The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.

1897 edition of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, illustrated by Walter Crane.

After almost five months of reading and writing about Spenser's Faerie Queene it is now at last time for the final summary post! This is by far the hardest book I've ever read, but certainly one of the most rewarding. The Faerie Queene is like a code, a book of contrasts that reveals two other worlds: the medieval-esque, fantastic Faerie Land and Elizabethan England. 

Before I begin, here are my posts so far:

Book I: The Legend of the Knight of Redcrosse, or, of Holiness

Book II: The Legend of Sir Guyon, or, of Temperance

Book III: The Legend of Britomartis, or, of Chastity

Book IV: The Legend of Cambel and Telamond, or, of Friendship

Book V: The Legend of Artegal, or, of Justice

Book VI: The Legend of Sir Calidore, or, of Courtesy

Two Cantos of Mutability, or, of Constancy 

It's thought that Edmund Spenser began writing The Faerie Queene in around 1580. In 1590, having already published The Shepheardes Calender (1579) and other poems, Books I - III were published to much acclaim, and in 1596 Books IV - VI appeared. Spenser planned to publish a further six books however he died in 1599. In 1609 the Two Cantos of Mutability were published, thought to be a fragment of one of the missing or unfinished final six books. 

It is, as I say, a work of contrasts, internal and external. Each book has a theme and a knight that embodies or will embody a specific virtue, and throughout each book we see challenges each knight faces as they come closer to attaining their goals. The poem is also one of extremes: each book shows not only a perfect physical place that embodies the virtue, but also it's antithesis. To explain this further it is far easier to give a brief and very superficial list (at the risk of making this post look more like a science report!):

Book I

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Redcrosse (St. George) and Holiness.

Plot: Redcrosse, accompanied by Una (who represents Protestantism or the 'True Church'), is on a quest given to him by Gloriana, the Queen of the Faeries, to slay a dragon that is holding Una's family captive. They are tricked into separating and before they are united they must face a variety of monsters and tricksters. They are ultimately reunited, the dragon is slain, and Redcrosse returns to the Faerie Queene's service.

Ideal Form: The House of Holiness. The head of the house is Dame Caelia (the name suggesting 'heavenly spirit') and she lives with her three daughters, Fidelia (faith), Speranza (hope), and Charissa (charity).

Antithesis: The House of Pride, the head of which is Lucifera.

Friends: Arthur and his squire Timias among others.

Enemies: The main enemies of Book I are Archimago (an evil sorcerer who perverts the truth) and Duessa (who represents the Catholic Church; her name implies 'two' contrasting with 'Una' suggesting 'one'. Duessa disguises herself as 'Fidessa'). We also meet Error (a monster representing Catholicism), Sans Foy (meaning 'without faith'), Sans Loy ('without law' or 'lawless'), Sans Joy ('without joy'), Orgoglio (a monster whose name is Italian for 'pride') and many others.

Sub-Themes: Catholicism and Protestantism

Sir Guyon.
Book II

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Sir Guyon and Temperance.

Plot: Guyon and his guide the Palmer are on a quest to avenge the death of Amavia and save her knight Verdant from Acrasia. Archimago and Duessa trick Guyon into thinking Redcrosse has raped Duessa (disguised as Fidessa). They travel to the Bower of Bliss meeting with opposition along the way and finally defeat Acrasia, after which they free her prisoners.

Ideal Form: The House of Temperance, headed by Alma.

Antithesis: The Bower of Bliss, on which lives Acrasia (the name Akrasia comes from the Greek ἀκρασία meaning a lack of self-control).

Friends: Medina, Arthur, and others.

Enemies: Archimago and Duessa, Sir Huddibras, Braggadochio and Trompart, Furor and Occasion, Pyrrochles and Cymochles, Mammon, Sir Mordant, and others.

Sub-Themes: The history of Britain and Protestantism.

Book III

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Britomart and Chastity.

Plot: Having seen his reflection in an enchanted mirror, Britomart (accompanied by Glauce) seeks Artegall with whom she has fallen in love (she does not find him in Book III). She is on a quest to help Sir Scudamore save his beloved Amoret from the wizard Busirane. Meanwhile Florimell seeks Marinell, who refuses to return her love.

Ideal Form: The Garden of Adonis.

Antithesis: The Castle Ioyeous and The House of Busirane.

Friends: Arthur, Timias, Belphoebe, Florimell, and others.

Enemies: Satyrane, Malbecco, Busirane, Proteus, Malcesta, False Florimell, and others.

Sub-Themes: The differences between love and lust and the ideas of courtly love. 

Sir Cambel and Sir Telamond.
Book IV

Knights and Virtue / Theme: Sir Cambel and Sir Telamond (alternatively spelled 'Triamond) and Friendship.

Plot: Book IV is one of the most confusing of Books and has far less focus that the others. Roughly: as Britomart continues to help Amoret find Scudamore we learn the history of Cambel, his wife Cambina, his friend Triamond, and Triamond's wife Canacee, learning the true essence of friendship. Arthur saves Amoret and Aemylia from a monster.

Ideal Form: Temple of Venus.

AntithesisTimias' cave where he lives as a hermit.

Friends: Arthur, Timias, Belphoebe, and others.

Enemies: Duessa, Ate, Blandamour, Paridell, False Florimell, Satyrane, Corflambo, and others.

Sub-Themes: The Geography of Britain.

Sir Artegal.
Book V

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Sir Artegal and Justice.

Plot: Artegal saves many people from various injustices. He is on a quest to save Eirene's castle from a tyrant. Britomart rescues Artegal from the Amazons.

Ideal Form: The Court of the Faerie Queene.

AntithesisRadigund's Castle.

