Even after four centuries, the Elizabethan Age still carries magical memories for Anglo-Americans. It was the age of Spenser (The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (among others, A Midsummer Night's Dream), and Sidney (Astrophel and Stella). In fact, it was Spenser's The Faerie Queene that gave Elizabeth I her nickname of Gloriana and it is Spenser's mixture of fairy tales, intrigue, and the golden age of the English Renaissance that has strongly influenced Michael Moorcock's 1978 novel, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen.
Originally published in 1978 and revised in 2004, Gloriana perhaps may best be considered as a novel that was written to be a sort of dialogue with Spenser's epic poem. Both Spenser and Moorcock present idealized forms of Queen Elizabeth I, but whereas Spenser's work primarily reads as a paean to the peace and prosperity of 1590s England, Moorcock's work is much more complex, both with its titular character and with its depiction of life in an alt-world Earth.
Gloriana opens with the Queen Gloriana ruling the vast empire of Albion, which stretches across most of Eurasia and is now expanding into the newly-discovered lands of Virginia, named after her. Despite having had several lovers and illegitimate children, she is, like the real Queen Elizabeth I, unmarried and it is this and the matter of controlling her vast empire around which the action of the novel revolves. The ruler of Arabia wants Gloriana to become his, so he in turn can plunge that pacific realm into a cleansing bout of war and destruction. A courtier of his solicits the aid of Captain Arturus Quire to help him subvert Gloriana to this end. Quire in turn is locked in a political battle with the old councilor Montfallcon, who had earlier served Gloriana's father Hern and who seeks to preserve her from becoming the despotic ruler Hern had become by the end of his reign.
Although at first glance the central plot seems to be that of political machinations, Gloriana is much more than the summation of its plot. Moorcock here perhaps has written his best prose, with Quire in particular standing out. Some readers familiar with Mervyn Peake's villainous Steerpike (Moorcock did dedicate this novel to the late Peake and his wife Maeve, both of whom Moorcock had befriended in his youth) will see traces of that ambitious character and his thirst for power and prestige in how Quire comports himself around Gloriana's other courtiers, especially Montfallcon. But there is another trait in common with Peake's Gormenghast novels, that of utilizing atmospheric effects to intensify what is occurring in several important scenes. Passages such as the one below, taken from Quire's first meeting with the Arabian courtier, are representative of how Moorcock imbues his scenes with vivid descriptions:
Quire nods. He clears his throat. Along the gallery now comes a scrawny, snag-tooth villain wearing leggings of rabbit fur, a torn quilted doublet, a horsehide cap pulled down about his ears. He wears a sword from the guard of which some of the rust has been inexpertly scratched. His gait is unsteady not so much form drink as, it would seem, from some natural indisposition. His skin is blue, showing that he has just come in from the night, but his eyes burn. "Captain Quire?" It is as if he has been summoned, as if he anticipates some epiurean wickedness. (p. 18)
It is this combination of memorable description with intriguing characters such as the aforementioned Quire and Montfallcon, among others, that make Gloriana a gripping novel. However, there is much more to this novel than just memorable characters and detailed, interesting descriptions. It is Gloriana herself and her um, "interesting" situation that makes this novel worthy of debate thirty-two years after its initial publication. Moorcock is not content to have Gloriana reign contentedly over her vast, peaceful realm. Rather, he introduces questions of sexual politics to this story that are controversial for many. Gloriana has a sexual dysfunction; she cannot orgasm, no matter how hard she tries with both clandestine lovers and with inanimate objects. This sexual dysfunction plays a major role in the book, as it is the flaw through which Quire manages to arrange his machinations and against which Montfallcon rails, increasingly strident, throughout the novel. The original ending (printed as an "alternate" Ch. 34 in my 2004 edition) is very disturbing for some, who saw it as a glorification of a heinous act, while Moorcock insists that it is more symbolic of a larger issue of sexualization of Self and of Gloriana's politics around which the novel revolves. It certainly is a provocative scene, one that forces the reader to reconsider what she may have thought the novel to be about, but it certainly does not make it easy for the reviewer to discuss without straying from the realm of reviewing and into the world of literary critique. Speaking solely for myself, the revised scene works better, as it clarifies Moorcock's intents without lessening the shocking realization contained within that concluding chapter.
Gloriana is much more than a simple fairy-tale rendition of an idealized Queen Elizabeth I and her court and world. It is a well-written, engaging tale that will remind some readers of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. Quire, Montfallcon, and Gloriana's characters are vivid, well-drawn, and they serve to drive the novel forward at a quick yet not too rapid pace. Gloriana is much more than what it appears on the surface, as Moorcock's exploration of sexual politics and how intimately connected a ruler's personality can be with his/her realm make this a novel that will linger in the reader's thoughts long after the book is closed. It is not without its controversies, as certain events could easily be read as a glorification of certain atrocities; ironic, considering the efforts Moorcock has done to combat those interpretations of the novel. It certainly is one of Moorcock's best-written efforts and its depth is much greater than the norm for novels of this sort. Gloriana is a "masterwork" in its prose, characterization, and thematic content and it will continue to be a moving work decades from now.