Who are the women Spenser refers to in Book One of The Faerie Queen?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the epic poem The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser has two purposes. The first is to extol the virtues of medieval chivalry (with the hope that there will be renewed interest in this way of life), and the other is to praise Elizabeth I.

In Book One, there are several women. Our damsel in distress, who is also a woman of merit, is Una. She calls upon the Red Cross Knight to help her rescue her parents who have been imprisoned by a dragon.

In this opening section, Spenser explains the legend of the Red Cross Knight and focuses on the importance of morality and holiness in man's life.

The various women in the story are not just characters in a plotline, but many also have symbolic meaning.

Una is portrayed as a wise, honest and admirable young woman who goes to the Faerie Queene requesting help in saving her parents.

She represents truth and the true church.

(The "true" church referred to here is the Anglican Church—the church of Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII who split with the Roman Catholic Church because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.) Una can make suggestions to the Red Cross Knight, but his decisions are his own. 

In the poem, Una is described as:

So pure and innocent, as that same lambe,

She was in life and euery vertuous lore... (Canto I)

Duessa is "an evil enchantress" with magical powers to put on an appearance that belies what she is within: "corrupt." Duessa represents:

...falsehood, the Roman Catholic Church, and Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Gloriana is the Faerie Queene—she represents Elizabeth I of England. It is to Gloriana that Una goes for help.

Acrasia is another villainess: she (like the Sirens in the tales of Odysseus) lures men with her evil power, to their destruction. She is...

...the mistress of the Bower of Bliss.

While there are several women in Book One, Una is representative of all that is good, a main character who travels with the Red Cross Knight to save her parents, facing a string of adversaries.

Read the study guide:
The Faerie Queene

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