Study Guide

The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Faerie Queene is a long epic poem that begins and ends with Christian affirmations. In it, Edmund Spenser draws on both Christian and classical themes, integrating the two traditions with references to contemporary politics and religion. The poem begins with a representation of holiness in book 1, and the Mutabilitie Cantos (first printed with the poem in 1609 after Spenser’s death) conclude with a prayer. Book 1 is identified as the Legend of the Knight of the Red Cross (or Saint George) in canto 2, verses 11-12. Red Cross, as an individual, is the Protestant Everyman, but as Saint George, historically England’s patron saint, he also represents the collective people of England. He is a pilgrim who hopes to achieve the virtue holiness, and for the reader his adventures illustrate the path to holiness.

Red Cross’s overarching quest, as an individual, is to behold a vision of the New Jerusalem, but he also is engaged in a holy quest involving the lady Una, who represents the one true faith. To liberate Una’s parents, the king and queen, Adam and Eve, Red Cross must slay the dragon, who holds them prisoner. The dragon represents sin, the Spanish Armada, and the Beast of the Apocalypse, and when Red Cross defeats the dragon he is in effect restoring Eden. Red Cross is then able to enter the House of Holiness and is deemed worthy to be united with Una.

Book 2 depicts Guyon, the knight of temperance, who learns the wisdom of the classical dictum “Nothing too much” (or “Nothing in excess”). Guyon is accompanied in his quest by a holy palmer and, when he faints at one point, is aided by an angel. These Christian elements suggest that in the quest to achieve temperance grace plays a role complementary to that of reason. Guyon is educated in the house of Alma (soul) and then challenges the sorceress Acrasia (lust) in the Bower of Bliss. Guyon frees the men who have been changed into beasts by Acrasia’s magic, but one of them (Grill) decides to remain a hog, suggesting Spenser’s conviction that there are limits to human perfectibility.

Book 3 concerns chastity and concludes the first part of The Faerie Queene. Even though book 4 is the beginning of the second part of The Faerie Queene, it is linked to book 3 because they both focus on Britomart, a female knight who represents Britain and Elizabeth, and a number of other characters whose stories are interlaced. Britomart falls in love with Artegall, the knight of justice, whose name means “equal to Arthur,” and Merlin prophesies their marriage. Elizabeth is also portrayed as Belphoebe, a beautiful virgin with whom Timias (understood as a figure for the real-life Sir Walter Ralegh) falls in love. Amoret, the twin sister of Belphoebe, is allegorized as married love. She is imprisoned in the House of Busirane, held prisoner perhaps by her own fears of sexuality or perhaps by the perversions of her captor, but it is Britomart who frees her so that she can be united in marriage with her fiancé Scudamour. Book 4 celebrates friendship and concord as social love.

In book 3 it is revealed that Britomart, as England, will be united with Artegall. In book 5, Artegall is presented as the knight of justice, and he is accompanied by Talus, an iron man who is pitiless. Spenser illustrates the scope of the common law in five episodes and then turns to Equity, which is not bound by precedent and so can extend mercy when the letter of the law denies it. Britomart frees Artegall from the prison of Radigund, an Amazon queen, who has enslaved him as a housemaid. This domestic aspect of justice is supplemented by an analysis of political justice in relation to foreign affairs. England is shown as victorious over Spain in a number of episodes. For example, Belge, representing the Netherlands (then under Spanish control), is freed by Artegall.

Book 6 appeared in the 1596 edition of The Faerie Queene, and it was the last section of The Faerie Queene to appear during Spenser’s lifetime. At the conclusion of book 5, Artegall is attacked by the Blatant Beast, a fierce dog with many tongues, who slanders innocent people. In book 6 Calidore, the knight of courtesy, pursues the Blatant Beast; he succeeds in restraining him for a while, but the Blatant Beast breaks free again in the closing lines of the book. Spenser juxtaposes the chivalric ideal, associated with the court and power politics, to the idyllic pastoral world of nature, but even the pastoral and natural world can be disrupted by villains. Calidore falls in love with the beautiful Pastorella, daughter of Meliboe, but when he wanders away into a nearby glade to observe the three Graces dancing to the piping of Colin Clout, he returns to find the shepherd community destroyed by the Brigands. Pastorella and Meliboe are led away as captives; Meliboe is killed in a dispute among the Brigands. Calidore rescues Pastorella, who turns out to be the noble daughter of Sir Bellamour and his lady Claribell, not the simple shepherd girl she seemed. Calepine, a secondary hero in book 6, rescues Serena from the cannibals. The cannibals’ lust for Serena is presented in a literary blazon in which a woman is described from head to toe. Calepine arrives just in time to keep the cannibals from eating her. The literary language of chivalry, pastoral, and love poetry contrasts with the real world of the Blatant Beast, the Brigands, and the cannibals.

