Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Book I.
A Moral Allegory
The characters and adventures in all of the six Books of The Faerie Queene enact or embody particular virtues and vices. In Book I, the Redcrosse Knight is the knight of Holiness; in Book II, Sir Guyon is the knight of Temperance; and in Book III, the female knight Britomart is the knight of Chastity, i.e. chaste love leading to marriage. The heroes in the following three Books represent Friendship, Justice and Courtesy respectively. Taken together the individual moral qualities constitute an ideal human being.
The characters grow into their identities only through a painful trial in the course of their adventures, often in the form of mortal combat with their enemies. The enemies often represent dissociated aspects of the knights themselves. In Book I, the Redcrosse Knight of Holiness smites the Saracen (i.e. Muslim) named Sansfoy (i.e. without faith), whom he encounters just when he has been faithless to his lady Una.
A Historical Allegory
Spenser employs a dense network of allusions to events, issues and particular persons of his contemporary England and Ireland. The most obvious device is the identification of the Faerie Queene and knight Britomart with Queen Elizabeth. There are also references to Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, the English Reformation, the colonial struggles against Irish rebellion etc.
A Large-Scale Epic
Spenser fashions the poem after Virgil's Aeneid: he not only divides each of the books in twelve cantos as Virgil does, but is also concerned with the struggles required to achieve the highest values of human civilization. He presents the heroic deeds of individual persons, but the disjointed adventures of the solitary warriors constitute the collective memory of Britain's heroic past and the promise of a yet more glorious future. The Faerie Queene herself may be seen as a symbolic embodiment of a shared national destiny that participates in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. As a whole, Spenser's poem is an epic celebration of Queen Elizabeth, the Protestant faith and the English nation.
A Chivalric Romance
On one level The Faerie Queene can be read as a chivalric romance. The poem contains the characteristically romantic elements of jousting knights, damsels in distress, dragons, witches, enchanted trees, wicked magicians, giants, shining castles, dark caves etc. As in the romance, there are sprawling plots, marvellous adventures, heroic characters, ravishing descriptions, esoteric mysteries etc.
For a Renaissance poet, borrowing from and reworking older materials was thought praiseworthy. Spenser therefore adapts entire episodes from romantic epics of Italian poets Ariosto and Tasso, he also draws some individual attributes (e.g. Una's lamb) and stock characters from the classics, the Bible, folk tales and various other sources.
The whole poem is written in what came to be called the Spenserian stanza, i.e. a nine-line stanza of closely interlocking rhymes (ababbcbcc), the first five lines in iambic pentametre and the sixth line in iambic hexametre or alexandrine.
The epic remains unfinished: there not only survives a fragment of another Book, but there is also the sense of a lack of closure that pervades the whole of the poem. The poem is built around principles that pull against one another: a constant struggle is contrasted to a profound longing for rest, a celebration of human heroism contrasts to a perception of human sinfulness, a vision of evil as a potent force contrasts to an opposing vision of evil as mere emptiness and filth. On the whole, Spenser's knights never quite reach the haven they seek.
"A Letter of the Authors": The poem is prefaced by a prose letter written by Spenser and addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh, which explains the purpose of The Faerie Queene. Spenser's intention is to present a portrayal of an exemplary man, modelled on King Arthur. Spenser acknowledges his influences, especially those of Ariosto and Tasso. He explains his concept of the Faerie Queene, her kingdom and the way in which she comes to appoint knights for the particular quests of each of the individual Books.
Introduction: Before the opening of the First Canto, the poet introduces his work, assuming the stanzaic pattern that he continues to use throughout the poem. He explains that this is his first attempt to write heroic, instead of pastoral poetry, and asks muses for assistance.
Canto 1: Introduces the Christian knight Redcrosse, a man of humble rustic origin, who was however appointed for the task of knight by the Faerie Queene. His name derives from a small red cross, the symbol of his faith, which can be seen on his shield and which protects him from harm. He is accompanied by a fair lady called Una, the name implying the only true faith, and by a dwarf. His quest involves defeating a dragon. Redcrosse finds the female dragon in her den and slays her. The dragon's children drink their mother's blood, which kills them, too. Redcrosse is lodged for the night with supposedly a holy hermit, who however turns out to be a wicked magician called Archimago. The evil magician forces on sleeping Redcrosse a dream which makes him believe that his lady Una is unfaithful to him.
Canto 2: Redcrosse is disgusted with the false vision and abandons the innocent Una. He encounters a Saracen called Sansfoy, the name meaning without faith. Sansfoy is accompanied by a lady clothed in red, associated with the Catholic church. Her name is Duessa, meaning double-dealing, but she pretends to be Fidessa, meaning Faith. Redcrosse slays the Saracen and takes the false Duessa under his protection.
