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Type of work: Poem

Author: Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599)

Type of plot: Allegorical epic

Time of plot: The Arthurian Age

Locale: England

First published: Books 1-3, 1590; books 4-6, 1596

The Faerie Queene is the first sustained poetic creation in English after Chaucer. For this lengthy epic, Spenser created his own form, known as the Spenserian stanza: nine lines, eight of five feet, and one of six, rhyming ababbcbcc. The characters and plot are completely allegorical, representing such concepts as chastity and its trials, and lust and its conquests. Most importantly, however, the richness of characterization and detail of plot, as well as the beauty of its language, give The Faerie Queene much more than historical significance.

Principal Characters

Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, an idealized portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Although she does not appear in the extant portion of the poem, many of the knights set out upon their quests from her court, and they often praise her virtue and splendor.

Prince Arthur, the legendary British hero, who represents Magnificence, the perfection of all virtues. He rides in search of Gloriana, who had appeared to him in a vision, and, on his way, aids knights in distress.

The Red Cross Knight, the hero of book 1, where he represents both England's patron, Saint George, and Christian man in search of Holiness. He sets out confidently to rescue Una's parents from the dragon of evil, but he is attacked by forces of sin and error which drive him to the point of suicide. He is restored in the House of Holiness by the teachings and offices of the Church and, refreshed by a fountain and a tree, symbolizing the sacraments of baptism and communion, he triumphs in his three-day combat with the dragon.

Una, the daughter of the King and Queen of the West, Adam and Eve; she personifies Truth and the Church. She advises her knight wisely, but she cannot protect him from himself. Deserted, she is aided by a lion and a troop of satyrs, and is finally restored to the Red Cross Knight, who is betrothed to her after his victory over the dragon.

The Dwarf, her companion, Common Sense.

Error, the Red Cross Knight's first adversary, a monster who lives in the wandering wood.

Archimago, a satanic figure who uses many disguises in his attempts to lure the knights and ladies of the poem into sin and disaster.

Duessa, his accomplice, whose attractive appearance hides her real hideousness. She represents variously Falsehood, the Roman Catholic church, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Sans Foy, Sans Loy, and Sans Joy, Saracen knights, who attack Una and her knight.

Fradubio, a knight betrayed by Duessa and transformed into a tree.

Kirkrapine, a church robber, slain by Una's lion when he tries to enter the cottage where she has taken refuge.

Abessa, his mistress.

Corceca, her blind mother.

Lucifera, mistress of the House of Pride.

Malvenu, her porter.

Vanity, her usher.

Night, the mother of falsehood, to whom Duessa appeals for help.

Aesculapius, the physician of the gods.

Sylvanus, the leader of the satyrs, who rescues Una from Sans Loy.

Satyrane, a valiant, gentle knight who is half nobleman, half satyr.

Despair, an emaciated creature who drives warriors to suicide with his sophistic recitals of their sins.

Trevisan, one of his intended victims.

Dame Coelia, a virtuous matron who lives in the House of Holiness.

Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa, her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Contemplation, a holy hermit who gives the Red Cross Knight a vision of the City of God, then sends him back into the world to complete his quest.

Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, the sternest of the Spenserian heroes, who must violently destroy Acrasia's power and all its temptations that lead men to intemperance.

Palmer, his faithful companion, who stands for Reason or Prudence.

Acrasia, the Circelike mistress of the Bower of Bliss. She lures men to their ruin in her world of debilitating luxuriance and turns them into animals.

Amavia, the desolate widow of one of her victims.

Ruddymane, her baby, whose hands cannot be cleansed of his dying mother's blood.

Medina, Perissa, and Elissa, sisters who personify the mean, the deficiency, and the excess of temperance.

Sir Huddibras, a malcontent, Elissa's lover.

Braggadocio, a vain-glorious braggart who masquerades as a knight on Guyon's stolen horse.

Trompart, his miserly companion.