Book 7, or the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie (the Mutabilitie Cantos), was printed posthumously along with Books 1-6 in the first folio of The Faerie Queene (1609). The printer says that in form and matter the two cantos seem to be a fragment of an unfinished book related to the theme of constancy. The Mutabilitie Cantos contain two distinct narratives and conclude with a Sabbath prayer. The major narrative describes Mutabilitie’s attempt to challenge the divine hierarchy in which Jove rules the heavens. Her rebellion leads to a trial that is finally judged by Nature, who gives the somewhat ambiguous verdict that change does not cause anything to alter its essential nature. The passing of time is an unfolding in which the fabric of reality realizes its nature. In a comic subplot, Faunus, a Pan-like wood god, promises to help the river nymph Molanna to win the love of Fanchin if she will help him see her mistress, Diana, in her bath. Diana and her nymphs discover Faunus and chase him but do not kill or geld him. Molanna is punished by stoning but is metamorphosed into a stream and joins her lover, the river Behanagh. In the two concluding stanzas of the poem, Spenser prays that he may rest eternally with the great God of Sabbath.

The Faerie Queene Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published in two parts: the first part (books 1 to 3) appeared in 1590; the second part (books 4 to 6), with which the first part was reprinted, appeared in 1596. The dedication to the 1596 edition is addressed to Elizabeth I, whom Spenser describes as the empress of England, France, Ireland, and Virginia. He adds that he is consecrating “these his labours to live with the eternitie of her fame.” Although The Faerie Queene makes use of romance, as well as epic conventions, Spenser intended the poem to function as an English epic, a celebration of the emerging British empire. In his letter to Sir Walter Ralegh dated January 13, 1589, he states that the “generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” Spenser also states that he will use the Aristotelian virtues as a means of organizing the themes of his epic, indicating that he will write a twelve-book epic, portraying in Arthur the twelve private moral virtues that he exercised before he was king. If this work is well received, he adds, he may continue by describing how Arthur came to embody the twelve “politick” virtues after he became king. When the second part appeared in 1596, the title page described the poem as “disposed into twelve bookes, fashioning XII morall vertues,” but no suggestion is given regarding whether the moral virtues are private or public.

One of the most distinctive stylistic features of The Faerie Queene involves Spenser’s use of allegory and typology, both of which are unfamiliar to a modern audience and have therefore often been misinterpreted. Renaissance authors inherited a tradition of reading texts allegorically from medieval writers. The method of reading Homer’s works and the Bible in terms of a fourfold allegory derived from Alexandrian exegesis of these texts. According to this method of reading, anything that was not educational or useful in a text should be interpreted figuratively. No level of meaning would be taken literally. A reference to the Temple of Jerusalem, for example, would be interpreted historically as the Temple of Jerusalem, allegorically as the Church on earth, morally as the individual believer, and anagogically or mystically as the final communion of the saints in heaven.

Renaissance readers and writers think of allegory somewhat in the way that modern readers think of symbolism; meanings are concealed in the imagery and narrative. In Spenser’s case, the allegory is not continuous, nor is it consistent. Elizabeth, for example, is represented by the maiden hunter Belphoebe and by Britomart, the female knight, who will marry Artegall (equal to Arthur), the knight of justice. The offspring of Britomart and Artegall will produce the Tudor dynasty culminating in Elizabeth, but in book 5 Elizabeth is also represented in Mercilla, a queenly figure who dispenses both justice and mercy.

