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The Faerie Queene


The Faerie Queene is an English epic poem by Edmund Spenser, published first in three books in 1590, and later in six books in 1596. The Faerie Queene is notable for its form: it was the first work written in Spenserian stanza. It is an allegorical work, written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. Largely symbolic, the poem follows several knights in an examination of several virtues.

The Faerie Queene found political favor with Elizabeth I and was consequently a success, to the extent that it became Spenser's defining work. A measure of the favour which the poem found with the monarch is that Spenser was granted a pension for life on account of it (50 pounds a year). The work found great acclamation among critics and has been the subject of many analyses.

A Celebration of the Virtues

A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589 contains an early plan for The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland." Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying twelve "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, although the influence of Thomas Aquinas can be observed as well. It is impossible to predict what the work would have looked like had Spenser lived to complete it, but the reliability of the predictions made in his letter to Raleigh is not absolute, as numerous divergences from that scheme emerged as early as 1590, in the first Faerie Queene publication.

As it was published in 1596, the epic presented the following virtues:

  • Book I: Holiness
  • Book II: Temperance
  • Book III: Chastity
  • Book IV: Friendship
  • Book V: Justice
  • Book VI: Courtesy

In addition to these six virtues, the Letter to Raleigh suggests that Arthur represents the virtues of Magnificence, which ("according to Aristotle and the rest") is "the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all"; and that the Faerie Queene herself represents Glory (hence her name, Gloriana).

Politics and the poem

The poem celebrates and memorializes the Tudor dynasty (of which Elizabeth was a part), much in the tradition of the Aeneid's celebration of Augustus Caesar's Rome. Like The Aeneid, which states that Augustus descended from the noble sons of Troy, The Faerie Queene suggests that the Tudor lineage can be connected to King Arthur. The poem is deeply allegorical and allusive: many prominent Elizabethans could have found themselves--or one another--partially represented by one or more of Spenser's figures. Elizabeth herself is the most prominent example: she appears most prominently in her guise as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself; but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love; and perhaps also, more critically, in Book I as Lucifera, the "maiden queen" whose brightly-lit Court of Pride masks a dungeon full of prisoners.

The poem also displays Spenser's thorough familiarity with literary history. Although the world of The Faerie Queene is based on English Arthurian legend, much of the language, spirit, and style of the piece draw more on Italian epic, particularly Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. Of course, Spenser's work is on a much greater scale than these pieces, as it attempts to define itself by the eternal conflict of good versus evil.

The fifth Book of The Faerie Queene, the Book of Justice, is Spenser's most direct discussion of political theory. In it, Spenser both attempts to tackle the problem of policy toward Ireland and recreates the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Christian Morality in Book I of The Faerie Queene

The allegorical narrative The Faerie Queen is a story following Knight Red Crosse on his path to finding Christian sanctification; Roy Mayndard points out that this is distinct from salvation. Through the character of Red Crosse, Edmund Spenser explores the two virtues he believes to be the most important in the Christian religion, Chastity and Holiness. Red Crosse is representative of the virtue of holiness. He desires to be united with Una, a beautiful woman who represents Truth; however, he cannot attain her without the knowledge of Christian truth. Red Crosse runs into trouble when he mistakes Truth for falsehood in the character Duessa, who attempts to get Red Crosse to leave Una. Duessa is also very beautiful, but it is a beauty that is only skin-deep, a detail Red Crosse learns the hard way.

According to author Lyle Glazier, Red Crosse represents all Christian souls in search of truth. Like other Christians, he faces representations of everyday forces of good and evil and it is through the reactions of those images that salvation is achieved. The everyday forces can be found in Spencer’s characters that represent the general rather than the specific. The purpose of Spencer’s generality, according to Glazier, is to present all aspects of Virtue and Vice. To show only certain aspects of each would cause for failure to show the powerful effects each has on human emotions. Red Crosse, like many other Christians at this time, is at an immature state of knowledge where it more likely to make mistakes and fall to temptations rather than fight to reach the ultimate Truth. This can be seen though the characters of Una and Duessa. Una represents all aspects of Truth rather than one specific idea just as Duessa represents all Errors. Red Cross is constantly fighting the temptations of Duessa, just as Christians fight the temptations of the devil while at the same time seeking the Christian Truth.

