Part II: Spenser, Superheroes, and Ethics: Allegory in the 21st Century
II. Superheroes and Ethics?
I was primed to appreciate Spenser from an early age, but this doesn’t mean that I enjoyed reading. Some people are surprised to learn that not all English PhDs were voracious readers in their youth, but it’s true. I always received good grades (and free personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut as a reward), but I didn’t truly learn to value books and literature until high school, thanks to some truly wonderful teachers. Before then, I didn’t enjoy reading and I certainly didn’t read Spenser. But I did love superheroes.
Superheroes have entered the mainstream in a big way. Superhero movies consistently gross grotesque sums of money, enough that Marvel and DC have publicized concrete movie plans up through 2021. Live action television shows attached to comic book franchises appear on ABC, NBC, FOX, the CW, and probably a lot of other channels I don’t even know about. Superheroes inspire video games on every platform available. This trend has been steadily developing for more than a decade. But I (and many others in my generation) liked superheroes before it was “cool.”
Without exaggeration, I can claim that my early exposure to superhero stories played a powerful role in my ethical education. I went to church for an hour every Sunday morning. But every Saturday morning, I watched four hours of superhero cartoons. These programs repeatedly instilled moral lessons to an impressionable young me. The (not always obvious) difference between right and wrong. The necessity (and difficulty) of persisting despite adversity. The important role of communities in fostering awareness, and the dangers that arise when they fall short of or even actively reject this goal. It’s certainly not news to attribute serious intellectual and ethical import to contemporary superhero culture. But that culture was formative for me, and it prepared me for the complex moral mind-games of The Faerie Queene while developing my eventual taste for Spenserian story-telling techniques and tropes.
I’ve always thought of Spenser’s knights as a class of Renaissance superheroes. Britomart wields an enchanted spear that makes her practically invincible. Prince Arthur defeats a giant, and, later, an entire army. Artegall has a magical metal sidekick. Seriously. The poem upholds these exemplary, larger-than-life figures in order to entertain, but also to inspire. As I’ve already suggested, this is by no means straightforward. But even when Spenser most undercuts his supposed heroes and seems most to complicate his moral project, the characters continue to captivate. They are (often imperfect) avatars in a war between a pervasive but nebulous evil and a sometimes equally nebulous but far less pervasive good. The sheer scale of the poem gives the events a sense of universal urgency. The characters are strong, but, more importantly, the story is powerful.
But we already know that Spenser wants his audience to be ethical. What might be slightly more surprising (especially considering how many readers recoil from The Faerie Queene) is that Spenser also wants us to be happy...