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Maik Goth, Monsters and the Poetic Imagination in The Faerie Queene, and Tara Pedersen, Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England
by M A Katritzky

Goth, Maik. Monsters and the Poetic Imagination in The Faerie Queene: Most ugly shapes, and horrible aspects.’ Manchester UP, 2015. viii + 365 pp. ISBN: 978-0719095719. $105.00 cloth.

Pedersen, Tara. Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England. Ashgate P, 2015. x + 155 pp. ISBN: 978-1472440013. $100.00 cloth.

Maik Goth’s stated aim is “a comprehensive reading of monsters and monstrous beings” throughout the whole of The Faerie Queene. Parts I and II of this ambitious, innovative contribution to Spenser studies place The Faerie Queene’s monsters in the context of teratological, historical, and literary perspectives on the monstrous, and offer a valuable taxonomic account under six headings: dragons, four-footed beasts, human-animal composites, giants, monstrous humans, and automata. Part III analyzes their relevance to Early Modern discourse on poetic creation and advances Goth’s illuminating theory of Spenser as Prometheus. The volume is rounded off with a brief conclusion (Part IV), substantial bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and a scholarly index. Tara Pedersen’s monograph brings together four chapters and an afterword, consecutively discussing, in relation to a single type of monster (mermaids), Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, The Faerie Queene (chapter 3: “Perfect Pictures: the Mermaid’s Half-theater and the Anti-theatrical Debates in Book II of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene”), Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, and Hamlet. Literary monsters, central to Goth’s argument, but pushed to the margins of Pedersen’s discussion of The Faerie Queene, which foregrounds “the text itself as mermaid” (82), inform their shared theme. Both identify Spenser as a writer whose reactions to ongoing cultural trends shaped his poetry, and privilege the monstrous as a major key to placing his creative output in relation to Early Modern literary theory, as expressed in George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie of 1589 and Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy of 1595 (Goth), and Stephen Gosson’s Playes Confuted in Fiue Actions of 1582 and School of Abuse of 1579 (Pedersen).

A great strength of Goth’s study is its multiple appeal. This weighty contribution to literary studies will interest historians of fantasy, horror and the grotesque, of disability and of teratology, as well as specialists in Spenser, the literary debates of his time, or monsters in fiction. Supporting his text with a wealth of notes, identifying many unexpected contributions and references as well as most of the usual suspects, Goth reliably signposts the complex range of English and European monster traditions, myths and texts, raided, paraded, and upgraded by Spenser for his monsters. Chapters 1 and 2 situate The Faerie Queene as “a poem of monsters” and survey the premodern concept of the monster. Chapters 3 and 4 consider major trends in Early Modern monster studies, Spenserian scholarship on monsters, and the gap opening up between them. Arguably, in this section and in the volume as a whole, more attention could have been paid to the strongly emerging field of premodern disability studies,[1] and several categories of Spenserian monster are under-represented. While giants are bigged up,[2] dwarfs (another Arthurian staple) and fairies get short shrift. The four dwarfs who serve noble brides in The Faerie Queene, Florimell’s Dony and the unnamed dwarfs of Una, Paeana and Briana, are hardly noted. Despite the pivotal role of the Wild Man in one of Spenser’s fundamental sources, European chivalric romance, Goth refers only in passing to The Faerie Queene’s Wild Men, and not at all to the potential for upping their number from the four identified by traditional Spenserian scholarship (Arthur’s Salvage Man, Lust, Timias, Artegall) to nearly twenty.[3] Rather than foregrounding generic monstrous types, borrowed with little or no modification from specific cultural or anatomical precedents, Goth’s main focus is on Spenser’s own, uniquely named and assembled monsters.