Belphoebe, a virgin huntress, reared by the goddess Diana, who cannot respond to the devotion offered by Prince Arthur's squire, Timias. She is another of the figures conceived as a compliment to Elizabeth.

Furor, a churlish fellow whom Guyon finds furiously beating a helpless squire.

Occasion, his mother, a hag.

Phedon, the maltreated squire, who falls into Furor's hands through his jealousy of his lady, Pryene, and his friend Philemon.

Pyrochles and Cymochles, intemperate knights defeated by Guyon.

Atin, Pyrochles' servant.

Phaedria, a coquette who lures knights to her island, where she lulls them into forgetfulness of their quests.

Mammon, the god of riches, who sits in rusty armor surveying his hoard of gold.

Philotime, his daughter, who holds the golden chain of ambition.

Alma, the soul, mistress of the castle of the body where Guyon and Prince Arthur take refuge.

Phantastes and Eumnestes, guardians, respectively, of fantasy and of memory.

Maleger, the captain of the shadowy forces who attacked the bulwarks of the House of Alma.

Verdant, a knight released by Guyon from Acrasia's clutches.

Grille, one of Acrasia's victims. He reviles Guyon and the Palmer for restoring his human form.

Britomart, the maiden knight, heroine of the book of Chastity. She subdues the forces of lust as she travels in search of Artegall, with whom she fell in love when she saw him in a magic mirror. Her union with him represents the alliance of justice and mercy as well as Spenser's ideal of married chastity, which surpasses the austere virginity of Belphoebe.

Malecasta, the lady of delight, beautiful and wanton, who entertains Britomart in Castle Joyous.

Glauce, Britomart's nurse, who accompanies her as her squire.

Merlin, the famous magician, whom Glauce and Britomart consult to learn the identity of the knight in the mirror.

Marinell, the timid son of a sea nymph and Florimell's lover.

Cymoent, his mother.

Florimell, the loveliest and gentlest of the ladies in Faerie Land. She is pursued by many evil beings, men and gods, before she is wed to Marinell.

Timias, Prince Arthur's squire, who is healed of severe wounds by Belphoebe. Although he falls in love with her, he can never win more than kindness as a response.

Crysogene, the mother of Belphoebe and Amoret, who were conceived by the sun.

Argante, a giantess, one of the figures of lust.

Ollyphant, her brother and lover.

A Squire of Dames, Argante's prisoner.

Snowy Florimell, Braggadocio's lady, a creature made by a witch with whom Florimell had stayed.

Proteus, the shepherd of the sea, who rescues Florimell from a lecherous fisherman.

Panope, an old nymph, his housekeeper.

Paridell, a vain, lascivious knight.

Malbecco, a miserly, jealous old man.

Hellenore, his young wife, who runs away with Paridell.

Scudamour, the knight most skilled in the art of courtly love. He wins Amoret at the court of Venus, but she is taken from him almost immediately.

Amoret, his beautiful bride, who is taken prisoner at her own wedding by Busirane, who represents her own passions and the confining forces of the rigid code of love in which she has grown up.

Busirane, her captor.

Venus, the goddess of love and a personification of the creative force in nature, Amoret's foster mother.

Adonis, her lover.

Diana, the divine huntress, the virgin goddess who raises Belphoebe.

Ate, Discord, a malicious old woman.

Blandamour, a fickle knight.

Sir Ferraugh, one of the suitors of Snowy Florimell.

Cambello, one of the knights of friendship.

Canacee, his sister, a wise and beautiful lady who is won by Triamond.

Cambina, Cambello's wife.

Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond, brothers who fight for the hand of Canacee. The first two are killed, but their strength passes into their victorious surviving brother.

Artegall, the knight of Justice, Britomart's beloved.

Talus, the iron man, The Red Cross Knight's implacable attendant, who upholds justice untempered by mercy.

Aemylia, a lady imprisoned with Amoret by a villainous churl and rescued by Belphoebe.

