The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Ethan McNeill, Lilly Do
  • Author
    Ethan McNeill

    Ethan has taught 7th, 9th, and 12th grade ELA for over 2 years. They have a Bachelor's Degree In Secondary Education from Kansas State University. They also have a Professional Kansas Teaching License

  • Instructor
    Lilly Do

    Lilly Do possesses a MA in English and teaches English composition in higher education.

Learn about "The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser. Read a summary of the poem, review its characters, find its in-depth analysis, and examine its significance. Updated: 04/19/2022

Table of Contents


"The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" (or "Fairy Queen") is an English epic poem that is divided into six books. The poem follows the tradition of an epic, like Virgil's "Aeneid" or Homer's "The Iliad." Spenser originally planned to write twelve books, a dream that he did not live to accomplish. While twelve books were out of his reach, "The Faerie Queene" is one of the longest poems in the English language. Each book follows the journey of a different knight, righteous warriors who embody a specific Christian virtue. Book 1, for example, follows the Redcross Knight who represents Holiness. Each subsequent book centers around a different knight that represents, and struggles to embody, the virtues of Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy.

"The Faerie Queene" is a significant work of English literature and history because of its insight into 16th century England; its politics and religious Reformation. The epic poem remains prominent in the English Literature canon, meaning that it is still studied alongside works by Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare.

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"The Faerie Queene" Summary

The "Faerie Queene" Books 1 - 6 each feature a different protagonist. Each hero is an English knight, all of whom are on an allegorical adventure in a mythologized England. They each represent a virtue, or moral behavior, that Spenser considered to be essential for a devote Christian according to the Protestant beliefs of the time.

Book 1

The first book follows the adventures of the Redcross Knight (or "Red Cross Knight"), the knight of Holiness. Redcross is on a mission from the Faerie Queene Gloriana to lead his companion, Una, back to her homeland where he is to defeat a mighty dragon that is terrorizing the people. The Faerie Queen opens with Redcross and Una, followed by their attendant, a dwarf, coming upon the monster Errour, a woman-snake hybrid. Redcross defeats Errour, and after leaving the forest they are lured into the home of Archimago, an evil sorcerer disguised as an old man. Archimago creates a false Una and sends his creation to seduce Redcross. Redcross rebuffs the false Una, only to later find the false Una laying with a squire. The Redcross Knight abandons Una, fooled by Archimago's magical deception.

Traveling alone, Redcross meets Duessa, who calls herself Fidessa, another agent of deception. Duessa leads Redcross to a magical spring that drains his vitality, and the evil Duessa delivers the weakened Redcross Knight into the captivity of the giant Orgolio. However, Una has been searching for Redcross and she meets Arthur, the man later to become the legendary King Arthur. Una and Arthur rescue Redcross from Orgolio and Una brings the knight to the house of Holiness to recover. Once healed, physically and spiritually, Recross and Una finally journey to Una's home. Redcross battles the dragon, being mortally wounded three times. Each time he is resurrected, and on the third day of resurrection, Redcross kills the dragon. With much celebration, Una and Redcross are promised to be married and the land will be theirs after Redcross serves Gloriana for six more years. Archimago reappears once again to undo Redcross with lies and deception, but his falsehoods are easily uncovered and Archimago is imprisoned.

Book 2

The second book features Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance, as the hero. It begins with Archimago, recently escaped from imprisonment and disguised as a squire, tricking Guyon into fighting the Redcross Knight by claiming that Redcross ravaged his wife, who is Duessa in disguise. However, just before they engage in battle, Guyon stops. Using his level head, he speaks with Redcross and they part on good terms, Guyon's Temperance prevailing. Guyon then finds a woman Amavia in the act of suicide. She laments that her lover has been taken to the Bower of Bliss by the witch Acrasia. The woman dies in his arms and he is left with her child. Guyon vows to protect the child and destroy the Bower of Bliss. After several encounters with villainous knights and enemies. Guyon meets Arthur, who accompanies him through various encounters, and they part ways at the Bower of Bliss. Guyon confronts the Bower, does not give in to temptation or indulgence, and destroys the Bower, freeing Amavia's lover.

