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.