Book one is easily the most famous book in the Faerie Queene. It is not only an Arthurian fairytale, but also retells the famous story of St. George and the Dragon, though this doesn’t become clear until much later.
The book, like the remaining five that come after, is a strong allegory for religious and political hotspots of Edmund Spenser’s day.
But enough about that, let’s get into the summary of what actually happens:
First, we start with the proem (a lesser-used word today, meaning prologue or preamble).
The full name of book one is “On Holiness, The first Booke of the Faerie Queene, contayning The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Holinesse”.
Edmund Spenser’s Introduction
Following this lengthy title is an introduction to Edmund Spenser, who describes himself as a poet on a journey. He mentions that, until now, he had spent most of his time just writing pastorals, which was a kind of literary genre of the time that was very popular.
Spenser invokes the Holy Virgin to help him with this big departure from his regular writing and asks that she give him some “antique scrolls” which contain tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
This was actually harkening back to a common motif in ancient literature, where the author would claim to have found an ancient manuscript, rather than being the author themselves. Most relevant is Geoffrey of Monmouth who uses this technique in his historic (but not historical) History of the Kings of Britain.
Yes, this will be a story of King Arthur, and it will be a huge one too, although Arthur has more of a supporting role than he does in many other stories.
Invoking the Gods and Goddesses
Spenser then goes on to ask Cupid, the son of Venus, to stay his hand, and mentions that Cupid once made Arthur fall in love, although this is never brought up again.
Spenser tells Cupid to behave because he needs his help to tame Mars, the Roman god of war. Why this is important is not entirely clear, probably because there is a lot of violence and war in the coming pages.
He finally mentions another “goddess”, Queen Elizabeth I, who was Edmund Spenser’s patron, and much of the allegory of this poem involves her directly. In fact, as we will come to discover, the character of the Faerie Queene is a direct allegory for Queen Elizabeth I.
Our story opens with three characters:
The first is our Red Crosse knight, an inexperienced knight wearing armor that he must’ve just acquired secondhand. On his breastplate and shield are a giant red cross, where he gets his name.
He has been given a task by Gloriana, a.k.a. the Faerie Queene, of an exciting adventure to destroy a dragon, and the Red Crosse knight is very eager to do so.
Traveling with him is a lady, named Una, who represents everything virtuous and good. She sits on a white donkey, and is accompanied by a white lamb. She is described as being even more virtuous than the pure lamb.
She is distraught because her family has been overcome by the aforementioned dragon.
And behind them all comes a dwarf, who is sadly in charge of carrying all of Una’s stuff.
The Heroes Get Lost
As they journey, it suddenly begins to rain, and it rains so hard that they rush to find cover. They manage to find a shady grove, and they hear birds happily chirping, content to sing about how many wonderful trees there are in this forest (and Spenser goes out of his way to mention every single one, including Pine, Cedar, Elm, Poplar, Oak, Laurel, Fir, Willow, Birch, Myrrh, Beech, Ash, Olive, Plantane, Holme, and Maple). So yeah, a lot of trees.
They wander until the storm passes, but now they are lost. They take one path that seems used more than the others and find themselves at a large cave in one of the thickest parts of the forest.
Naturally, the Red Crosse knight goes to discover more, despite Una’s insistence that he be careful. Good advice.
But the Red Crosse knight is having none of this caution ickyness, saying that only cowardly knights do not investigate. He also insists that, being a good person, he knows that he will be protected.
Una knows that this is not true. And in fact, she realizes at this perfect moment that she knows exactly where they are, and that they should leave immediately.
But nope! They have already woken the monster inside the cave, a beast known as Error.
The Fight with Error
This beast is weird. It is half serpent and half woman, with a huge tail and a ton of little snake-like babies that are all attached to her body, feeding off of her.
Error (sometimes spelled Errour) rushes at the Red Crosse knight, but is momentarily distracted by the light of his armor (this monster is apparently allergic to light), which allows the knight to take the first offensive, striking the monster in the shoulder.
But this does not stop the Error. She attacks and entangles the Red Crosse knight in her tail, wrapping him up tight.
Una encourages him to strangle the beast, which he does, but then vomit comes pouring out of her mouth, which is so disgusting that it causes him to lose his strength.
Side note: the vomit here is extremely strange. It is described as being filled with books, papers, frogs, and toads, just like when the Nile River in Egypt floods. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Edmund Spenser knew much about what the Nile River does when it floods.
Suddenly all of the little baby Errors detach and attack the Red Crosse knight. Thankfully they don’t seem to do much to him, but they are annoying. Out of frustration, he raises his sword high and decapitates the monster.
And in one last dose of weird, the creature’s little children go to suck up all her blood until they burst.
The lady Una is overjoyed that the Red Crosse knight won, telling him that he is worthy of his armor, and that she is hopeful that he will be successful in the future (implying the dragon here, no pressure).
Eventually, they find their way out of the forest.
Encountering the Old Man
On the road they meet an old man, who has bare feet, a graybeard, and who overall looks extremely sad about something.
The Red Crosse knight talks to him and asked him if he knows any adventures in the area (way to take your eye off the ball, dude).