Book 3

The third book's hero is Britomart, the embodiment of Chastity. It opens with a joust between Sir Guyon and Britomart, ending in Britomart's victory. Britomart parts from Guyon and happens upon the Redcross knight who is being attacked by six other knights. Britomart rushes to his aid, defeating them all singlehandedly. Britomart reveals to Redcross that she is destined to marry Sir Artegall and that she is questing to find him. Britomart has many adventures and battles accompanied by Redcross and Arthur at times until she comes upon Sir Scudamore who is searching for his lady, Amoret, who has been captured by wizard Busirane. Britomart is wounded by Busirane, but she bests him and binds him up, escaping with Amoret, only to find Scudamore has disappeared.

Book 4

While Book 4 features Cambell as the knight of Friendship, the poem focuses on continuing the story from Books 1-3. Scudamore's story continues with an explanation as to why he had left his lady at Busirane's castle. Sir Scudamore has been deceived by the hag Ate, becoming convinced that Amoret, his missing love, has run off with Britomart, who Scudamore believes to be male. Scudamore meets Britomart at a tournament and convinces Sir Artegall, also in attendance, to help him defeat Britomart in combat. However, Britomart's helmet is removed in battle, and Artegall immediately falls in love with her, surrendering at her feet. Britomart realizes that Artegall is the man she fell in love with in the mirror, and the two profess their love. Yet, Artegall must finish his quest before they can be together. Scudamore, realizing that Britomart is female, becomes desperate to find Amoret, who has since left Britomart's care. Britomart agrees to help him find Amoret. Meanwhile, Amoret is rescued by two squires from a wild man who held her captive, where she is then joined by Arthur. Amoret and Arthur find Scudamore and Britomart and the lovers are reunited.

Book 5

The fifth book places Sir Artegall, the knight of Justice, as its hero. He is on a quest to deliver the lands of Lady Irena from the clutches of the vile giant Grantorto. Artegall travels with a metal squire named Talus who wields a wicked flail. On their journey, the pair encounter foes who are decidedly defeated by the duo, but Talus shows no restraint, willing to kill and destroy at a moment's notice. On their journey, Artegall is captured by Amazons and challenged to single combat. Artegall battles Radigund, Queen of the Amazons, but is defeated because he can't bring himself to kill her. She enslaves him and forces him to wear women's clothes and do women's chores. Talus flees and finds Britomart, enlisting her aid in freeing him. Britomart faces Radigund, beheads her, freeing Artegall and many other knights who had been imprisoned by the Amazon queen. Artegall and Talus depart with Britomart and travel to Irena's land to overthrow Grantorto. The pair battle through Grantorto's army and slay the evil giant, staying in Irena's land until he is called back to Gloriana's court.

Book 6

The sixth book features Sir Calidore, the Knight of Courtesy. The book opens with Calidore meeting Artegall who is returning to Gloriana's court after completing his quest. Calidore tells Artegall that his quest is to slay the Blatant Beast and Artegall tells him where he may find said beast. Seeking the beast, Calidore helps different ladies and knights, aiding them while also pursuing the Blatant Beast. The rest of the book follows Calidore as he answers the call of many others in need. Calidore finally tracks down the Blatant beast who is desecrating a monastery. Calidore subdues and chains the beast, leading it through Faerie Land like a pet.