Una is a major protagonist in Book I. She is a beautiful woman representative of Truth, the truth that Red Cross must obtain in order to seek salvation and become a true Christian. As said by author Richard A. Levin, Book I is a love story as well as a story of Red Crosse’s path to salvation. He says Red Crosse is both a hesitant lover and a straying Christian and Una is both a woman who saves Red Crosse from lust and is the Truth saving him from Error (1). As noted by Rust; Una is representative of the “True” Church, the Church of England. As a result of the English Reformation and the break from the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant religion had been reinstated by Queen Elizabeth I. In order for Red Crosse to make the full transition and become a true Christian, he must seek and obtain the Truth of Una. However, Una’s devotion to Red Crosse is stronger than his devotion to her. Red Crosse has not fully committed himself to the Church of England; therefore he must conquer the temptations of Duessa in order to achieve his salvation.

When Duessa is introduced in Book I she is dressed all red and wearing a Persian headdress. Duessa is representative of all things evil; she is beautiful on the outside but her beauty is skin deep. She is a representation of what Spenser believes to be one of the greatest evils, the Roman Catholic Church. Duessa manages to trick Red Crosse into abandoning Una. It isn’t until the crucial moment when Duessa is stripped of her clothing that her true self is revealed. Duessa is really an ugly witch who is representative of all things evil.

