The Faerie Queene Study: Summary and Analysis

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
The Faerie Queene Study

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser


“The Faerie Queene” by Edmund Spenser is one of the most significant and complex works of English literature. First published in 1590, with a second part appearing in 1596, this epic poem blends Arthurian legend, Christian allegory, and Elizabethan-era politics to create a unique and richly symbolic narrative. Spenser’s work is notable for its use of the Spenserian stanza, a nine-line stanza he invented that became a hallmark of his style.

The poem is structured as an allegorical tale, intended to glorify Queen Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty, presenting Elizabeth herself as the Faerie Queene, Gloriana. The narrative is divided into six books, each focusing on the adventures of a knight who represents a particular virtue: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. A planned seventh book, representing Constancy, was never completed, leaving the epic unfinished.

The Characters of The Faerie Queene

Regarding the characters, “The Faerie Queene” features a vast array of figures, both allegorical and historical, mythical and real. The number of characters is extensive, including knights, ladies, wizards, monsters, and many others, each serving a specific role within the poem’s allegorical framework. Due to the work’s complexity and breadth, an exact count of characters is challenging, but there are dozens of primary and secondary characters across the six published books. Each book introduces a set of new characters associated with its particular virtue, along with recurring characters that connect the narrative threads of the poem.

  • Redcrosse Knight, the protagonist of Book I, represents the virtue of Holiness.
  • Una, a symbol of Truth, accompanies Redcrosse Knight on his journey.
  • Sir Guyon, the protagonist of Book II, embodies the virtue of Temperance.
  • Britomart, a female knight representing Chastity, is the central figure of Book III.
  • Artegall, the knight of Justice, is the focus of Book IV.
  • Sir Calidore, who represents the virtue of Courtesy, is the protagonist of Book V.
  • Prince Arthur, a unifying character appearing in multiple books, symbolizes Magnificence and the ideal Christian knight.

The Book One of The Faerie Queene

Book I of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse,” focuses on the virtue of Holiness and follows the journey of the Redcrosse Knight, who is the embodiment of this virtue. The narrative is a rich tapestry of allegorical and moral lessons, set against a backdrop of fantastical landscapes and encounters.

The story begins with the Redcrosse Knight, representing the Anglican Church or Holiness, setting out on his quest accompanied by Una, who symbolizes Truth and the true Church. They are initially pursued by a dragon (representing falsehood) and seek shelter in the house of Archimago, an evil sorcerer symbolizing Hypocrisy. Archimago deceives Redcrosse, leading him to doubt Una’s faithfulness, which causes the knight to abandon her.

As Redcrosse continues his journey, he faces various trials and tribulations that reflect his spiritual growth and the challenges of adhering to the path of righteousness. He encounters Sansfoy (Faithlessness), Sansjoy (Joylessness), and Sansloy (Lawlessness), each representing different sins or moral failings. The knight’s faith is further tested when he is seduced by Duessa, who represents Falsehood and the Roman Catholic Church, drawing him away from the true path.

Una, in her quest to find Redcrosse and restore him to the true path, encounters Arthur, representing the ideal Christian knight. Together, they seek to rescue Redcrosse. The knight, meanwhile, falls into despair and is imprisoned in the dungeon of Orgoglio (Pride), from which he is eventually rescued by Una and Arthur.

After his rescue, Redcrosse undergoes a period of penance and healing at the House of Holiness, where he learns the true nature of his own weakness and the strength provided by faith. He is then able to confront and defeat the dragon that terrorizes Una’s kingdom, a victory that symbolizes the triumph of Holiness and Truth over Evil and Falsehood.

The book concludes with the betrothal of Redcrosse to Una, symbolizing the union of the true faith and the true church, but the knight must first complete his service to the Faerie Queene, leaving the ultimate fulfillment of his quest for a future time.

Through the adventures of Redcrosse Knight, Spenser explores themes of faith, redemption, and the nature of true holiness. The intricate allegory serves both as a moral and religious instruction and as a commentary on the political and religious landscape of Elizabethan England, particularly the conflict between the Anglican Church and Catholicism.

The Book II of The Faerie Queene

Book II of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of Sir Guyon or Of Temperance,” is devoted to the virtue of Temperance, understood as self-restraint and moderation in all aspects of life. Sir Guyon, the protagonist, embodies this virtue and embarks on a quest to defeat the sorceress Acrasia, who lures men to her Bower of Bliss, where they abandon themselves to hedonism and lose their virtue.

