Exploding Cannibalistic Babies: A somewhat-complicated cautionary tale on how NOT to approach The Faerie Queene. With lists.

DISCLAIMER: foul language. And technically, maybe spoilery tid bits toward the end.

Back in the day, there was a dude named Edmund who decided that England needed an epic poem. Empires of yore had their own mythologies and epic poetry, so with England being the up-and-coming empire on the block (btw, this was in Elizabethan times), it only made sense for (1) someone to sit down and pen the thing, and (2) that someone to be a total bad ass. After perusing his mental index of bad ass acquaintances, Edmund came to the conclusion that he was, indeed, the biggest bad ass he knew, and that’s how we got The Faerie Queene.

Alas, this post is not about The Faerie Queene – hereinafter FQ. It will not explore biographical embodiment of Elizabeth I in the character of the Faerie Queene herself. There will be no carefully articulated summation of the knight Redcrosse’s journey. It won’t even dedicate sentences to pay homage to the embodiments of Queen Lucifera (pride) and the other Seven Deadly Sins, and it won’t explore the poem’s Chaucerian influence.

No, no, no. This blogpost is about me. Because I live in an empire, too, and our anthem is individualism.


My sincerest apologies if you feel led on at all.

Let’s start over.

Back in the day, there was a tutor named Kathryn – hereinafter “I” and “me” – who walked into the back room of the English lab at her local community college to discover her fellow tutors, Anita and Hero, engaged in jovial banter regarding God sex (for the Margery Kempe portion of this program, click here) and exploding cannibalistic babies (that’s FQ). Seeing as I was on another pharmaceutical planet when I took my lower division survey class several years ago, I had no knowledge of FQ’s content despite it being assigned. Without previous knowledge, my brain sculpted its expectations of exploding cannibalistic babies in the following fashion:

1. The poem’s got “faerie” in the title. Therefore, it must be riddled with faeries, and faeries are all… quaint, in the contemporary meaning of the word, and appear on greeting cards and assorted kitsch.

Think: Cicely Mary Barker illustrations.
(click for image credit)

2. There would be blue sky and flowers as tall as the faeries. 

3. The cannibalistic babies in question would have a stereotypically cherubic appearance, but with little fangs (now I’m thinking of Sunny Baudelaire, but the faeries I was expecting were in no way Series of Unfortunate Events-ish, seeing as my FQ palate was more cheerful), and from the little fangs would be driblets of blood, seeing as the babies had been consuming humans.

4. These adorable, cherubic cannibal-babies would glut themselves on people (who also looked like faeries, because it didn’t even occur to me that non-faerie creatures would appear in FQ) to the point that they would explode.

5. When these babies exploded, they would take off like fireworks and explode in the sky into a glittery mess.

6. Glittery because they were faeries, and where there are faeries, there’s dust.

Got it? Exploding cannibalistic babies.

Alright, so now that those expectations were cemented in my tutor-y brain, lo and behold, I was assigned excerpts of FQ for my upper-division survey course. I dove into the poem with happy anticipation of my expectations being consummated. Which led me to inquire of Hero, the next time I was in the tutoring lab, “Ummm… where are these exploding cannibalistic babies?”

Hero squinted at the bank of fluorescent lights in the ceiling, “Book 1…Canto 1?”

“Really?” I said. “I read Book 1, Canto 1.”

Hero then shanghaied (or maybe she just “took” it. I really wanted to use the word “shanghai”) my copy of Volume B of the emasculated Norton (as opposed to the doorstop), and briefly flipped the pages until, “Oh, yes, here it is… stanza 25…” and proceeded to read me a passage that had nothing to do with quaintness and glitter and my unconsummated expectations of the text, and everything to do with Error.

Error is a half-woman, half-serpent creature who looks too monstrous to put on a greeting card. When the knight Redcrosse goes to slay Error in her cave, she’s got a litter of Error-babies, which are not cherubic. After Redcrosse beheads Error, her surviving litter “flockéd all about her bleeding wound, / And suckéd up their dying mother’s blood”.

Hero then skipped to the next stanza, where, “Their bellies swolne he saw with fulnesse burst, / And bowels gushing forth: well worthy end / Of such as drunke her life, the which them nurst.” (A quick note on the spelling: being a product of his time, it’s how Edmund writes. Not my fault.) That was it for the babies, saving Redcrosse the moral dilemma of whether or not to kill them too, because (1) they were the spawn of evil, and (2) having one’s mother killed right in front of them will mean a world of mental health bills later in life.

The first draft of this post was peppered with outrage. It was disappointing and annoying for the cannibalistic babies to turn out to be nothing like I wanted them to be. However, I’m sure there will be far more outrageous surprises in my life, and I may not live to experience them if I get inconsolably riled up over the likes of literary characters and have a heart attack before I complete my bachelor’s degree in English literature. A lack of blue skies and glitter are not enough to disown the notion of reading FQ in its entirety. The length, however, might be. One must really, really want to read FQ to slog through all of it. I’ve seen people toting copies of FQ around campus, as well as a fat stack of them in my professor’s office, and they’re so epically enormous that they put the full-on Norton doorstop to shame.


  1. Led on! Led on like a midnight swamp walker might be led on by a will-o-wisp of doom!

    Did you know that C.S. Lewis was a huge fan of the FQ? He wrote academic papers on it and stuff.

    I love your writing. And you.

    P.S. Typo alert: world "shanghai" or WORD "shanghai"?


      Last time I saw a will-o-wisp of doom... it came out of my coffee.

      I knew he wrote about Spenser (...I guess you inevitably have to at some point if you end up being a professor in literature?), but I didn't know C.S. Lewis was a big fan per se. Have you read any of his Spenser criticism?

  2. Kathryn, you can write. I mean, seriously, like picture me sitting in an armchair with my hair blown back. Except I'm not in an armchair, I'm sitting at my desk at school, but still.

    1. Thanks, Sophia!

      Also, thanks for mentioning me on your blog. It was very sweet, and very much made my afternoon.