List of major characters

  • Acrasia, Seductress of knights. Guyon destroys her Bower of Bliss at the end of Book 2. Similar characters in other epics: Circe (Homer's Odyssey), Alcina (Ariosto), Armida (Tasso). Also the feary woman from Keats' poem 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'.
  • Alma, Her name means "soul." She is the head of the House of Temperance in Book 2.
  • Amoret, The wife of Scudamour, kidnapped by Busirane on her wedding night, saved by Britomart. She represents the virtue of married love, and her marriage to Scudamour serves as the example that Britomart and Artegal seek to copy. Amoret and Scudamor are separated for a time by circumstances, but remain loyal to one another until they (presumably) are reunited.
  • Archimago, An evil sorcerer who is sent to stop the knights in the service of the Faerie Queene. Of the knights, Archimago hates Redcross most of all, hence he is symbolically the nemesis of England.
  • Artegal (or Arthegall), a knight who is the personification and champion of Justice. He meets Britomart after defeating her in a swordfight (she had been dressed as a knight) and removing her helmet, revealing her beauty. Artegal quickly falls in love with Britomart. Artegal has a companion in Talus, a metal man who wields a flail and never sleeps or grows tired but will mercilessly pursue and kill any number of villains. Talus obeys Artegal's command, and serves to represent justice without mercy (hence, Artegal is the more human face of justice). Later, Talus does not rescue Artegal from enslavement by the wicked Radigund, because Artegal is bound by a legal contract to serve her.
  • Arthur. This is the same Arthur of the Round Table, but he plays a different role here. He is madly in love with the Faerie Queene and spends his time in pursuit of her when not helping the other knights out of their sundry predicaments.
  • Belphoebe, The beautiful sister of Amoret who spends her time in the woods hunting and avoiding the numerous amorous men who chase her. Timias, the squire of Arthur, eventually wins her love after she tends to the injuries he sustained in battle; however, Timias must endure much suffering to prove his love when Belphoebe sees him tending to a wounded woman and, misinterpreting his actions, flies off hastily. She is only drawn back to him after seeing how he has wasted away without her.
  • Braggadocchio, a comic knight with no sense of honor. He steals Guyon's horse. He is not evil, just dishonorable.
  • Britomart, a female knight, the personification and champion of Chastity. She is young and beautiful, and falls in love with Artegal upon first seeing his face in her father's magic mirror. Although there is no interaction between them, she falls in love with him, and travels, dressed as a knight and accompanied by her nurse, Glauce, in order to find Artegal again. Britomart carries an enchanted spear that allows her to defeat every knight she encounters, until she loses to a knight who turns out to be her beloved Artegal. Parallel figure in Ariosto: Bradamante.
  • Busirane, the evil sorcerer who captures Amoret on her wedding night. When Britomart enters his castle to defeat him, she finds him holding Amoret's heart in a pan. The clever Britomart handily defeats him and returns Amoret to her husband.
  • Calidore, the Knight of Courtesy, hero of Book Six.
  • Cambell, one of the Knights of Friendship, hero of Book Four. Friend of Triamond.
  • Colin Clout, is a shepherd, noted for his songs and bagpipe playing, that briefly appears in Book VI, being the same Colin Clout from Spenser's pastoral poetry, which is fitting because Calidore is taking a sojourn into a world of pastoral delight, ignoring his duty to hunt the Blatant Beast, which is why he set out to Ireland to begin with. Colin Clout may also be said to be Spenser himself.
  • Duessa, a lady who personfies Falsehood in Book One, known to Redcrosse as "Fidessa". As the opposite of Una, she represents the false religion of the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Florimell, a lady in love with the knight Marinell, who initially rejects her. Hearing he was wounded, she set out in search and faced various perils, culminating in being captured by Proteus.
  • Gloriana, the "Faerie Queene" herself.
  • Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, the hero of Book Two. According to the Golden Legend, St. George's name shares etymology with Guyon, which specificially means "the holy wrestler."
  • Malecasta, a decadent, jaded sophisticate who invites the weary knights to dinner. She studies Britomart at the feast, and tries to seduce her, unaware Britomart is a lady until Malecasta feels the sting of Britomart's magic sword.
  • Marinell, "the knight of the sea"; son of a water nymph, he avoided all love because his mother had learned that a woman would do him harm; he was struck down in battle by Britomart, though not mortally wounded.
  • Merlin, who is much the same as in Arthurian legend. A young Britomart goes to see Merlin after falling in love with Artegal, and he instructs her on how to proceed.
  • Paridell, a false knight and a seducer of women. His name derives from that of the Trojan prince Paris. In Book Three, he runs off with Malbecco's wife, Hellenore.
  • Pastorella, a woman raised by shepherds but revealed in the last Canto of Book 6 to be actually the daughter of Sir Bellamoure and Lady Claribell.
  • The Redcrosse Knight, hero of Book One. Introduced in the first canto of the poem, he bears the emblem of Saint George, patron saint of England; a red cross on a white background is still the flag of England. The Redcross Knight is, in fact, early on declared to be the real Saint George.
  • Sansfoy, Sansjoy and Sansloy (names from the old French meaning "Faithless", "Joyless" and "Lawless"), three enemy knights who fight Redcrosse in Book One.
  • Satyrane, a wild half-satyr man raised in the wild and the epitome of natural human potential. Tamed by Una, he protects her, but ends up locked in a battle against the chaotic Sansloy, which remains unconcluded.
  • Scudamour, the lover of Amoret. His name means "shield of love".
  • Talus, an "iron man" who helps Arthegall dispense justice in Book Five.
  • Triamond, one of the Knights of Friendship, a hero of Book Four. Friend of Cambell.
  • Trompart, Braggadocchio's cunning squire. His name derives from the French tromper, "to deceive".
  • Una, the personification of the True Church. She travels with the Redcrosse Knight (who represents England), whom she has recruited to save her parents' castle from a dragon. She also defeats Duessa, who represents the false (Catholic) church and the person of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a trial reminiscent of that which ended in Mary's beheading. Una is also representative of Truth.



  • Black, Joseph (Ed). "The Broadview Anthology of British Literature". Concise Edition, Vol. A. Broadview Press, 2007. ISBN 1-55111-868-8
  • Glazier, Lyle. The Struggle between Good and Evil in the First Book of "The Faerie Queene" College English, Vol. 11, No. 7. (Apr., 1950), pp. 382-387.
  • Levin, Richard A. “The Legende of the Redcrosse Knight and Una, or of the Love of a Good Woman.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 1, (Winter, 1991), pp. 1-24.
  • Rust, Jennifer. "Spenser's The Faerie Queen." Saint Louis University, St. Louis. 8 Oct. 2007

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