Corflambo, a mighty pagan who corrupts his enemies by filling them with lust.

Poeana, his rude, tyrannical daughter.

Amyas, the Squire of Low Degree, Aemylia's suitor.

Placidas, another squire loved by Poeana. Encouraged by Prince Arthur, Placidas marries Poeana and reforms her.

Druon and Claribell, pugnacious companions of Blandamour and Paridell.

Thames and Medway, the river-god and goddess whose marriage is attended by the famous waterways of the world.

Neptune, the sea god to whom Marinell's mother pleads for Florimell's release from Proteus.

Grantorto, a tyrant who holds Irena's country in his power. He is the emblem of the political strength of the Roman Catholic church.

Irena, his victim, who appeals to the Faerie Queene for help.

Sir Sanglier, a cruel lord, chastened by Talus.

Pollente, a Saracen warrior who extorts money from travelers.

Munera, his daughter, the keeper of his treasury.

Giant Communism, Artegall's foe. He tries to weigh everything in his scales, but he learns, before Talus hurls him into the sea, that truth and falsehood, right and wrong, cannot be balanced.

Amidas and Bracidas, brothers whose dispute over a treasure chest is settled by Artegall.

Philtera, Bracidas' betrothed, who weds his wealthy brother.

Lucy, Amidas' deserted sweetheart and Bracidas' wife.

Sir Turpine, a knight whom Artegall discovers bound and tormented by Amazon warriors.

Radigund, Queen of the Amazons. She captures Artegall and dresses him in woman's clothes to humiliate him, then falls in love with him and tries unsuccessfully to win him.

Clarinda, her attendant, who comes to love Artegall as she woos him for her mistress.

Dolon, Deceit, a knight who tries to entrap Britomart.

Mercilla, a just and merciful maiden queen whose realm is threatened by a mighty warrior.

The Souldan, her enemy, thought to represent Philip of Spain. He is destroyed by the brilliant light of Prince Arthur's diamond shield.

Malengin, an ingenious villain who transforms himself into different shapes at will. Talus crushes him with his iron flail.

Belgae, a mother who loses twelve of her seventeen children to the tyrant Geryoneo and appeals to Mercilla for help.

Geryoneo, her enemy, the power of Spain, who is slain by Artegall.

Burbon, a knight rescued by Artegall as he fights Grantorto's men to rescue his lady, Flourdelis, France.

Sir Sergis, Irena's faithful adviser.

Calidore, the knight of Courtesy, sent to destroy the Blatant Beast, malicious gossip.

Briana, a proud lady who abuses the laws of hospitality by demanding the hair and beards of ladies and gentlemen who pass her castle.

Crudor, the disdainful knight for whom she weaves a mantle of hair.

Tristram, a young prince reared in the forest, who impresses Prince Arthur by his instinctive courtesy.

Aldus, a worthy old knight.

Aladine, his son.

Priscilla, Aladine's lady.

Serena, a noble lady, severely wounded by the Blatant Beast.

Calepine, her knight.

Sir Turpine, a discourteous gentleman who refuses aid to Calepine and Serena.

Blandina, his wife, who tries to assuage his cruelty.

The Salvage Man, a "noble savage," another untaught practitioner of courtesy.

Matilde, a childless noblewoman who adopts a baby rescued by Calidore from a bear.

Mirabella, a proud, insolent lady.

Disdaine and Scorne, her tormentors.

Pastorella, a nobleman's daughter who grows up with shepherds. Calidore falls in love with her and with her rustic life.

Meliboee, her wise foster father, who warns Calidore that happiness is not to be found in one place or another but in oneself.

Coridon, Pastorella's shepherd admirer.

Colin Clout, a shepherd poet who pipes to the graces on Mount Acidale.

Sir Bellamour, Calidore's friend, Pastorella's father.

Claribell, his wife.

