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5.0 out of 5 starsHearing it while reading it finally helped me enjoy it! By the 3rd book I could read ...
Reviewed in the United States on June 12, 2017
I tried reading the FQ many times. Hearing it while reading it finally helped me enjoy it! By the 3rd book I could read it without the audio. Must buy!
5.0 out of 5 starsHigh Fantasy from the Renaissance
Reviewed in the United States on April 9, 2016
In twelfth-century France, Chretien de Troyes produced the first-ever cycle of chivalric romances, recounting in glistening octosyllabic couplets the exploits of six knights of King Arthur's Round Table. Four centuries later, in England and Ireland, Edmund Spenser produced a much more elaborate cycle of six romances in much more elaborate verse, expanding on and complicating Chretien's legacy under the inspiration of both more ancient and more recent epic and romance traditions.
In most Arthurian romances, for example, the noblest monarch in the world is King Arthur, and the greatest knight is Lancelot, who tragically falls in love with Arthur's queen. In the Spanish prose romance "Amadis of Gaul," on the other hand, the noblest monarch is King Lisuarte, and the greatest knight is Amadis, who has the good fortune to fall in love not with Lisuarte's queen, but with his unmarried daughter, the Princess Oriana. Spenser takes this trend a bold step further: in his vast poetic fantasy, the noblest monarch is the Queen of Faerie, and the greatest knight is the young Prince Arthur, not yet king of Britain, who falls in love with that same unmarried Queen, the tantalizing Gloriana. In fact, it is Gloriana who takes the initiative by making herself known to Arthur and declaring her love for him, but then vanishes, leaving him to seek her out in a world of pathless forests.
In the suite of romances known as "The Faerie Queene," then, Spenser is creating an enormous alternate-history prequel to the Arthurian romances we already know: nearly a quarter of a million words of loosely intertwined adventures featuring (for the most part) an altogether new cast of amorous knights and ladies, new champions who must quest for true love and virtue while combating miscreants, monsters, wizards, and witches in a land drenched with symbolism and enchantment. (The fact that everything is symbolic is part of the enchantment.) In working out those adventures, he draws freely not only on Arthurian tradition but on Renaissance Europe's most sensationally successful modern epics, those of the Italian masters Boiardo and Ariosto, whose panoramic narrative tapestries centering on the paladins of Charlemagne constitute together far and away the vastest and most imaginative work of epic fantasy in the Western world until Tolkien, at least. But it is no less true that Spenser aims to do for England and the British Isles what Homer and Virgil and Ovid had done for ancient Greece and Rome: his poem also aspires to mimic the great classical epics, and if its protagonists are not quite as apt to recall Odysseus or Aeneas as Lancelot or Gawain, they are at least no more likely to encounter a guardian angel than an Olympian goddess.
In such unabashed intermingling of ordinarily disparate fantasy realms and genres, "The Faerie Queene" was a major influence on C. S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia; and, long before that, its trailblazing splendor of ancient, medieval, and modern learning, penetrating moral insight, vividly sensuous imagination, unexampled metrical fluency, and rapturous prosodic mastery had served as both incitement and inspiration to nearly every other poet of the English Renaissance, including Shakespeare, and to many others in the centuries that followed.
The challenge posed to any would-be narrator by both the nature and the stature of such a work is formidable, but luckily the supremely accomplished David Timson was willing to take up the gauntlet. True, Timson is not able to inhabit the author and his characters as fully as in his readings of Sherlock Holmes stories or Dickens novels. There is simply not much spoken dialogue in "The Faerie Queene" for a gifted character actor to latch onto, and not much that lends itself to a novelistic approach to oral narration. Spenser's is an older manner of romance: remote, exotic, stylized. A brisk willingness to wax rhapsodic even at the risk of sounding hokey may be the best way to engage such high-flown material; Timson has done that brilliantly in the Naxos "Poems of the Orient" collection, and so of course proves more than capable of warming up to what Spenser is doing here as well. His performance never falls short of eloquence, and when the wheels of his spoken narration fully engage the thematic and emotive gears driving Spenser's narrative, they achieve a remarkable forward impetus. For the most part, Timson brilliantly captures the gripping incantatory pulse of Spenser's lines and stanzas as they weave their stirring, brooding, or exhilarating spell of power.
At other times, I admit, he may seem to be treating "The Faerie Queene" as if it were no more than a juvenile fantasy novel. But don't get me wrong: even in non-epic modes, Timson manages some astonishing feats. In fact, given that Spenser is a pre-Enlightenment poet and romancer rather than a pioneering novelist, it is amazing how much novelistic immediacy Timson is able to wring for us from his ringing cantos. When the poet tells us how the haughty Queen Lucifera lords it over her subjects and distinguished visitors, we now, thanks to Timson's performance, hear this as the projected narration she is listening to in her own head, as if she were imagining a herald's voice proclaiming her magnificence. And Timson is not freelancing here, not going rogue; he is foregrounding something that we can now see was always there. Forget what I said before: the supposedly remote, exotic, stylized Spenser, like one of the great classic novelists who follow him, is letting what seemed to be impersonal omniscient narration shade into direct, intimate, vivid expression of a character's mind.
Still, novelistic and dramatic methods are generally not the most salient means by which Spenser seeks to galvanize our insight and enjoyment, and in singling out the merits of this recording it would be wrong to overemphasize them. In particular, it must be said that Timson's repertoire of vocal characterizations, so expertly deployed to render the denizens of Doyle's or Dickens' London, sometimes seems less suited to the knights and ladies of Spenser's Faerie Land, with the result that what is by rights an epoch-making masterpiece occasionally seems no more than an idiosyncratic minor classic. That's too bad; but Timson's exuberantly vigorous narration, strictly as such, is for the most part so dazzling as to make the unabridged Naxos "Faerie Queene" beyond question a five-star listening experience. So let me repurpose here something I've said elsewhere: If you have any interest at all in English literature, epic poetry, medieval romance, Renaissance opulence, the headwaters of British Romanticism, or even today's high fantasy adventure fiction, David Timson's performance of "The Faerie Queene" is something you won't want to miss. For the most part, Timson, like Spenser himself, is simply amazing.