The book begins with Guyon discovering a man mourning the death of his lady, killed by the careless rider Furor, a symbol of uncontrolled passion. This encounter sets the stage for the theme of temperance. Guyon, accompanied by the Palmer, representing reason and spiritual guidance, vows to avenge the wrongful death and to bring Furor to justice.

Guyon’s journey is marked by various trials that challenge his commitment to temperance. Early on, he encounters the magician Archimago, who tries to sway him from his path with illusions. Guyon’s ability to see through these deceptions and maintain his moral integrity demonstrates his inner strength and commitment to his quest.

A significant part of the narrative involves Guyon’s exploration of the House of Alma, an allegory for the human body and soul, illustrating the importance of temperance in maintaining the health and harmony of the individual. The house is under siege by Maleger, representing disease and decay, which Guyon defeats, further emphasizing the theme of temperance as a protector of health and well-being.

The climax of Book II is Guyon’s arrival at the Bower of Bliss, where Acrasia ensnares her victims. The description of the Bower is one of Spenser’s most vivid and sensuous passages, depicting a paradise of natural beauty and artifice where self-indulgence and excess are encouraged. Guyon, however, resists its temptations and destroys the Bower, capturing Acrasia and freeing her captives. This act symbolizes the triumph of temperance over excess and the restoration of moral order.

Throughout the book, Spenser explores the various dimensions of temperance, not just as abstention from sensual pleasures, but as a broader moral and philosophical virtue that encompasses self-control, moderation, and the balance between reason and emotion. Through Sir Guyon’s adventures, Spenser conveys the message that temperance is essential for personal virtue and societal harmony.

Book II, like the rest of “The Faerie Queene,” is rich in allegory, weaving together classical mythology, Christian morality, and contemporary political and social themes. It stands as a testament to Spenser’s profound understanding of human nature and his ability to embed complex moral lessons in engaging and imaginative narratives.

The Book III of The Faerie Queene

Book III of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of Britomartis or Of Chastity,” shifts the focus to the virtue of Chastity, personified by Britomart, a female knight and warrior maiden. This book is notable for its exploration of gender roles, love, and virtue, presenting a complex view of chastity that encompasses purity, fidelity, and the strength of true love.

The narrative begins with Britomart, who is not only a model of martial prowess but also of virtuous love. Her journey starts after she falls in love with the image of Artegall, a knight she sees in her father’s magic mirror. This love, though born of a seemingly insubstantial vision, compels Britomart to embark on a quest to find Artegall, symbolizing the active pursuit of virtuous love. Dressed in armor and concealing her gender, Britomart represents the strength and independence of women, challenging the traditional roles and expectations of her time.

Britomart’s adventures lead her to encounter various characters and situations that test her virtue and resolve. She meets Amoret, a lady abducted on her wedding day by the sorcerer Busirane, who subjects her to torment. Britomart’s quest to rescue Amoret becomes a central part of the narrative, highlighting themes of love’s trials and the power of chastity to overcome adversity.

One of the most significant encounters in the book is with Malecasta, the lady of Castle Joyous, who represents unbridled lust and attempts to seduce Britomart and her companion. Britomart’s resistance to Malecasta’s advances further emphasizes her commitment to chastity and her strength of character.

Throughout the book, Britomart faces challenges that are not only physical but also moral and emotional, testing her virtue of chastity in various forms. Her unwavering faithfulness to Artegall, despite the obstacles and temptations, serves as a model of pure and steadfast love.

The book also explores the theme of true love through the relationship between Scudamore and Amoret, highlighting the ideal of mutual respect and fidelity in romantic relationships. Britomart’s eventual reunion with Artegall, though deferred to a later book, is anticipated as the fulfillment of her quest and a symbol of the triumph of chastity.

In “The Legend of Britomartis,” Spenser expands the concept of chastity beyond mere sexual purity to include loyalty, moral integrity, and the strength to uphold one’s principles in the face of temptation and adversity. Through Britomart’s character, Spenser celebrates the virtues of chastity and true love, while also engaging with contemporary debates about gender, virtue, and the role of women in society.

The Book IV of The Faerie Queene

Book IV of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of Cambel and Triamond or Of Friendship,” shifts the thematic focus to explore the virtue of Friendship. While the title might suggest a primary focus on the characters Cambel and Triamond, the narrative is equally, if not more, centered around Sir Artegall and his quest for justice, which is initiated in Book V. However, the intertwining stories in Book IV highlight various aspects and trials of friendship, showcasing its value and complexities through the interactions of its characters and their adventures.