Melissa, her maid, who discovers Pastorella's true identity.

Mutability, a proud Titaness who challenges the power of Cynthia, the moon-goddess.

Cynthia, her rival.

Mercury, the messenger of the gods.

Jove, the king of the gods.

Mollana, a nymph and an Irish river.

Faunus, a satyr who pursues her.

Dame Nature, a great veiled figure who hears Mutability's arguments and judges, finally, that order reigns in all change.

The Story

Gloriana, the Fairy Queen, was holding her annual twelve-day feast. As was the custom, anyone in trouble could appear before the court and ask for a champion. The fair lady Una came riding on a white ass, accompanied by a dwarf. She complained that her father and mother had been shut up in a castle by a dragon. The Red Cross Knight offered to help her, and the party set out to rescue Una's parents.

In a cave the Red Cross Knight encountered a horrible creature, half serpent, half woman. Although the foul stench nearly overpowered him, the knight slew the monster. After the battle, the Red Cross Knight and Una lost their way. A friendly stranger who offered them shelter was really Archimago, the wicked magician. By making the Red Cross Knight dream that Una was a harlot, Archimago separated Una from her champion.

Una went on her way alone. Archimago quickly assumed the form of the Red Cross Knight and followed her to do her harm. Meanwhile the Red Cross Knight fell into the company of Duessa, an evil enchantress. They met the great giant Orgoglio, who overcame the Red Cross Knight and made Duessa his mistress. Prince Arthur, touched by Una's misfortunes, rescued the Red Cross Knight from Orgoglio and led him to Una. Once again Una and her champion rode on their mission.

At last they came to Una's kingdom, and the dragon who had imprisoned her parents came out to do battle. After two days of fighting, the Red Cross Knight overthrew the dragon. After the parents had been freed, the Red Cross Knight and Una were betrothed.

Still hoping to harm the Red Cross Knight, Archimago told Sir Guyon that the Red Cross Knight had despoiled a virgin of her honor. Shocked, Guyon set out to right the wrong. The cunning Archimago disguised Duessa as a young girl and placed her on the road, where she told a piteous tale of wrong done by the Red Cross Knight and urged Guyon to avenge her. When Guyon and the Red Cross Knight met, they lowered their lances and began to fight. Fortunately the signs of the Virgin Mary on the armor of each recalled them to their senses, and Guyon was ashamed that he had been tricked by the magician.

In his travels Guyon fell in with Prince Arthur, and the two visited the Castle of Alma, the stronghold of Temperance. The most powerful enemy of Temperance was the demon Maleger. In a savage battle Prince Arthur vanquished Maleger. Guyon went on to the Bower of Bliss, where his arch enemy Acrasy was living. With stout heart Guyon overthrew Acrasy and destroyed the last enemy of Temperance.

After sending Acrasy back to the fairy court under guard, Guyon and Prince Arthur went on their way until on an open plain they saw a knight arming for battle. With Prince Arthur's permission, Guyon rode against the strange knight, and in the meeting Guyon was unhorsed by the strong lance of his opponent. Ashamed of his fall, Guyon snatched his sword and would have continued the fight on foot.

The palmer, attending Guyon, saw that the champion could not prevail against the stranger, for the strange knight was enchanted. When he stopped the fight, the truth was revealed; the strange knight was really the lovely Britomart, a chaste and pure damsel, who had seen the image of her lover, Artegall, in Venus' looking glass and had set out in search of him. With the situation explained, Britomart joined Guyon, Prince Arthur, and Arthur's squire, Timias, and the four continued their quest.

In a strange wood they traveled for days, seeing no one, but everywhere they met bears, lions, and bulls. Suddenly a beautiful lady on a white palfrey galloped out of the brush. She was Florimell, pursued by a lustful forester who spurred his steed cruelly in an attempt to catch her. The three men joined the chase, but out of modesty Britomart stayed behind. She waited a long time; then, despairing of ever finding her companions again, she went on alone.