The old man asks him what someone like him would know about that, but he does tell them of an evil man in the area that could do with a good ol’ assassination. The Red Crosse knight is thrilled by this idea, but the old hermit tells him that the evil man is away in the wilderness where no one would go.
The lady Una once again chimes in as the voice of reason, saying that the Red Crosse knight is worn out from his last fight, and even the old man agrees with this, so the Red Crosse knight decides to listen, and they spend the night with the old man.
This old hermit lives in a hermitage, which referred to a holy place of seclusion, which had a small chapel where he would pray. They spend the time listening to tales, and enjoying the rest.
Conjuring the Spirits
But as they fall asleep, we discover that the old man was not who he seemed, which is a real shame, because they were getting along with him nicely. Nope! Turns out this old man is a magician, and he cast a spell on them to give them all nightmares.
His spells call up various gods and spirits, including the wife of the God of the dead, other magicians, evil spirits from the underworld, and a messenger spirit who goes searching for Morpheus, the God of sleep.
Stay with me now, it gets weirder.
This messenger spirit tries to wake up Morpheus, and eventually succeeds when he mentions the name of a witch that had once roused the God asleep, a witch named Hecate. Once the god of sleep awakens, the messenger spirit tells him about the old man who sent him, who we now learn is named Archimago. He tells Morpheus that Archimago wants him to give the Red Crosse knight, Una, and Una’s dwarf false dreams.
Seems like a lot of work for something relatively simple.
Morpheus agrees and sends back a false dream. Meanwhile, Archimago has turned a second spirit into a woman who looks exactly like Una, who then lays seductively next to the Red Crosse knight.
After receiving false dreams of confronting a sexually-charged Una, the Red Crosse knight wakes and thinks that the dream is real, because there is the seductive Una lying next to him.
He gets upset because he thought she was a pure virgin (bear in mind this was written in the 1600s). She tells him that she loves him, and he is mildly convinced over time, though still very confused.
He responds that her love is very important to him, and that he promises never to leave her. Somewhat satisfied with that response, the spirit leaves him alone, and the Red Crosse knight falls back asleep.
We begin Canto 2 with Archimago as morning approaches. He is angry that his various incantations didn’t really do much to the Red Crosse knight, so he is determined to make this work.
He gathers another spirit and fashions the spirit to look like a young knight, and then gets the other spirit that looked like Una to lie in bed with him. Archimago then wakes up the Red Crosse knight and shows him what’s going on. Red Crosse is very jealous seeing who he thinks is Una in bed with another man, and would even have killed the young man if Archimago had not stopped him.
When morning arrives, the Red Crosse knight leaves with the dwarf, not really noticing the real Una for some reason, once morning arrives.
Una then wakes up, finds the Red Crosse knight and her dwarf gone, and eventually tries to follow them on her donkey.
Archimago is pleased that he has now separated the group, and follows Una so he can learn how he can do more harm to her. Apparently he hates Una, though we are not given a good reason for this. To begin his plans, he disguises himself as the Red Crosse knight.
The Fight with the Saracen
Meanwhile, the real Red Crosse knight is lost and wandering, trying not to think about he had seen Una sleep with some other man. It is also this time that we learn the true identity of the Red Crosse knight: St. George.
If you didn’t know, St. George was a famous saint in British lore, commonly depicted as a knight slaying a dragon. This is Edmund Spenser’s version of that story, with the Red Crosse knight as the centerpiece.
As he wanders, he runs into a man traveling with a beautiful woman dressed in red. The man is Islamic, referred to at the time as a “Saracen”.
When the woman sees the Red Crosse knight, she asks the Saracen to challenge St. George for her affection. Because why else would you fight another random knight?
The two face-off, and the Red Crosse knight eventually kills the Saracen. Chasing down the lady in red, she begs for mercy, and St. George tells her that she has nothing to fear. She tells him a great story about being the daughter of an Emperor, that she was engaged to a prince, but that the Prince died and she is been completely lost ever since, because obviously all her self-worth had to be tied up in a man…
The Saracen was one of three brothers. His name was Sansfoy, and he’s the oldest. The middle brother is Sansloy, and the youngest brother is Sansjoy. Little is said about why they are there. The lady offers up her name as Fidessa, and entreats the Red Crosse knight to protect her. St. George is enchanted with her beauty and agrees.
The Tale of Fradubio
After a while, they take rest under a large shady tree, they stop have a chat, and the Red Crosse knight makes her a small crown of branches.
But then the tree starts speaking to him, because of course it does, and tells him to leave the place immediately.
St. George, understandably puzzled that a tree is talking to him, asks what’s going on. The tree explains that his name is Fradubio, and he was turned into a tree by a witch named Duessa. He tells a story very familiar to St. George’s recent experience, about how Duessa was with another knight, and Fradubio killed the knight, then took Duessa under his protection.
Fradubio was with his own lady, Fralissa, who he gets rid of in favor of Duessa, because he’s obviously a great guy.
But perhaps we had better give Fradubio a break, because it turns out he was enchanted. After some time, he realizes that Duessa is not a beautiful lady, but that she is some kind of monster woman in disguise. When he tries to escape, Duessa turns him into a tree.
