In a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser stated that his purpose in this epic poem was to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” Although Spenser may have intended to write twenty-four books, twelve concerned with private and twelve with public or political virtues, he completed only six books and The Mutabilitie Cantos, a fragment of a possible seventh book.
Spenser’s first book focuses on the virtue of holiness and relates the story of Redcross Knight, also St. George of England, who hopes to liberate the parents of Una (Protestantism), the one true religion. Sir Guyon, the hero of the second book, is the knight of temperance who must withstand the temptations of the Cave of Mammon and the Bower of Bliss.
Books III and IV focus respectively on chastity and friendship. The central figure of both books is Britomart, the female knight of chastity, who seeks her promised lover, Artegall or justice. Britomart is chaste in an Aristotelian sense; she wants to be united with Artegall in honorable marriage, not to live as a celibate.
Artegall, the hero of Book V and knight of justice, sets out to free Lady Irena (Ireland) from Grantorto (Roman Catholicism) and to defend Belge (Netherlands) against her enemy (Spain). Book VI focuses on courtesy and the adventures of Sir Calidore and Sir Calepine, who try to restrain the Blatant Beast (slander).
In THE MUTABILITIE CANTOS, Spenser revels the constancy of order which is obscured by the mutability of the natural and political world. An eclectic and fascinating work, THE FAERIE QUEENE represents Spenser’s celebration of Elizabeth I and his analysis of 16th century civilization.
Alpers, Paul J. The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene.” Princeton: N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Attempts to describe the language of The Faerie Queene and discusses the nature of Spenser’s poetry.
Freeman, Rosemary. “The Faerie Queene”: A Companion for Readers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Displays a keen appreciation of Spenser’s poetry and the peculiarity of his epic. Part one discusses the poem’s origin, structure, and allegory; part two makes a book-by-book thematic analysis.
Graham, Hough. A Preface to “The Faerie Queene.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. A seminal work of Spenser criticism. Relates The Faerie Queene to the tradition of the romantic epic. Provides a book-by-book commentary and considers the poem as a whole.
King, Andrew. The “Faerie Queene” and the Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory. Oxford, England: Oxford, 2000. A study that emphasizes the importance of regionalism on Middle English writers, especially Spenser. Also explores the thematic role of exiled youth and his counterpart, the outcast virgin.
Parker, M. Pauline. The Allegory of “The Faerie Queene.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. More accessible than other studies of the poem’s allegory. Approaches the poem thematically, identifying five major themes that cross the boundaries of individual books.
Sale, Roger. Reading Spenser: An Introduction to “The Faerie Queene.” New York: Random House, 1968. Speculates that Spenser’s transformation from a medieval to a modern poet prevented him from finishing his epic. Also argues that the poem is intentionally “undramatic.”