A character or event frequently is to be interpreted on multiple levels of significance: In book 1, Redcrosse knight is the champion of the virtue holiness, but he is also the embodiment of Saint George, the patron saint of England and the defender of the one true Protestant church. Instead of trying to arrive at a specific interpretation of The Faerie Queene, one needs to be aware of the potential multiplicity of meanings that may be suggested in any one episode.

Interpretation of Spenser’s allegory is rendered more difficult because, during the eighteenth century, the significance of the term “allegory” changed, creating confusion about what a Renaissance author intended when he wrote allegory. Instead of being used to refer to the structure of images and narrative incidents, allegory came to be used as a synonym for personification. Spenser does use personification, for example, in the monsters Error in book 1 and Lust in book 4, but under the rubric of allegory he also includes other genres such as fable, prophecy, and parable and devices such as irony (saying one thing but meaning another), hyperbole, and historical and contemporary allusions.

George Puttenham, in his The Arte of English Poesie (1589), makes an interesting distinction between mixed allegory, in which the poet tells the readers what the metaphor means, and full allegory, in which the poet allows the readers to determine the meaning. According to Puttenham’s definition, the play Everyman (1508) would be considered a mixed allegory because the author reveals that Good Deeds means a Christian who follows Christ’s teaching; on the other hand, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) would be considered a full allegory because the character Hamlet is a specific Danish prince but can also represent Everyman. Most modern handbooks of literature reverse these classifications and would consider Everyman “more allegorical” than Hamlet.

The Faerie Queene fits Puttenham’s definition of full allegory. When Spenser refers to his poem as a “dark conceit,” he is alluding to the structure of images and to the narrative and rhetorical techniques in the poem, not to a structure of ideas outside it. In the letter to Ralegh, he comments: “To some, I know, this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus dowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall devices.” The allegory, for Spenser, consists of “cloudy devices,” not of precepts or sermons.

Typology, another device used throughout The Faerie Queene, is even less familiar than allegory to modern readers. The term comes from typos (Greek, “to strike”). In biblical typology, a type is defined as a detail in the Old Testament that foreshadows its antitype in the New Testament. The detail may be a person (Adam, Moses, and David are all types of Christ); it may be an event (the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea foreshadow the Redemption); or it may be an institution (the Levitical priesthood and the ritual of the old Temple are figures of the blessings of the spiritual priesthood of Christ).

In Nowell’s Catechism, which every sixteenth century reader would have known, the master asks, “Why should not the Decalogue refer to the Israelites alone, because God’s introduction declares: ’Hear, O Israel, I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of bondage.’” The student is supposed to answer that the pharaoh of Egypt is the figure of the devil ready to oppress the Christian and that Moses’ rescue of the Israelites from bodily bondage is a type of Christ’s delivery of all of His faithful followers from the bondage of sin (antitype). Spenser’s readers would have interpreted the battle between Redcrosse knight and the dragon in canto 11 of book 1 typologically. The imagery used to describe the three-day battle makes it clear that Redcrosse is triumphing over Satan, but the imagery also summons images of the Passion and of the harrowing of hell.

In most of Spenser’s verse, including his justly acclaimed short masterpiece, Epithalamion, one finds him using the techniques of allegory and typology.

The Faerie Queene Summary

Book I
In this opening section, Spenser explains the legend of the Red Cross Knight and focuses on the importance of morality...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)

The Faerie Queene Summary and Analysis

Summary and Analysis: Introduction and Book I, Cantos i-iv

Book I: “The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Of Holinesse”

New Characters
Abessa: The pious, prayerful mother of Corecca, who does not mind her dating a thief.

Archimago: A magician who disguises himself as an old man.

Corecca: The deaf and dumb daughter of Abessa, who is dating Kirkapine the thief.

Dwarf: The carrier of belongings, a lackey for the Lady and the Knight.

Error: A vile monster with a long, poisonous tail and many offspring.

Fidessa/Duessa: An ancient and ugly sorceress (Duessa) disguised as a beautiful young maiden (Fidessa).

Fradubio: Once a man, now bewitched into a tree.

...