The central narrative of Book IV involves Britomart’s continued journey, her search for Artegall, and the stories of Cambel and Triamond, which are interwoven with the theme of friendship. Cambel and Triamond’s story begins with a tale of three brothers who are bound by a blood pact to avenge each other’s deaths, ultimately leading to a complex web of challenges and duels that test their loyalty and bonds of friendship.

One of the key episodes in this book is the friendship between Amoret and Belphoebe, which provides a counterpoint to the martial and chivalric quests of the knights. Their relationship exemplifies a different kind of friendship, one that is nurturing, protective, and healing. This contrasts with the often competitive and adversarial relationships seen among the male characters.

The book also delves into the story of Scudamore and Amoret, continuing from Book III, exploring the strains and challenges their relationship faces, further complicating the theme of friendship with elements of love and jealousy. Scudamore’s search for Amoret, who has been kidnapped, and his eventual reunion with her, underscores the perseverance and loyalty that underpin true friendship and love.

Sir Artegall’s quest, which becomes more prominent in Book V, is also introduced here, setting the stage for his adventures and the exploration of justice as a virtue. His journey is marked by encounters that test his judgment, fairness, and ability to balance the letter of the law with mercy, themes that are intricately tied to the notion of friendship and the responsibilities it entails.

Throughout Book IV, Spenser uses the allegorical framework to explore the nuances of friendship, illustrating how it can inspire noble acts, foster personal growth, and provide comfort in times of need. The intertwined tales of Cambel and Triamond, Britomart, and other characters, serve to highlight the multifaceted nature of friendship, showcasing its role in overcoming adversity, resolving conflict, and achieving personal and moral victories.

In summary, Book IV of “The Faerie Queene” presents a complex and nuanced exploration of friendship, set against the backdrop of Spenser’s rich allegorical world. Through a tapestry of interlinked stories and characters, Spenser examines the virtues and challenges of friendship, offering insights into its essential role in the moral and social fabric of human life.

The Book V of The Faerie Queene

Book V of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of Artegall or Of Justice,” is dedicated to the exploration of the virtue of Justice, as personified by Sir Artegall. Trained by Astraea, the goddess of justice, Artegall is tasked with a series of challenges and missions to right wrongs and spread the rule of law across the land. This book delves deeply into political and social issues, reflecting on the nature of justice, governance, and the responsibilities of power.

Artegall’s quest is sparked by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, who sends him to rescue Irena from the tyrant Grantorto. Irena represents Ireland, making this book a commentary on the Elizabethan conquest and governance of Ireland, among other themes of justice and equity. Artegall, equipped with his magical sword Chrysaor and accompanied by his squire Talus, a metal man who represents the unyielding force of law, embarks on a journey filled with allegorical trials and encounters that test his judgment, fairness, and commitment to justice.

One of the key episodes in this book is Artegall’s encounter with the Amazonian queen Radigund, which challenges traditional gender roles and notions of justice and power. Radigund captures Artegall and forces him into a submissive role, highlighting the complexities of justice in matters of gender and power dynamics. Artegall’s eventual escape and confrontation with Radigund serve as a commentary on the balance between mercy and justice, and the roles of men and women in society.

Another significant aspect of Book V is the trial of Duessa, representing deceit and false faith, which Artegall presides over. This trial showcases the difficulties in distinguishing truth from falsehood and the importance of wisdom and discernment in the administration of justice.

Throughout his journey, Artegall encounters various forms of injustice and tyranny, each representing different challenges to the equitable rule of law. From dealing with corrupt magistrates to confronting the giant Grantorto, Artegall’s adventures underscore the complexities of implementing justice in a flawed world. His unwavering commitment to his ideals, even when faced with difficult moral dilemmas, highlights the importance of virtue and integrity in leadership and governance.

Talus, Artegall’s squire, plays a crucial role in enforcing Artegall’s judgments, often with a relentless and unyielding approach to justice. This raises questions about the nature of justice and the means by which it is enforced, including the potential for excess and the need for mercy and compassion in the rule of law.

The Book VI of The Faerie Queene

Book VI of “The Faerie Queene,” titled “The Legend of Sir Calidore or Of Courtesy,” centers around the virtue of Courtesy, embodied by the knight Sir Calidore. This book delves into the nature of courteous behavior, exploring its manifestations not only in the noble deeds of knights but also in the everyday actions of common folk, highlighting the universal relevance and importance of this virtue.