"The Faerie Queene" Characters

  • The Redcross Knight: The Redcross Knight in the "Faerie Queene" is the protagonist of Book 1 and the most well-known figure from the poem, due to Book I being the most widely read of the six. He symbolizes and seeks to embody the virtue of Holiness, the virtue that Spenser believed must be attained for all other virtues to follow. Redcross's Holiness, his dedication to God and Truth, is frequently challenged with deceit. His two main opponents, Duessa and Archimago, use Falsehood to combat Holiness, tricking him into abandoning Una and being led astray by Duessa in disguise. Redcross ultimately sees through the falsehood and reunites with Una to save her parents' land from the dragon, symbolizing Holiness, dedication to God, and triumphs over lies and deception.
  • Una: Una is accompanied by the Redcross Knight to free her parents' home from a terrible dragon. Una is the personification of the ''True Church,'' or the protestant church during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1.
  • Duessa: Duessa leads the Redcross Knight astray in Book 1. Duessa is a foil for Una, both women who lead Redcross on his journey. While Una represents Chastity, Wisdom, and the ''True Church'', Duessa, whose name means duplicity, represents Falsehood and the Catholic Church, Catholicism being heresy in Spenser's eyes. Duessa weakens the Redcross Knight with an enchanted spring and she delivers him into the giant Orgolio's captivity. She is undone when Una comes to Redcross's rescue with Arthur. Duessa is disrobed, revealing that she is hideous, breaking her hold over Redcross. Politically, Duessa represents Queen Mary of Scots, the staunchly Catholic Queen of England whose rule was ended by Elizabeth I.
  • Archimago: Archimago is a wicked sorcerer who defies Gloriana, the Faerie Queen. He seeks to stop her virtuous knights with evil knights of his own. Archimago is responsible for deceiving Redcross into thinking Una had been unchaste, for which Redcross abandons Una, and appears throughout the six books to attack the servants of Gloriana. Archimago represents the enemies of England, outside forces that would seek her ruin. In a political allegory, Archimago represents King Phillip II of Spain, a political and religious rival to Queen Elizabeth I.
  • Sir Artegall: Artegall is the knight of Justice in Book 5. Artegall travels with a metal squire, Talus, who is a ruthless killer but subservient to Artegall. Artegall is also Britomart's true love and the pair are set to be together after Artegall completes his service to Glorianna.
  • Sir Guyon: Guyon is the protagonist of Book II and represents Temperance, the ability to moderate one's self. Guyon's even temperament is challenged throughout his adventures and his success is his ability to maintain his temperance. His final challenge in Book II is destroying the Bower of Bliss, a representation of lust and indulgence. Guyon is victorious as he staves off lustful temptation and maintains his holy discipline.
  • Arthur: Arthur appears throughout Books 1-6. This is the legendary King Arthur, but he is not king yet in "The Faerie Queen," rather he is a young, adventuring knight. Arthur is meant to embody the greatest virtues and represents the ideal man. Spenser planned to make Arthur the hero of Book 12, but would not see his vision of twelve books come to fruition.
  • Britomart: Britomart is the knight of Chastity and the only female knight. She wields an enchanted weapon capable of defeating any knight in battle until she loses to Artegall, the knight she had fallen in love with. Britomart embodies the sanctity of virginity and the virtuous restraint of young Christians saving themselves for marriage.
  • Calidore: Calidore is the knight of Courtesy and the hero of book 6. Calidore's quest is to slay the Blatant Beast. He displays immense courtesy as he aids many knights, squires, and ladies who are in need. Calidore chains the Blatant Beast, completing his quest after aiding many good people.

"The Faerie Queene" Analysis

"The Faerie Queen" is primarily an allegorical work, and the characters and events in the book often symbolize a moral lesson, a religious institution or belief, and a historical figure simultaneously.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the Faerie Queene woman?

The Faerie Queene is also known as Queene Gloriana. She tasks the Redcross Knight with slaying the dragon that terrorizes Una's home. Symbolically, the Faerie Queene is Queen Elizabeth I of England. The poem is partially dedicated to celebrating Elizabeth and elevating her as a figure of Christian virtue.

What does The Faerie Queene represent?

The Faerie Queen, Gloriana, symbolizes Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser viewed Elizabeth as a champion for England and the religion he practiced, Protestantism. He was writing during and after the Reformation, when Queen Elizabeth changed the official religion of England to Protestantism from Catholicism, a move that Spenser saw as divinely inspired.

Why is The Faerie Queene important?

The Faerie Queen is important as a historical piece of writing. It gives insight into religious thought and the religious strife between Protestantism and Catholicism. Spenser's poem attempts to capture Protestant virtue and glorify Queen Elizabeth I and her lineage. The poem not only teaches the values of Protestants at the time, it also comments on the politics and history of England, and stands as one of the most popular and influential works of English literature.

What lesson does The Faerie Queene teach?

Each of the 6 books of the Faerie Queen speak to a specific, Christian virtue that Spenser believed all people should aspire to embody. In Book 1, the Redcross Knight represents Holiness, as well as the struggle to achieve holiness as a follower of Christ. This is the same for the other books: Guyon in Book 2 representing Temperance, Britomart in Book 3 representing Chastity, Cambell in Book 4 representing Friendship, Sir Artegall in Book 5 representing Justice, and Sir Calidore in Book 6 representing Courtesy.

What is the main plot of The Faerie Queene?

The Faerie Queene is a collection of 6 poems, each poem having it's own narrative following different knights, such as the Redcross Knight in Book 1 or Guyon in Book 2. The Faerie Queene is therefore episodic, having six plot lines that share characters and locations.

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