The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, is holding her annual twelve-day feast. As is the custom, anyone in trouble can appear before the court and ask for a champion. The fair lady Una comes riding on a white ass, accompanied by a dwarf. She complains that her father and mother are shut up in a castle by a dragon. The Red Cross Knight offers to help her, and the party sets out to rescue Una’s parents. In a cave the Red Cross Knight encounters a horrible creature, half serpent, half woman. Although the foul stench nearly overpowers him, the knight slays the monster. After the battle, the Red Cross Knight and Una lose their way. A friendly stranger who offers them shelter is really Archimago, the wicked magician. By making the Red Cross Knight dream that Una is a harlot, Archimago separates Una from her champion.

Una goes on her way alone. Archimago quickly assumes the form of the Red Cross Knight and follows her to do her harm. Meanwhile the Red Cross Knight falls into the company of Duessa, an evil enchantress. They meet the great giant Orgoglio, who overcomes the Red Cross Knight and makes Duessa his mistress. Prince Arthur, touched by Una’s misfortunes, rescues the Red Cross Knight from Orgoglio and leads him to Una. Once again Una and her champion ride on their mission.

At last they come to Una’s kingdom, and the dragon that imprisoned her parents comes out to do battle. After two days of fighting, the Red Cross Knight overthrows the dragon. After the parents are freed, the Red Cross Knight and Una are betrothed. Still hoping to harm the Red Cross Knight, Archimago tells Sir Guyon that the Red Cross Knight despoiled a virgin of her honor. Shocked, Guyon sets out to right the wrong. The cunning Archimago disguises Duessa as a young girl and places her on the road, where she tells a piteous tale of wrong done by the Red Cross Knight and urges Guyon to avenge her. When Guyon and the Red Cross Knight meet, they lower their lances and begin to fight. Fortunately the signs of the Virgin Mary on the armor of each recall them to their senses, and Guyon is ashamed that he was tricked by the magician.

In his travels Guyon falls in with Prince Arthur, and the two visit the Castle of Alma, the stronghold of Temperance. The most powerful enemy of Temperance is the demon Maleger. In a savage battle Prince Arthur vanquishes Maleger. Guyon goes on to the Bower of Bliss, where his archenemy Acrasy lives. With stout heart Guyon overthrows Acrasy and destroys the last enemy of Temperance. After sending Acrasy back to the fairy court under guard, Guyon and Prince Arthur go on their way until on an open plain they see a knight arming for battle. With Prince Arthur’s permission, Guyon rides against the strange knight, and in the meeting Guyon is unhorsed by the strong lance of his opponent. Ashamed of his fall, Guyon snatches his sword and continues the fight on foot.

The palmer, attending Guyon, sees that the champion cannot prevail against the stranger, for the strange knight is enchanted. When he stops the fight, the truth is revealed: The strange knight is really the lovely Britomart, a chaste and pure damsel, who saw the image of her lover, Artegall, in Venus’s looking-glass and sets out in search of him. With the situation explained, Britomart joins Guyon, Prince Arthur, and Arthur’s squire, Timias, and the four continue their quest.

In a strange wood they travel for days, seeing no one, but everywhere they meet bears, lions, and bulls. Suddenly a beautiful lady on a white palfrey gallops out of the brush. She is Florimell, pursued by a lustful forester who spurs his steed cruelly in an attempt to catch her. The three men join the chase, but out of modesty Britomart stays behind. She waits a long time; then, despairing of ever finding her companions again, she goes on alone.

As she approaches Castle Joyous she sees six knights attacking one. She rides into the fight and demands to know why they are fighting in such cowardly fashion. She learns that any knight passing has to love the lady of Castle Joyous or fight six knights. Britomart denounces the rule and with her magic lance unhorses four of the knights. She enters Castle Joyous as a conqueror. After meeting the Red Cross Knight in the castle, Britomart resolves to go on as a knight errant. She hears from Merlin, whom she visits, that she and Artegall are destined to have illustrious descendants.

Meanwhile Timias is wounded while pursuing the lustful forester. Belphoebe, the wondrous beauty of the Garden of Adonis, rescues him and heals his wounds. Timias falls in love with Belphoebe. Amoret, the fair one, is held prisoner by a young knight who attempts to defile her. For months she resists his advances. Then Britomart, hearing of her sad plight, overcomes the two knights who guard Amoret’s prison and free her. Greatly attracted to her brave rescuer, Amoret sets out with Britomart.

At a strange castle a knight claims Amoret as his love. Britomart jousts with him to save Amoret, and after winning the tourney Britomart is forced to take off her helmet. With her identity revealed, Britomart and Amoret set off together in search of their true loves.

Artegall, in search of adventure, joins Scudamour, knight errant. They meet Amoret and Britomart, who is still disguised as a knight. Britomart and Artegall fight an indecisive battle during which Artegall is surprised to discover that his opponent is his lost love, Britomart. The two lovers are reunited at last, but in the confusion Amoret is abducted by Lust. With the help of Prince Arthur, Scudamour rescues Amoret from her loathsome captor. He woos Amoret in the Temple of Love, where they find shelter.

Artegall, champion of true justice, is brought up and well trained by Astraea. When Artegall is of age, Astraea gives him a trusty groom, and the new knight sets out on his adventures. Talus, the groom, is an iron man who carries an iron flail to thresh out falsehood. Irene, who asks at the fairy court for a champion against the wicked Grantorto, sets out with Artegall and Talus to regain her heritage. With dispatch Artegall and Talus overcome Grantorto and restore Irene to her throne.