(The entire section is 5447 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book I, Cantos v-viii

New Characters
A simple man: The disguised Archimago, who gives Satyrane and Una false information.

Ǽolus: The wind, father of Orgoglio.

Aescalpius: A fantastical healer who, though alive, has been consigned the darkest cave of hell for bringing the dead to life.

Diana or Cynthia: The virginal goddess of the hunt, who lives in the forests with an array of nymphs.

Earth: The mother of Orgoglio.

Hippolytus: A huntsman sent to hell because his father had him brought back from the dead.

Ignaro: Orgoglio’s stepfather, an ancient and blind man.

Jove: The king of the gods.

King of Babylon, King Croesus and Antiochus:...

(The entire section is 5535 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book I, Cantos ix-xii

New Characters
Charissa: Dame Celia’s daughter, who is pregnant.

Contemplation: A man who fasts and prays to lower the effects of his body upon his spirit, and who gives Redcross much information.

Dame Caelia: Runs a holy house for rejuvenation with her three daughters.

Despair: A demon that removes all hope from men.

Dragon: A fearsome creature devastating Una’s land.

Fidelia and Speranza: Dame Celia’s virginal daughters.

King: The lord of the land the dragon was decimating and father to Una.

Mercy: The leader of an order of goodly Protestants who give aid and succor to those who need it.

Messenger: A minion...

(The entire section is 5401 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book II, Cantos i-vi

Book II: “The Legend of Sir Gvyon, or Of Temperavnce”

New Characters
A Palmer: An old man traveling with Sir Guyon (a “palmer” is a pilgrim).

Atin: A squire and messenger who announces Pyrochles’ arrival.

Belphoebe: A beautiful woman, possibly a goddess, who amazes Braggadoccio.

Braggadoccio: A braggart who uses Sir Guyon’s horse to pretend to be a Knight.

Claribell: The Lady of the Squire, a chaste and noble woman.

Crying Woman: Although claiming she has been raped, the woman is really Duessa.

Cymochles: Pyrochles’ brother, whose loves the sorceress Acrasia.

Dan Faunus: A rude and...

(The entire section is 6252 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book II, Cantos vii-xii

New Characters
Alma: A good virgin who is Lady of a castle beset by villains.

Boatman or Ferryman: The man who guides Guyon’s boat as he seeks Acrasia.

Brutus: A royal descendent who cleared Britain of giants and became King.

Bunduca: A female martyr who rose up against the Roman rule but whose forces were decimated and so she killed herself.

Caesar: An Emperor who took over much of Europe and attacked Britain.

Fiend: The guardian of riches, who stalks visitors in hopes he can kill them when they touch or steal an item of wealth.

Giants: Enormous, strong creatures that destroyed the land that was to become Britain until Brutus arrived....

(The entire section is 6081 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book III, Prologue-Canto vi

Book III: “The Legend of Britomartis, or Of Chastitie”

New Characters
Adonis: The lost lover of Venus, who in legend died in a boar hunt but was restored to Venus for a part of each year.

Amoretta: Belphoebe’s twin, who was raised by Venus.

Britomart: The heroine of Book III, a chaste but fierce woman disguised as a male Knight to seek her love.

Chrysogonee: A Faerie and the mother of Belphoebe and Amoretta.

Cupid: The winged god who causes mortals to fall in love with each other.

Cymoent: Marinell’s mother, a protective and loving guardian although she is also a goddess and lives in the sea.

Dwarf: A...

(The entire section is 6988 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book III, Cantos vii-xii

New Characters
Argante: A giantess who is infected with lust.

Busirane: A vile wizard who tries to win Amoretta’s consent with torture and fear.

Hellenore: The young and carefree wife of Malbecco.

Malbecco: An elderly miser with a young and beautiful wife he keeps imprisoned out of (unfounded) jealousy.

Monster: A vile thing resembling a hyena, called up by the witch because it feeds on women’s flesh.

Ollyphant: A giant, the twin brother of Argante and also a slave to lust.

Palladine: A female Knight, chaste and brave.

Paridell: A Faerie Knight sent out to search for Florimell.

Paris: The Trojan whose love for...