Sir Calidore’s quest involves pursuing the Blatant Beast, a symbol of slander and discourteous behavior, which spreads discord and malice. The pursuit of the Blatant Beast across various landscapes and communities serves as a narrative thread that connects a series of episodic adventures, each illustrating different aspects and challenges of practicing true courtesy.

One of the key episodes is Calidore’s encounter with the shepherd Colin Clout, a character representing the poet Spenser himself. This meeting underscores the theme that true courtesy extends beyond the aristocratic and chivalric classes to include the simple, pastoral life, emphasizing the value of humility, kindness, and respect for all individuals regardless of their social status.

Calidore’s adventures also lead him to the Castle of Courtesy, where he witnesses the embodiment of the virtue in its purest form. Here, Spenser explores the idea that courtesy is not merely an external show of manners but a reflection of inner virtue and goodness.

Throughout his journey, Calidore encounters various characters who embody or lack the virtue of courtesy, from knights and ladies to shepherds and villains. His interactions with these characters allow Spenser to critique the social mores of his time and to advocate for a model of behavior grounded in respect, kindness, and consideration for others.

The narrative also includes a romantic subplot involving Calidore and the lady Pastorella, which further illustrates the theme of courtesy as integral to true love and virtuous relationships. Calidore’s love for Pastorella and his actions to protect and care for her demonstrate that courtesy is foundational to personal integrity and moral conduct.

In the climax of the book, Calidore finally confronts and captures the Blatant Beast, although it is later suggested that the beast escapes, symbolizing the ongoing nature of the struggle against slander and incivility. This ending reflects the pervasive and persistent challenges of maintaining courtesy and civility in a flawed world.

Book VI of “The Faerie Queene” serves as a nuanced exploration of courtesy, emphasizing its significance in maintaining social harmony and personal honor. Through Sir Calidore’s quest, Spenser celebrates the ideals of courteous behavior and critiques the societal tendencies toward discourtesy and slander, making “The Legend of Sir Calidore” a timeless meditation on the virtues of respectful and considerate conduct.

The Unfinished Book VII “Cantos of Mutability”

“The Faerie Queene” by Edmund Spenser was originally planned to consist of twelve books, each exploring a different virtue. However, Spenser only completed six books and a fragment of a seventh, known as the “Cantos of Mutability,” before his death. This unfinished seventh book does not follow the same structure as the preceding six and is not dedicated to a single knight or virtue. Instead, it delves into the theme of mutability or change, exploring the philosophical and existential implications of the constant flux in both the natural world and human affairs.

The “Cantos of Mutability” is somewhat separate from the main narrative arc of “The Faerie Queene.” They focus on the character Mutability, who claims dominion over all things, arguing that everything is subject to change. This claim is brought before Jove, who presides over a court to hear the case. Various natural elements and entities present their arguments about the role and extent of mutability in the world.

Through these cantos, Spenser engages with classical and contemporary philosophies of change, drawing on sources like Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” to explore the idea that change is an inherent and governing principle of the universe. The debate touches on themes of constancy and change, examining how these forces interact in the shaping of the world and human experience.

In the end, Jove decrees that although mutability is a pervasive force, there is a higher, divine constancy that governs the cosmos, suggesting a Christian perspective that transcends the ceaseless flux of the earthly realm. This resolution reflects Spenser’s attempt to reconcile the philosophical concept of mutability with the Christian doctrine of an unchanging divine order.

The “Cantos of Mutability” offers a rich, contemplative exploration of the nature of change, imbuing the poem with a philosophical depth that complements the moral and virtuous themes of the preceding books. Despite its unfinished state, this segment of “The Faerie Queene” provides a fascinating insight into Spenser’s broader philosophical and theological concerns, making it a valuable addition to the epic’s exploration of virtue and the human condition.

Themes of The Faerie Queene

1. The Nature of Virtue

Each book of “The Faerie Queene” is dedicated to a specific virtue, including Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. Through the trials and tribulations of its characters, the poem explores what it means to live a virtuous life, the challenges of maintaining virtue in a corrupt world, and the interplay between different virtues.

2. The Struggle Between Good and Evil

The epic is a continuous depiction of the battle between good and evil forces, represented by the virtuous knights and their various adversaries. This theme is not only a moral or religious allegory but also reflects the political and religious conflicts of Spenser’s time, such as the opposition between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church.