Canto 3: Una, unaware of what happened, sets out on a desperate search for her knight. She wins a lion as her guardian: the beast originally intended to devour her but came to feel sorry for her. Una and her lion are lodged for the night in the house of the blind Corceca and her deaf and mute daughter Abessa. The lion kills Abessa's lover, a rough thief, and the women consequently curse Una. Una falls into the hands of Archimago who takes on the appearance of Redcrosse.
Canto 4: Duessa leads Redcrosse to the House of Pride, a showy but unstable palace built on sand, presided by queen Pride, the chief of the Seven Deadly Sins. There is a parade of the rest of the Deadly Sins, that is Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath. Each of the personified sins rides an animal which again is symbolical of the respective sin. Redcrosse encounters Sansjoy, the name meaning without joy, who seeks revenge for the death of his brother Sansfoy. The two arrange a formal tournament for the next day.
Canto 5: In the duel Redcrosse is about to slay Sansjoy when Duessa summons a cloud to hide Sansjoy and protect him from being hurt. In the night Duessa descents to hell and asks personified Night to cure Sasjoy's wounds. Redcrosse realizes the corruption of the House of Pride and flees.
Canto 6: Archimago is attacked by Sansloy who mistakes him for Redcrosse in whose form Archimago appears. On finding out his mistake, Sansloy releases Archimago, kills Una's lion and forces Una to follow him. Una refuses the advances of Sansloy and is about to be raped by him when woodland deities, Fauns and Satyrs, save her. She spends some time with them but then she continues in her search for Redcrosse.
Canto 7: Redcrosse is caught up by Duessa. They rest by an enchanted fountain, Redcrosse drinks from it and its water makes him weak. He is attacked by the Giant Orgoglio and when he is about to be killed, Duessa offers herself as the Giant's mistress in exchange for Redcrosse's life. Redcrosse is taken captive. There comes the Dwarf who collects Redcrosse's armour and brings it to Una, telling her what happened. Una accidentally comes across a knight who turns out to be Arthur and who, on learning her story, promises Una to deliver Redcrosse from captivity.
Canto 8: Arthur defeats the Giant, who fights with an oak torn from its roots, using it as a club. Redcrosse and Una are reunited. Una asks that Duessa's life be spared. The wicked woman is stripped from her rich attire and her ugly body, reflecting the corruption of her mind, is exposed.
Canto 9: Arthur identifies himself and tells the story of his birth and his education by Merlin. Arthur and Redcrosse exchange presents to confirm the bond of their newly closed friendship. Arthur presents Redcrosse with healing balm, Redcrosse gives Arthur the New Testament. They accidentally come upon knight Trevisan who is fleeing from Despair, the ultimate Christian sin, which drove his friend to commit suicide out of unhappy love. Redcrosse seeks out Despair and discusses with him. Redcrosse is about to succumb to Despair and commit suicide, but Una saves him.
Canto 10: Una leads Redcrosse to the House of Holiness, which is in many aspects described as the exact opposite of the House of Pride. The matron of the House of Holiness is called Celia, the name meaning heavenly, and the names of her daughters mean Faith, Hope, and Charity respectively. The three daughters are contrasted to the three Saracen brothers, Sansfoy, Sansjoy, and Sansloy. Contrasting to the figures of the Seven Deadly Sins in the House of Pride, there are seven Beadsmen in the House of Holiness, each of the Beadsman representing one aspect of charity. In the House Redcrosse undergoes a painful process of repentance for his sins. The culmination is Redcrosse's ascent to the dwelling of a holy hermit on the top of a mountain where the hermit instructs Redcrosse how to become St George, the patron of England.
Canto 11: Redcrosse is now ready to finish his quest, its chief goal being to kill the dragon which holds Una's parents captive and which is destroying their kingdom. Their kingdom is identified with the Garden of Eden. Redcrosse fights with the dragon for two days. The third day, with the assistance of the Well of Life and the healing balm applied by Una, he slays the beast.
Canto 12: Redcrosse and Una are betrothed. Duessa attempts one more trick in sending a messenger claiming Redcrosse to be already bound to her, but the trick fails. Redcrosse has promised to serve for the next six years to the Faerie Queene in struggle against the faithless Paynim king. To keep his promise, Redcrosse must leave Una and undertake the quest.
AuthorSpenser, Edmund. (1552 - 1599).
Full TitleThe First Book of The Faerie Queene.
FormNarrative poem in six books.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Spenser, Edmund. The First Book of The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 624-772.