Faerie Queen and Spenser

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Edmund Spenser was born around 1552 in London, England. We know very little about his family, but he received a quality education and graduated with a Masters from Cambridge in 1576. He began writing poetry for publication at this time and was employed as a secretary, first to the Bishop of Kent and then to nobles in Queen Elizabeth's court. His first major work, The Shepheardes Calender, was published in 1579 and met with critical success; within a year he was at work on his greatest and longest work, The Faerie Queene. This poem occupied him for most of his life, though he published other poems in the interim.

The first three books of The Faerie Queen were published in 1590 and then republished with Books IV through VI in 1596. By this time, Spenser was already in his second marriage, which took place in Ireland, where he often traveled. Still at work on his voluminous poem, Spenser died on January 13, 1599, at Westminster.

Spenser only completed half of The Faerie Queene he planned. In a letter to Sir John Walter Raleigh, he explained the purpose and structure of the poem. It is an allegory, a story whose characters and events nearly all have a specific symbolic meaning. The poem's setting is a mythical "Faerie land," ruled by the Faerie Queene. Spenser sets forth in the letter that this "Queene" represents his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth.

Spenser intended to write 12 books of the Faerie Queene, all in the classical epic style; Spenser notes that his structure follows those of Homer and Virgil. Each Book concerns the story of a knight, representing a particular Christian virtue, as he or she would convey at the court of the Faerie Queene. Because only half of the poem was ever finished, the unifying scene at the Queene's court never occurs; instead, we are left with six books telling an incomplete story. Of these, the first and the third books are most often read and critically acclaimed.

Though it takes place in a mythical land, The Faerie Queen was intended to relate to Spenser's England, most importantly in the area of religion. Spenser lived in post-Reformation England, which had recently replaced Roman Catholicism with Protestantism (specifically, Anglicanism) as the national religion. There were still many Catholics living in England, and, thus, religious protest was a part of Spenser's life. A devout Protestant and a devotee of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, Spenser was particularly offended by the anti-Elizabethan propaganda that some Catholics circulated. Like most Protestants near the time of the Reformation, Spenser saw a Catholic Church full of corruption, and he determined that it was not only the wrong religion but the anti-religion. This sentiment is an important backdrop for the battles of The Faerie Queene, which often represent the "battles" between London and Rome



Arthur  -  The central hero of the poem, although he does not play the most significant role in its action. Arthur is in search of the Faerie Queene, whom he saw in a vision. The "real" Arthur was a king of the Britons in the 5th or 6th century A.D., but the little historical information we have about him is overwhelmed by his legend.

Faerie Queene (also known as Gloriana)  -  Though she never appears in the poem, the Faerie Queene is the focus of the poem; her castle is the ultimate goal or destination of many of the poem’s characters. She represents Queen Elizabeth, among others, as discussed in the Commentary.

Redcrosse  -  The Redcrosse Knight is the hero of Book I; he stands for the virtue of Holiness. His real name is discovered to be George, and he ends up becoming St. George, the patron saint of England. On another level, though, he is the individual Christian fighting against evil--or the Protestant fighting the Catholic Church.

Una  -  Redcrosse's future wife, and the other major protagonist in Book I. She is meek, humble, and beautiful, but strong when it is necessary; she represents Truth, which Redcrosse must find in order to be a true Christian.

Duessa  -  The opposite of Una, she represents falsehood and nearly succeeds in getting Redcrosse to leave Una for good. She appears beautiful, but it is only skin-deep.

Archimago  -  Next to Duessa, a major antagonist in Book I. Archimago is a sorcerer capable of changing his own appearance or that of others; in the end, his magic is proven weak and ineffective.

Britomart  -  The hero of Book III, the female warrior virgin, who represents Chastity. She is a skilled fighter and strong of heart, with an amazing capacity for calm thought in troublesome circumstances. Of course, she is chaste, but she also desires true Christian love. She searches for her future husband, Arthegall, whom she saw in a vision through a magic mirror.

Florimell  -  Another significant female character in Book III, Florimell represents Beauty. She is also chaste but constantly hounded by men who go mad with lust for her. She does love one knight, who seems to be the only character that does not love her.

Satyrane  -  Satyrane is the son of a human and a satyr (a half-human, half-goat creature). He is "nature's knight," the best a man can be through his own natural abilities without the enlightenment of Christianity and God's grace. He is significant in both Book I and Book III, generally as an aide to the protagonists.