As she approached Castle Joyous she saw six knights attacking one. She rode into the fight and demanded to know why they were fighting in such cowardly fashion. She learned that any knight passing had to love the lady of Castle Joyous or fight six knights. Britomart denounced the rule and with her magic lance unhorsed four of the knights. She entered Castle Joyous as a conqueror.

After meeting the Red Cross Knight in the castle, Britomart resolved to go on as a knight-errant. She heard from Merlin, whom she visited, that she and Artegall were destined to have illustrious descendants.

Meanwhile Timias had been wounded while pursuing the lustful forester. Belphoebe, the wondrous beauty of the Garden of Adonis, rescued him and healed his wounds. Timias fell in love with Belphoebe.

Amoret, the fair one, was held prisoner by a young knight who attempted to defile her. For months she resisted his advances. Then Britomart, hearing of her sad plight, overcame the two knights who guarded Amoret's prison and freed her. Greatly attracted to her brave rescuer, Amoret set out with Britomart.

At a strange castle a knight claimed Amoret as his love. Britomart jousted with him to save Amoret, and after winning the tourney Britomart was 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, joined Scudamour, a knight-errant. They met Amoret and Britomart, who was still disguised as a knight. Britomart and Artegall fought an indecisive battle during which Artegall was surprised to discover that his opponent was his lost love, Britomart. The two lovers were reunited at last, but in the confusion Amoret was abducted by Lust. With the help of Prince Arthur, Scudamour rescued Amoret from her loathsome captor. He wooed Amoret in the Temple of Love, where they found shelter.

Artegall, champion of true justice, was brought up and well trained by Astraea. When Artegall was of age, Astraea gave him a trusty groom, and the new knight set out on his adventures. Talus, the groom, was an iron man who carried an iron flail to thresh out falsehood. Irena, who asked at the fairy court for a champion against the wicked Grantorto, set out with Artegall and Talus to regain her heritage. With dispatch Artegall and Talus overcame Grantorto and restored Irene to her throne.

Later Artegall entered the lists against a strange knight who was really the disguised Amazon, Radigund. Artegall wounded Radigund, but when he saw that his prostrate foe was a comely woman, he threw away his weapons. The wounded Amazon then rushed on the defenseless Artegall and took him prisoner. Artegall was kept in shameful confinement until at last Talus informed Britomart of his fate. Britomart went to her lover's rescue and slew Radigund.

Continuing his quest, Artegall met two hags, Envy and Detraction, who defamed his character and set the Blatant Beast barking at his heels. But Artegall forbade Talus to beat the hags and returned to the fairy court.

The Blatant Beast, defamer of knightly character and the last remaining enemy of the fairy court, finally met his match. The courteous Calidore, the gentlest of all the knights, conquered the beast and led him, tamed, back to the court of the Fairy Queen.

Critical Evaluation

Although Spenser completed only six books, and part of a seventh, of the twelve projected books of The Faerie Queene, the bulk of what he did finish is so great that this epic is universally regarded as one of the masterpieces of English literature. The grand conception and execution of the poem reflect both the life of the poet and his participation in the life and ideals of his age. Spenser was committed to public service in the expansive period of Elizabethan efflorescence. A gentleman poet and friend of the great, Spenser never received the preferment he hoped for, but he remained devoted to Elizabeth, to England, and to late sixteenth century optimism. Even during his lifetime, Spenser was honored as a poet by the court and by other men of letters. To the present, Spenser's allegorical imagination and his control of language have earned him a reputation as "the poet's poet."

Like other Elizabethan poets, Spenser produced ecologues and a sonnet sequence, but The Faerie Queene is his great accomplishment. In a famous letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser explained the ambitious structure and purpose of his poem. It was to be composed of twelve books, each treating one of Aristotle's moral virtues as represented in the figure of a knight. The whole was to be a consistent moral allegory and the twelve books taken together would describe the circumscribing Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity, which Spenser called Magnificence.

