin showed which featured a comedic setting during the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Another play called the Bones N Kay, a medieval Cornish play discovered in 2000 and is considered a Miracle Play; part of the play concerns itself with Arthur’s local identity. This indicates an intense concern with Arthur’s regional identity.
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