A summary of The Faerie Queene

Book 1. The legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse

Canto i Redcrosse and Una are travelling, when a storm drives them into a wood where Redcrosse kills the dragon Error. Archimage welcomes them in his hermitage, but produces sexual illusions that destroy their mutual trust, and Una goes on alone.
Canto ii Archimage disguises himself as Redcrosse and follows Una, while Redcrosse accompanies Duessa whom he takes for Una, after killing Sansfoy.
Canto iii Una, alone, is befriended by a lion and finds refuge with Ignorance and Blind Devotion. Archimage finds Una, but is defeated by Sansloy who carries her off.
Canto iv Redcrosse with Duessa comes to the House of Pride and sees the procession of the Deadly Sins. Sansjoy challenges Redcrosse, and receives favours from Duessa.
Canto v After the battle, Duessa and Night carry the wounded Sansjoy to the Underworld for healing. Redcrosse escapes from the House of Pride, still with Duessa.
Canto vi Satyrs rescue Una from Sansloy, and she is assisted by Satirane.
Canto vii The giant Orgoglio overpowers Redcrosse, puts him in prison, and takes Duessa as his mistress. Her servant dwarf tells Una what has been happening to Redcrosse; she meets young prince Arthur who promises to save Redcrosse.
Canto viii Arthur kills Orgoglio, wounds his tame beast, punishes Duessa, and rescues the weakened Redcrosse.
Canto ix Arthur tells Redcrosse the story of his strange meeting with the Faerie Queene Gloriana. Redcrosse and Una see the Cave of Despair and Redcrosse is tempted to suicide.
Canto x Redcrosse is brought by Una to the House of Holiness where he recovers his strength. He is shown the heavenly Jerusalem.
Canto xi After a 3-day battle Redcrosse kills the dragon and sets free the royal parents of Una.
Canto xii Redcrosse is engaged to Una, but the time is not yet ripe for their marriage.

Book II. Sir Guyon, or of Temperance

Canto i Archimage urges Guyon to attack Redcrosse; they become friends instead, before Redcrosse rides away. Guyon and the Palmer accompanying him find Amavia with her baby, its hands bloodstained.
Canto ii The fountain cannot cleanse its hands.
Canto iii The baby is left at the castle of Medina. Braggadochio steals Guyon's horse, meets Trompart with Archimage. Belphoebe encounters Braggadochio with Trompart.
Canto iv Guyon overpowers Furor, stops Occasion, and rescues Phedon who tells his story. Pyrochles approaches.
Canto v Pyrochles fights Guyon and frees Furor before going to Acrasia's bower in search of Cymochles.
Canto vi Cymochles is persuaded to visit Phaedria's island, Phaedria takes Guyon there, without the Palmer; the two knights fight until Phaedria parts them.
Canto vii Guyon visits the Cave of Mammon, where he sees the throne of Philotime (Mammon's daughter) and the Garden of Proserpine. He emerges exhausted.
Canto viii Arthur saves Guyon from Pyrochles and Cymochles.
Canto ix Guyon tells Arthur about the Faerie Queene; they drive off the besiegers of the Castle of Alma and explore it.
Canto x Arthur reads the history of the kings of Britain, up to his own still unknown father; Guyon reads of the kings of Faerie (descended from Prometheus's creation Elf).
Canto xi Arthur fights with Maleger
Canto xii Guyon visits and destroys Acrasia's Bower of Bliss.

Book III. Britomartis, or of Chastity

In Canto i Guyon and Arthur meet Britomart, disguised as a knight; as they pursue Florimell they are separated. Britomart arrives at the Castle Joyeous and meets Redcrosse. Britomart tells of her quest for Arthegall; in retrospect we learn how she fell in love with Arthegall after seeing him in a magic mirror, left home, and consulted Merlin in his cave. He told her the identity of her lover, as well as describing the future destiny of their descendants, the British kings. After this, she set out disguised as a knight. Encountering Marinell, she wounds him. Meanwhile, Arthur has gone on following Florimell, whose story he hears. His squire Timias has been pursuing a forester, who wounds him. He is helped by Belphoebe, with whom he falls in love. In Canto vi The birth of Belphoebe, and her twin sister Amoret, is told. Begotten by the power of the sun, they emerge from their mother's womb as she sleeps; Diana and Venus each take one child, Venus takes Amoret to grow up in the Gardens of Adonis, which are described. Florimell nearly falls into the power of a witch and her son. Satyrane enters the quest for Florimell. But a false Florimell is made by the witch for her son; this is stolen and causes confusion. Britomart forces a way into Malbecco's castle, where Paridell seduces Malbecco's wife. In Canto xi Britomart and Satyrane are separated. Britomart meets Scudamor and undertakes to rescue Amoret who is in prison in the House of Busyrane, where she sees the Masque of Cupid, and frees Amoret.