At some point Spenser apparently decided to modify this plan. By the fourth book the simple representation of one virtue in one hero has broken down, though each book still does define a dominant virtue. More significantly, virtues are included which are not in Aristotle. Spenser is true to Aristotle, however, in consistently viewing virtue as a mean between extremes, as a moderate path between many aberrations of excess and defect.

The poem owes many debts to other antecedents. It is filled with references to and echoes of the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics. It is suffused with the spirit and much of the idealized landscape and atmosphere of medieval romance. However, its greatest debts are to the writers of the Continental Renaissance, particularly Ariosto. Ariosto's loosely plotted Orlando Furioso was the most influential single model and Spenser borrows freely, but where Ariosto was ironic or skeptical, Spenser transforms the same material into a serious medium for his high ethical purposes. Moreover, while allegory is a dimension added to Ariosto by his critics, Spenser is motivated throughout by his allegorical purpose: "To fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline." In this aim, he is within the Renaissance tradition of writing courtesy books, such as Castiglione's The Courtier, which were guides to conduct for the gentleman who would seek excellence in behavior and demeanor. The Faerie Queene is a courtesy book turned to the highest of purposes--the moral formation of the ideal Christian gentleman.

Book 1, the story of Red Cross Knight, the Knight of Holiness, is the truest to the original structural intention. Red Cross is assigned to Una to relieve her kingdom of a menacing dragon. Through the book Red Cross's chivalric exploits gradually develop in him the virtue he represents, so that he can ultimately kill the dragon. Book 2 also makes its demonstration in a relatively straightforward way. Sir Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, despite temporary setbacks and failures, eventually gains the knowledge of what true temperance is by seeing how it is violated both by excess and defect, by self-indulgence and by inhuman austerity. Ultimately Guyon can reject the opulent pleasures of the sensuous Bower of Bliss.

In book 3 the allegorical method begins to change, probably because the virtues represented are more sophisticated in concept and more difficult to define. This complexity is mirrored in plot as earlier characters reappear and subsequent characters make brief entries. The result is an elaborate suspense and an intricate definition of virtues by means of examples, comparisons, and contrasts.

Book 3 deals with Chastity, book 4 with Friendship; both incorporate Renaissance platonic notions of love. Chastity is infinitely more than sexual abstinence, because by the perception of beauty and experience of love man moves closer to divine perfection. The concept of mutuality is emphasized in book 3 by the fact that Scudamour cannot accomplish his quest without Britomart's contribution to his development. Book 4 further explores platonic love by defining true friendship through a series of examples and counterexamples which culminate in the noblest kind of friendship, that between a man and a woman.

In book 5, the adventures of Artegall, Spenser develops a summary statement of his political philosophy. Justice is relentless and inexorable; it is not only a matter of abstract principle but also of wise governing. After the stringency of the Book of Justice, book 6 is a softer, more pastoral treatment of the chivalric ideal of Courtesy in the person of Sir Calidore.

Spenser's allegory is enlivened by the meanderings of plot as well as by the fullness and appeal of his personifications. In addition to the well-wrought moral allegory, there is sporadic political allegory, as Elizabeth occasionally becomes visible in Una or Britomart or Belphoebe, or as contemporary events are evoked by the plot. At every point Spenser's style is equal to his noble intentions. The verse form, the Spenserian stanza, is an ingenious modification of the rhyme royal stanza, in which the last line breaks the decasyllabic monotony with a rhythmically flexible Alexandrine. The diction has often been called archaic but is perhaps more a capitalizing on all the sources of Elizabethan English, even the obsolescent, in the service of the beauty of sound. Alliteration and assonance further contribute to a consummate aural beauty which not only reinforces sense but also provides a pervasive and distinctly Spenserian harmony.
COPYRIGHT 1991 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Work Overview
Date:Jan 1, 1991

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