Later Artegall enters the lists against a strange knight who is really the disguised Amazon, Radigund. Artegall wounds Radigund, but when he sees that his prostrate foe is a comely woman, he throws away his weapons. The wounded Amazon then rushes on the defenseless Artegall and takes him prisoner. Artegall is kept in shameful confinement until at last Talus informs Britomart of his fate. Britomart goes to her lover’s rescue and slays Radigund.

Continuing his quest, Artegall meets two hags, Envy and Detraction, who defame his character and set the Blatant Beast barking at his heels. Artegall forbids Talus to beat the hags and returns to the fairy court. The Blatant Beast, defamer of knightly character and the last remaining enemy of the fairy court, finally meets his match. The courteous Calidore, the gentlest of all the knights, conquers the beast and leads him, tamed, back to the court of the Fairie Queene.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Faery Land

Faery Land. Mythical country that serves as a setting for the romantic adventures of idealized knights, whose charge is to perfect themselves in their calling and rescue or protect innocent victims from their enemies. An array of forests, caves, and dungeons gives each knight (a different hero in each of the poem’s six books) an opportunity to exhibit his skill and inspire gratitude and love in the person—usually a fair maiden—whom the dragon or monster of the moment is afflicting.

In a sense, Faery Land is also England, but not one visibly recognizable. While Spenser makes many references to English place names, as well as many more pertaining to other parts of the world, he makes no attempt to relate any part of his landscape in any realistic way to actual English sites. One effect of these allusions is to remind readers of England’s historical culture and values.

Spenser’s prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh explains the “Faerie Queene” as signifying the woman who reigned in England through most of Spenser’s life: Queen Elizabeth I. The Prince Arthur of the poem is not precisely the legendary King Arthur but an Arthur who, if Spenser had succeeded in bringing his poem to a conclusion (for he projected twelve, and possibly even twenty-four books), would have sought out Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, then wooed and married her. This union would have underscored the desirability of a marriage for Elizabeth which would presumably stabilize the royal succession and thus foster the integrity of the real English kingdom.

In its basic structure, however, the poem is a complex allegory with a stated purpose: “To fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” In the largest sense, then, its Faerie Land is the human soul. Spenser believed strongly that it was the writer’s goal to paint virtue in an attractive, active, even heroic manner capable of inspiring readers to perfect themselves morally and thus qualify as “gentle” or “noble” persons, whatever their social class. Faery Land might be called the landscape of the soul, and the movement from place to place symbolizes the soul’s labors throughout life. Each book of the poem celebrates a particular virtue. The Red Cross Knight of book 1 seeks to perfect himself in holiness, Sir Guyon of book 2 represents temperance, and so on.

Typically in the course of each book, its hero comes to places that help or challenge him (or her, for Britomart of book 3 is a female knight devoted to chastity) in the quest for moral perfection. Thus the Red Cross Knight is challenged by the House of Pride, Guyon by the Cave of Mammon. Eventually the knight reaches a countering place that fosters virtue: the Red Cross Knight, the House of Holiness; Guyon, the Bower of Bliss (a good place because the Bliss depicted is natural and moderate). Spenser’s descriptions of these places are often graphic. For example, Sir Scudamour of book 4 spends a night at the house of a blacksmith named Care, who along with six assistants wields “huge great hammers that did never rest,” hammers which “like bells in greatness orderly succeed.” The combination of this crew working all night and a pack of howling dogs permits the knight no sleep, but the purpose of the episode is not to represent the blacksmith’s trade but to convey the anxiety of Sir Scudamour at this point in the narrative. What is most “real” for Spenser throughout is not the material, sensible world but the life of the human spirit.

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Humanism and Education
Tudor England in the sixteenth century was a place of great change. There were significant social,...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

Sixteenth century: In 1517, Martin Luther's actions grow into the Protestant reformation. This event has important ramifications for...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

The Cult of Elizabeth was an important literary force at the end of the sixteenth century. Because of a number of excessively flattering...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

An audio cassette of The Faerie Queene (1998), with John Moffatt as reader, is available from Naxos of America. This recording, which...

(The entire section is 32 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Edmund Spenser's ‘‘The Shepheardes Calendar’’ (1579) is a series of poems that celebrate the pastoral tradition and perfection of...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Frye, Northrop, "The Structure of Imagery in The Faerie Queene," in Edmund Spenser's Poetry, edited by...

(The entire section is 490 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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.

Anderson, Judith, Donald Cheney, and David Richardson, eds. Spenser’s Life and the Subject of Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Offers selected essays concerning Spenser’s biography and career as a poet and civil servant.

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.

Hume, Anthea. Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Argues that Spenser espoused the militant Protestantism associated with the Leicester Circle and held views that require classification of him as a Puritan.

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.

King, John N. Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Approaches book 1 of The Faerie Queene as a Protestant saint’s life and argues that Spenser was influenced by a distinctly Protestant poetics and tradition.

Mallette, Richard. Spenser and the Discourses of Reformation England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Examines Spenser’s complex adaptation and parody of religious controversies on preaching, chastity, marriage, apocalypse, providence, and free will.

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.

Read, David. Temperate Conquests: Spenser and the Spanish New World. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000. Representative of recent work on Spenser and European colonialism. Focuses on Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland and books 2 and 5 of The Faerie Queene.

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.”

Van Es, Bart. Spenser’s Forms of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Describes Spenser’s preoccupation with time and memory while probing his handling of historical chronicles and other antiquarian materials.