Book IV. Cambel and Telamond, or of Friendship

Amoret at last discovers that Britomart is a woman; Duessa and Ate riding with Blandamour and Paridell encounter them, then a fight begins when they meet up with Scudamour and Glauce. Finally they meet Cambell and Triamond with their wives Canacee and Cambine (from Chaucer's The Squire's Tale); their story is told. The false Florimell chooses Braggadochio after a tournament for Florimell's girdle. In Canto v Satyrane visits the House of Care. In Canto vi Britomart fights with Arthegall, who then begins to woo her before setting out on his quest, while Britomart and Scudamour go looking for Amoret. Belphoebe and Timias rescue Amoret from Lust, Arthur finds Amoret with Aemilia, they set out together. In Canto x Scudamour tells how he wooed Amoret in the Temple of Love. Canto xi celebrates the marriage of the Thames and the Medway. Marinell falls in love with Florimell, she is released.

Book V. Artegall, or of Justice

Artegall, brought up by Astraea, sets out on his quest, and after various adventures overthrows the giant Democracy. In Canto v he is imprisoned by Radigund. Britomart is told of this, and in Canto vii visits Isis Church before killing Radigund and rescuing Artegall. Arthur and Artegall rescue a prisoner, catch Guile, and see the trial of Duessa. The rest of the book tells of Artegall's adventures until at last he meets Envy, Detraction, and the Blatant Beast.

Book VI. Calidore, or of Courtesy

The adventures of this book, centered on Calidore, show various victims being rescued from the uncourteous, who are punished. Arthur and Timias are reunited, then parted again. In Canto ix Calidore first comes upon Pastorella, whom he woos. He sees the Graces dance, and rescues Pastorella from a lion; she is captured by brigands, and wooed by their captain who saves her when the others want to sell her. Calidore disguises himself and rescues Pastorella, whose long-lost parents are discovered. Finally, Calidore conquers the Blatant Beast.


In The Faerie Queene, Spenser creates an allegory: The characters of his far-off, fanciful "Faerie Land" are meant to have a symbolic meaning in the real world. In Books I and III, the poet follows the journeys of two knights, Redcrosse and Britomart, and in doing so he examines the two virtues he considers most important to Christian life--Holiness and Chastity. Redcrosse, the knight of Holiness, is much like the Apostle Peter: In his eagerness to serve his Lord, he gets himself into unforeseen trouble that he is not yet virtuous enough to handle. His quest is to be united with Una, who signifies Truth--Holiness cannot be attained without knowledge of Christian truth. In his immature state, he mistakes falsehood for truth by following the deceitful witch Duessa. He pays for this mistake with suffering, but in the end, this suffering makes way for his recovery in the House of Holiness, aided by Faith, Hope, and Charity. With newfound strength and the grace of God, he is able to conquer the dragon that represents all the evil in the world.

In a different manner, Britomart also progresses in her virtue of chastity. She already has the strength to resist lust, but she is not ready to accept love, the love she feels when she sees a vision of her future husband in a magic mirror. She learns to incorporate chaste resistance with active love, which is what Spenser sees as true Christian love: moderation. Whereas Redcrosse made his own mistakes (to show to us the consequences of an unholy life), it is not Britomart but the other characters in Book III who show the destructive power of an unchaste life. Spenser says in his Preface to the poem that his goal is to show how a virtuous man should live. The themes of Book I and Book III come together in the idea that our native virtue must be augmented or transformed if it is to become true Christian virtue. Spenser has a high regard for the natural qualities of creatures; he shows that the satyrs, the lion, and many human characters have an inborn inclination toward the good. And yet, he consistently shows their failure when faced with the worst evils. These evils can only be defeated by the Christian good.

High on Spenser's list of evils is the Catholic Church, and this enmity lends a political overtone to the poem, since the religious conflicts of the time were inextricably tied to politics. The poet is unashamed in his promotion of his beloved monarch, Queen Elizabeth; he takes considerable historical license in connecting her line with King Arthur. Spenser took a great pride in his country and in his Protestant faith. He took aim at very real corruption within the Catholic Church; such attacks were by no means unusual in his day, but his use of them in an epic poem raised his criticism above the level of the propagandists.

As a purely poetic work, The Faerie Queene was neither original nor always remarkable; Spenser depends heavily on his Italian romantic sources (Ariosto & Tasso), as well as medieval and classical works like The Romance of the Rose and The Aeneid. It is Spenser's blending of such diverse sources with a high-minded allegory that makes the poem unique and remarkable. He is able to take images from superficial romances, courtly love stories, and tragic epics alike, and give them real importance in the context of the poem. No image is let fall from Spenser's pen that does not have grave significance, and this gives The Faerie Queene the richness that has kept it high among the ranks of the greatest poetry in the English language.