3. The Role of Religion

Religion plays a central role in “The Faerie Queene,” with the Redcrosse Knight’s journey in Book I serving as an allegory for the Christian faith and spiritual salvation. The poem reflects Protestant values and critiques of Catholicism, embodying the religious tensions of Elizabethan England.

4. The Ideal of Chivalry

Spenser revives and idealizes the medieval tradition of chivalry, portraying it as a code of conduct that governs the behavior of knights. This includes not only martial prowess and honor in battle but also courtesy, loyalty, and service to others, especially the defense of the weak and the pursuit of justice.

5. The Power of Love

Love is a recurring theme in “The Faerie Queene,” explored in its many forms, from the platonic love between friends to romantic love between knights and their ladies. Love is depicted as a powerful force that can inspire great deeds, lead to moral growth, and triumph over adversity.

6. The Complexity of Human Nature

The poem delves into the complexities of human nature, acknowledging the mix of virtues and vices within individuals. Characters often face internal conflicts and temptations that challenge their virtue, reflecting Spenser’s nuanced view of human morality.

7. Allegory and Symbolism

“The Faerie Queene” is deeply allegorical, with characters, settings, and events symbolizing moral, religious, and political concepts. This use of allegory allows Spenser to comment on contemporary issues indirectly, offering critiques and praises of Elizabethan society and governance.

8. The Celebration of Queen Elizabeth I

The poem is also a celebration of Queen Elizabeth I, who is idealized in the character of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself. Through this allegorical representation, Spenser pays homage to the queen’s virtues and leadership, while also reflecting on the nature of female rule in a patriarchal society.

9. National Identity

“The Faerie Queene” contributes to the construction of a national identity, celebrating English virtues, history, and the Tudor monarchy. It reflects the expansionist aspirations and the cultural renaissance of England during Spenser’s lifetime.

How does Spenser use female characters allegorically in the poem?

In “The Faerie Queene,” Edmund Spenser employs allegory extensively, including the use of female characters to embody and communicate various virtues, vices, ideals, and moral lessons. This allegorical use of women is multifaceted, serving both to critique and to idealize aspects of human nature, society, and the spiritual realm. Here’s how Spenser uses female characters allegorically in the poem:

1. Virtues and Ideals

  • Una, in Book I, represents Truth and the one true faith (Protestant Christianity), guiding the Redcrosse Knight (symbolizing Holiness) back to the right path whenever he strays. Una’s unwavering virtue in the face of deception and danger allegorically underscores the importance of steadfast faith and truth in guiding moral and spiritual journeys.
  • Britomart, the protagonist of Book III, embodies Chastity. However, her role is complex; she is also a warrior in search of her true love, Artegall (representing Justice). Britomart’s quest and her prowess as a knight challenge traditional gender roles and allegorically explore the themes of love, virtue, and the role of women in society. Her character suggests that true chastity involves not only sexual purity but also loyalty, courage, and the active pursuit of virtue.

2. Vices and Moral Failings

  • Duessa, appearing in Book I, represents Falsehood and Deceit. She is contrasted with Una and is associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which Spenser critiques as corrupt and misleading. Duessa’s seduction of the Redcrosse Knight away from Una allegorically represents the danger of being led astray from true faith by false appearances and deceit.
  • Acrasia, the sorceress in Book II, embodies Excess and Intemperance. Her Bower of Bliss is a place of sensual pleasure and moral laxity, trapping men and leading them away from virtue. Sir Guyon’s (representing Temperance) destruction of the Bower allegorically underscores the triumph of self-control and moderation over indulgence and vice.

3. Political and Social Commentary

  • Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, represents Queen Elizabeth I and the idealized qualities of her reign. While she is more of a background figure in the poem, her presence allegorically celebrates Elizabethan virtues, governance, and the cultural renaissance of the period.
  • Radigund is a warrior queen in Book V who captures and emasculates the knight Artegall, forcing him into women’s clothes and subjugating him. This scenario allegorically explores themes of power, gender roles, and the inversion of natural order, reflecting contemporary anxieties about female rule and the nature of justice.

4. Spiritual and Philosophical Concepts

  • The characters of Mercy, Justice, and other virtues personified as female figures throughout the poem embody spiritual and philosophical ideals. These personifications allow Spenser to explore the nuances of each virtue in a humanized and accessible manner, often in interaction with the male knights, highlighting the interdependence of virtues in achieving moral and spiritual integrity.


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