English Research Seminar
Dr Joe Moshenska, Oxford
The Lawson Lecture Room, Kennedy Hall
Abstract: The English language is unusual in that its standard term for a plaything, 'toy,' is etymologically unrelated to play – unlike, for example, the Spanish jugete or the German Spielzeug. Instead, a toy was originally any object of trifling value or insignificance. During the course of the sixteenth century the word gradually assumed its modern meaning, in part due to the increased prominence of the word toy in two overlapping discourses – attacks on Roman Catholic worship, and on literary texts, as vain and trifling forms of toying. This paper will argue that, by reconstructing the origins of the everyday word 'toy' in this way, we can develop a new understanding of the kinds of pleasure and experience that early modern texts can produce. It will focus on Edmund Spenser's epic romance The Faerie Queene: first relating it briefly to the practice of giving idols to children as playthings; then discussing the place of play in the paideia of the poem's knights; and finally arguing that the poem as a whole can be understood as offering its personifications to its readers as animated playthings. Spenser's poem gives a justification, in a new way, to Vladimir Nabokov's characterisation of 'those wonderful toys – literary masterpieces.'