Friends: Eirene, Mercilla

Enemies: Grantorto, Munera, Radigund, Adicia and her husband, Geryon, and others.

Sub-Themes: The trial of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Sir Calidore.
Book VI

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Sir Calidore and Courtesy.

Plot: Calidore is on a quest to subdue the Blatant Beast. On his way he meets various people who have been mistreated, not unlawfully, but discourteously, which does great damage to them.

Ideal Form: The Hermitage.

Antithesis: Sir Turpine's Castle.

Friends: Tristram, Sir Calepine and Serena, and others.

Enemies: The Blatant Beast, Maleffort, Sir Turpine, and others.

Sub-Themes: Courtly behaviour and dedication to one's goals and quests.

Two Cantos of Mutability

Knight and Virtue / Theme: Constancy (there is no knight).

Plot: Mutability challenges the sovereignty of Jove and the matter is debated. There is no ideal form, but the antithesis of constancy is of course mutability.


This is the barest skeleton of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. It is so much richer and more complex than this. Reading the poem is like no other reading experience: it needs energy and concentration, and Spenser has very high expectations of the reader; it requires the reader to interact and decode it, yet Spenser did want to be understood: his letter to Raleigh explains clearly his intentions (first describing the poem as "a continued allegory, or darke conceit"), and furthermore at the beginning of each book there is a proem with short summaries and explanations, as well as introductions to each canto at the top of the page.

Essentially what Spenser provides is a myth of England, much like the myths of Homer's Iliad or Virgil's Aeneid. It is very flattering to Queen Elizabeth I, Gloriana in the poem, "the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery Land" as he wrote to Raleigh, yet it is critical of Elizabethan courtly life. We get the impression that all events in the history of England have been leading up to this one queen, much in the same way as Shakespeare's histories that suggest perhaps all the bloody wars and tragedy would be at least curtailed under the Tudor dynasty. Reading The Faerie Queene we learn of the ways of Elizabeth's court, good and bad, the tensions between the Protestants and Catholics, and England and Ireland, and even on law and justice of the time. It also has in it much more universal themes: love, friendship, morality, and what it is to be good. In writing on virtues Spenser not only writes of ideals but also the interconnections between the virtues, how they interlink and how one can not be virtuous without embodying all the qualities he wrote about and would have wrote about had he have gone on to finish the poem.

It is a staggeringly difficult book and I've tried in this post to be fairly brief (I've written short summaries at the end of each post on the different Books and thought it best not to repeat myself). I did find it exhausting, but so worthwhile. It's full of myths of the ancients, partly a retelling of one of my favourite Medieval works The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and a celebration of England. My favourite part was probably Book I, but all of the books are exciting with their tales of battles of good against evil. It's certainly a book I would read again, it would be good to dig a little deeper. For now, though I worked hard on this, I know I've hit the tip of the iceberg!


  1. CONGRATULATIONS! You win! I'm amazed you got through it so quickly. I'm about to write up the second half of Book III, and I'm running into trouble--it's interesting, but no matter when I sit down to read it, no matter how energetic I am...I start falling asleep. And it's happening sooner with each canto. I'm turning into a Pavlovian napper! I WILL do this, but I might take a lot of naps along the way.

    1. Thank you! I think it's the rhythm that's lulling you :)

      Good luck finishing, looking forward to reading more of your posts! I'm going to miss the FQ in an odd way so your posts will keep it alive for me for a little while :)

  2. Oh my, I feel relieved for you while feeling tense for myself in Book II. Congratulations.

    Jean's stupors are curious, aren't they? I wonder what Spenser would say about his poem being better than sleeping potions. ;-)

    Okay, back to the grindstone. I can't even think of the end, just plod along .... plod along .....

    1. You'll get there with it! :)

      Can you imagine if he'd managed to finish... I'd definitely be on a break by now if I wasn't already! Not that I'm happy he didn't finish it, it's just one very hard read!

  3. I started on Faerie Queene. I was meaning to get to it a while, but I decided to paid it up with the Odyssey (after finishing the great wa epic Iliad). So far I've read three cantos of Book I. Language is difficult and beautiful, so I do have to visit shmoop from time to time to find out what's going on.

    Even so, i do find a leisurely slow-cinema feel to it, almost as cinematic as Homer. The images are vivid, fanciful, enjoyable. I enjoyed the horrifying depiction of Errour in book I, with the vomit and gore, and the allegorical verve contained in that.

    Btw, Camille Paglia had written a chapter on Edmund Spenser in Sexual Personae, her near-encyclopedic masterwork of the history of sex in Western art and literature. She paints Spenser as the Apollonian iconocist, adding sexual power and energy to the flow of his poem.

    So how would you, O, personally compare it to something like Milton's Paradise Lost? I'm sure Milton's work will end up grander and greater in the final analysis, but The Faerie Queene could put up the good fight for being best English epic ever.

    1. I had to visit shmoop too - you're certainly not alone in that. It's tough, very beautiful and it works, but still tricky. I felt I managed a bit better having read so much Chaucer in Middle English.

      I'm not sure I *can* compare it to Paradise Lost. I loved that book but it was so hard (and it's been a while since I read it) so I didn't get as much out of it as I hoped. I think ultimately I prefer the FQ, but a big part of that is because I'm English and this was an English epic. I read it during a slightly unstable time (Brexit, leadership battles, the immigration arguments, then everything that's been happening worldwide) so from that point of view it was good to read, something to be proud of, that celebration of Englishness element when things were getting rather ugly in England (so much nastiness during Brexit referendum for example). For that I have a lot more affection for it than I might have done otherwise. That said, I dare objectively Milton has the edge. It's interesting to compare the Two Cantos of Mutability with the beginning of Paradise Lost: Milton, I think, did it better. But the FQ was remarkably beautiful... :)


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