This approach underlies Part II, whose taxonomic considerations, the core of this book, are complemented by twelve well-chosen reproductions. Chapter 5 provides a general overview; the following two, both on “Monstrous Animals,” respectively focus on dragons (in Eden, that of Orgoglio then Duessa, Geryoneo’s, and in fights),[4] and on the pseudo-hyena conjured up by the witch of III.vii, and The Blatant Beast, this latter treated to a fine and full analysis. Chapter 8, on “Human-animal composites,” brings together the serpentine Errour (yet another dragon of sorts), Spenser’s mermaids and sirens (briefly but deftly discussed here, rather than with the sea monsters of chapter 10), and Duessa. “Giants” (chapter 9) bookends sections on the Albion Giants, Orgoglio, Lust, and the twins Argante and Ollyphant, between an overview of Spenserian giants and a brief tailpiece on The Faerie Queene’s gigantic humans. Chapter 10, “Monstrous humans,” first considers, in the light of the classical monstrous races, Una’s satyrs and Satyrane[5] and the “Amazonian” Radigund (but not Belphoebe), then “Carles and hags,” notably Maleger[6] and Ate. Detailed discussions of various categories and examples of transformed and metamorphosed humans include the tree-man Fradubio, sea monsters, the hog Gryll, Adicia (the evil queen metamorphosed into a tiger during a fit of rage—but not, despite Spenser’s repeated Ovidian references to her, Medusa), the Seven Deadly Sins, and an insightful consideration of satyrs in the Malbecco and Hellenore episode (confusingly unindexed and separated from the chapter’s opening discussion of Satyrane). Finishing with a valiant attempt to pin down the elusive Spenserian phenomenon of “Ephemeral Monstrosity,” this shaggy monster of a chapter contains much of great value. Chapter 11, “Automata,” examines “a triad of singularly important mechanical creatures”: Talus, Disdayne, and at fascinating length, Spenser’s demonically repellent False Florimell. Here as throughout, Goth deploys his thorough familiarity with historical precedents to contextualize individual discussions of Spenser’s monsters to great effect.

Part III focuses on Spenser’s use of monsters as a vehicle for drawing his readers into allegorical interpretation, and comprehensively revisits one of his most complex creations, Alma’s Castle and its tripartite brain turret, with reference to Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholie, Robert Burton’s Anatomie of Melancholie, and other contemporary medical and philosophical discourse relevant to the poetic imagination. The partial, overlapping, and anatomically incoherent taxonomy underlying Part II is largely unavoidable, given that no approach to classifying The Faerie Queene’s monsters, cultural or scientific, can avoid being trumped by Spenser’s slippery, shape-shifting fecundity. In the light of Sidney’s declaration that the poet, “lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature […] Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies and such like,” Part III then identifies Spenser’s view of his poetic creativity with the literary creation of new, unnatural, monstrous life-forms. Central to Goth’s thesis is the paradoxical dual nature of literary monsters, as negative, disgusting zoological and hybrid composites which are simultaneously also radical but admirable cultural products of the poetic imagination: nothing less than Spenser’s own Promethean creations (316). Goth here draws on recent scholarship, including detailed responses from several renowned Spenserians to his 2009 article on Spenser as Prometheus, to valuably inform and develop an argument refined over many years.[7]

Pedersen’s book is too short to accommodate Goth’s multiple approach. Written neither for teratologists nor Spenser specialists, it is not an authoritative contribution to mermaid studies, but a case-study based examination of theatrical culture and its shifting status in Early Modern England in the light of some current areas of concern in literary studies. The introductory overview of Early Modern mermaids is necessarily brief and selective. The nine black and white figures, albeit only superficially documented in the captions or text, are a welcome bonus, and the volume’s usefulness might have been further enhanced by a greater reliance on fundamental scholarship (see Goth 2015, 92-3) and primary sources for pre-modern merfolk. My own reading of these suggests that mermaids were hardly less fabulous in the Early Modern period than they are now; and that Early Modern records of sightings are not “numerous” (28), are only exceptionally first hand, and are often received with a healthy dose of skepticism.[8] Two by English explorers are quoted, Henry Hudson’s account of 15 June 1608 from a modern secondary source, and a report of a mermaid sighting here attributed to John Smith in 1614.[9]  Perhaps a garbled misinterpretation of Captain Richard Whitbourne’s account of the mermaid-like “strange creature” he saw off the coast of Newfoundland in 1610, the immediate source for the quoted account of Smith’s alleged sighting is not a seventeenth-century historical document, but the unattributed English translation, published in 1849, of a fictional adventure story written in French by Alexandre Dumas.[10] Its introductory anecdote about merfolk includes a verbatim match for Pedersen’s anachronistic unreferenced quote.[11]


                          P.G., A most strange and true report of a monsterous fish,
                                                      1604, frontispiece