(The entire section is 6090 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book IV, Proem-Canto vi

New Characters
Agape: A Faerie with much knowledge of nature who has extended the lives of her three sons.

Ate: The mother of all discord, war, and debate.

Blandamour: A false and fickle Knight who accompanies Duessa.

Cambell: A good, true, and fierce Knight whose sister is Canacee.

Cambina: Triamond’s sister, a student of magic.

Canacee: Cambell’s wise and intelligent sister who refused to love any man, instead obeying the governance of her mind.

Care: A blacksmith who makes iron wedges of unquiet thoughts that invade peaceful minds.

Man in Castle: A man who lives in an area where if a man does not have a woman by...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book IV, Cantos vii-xii

New Characters
Aemylia: A prisoner like Amoretta in the lustful beast’s cave.

Amyas: A Squire of low degree who loves Aemylia.

Corflambo: A monstrous pagan whose eyes shoot deadly beams of fire.

Dwarf: Amyas’ keeper when he was held by Poeana.

Lustful Beast: A strange, hairy creature that survives by capturing maidens, deflowering them, and then eating them.

Placidas: A Squire fleeing Corflambo with a Dwarf.

Poeana: Corflambo’s beautiful but wanton daughter.

Summary
Canto vii: When Britomart had fallen asleep in the forest, Amoretta had gone for a walk. A hairy beast swept down from the trees and...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book V, Proem-Canto vi

New Characters
Amidas: The younger, luckier brother betrothed to Lucy but who eloped with Philtra.

Astroeia: The woman who raised Artegall to know right from wrong and justice from injustice.

Bracidas: The unlucky but virtuous brother who fights with Amidas.

Clarinda: Radigund’s handmaiden and fellow woman warrior.

Dolon: A fallen Knight who hates Artegall because he killed Dolon’s son in a fair fight.

Grantorio: An evil giant.

Irena: A good woman who is oppressed by Grantorio.

Lucy: A poor girl with virtue who tries to kill herself and instead marries Bracidas.

Munera: Pollente’s Lady, who receives all the...

(The entire section is 2402 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book V, Cantos vii-xii

New Characters
Adicia: Souldan’s wife, who eggs Souldan on in evil deeds.

Belge: An honorable mother of seventeen sons, twelve of whom have been killed by a tyrant.

Gerioneos Seneschall: A deformed tyrant with three bodies who worships his dead father, who was also similarly deformed.

Isis: An Egyptian nature goddess.

Malengin: A shape-shifting robber who lives in an underground labyrinth.

Paynim Knights: Two pagan Knights who chase Samient.

Queen Mercilla: The good and kind queen of the region.

Samient: A fleeing damsel who serves Queen Mercilla.

Souldan: A vile man who tries to kill Queen Mercilla and her...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book VI, Proem-Canto vi

Book VI: “The Legend of S. Calidore or, Of Covrtesie”

New Characters
Aladine: The son of Aldus who is incautious enough to be seriously wounded while enjoying his Lady’s courtesies.

Aldus: An older, honorable, retired Knight who owns a castle, father of Aladine.

Blandina: A Lady who was with an unworthy Knight, Turpine.

Briana: A proud woman in love with Crudor.

Calepine: A Knight in love with Serena.

Calidore: A brave, courtly Knight who exemplifies courtesy.

Crudor: A self-absorbed Knight who demands Briana provide a garment made of hair and beards before he will yield to her love.

...

(The entire section is 4643 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Book VI, Cantos vii-xii

New Characters
Brigands: Lowly thieves who prey on shepherds or anyone else they can.

Claribell: Bellamour’s love, who bore him a child left for dead outdoors.

Colin: A shepherd and musician.

Coridon: The shepherd most in love with Pastorell.

Disdain: A giant who punishes Mirabella according to Cupid’s dictate.

Lord Bellamour: The goodly Knight to whose castle Calidore brings Pastorell.

Meliboe: Pastorell’s father, a good man who disdains money.

Mirabella: A hard-hearted but beautiful woman who lets many men die out of longing for her.

Pastorell: A beautiful maid honored by shepherds and maids alike.

...

(The entire section is 3665 words.)