"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Moral Allegory: Each character, good or evil, represents a Christian virtue or an evil vice. For example, Britomart symbolizes the virtue of chastity. Britomart's journey centers around her figuratively maintaining her chastity as she battles off male knights. A character who represents vice is Duessa, specifically the vice of Falsehood. Duessa is charming and beautiful, but also wicked and deceitful, representing the cunning deceit of vice. Each named character in the epic represents some moral good or ill and Spenser uses these characters to convey his picture a good, protestant Christian. Ultimately, Spenser's characters and their interactions with each other construct what one should aspire to be and what pitfalls to avoid when living as a follower of God.
- Religious Allegory: Another of Spenser's intentions for his allegory was to advocate for Protestantism while repudiating Catholicism. The Redcross Knight is a personification of Protestant England while Una represents the protestant church or the ''true church.'' Likewise, Archimago represents Jesuits while Duessa symbolizes the ''false'' Church of Rome.
- Political Allegory: Spenser's characters also represent many of his political contemporaries. The Faerie Queene, Gloriana, directly represents Queen Elizabeth I and the Redcross Knight can either allude to Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Phillip Sydney, all people Spenser would greatly benefit from being in their good graces. Archimago specifically represents King Phillip II of Spain while Duessa is Queen Mary of Scots, two powerful royal figures that fully supported Catholicism.
"The Faerie Queene" Themes
As explored above, the "Faerie Queen" is an allegorical work that operates on a moral, religious, and political level. This means that its themes are wide-ranging, speaking to Spenser's contemporary politics, his ideas for a noble man, as well as his religious convictions.
- Politics: "The Faerie Queene" is overtly political as it references historical figures and royal contemporaries of Spenser. The poem also propelled Spenser politically, as its dedication to Queen Elizabeth won him favor with the monarch, afterward gaining notoriety among the English court with Elizabeth's endorsement. His writing also affirms him as staunchly Protestant and favoring a budding English nationalism that flowered under Elizabeth's unifying reign.
- Love: The Knight of Chasity, Britomart, can also be read as the Knight of Love. Her adventures and her ability to defeat any male knight in combat are metaphors for the preservation of her chastity or virginity. Britomart falls in love with Artegall after viewing him through a magic mirror, and it is only Artegall that is able to best Britomart in combat. Again, this represents Britomart saving herself for marriage, following strict demands of virginity before marriage from the Protestant church. Later, when Artegall is captured in servitude by the slaver Radigund, Britomart must kill him to free him from his fate, symbolizing their pure love setting Artegall free.
- Justice: In his political life, Spenser had experience as an English administrator in Ireland, and his views on justice can be read as overly oppressive and punitive. However, the moral allegory of the poem places Justice as the 5th virtue, meaning that the virtues of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, and Friendship must be present before Justice can be achieved. Artegall is the Knight of Justice who travels with a metal man named Talus. Talus is obedient to Artegall, but he is also a ruthless killer who will slay any villain without thought. This shows that Spenser does distinguish between right and wrong ways to combat evil, Justice requiring restraint as well as patience.
- Virtue: One of Spenser's primary goals for "The Faerie Queen" was to ''fashioning a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.'' Thus, he uses his characters to represent the virtues Spenser believed the ideal gentleman would hold, referring to characters like Redcross, Arthur, or Guyon, while also depicting sinful virtues through his villains, such as Archimago and Duessa. Each of the six knights represents a different virtue while their respective adventures challenge and foil each virtue.
Spenserian Stanzas in '"The Faerie Queene"
Edmund Spenser created an original form of poetry for "The Faerie Queene," now known as the Spenserian Stanza. The first eight lines of the stanza are written in iambic pentameter, meaning there are five measures of iambic feet. An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Example: da Dum. The last line of the stanza is in iambic hexameter, meaning the stanza ends with a line of six iambic feet. Further, the rhyme scheme of each stanza follows "ab, ab, bc, bcc," and the two quatrains of the stanza are bound together by the first "b" rhymes.
"The Faerie Queene" Composition and Publication
The first three books of "The Faerie Queene" were published in 1590. Later, all six books would be published in 1596. However, Spenser was able to present Books 1 - 3 to Queen Elizabeth herself, thanks to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth was delighted by poems, perhaps because of the various dedications and praises to her Majesty throughout. Elizabeth granted Spenser 50 English pounds a year pension for his work.
In his Letter to Raleigh, a letter included in most publications of "The Faerie Queen," Spenser says his intention for the poem was to create his ideal for a virtuous gentleman, speaking to all of the virtues Spenser saw as essential. He wanted to create a moral allegory that exemplified all of the best traits of a devote protestant Christian. His inspiration also came from the epic poets of the past, referencing Homer's "The Iliad" and Virgil's "Aeneid."
"The Faerie Queene" Reception and Adaptations
Spenser's epic was received with exuberant approval from the English Court, partially due to Elizabeth's praise of the poem. Spenser found immediate fame from his work and was called the ''prince of living poets.'' Since its first publication, the epic poem has garnered fame and now has a secure place in the canon of English literature.
"The Faerie Queen" has been praised by scholars for its unique versification, style, and metrical structure. It is said that ''Spenser revealed a harmony, sweetness, and color never before dreamed of in the English,'' which is credited to his Spenserian Stanza. Spenser's diction is also notable and widely regarded for its semi-obsolete word choices and phrases. Spenser was writing during a revival of chivalry in England and purposefully injects archaic language to replicate a then idealized time of knights and chivalry in English history, borrowing language from earlier writers like Chaucer. This adds to the mythological nature of the poem and promotes English nationalism, a wide felt sentiment felt by the English under Queen Elizabeth's glorified reign. The Faerie Queen works as a mythologized past and legend for a then-present England, adding to a common sense of what it meant to be English.
"The Faerie Queen" by Edmund Spenser is an allegorical epic poem. Book 1, featuring the Redcross Knight and Una, is the most well-known, but the poem comprises six books. Its six books each feature a knight that exemplifies a virtue, such as the female knight Britomart who represents the virtue of Chastity, or Calidore who embodies the virtue of Courtesy. Each knight is on a quest, completing their goals in the name of the Faerie Queen Gloriana. The knights must overcome villains and monsters that represent vices, like when Sir Guyon defeats the Bower of Bliss which represents indulgence and lust, or when Sir Artegall saves Eirena from the giant Grantorto, a manifestation of pride. Spenser's allegory works on religious and political levels as well as moral. For example, Duessa, whose name means duplicity, represents the Church of Rome as well as Queen Mary of Scots, both of which Spenser adamantly opposed. Spenser's work gained him massive notoriety from "The Faerie Queen," winning the favor of Queen Elizabeth I and the English court. His work has become an essential piece of English literary canon and continues to be studied privately and in educational institutions to this day.