Although not discussed, British sightings, especially those circulated in cheap print, arguably impacted on London theatre culture at least as profoundly as those by overseas explorers, often reported only years after the actual event. Perhaps the most dramatic was the fish-woman witnessed by over a dozen Welshmen off the Carmarthen coast at Pendine in 1603. Their detailed report was quickly published in an eight-page pamphlet.[12]Mentioning neither mermaids nor syrens, it depicts this “monsterous Fish, that appeared in the forme of a Woman, from her wast vpwardes” as a seal-like creature with an impressively full head of hair, and human breasts, arms and hands (see plate), in effect an amiable, domesticated version of the terrifying Sea Devil depicted by Ulisse Aldrovandi (reproduced: Goth 148, fig.12). Pedersen’s mermaid metaphor is at best fragile. Why privilege mermaids as opposed to centaurs, Wild Women, hermaphrodites, satyrs or harpies? And should we accept that the Early Modern mermaid’s identity is profoundly incoherent (8)? Or factor in the views of those, such as John Locke, who suggest otherwise?[13]

Proposing Book II of The Faerie Queene as “one of the most sustained and unexpected meditations on the relationship between stage and page within the early modern period […] an unusual defense of hybrid, mermaid-like, genres of art and the breaking down of social distinctions” (83), Pedersen’s third chapter promotes the startling view that mermaids are “deeply embedded in one of the most heated artistic debates of the period.” This anti-theatrical debate provides her chosen context for examining Spenser’s poetry. Comprehensive reference to these debates informs her discussion of Spenser’s account of Guyon’s Odyssean voyage to the Bower of Bliss, which prominently features mermaids, (II.xii.17 and 30), and of the Bower episode itself. The stanzas describing the naked “damzelles” sporting in the Bower’s lake, whose “snowy limbes, as through a vele / So through the Christall waues appeared plaine,” yield insubstantial support for Pedersen’s confident linking of these two “wanton Maidens” with mermaids (II.xii.63-68). And how relevant to the centrality of the mermaid is a passage in which Gosson warns against the theatre’s ability to corrupt youth, by its “mixture of good and eull […] mingle ma[n]gle of fish & flesh, good & bad”?[14] Could Gosson here primarily be evoking not the monstrous, anatomically hybrid conjoinment of merfolk, but a possibility unacknowledged by Pedersen, namely the religious, culinary opposition of serious, fasting Lent and foolish, feasting Carnival? On the other hand, might not her argument have gained by reference to the third of Sidney’s “most important imputations laid to the poore Poets […] that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting vs with many pestilent desires, with a Sirens sweetnesse, drawing the minde to the Serpents taile of sinfull fansies”?[15] Or to Spenser’s siren-like serpent-woman Errour, or Florimell, covered with fish scales after her assault by a fisherman, both discussed in satisfying detail by Goth (168)? Inspiring sirens or red herrings? Whatever your take on Pedersen’s mermaids, she is to be congratulated for her insightful, even controversial, analysis of key texts in the light of Early Modern discourses on anti-theatricality, gender and identity. Her imaginative book offers richly stimulating discussion points for specialists and students of The Faerie Queene and the drama of its time.

These two books, each based on a doctoral thesis, exemplify the increasingly significant incompatibilities opening up between expectations for the outcomes of leading postgraduate literary researches in Germany and the US. Authored by one of the final cohort of early modernists guided to publication at Ashgate Press by the gentle genius of Erika Gaffney, Pedersen’s fresh, provocative monograph is engagingly on trend and of the moment. Goth’s substantial contribution to Julian Lethbridge’s prestigious series, The Manchester Spenser, represents a solidly crafted resource for all serious Spenserians, the authoritative text in its field for years to come.

M A Katritzky
The Open University

[1] Notably, in the context of Spenserian scholarship: Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood, eds., Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Ohio State UP, 2013, two of whose ten chapters focus on Spenser: chapter 1, Sara van den Berg, “Dwarf Aesthetics in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Early Modern Court,” pp. 22-53, and chapter 5, Rachel E. Hile, “Disabling Allegories in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene,” pp. 88-104.

[2] See also Susanne Lindgren Wofford, “Spenser’s Giants,” in Critical Essays on Edmund Spenser, ed. Mihoko Suzuki, G.K. Hall, 1996, pp. 199-220.

[3] Benjamin Myers, “‘Such is the face of falshood’: Spenserian Theodicy in Ireland,” Studies in Philology, vol. 103, no. 4, 2006, pp. 383-416.

