The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

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What happens in The Faerie Queene?

In The Faerie Queene, the tales of various people from Arthurian and Christian legend intertwine in an epic poem about nature and human virtue. Some of the characters are the Red Cross Knight (also known at St. George), Sir Guyon, Arthur, Artegall, Britomart, and the Faerie Queene.

  • The first part of The Faerie Queene focuses on two virtuous Christian warriors: the Red Cross Knight and Guyon. The Red Cross Knight is famous for slaying the dragon, which represents sin.

  • In the second part, Spenser continues the story of Britomart, a female knight introduced in the first part of the poem. Britomart falls in love with Artegall, the knight of justice. Artegall is later attacked by the Blatant Beast, a giant dog with many tongues.

  • The Mutabilitie Cantos were appended to the poem after Spenser's death. In the first one, the female Mutabilitie rebels against Jove and the order of the heavens.

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(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.


(The entire section is 2,965 words.)