[4] See also Kenneth Hodges, “Reformed Dragons: Bevis of Hampton, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and Spenser’s Faerie Queene,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 54, no. 1, 2012, pp. 110-131.

[5] See also Kathryn Walls, God’s Only Daughter: Spenser’s Una as the Invisible Church, Manchester UP, 2013.

[6] See also Judith H. Anderson, “Body of Death: The Pauline Inheritance in Donne’s Sermons, Spenser’s Maleger, and Milton’s Sin and Death,” in Rhetorics of Bodily Disease and Health in Medieval and Early Modern England, edited by Jennifer C. Vaught, Ashgate, 2010, pp. 171-192.

[7] Maik Goth, “Spenser as Prometheus: The Monstrous and the Idea of Poetic Creation,” Connotations, vol. 18, no. 1-3, 2008/2009, pp. 183-207, Andrew Hadfield, “Spenser as Prometheus: A Response to Maik Goth,” Connotations, vol. 20, no. 2-3, 2010/2011, pp. 189-200, John Watkins, “Spenser’s Monsters: A Response to Maik Goth,” Connotations, vol. 20, no. 2-3, 2010/2011, pp. 201-209, Matthew Woodcock, “Elf-Fashioning Revisited: A Response to Maik Goth,” Connotations, vol. 20, no. 2-3, 2010/2011, pp. 210-220, Maurice Hunt, “Spenser’s Monsters: A Response to Maik Goth and to John Watkins,” Connotations, vol. 21, no. 1, 2011/2012, pp. 1-7.

[8] Antonio de Torquemada, The Spanish Mandeuile of Miracles (1600), sig.33v: “there is indeede much talke of the Mermaydes, whom they say from the middle vpward to haue the shape of women, and of a fish from thence downeward… . but to say the truth, I haue neuer seen any Author worthy of credit, that maketh mention hereof.  … And though it may be that there is in the Sea such a kind of fish, yet I account … them to be a meer fable.”

[9] See Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes in Five Bookes, Henrie Fetherstone, 1625, vol. III, Chapter 15: “A second voyage or employment of Master Henry Hvdson, for finding a passage to the East Indies by the North-East: written by himselfe,” p. 575; and vol. IV, Chapter 8: “Captain Richard Whitbovrnes Voyages to New-found-land, and obseruations there, and thereof, taken out of his Printed Books,” pp. 1887-1888.

[10] See Vaughn Scribner, “Fabricating History: The Curious Case of John Smith, a Green-Haired Mermaid, and Alexandre Dumas,” 16 June 2015, online, accessed 2 Feb. 2016, and “Fabricating History PART TWO: The Curious Case Continues,” 2 July 2015, online, accessed 2 Feb. 2016,

[11] Alexandre Dumas, “Nuptials of Father Polypus,” The Gazette of the Union, vol. 11, no. 13, 1849, Crampton and Clarke, p. 200: “Captain John Smith, an Englishman, saw in 1611, off an island in the West Indies, a syren, with the upper part of the body perfectly resembling a woman. She was swimming about with all possible grace, when he descried her near the shore. Her large eyes, rather too round, her finely shaped nose, somewhat short, it is true, her well-formed ears, rather too long however, made her a very agreeable person, and her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive.”

[12] P.G., A most strange and true report of a monsterous fish, who appeared in the forme of a woman from her waste vpwards, seene in the Sea by divers men of good reputation on the 17 of February 1603 (W.B., [1604?]).

[13] John Locke, An essay concerning humane understanding, 1690, p. 196: “And though there neither were, nor had been in Nature such a Beast as an Unicorn, nor such a Fish as a Mermaid; yet supposing those Names to stand for complex abstract Ideas, that contained no inconsistency in them; the Essence of a Mermaid is as intelligible, as that of a Man; and the Idea of an Unicorn, as certain, steady, and permanent, as that of an Horse.”

[14] Stephen Gosson, Playes confuted in fiue actions, Thomas Gosson, 1582, sig.C7r.

[15] Phillip Sidney, The defence of poesie, William Ponsonby, 1595, sig.F4v.


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Cite as:

M A Katritzky, "Maik Goth, Monsters and the Poetic Imagination in The Faerie Queene, and Tara Pedersen, Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 46.1.6 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed August 14th, 2022.
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