The Red Crosse knight wants to help Fradubio, but the tree tells them that the only way to lift the spell is to be “bathed in a living well” meaning running water.
Turns out Fidessa has been listening in on this whole story, and shocker, she is actually Duessa in another disguise.
She decides to distract St. George by pretending to be dead, so that he tries to revive her. When she wakes up, he is so relieved that they decide to make out for a bit.
We come back to Una, and the narrator tells us how sad he is for her because of everything that’s about to happen to her. Poor Una.
She is traveling alone now, and at one point is beset by a vicious lion. Thankfully, the lion takes one look at Una’s beautiful face, and thereafter becomes her protector.
The lion reminds her of the Red Crosse knight, and so she continues her search.
The House of Abessa, Corceca, and Kirkapine
Together, they come across a girl carrying water who doesn’t hear them approach. Turns out this girl is deaf, and she takes off the moment she sees Una and the lion. She leads them back to their house, where they encounter her blind mother. The girl’s name is Abessa, and her mother’s name is Corceca.
Una spends the night with them while they cower in terror at the presence of the lion. That night a third member of their family shows up, a man named Kirkapine, who is a criminal who steals and funds Corceca and Abessa in their blind faith.
In Spenser’s allegory, they represent the Catholic Church, blind and deaf to reality, and funded by criminal activity. Subtle, Spenser.
Kirkapine bursts through the door, but the lion swiftly kills him, tearing him into little tiny pieces.
No longer welcome, Una and the lion leave and continue wandering, we are told, just like Odysseus wandered in Homer’s The Odyssey.
She is pursued by Abessa and Corceca, who try to curse her, unsuccessfully.
Archimago Finds Una
As they retreat, they run into Archimago, who is still disguised as the Red Crosse knight. They tell him everything that has happened, and he continues on to follow Una.
Once Archimago catches up with Una, she is overjoyed to see who she thinks is the Red Crosse knight. Archimago says that he had been gone just to fulfill a short quest and is now back to continue with Una.
They continue on until they encounter a Saracen named Sansloy. Sansloy is the brother of Sansfoy, who was killed by the real Red Crosse knight.
This brother is looking for the man who killed Sansfoy, and naturally believes that Archimago, disguised as the Red Crosse knight, is the culprit. He charges at Archimago, who clumsily falls off of his horse, and Sansloy is about to kill him when Una begs for mercy.
It is at this point that Archimago’s disguise dissolves, and they see that he is not the Red Crosse knight. Sansloy, confused, apologizes to Archimago. Una, on the other hand, is horrified at the deception.
Sansloy then tries to take possession of Una. The lion sees this and attacks Sansloy, but is tragically killed in the process. Una is then left to be taken away by Sansloy.
We return to the Red Crosse knight, who is currently traveling with the woman he thinks is Fidessa, but who is really Duessa in disguise. They come to an incredible building, packed with crowds of people. The building looks grand from afar, but cheap when viewed up close. This is the House of Pride.
They come to a main hall, past a doorman named Malvenu, who lets them in. And in this hall is a huge crowd of people, surrounded by riches. At one end is a throne, where sits a beautiful woman shining brightly. She is described as always looking toward heaven, and never down on the earth, and at her feet is a huge dragon. She also has a mirror in one hand, and she is constantly checking herself out in it.
This is Lucifera, who is the daughter of Pluto, a.k.a. the God of the underworld in Roman mythology. She has made herself a queen of this place. Everyone there seems to know Duessa already, but the Red Crosse knight is not impressed, since everyone seems to be way too prideful.
Lucifera decides to ride in her carriage, which is a wondrous sight to behold. It is covered in gold and pulled by six strange beasts that her six advisors ride. As it turns out, Lucifera and these six advisors are the seven deadly sins. They are:
- Lucifera: the Sin of Pride
- Idleness: who rides a donkey, has a lot of religious-looking artifacts, but he can’t be bothered to utilize them because he has a high fever all the time.
- Gluttony: who rides a pig and is enormously overweight, eats and drinks continually, is completely worthless, and has edema.
- Lechery: a man who rides a goat, is filthy, and is constantly pursuing other women. Because he understands how to flirt and has a sexually transmitted disease, he deceives folks into thinking he’s a catch.
- Avarice: a camel rider with heaps of gold, but who is clothed shabbily and is extremely thin due to a lack of food. He has gout, which is an inflammatory arthritis.
- Envy: travels on the back of a wolf, hides a terrifying serpent in his stomach, and spends all of his time wishing for what other people have while being glad when bad things happen to them. He spews poison and is continually disparaging poets and their work.
- Wrath: a lion rider who is always angry, coated in blood, and armed with a variety of weapons. Violence follows him wherever he goes.
Together, they are all watched over by Satan, who incessantly whips them.
After a time, the third brother of Sansfoy arrives: Sansjoy. He sees the Red Crosse knight, notices that he is carrying the shield of his brother, and goes into a rage. They agreed to fight the next day, but only after Lucifera orders them not to fight in that moment.
There is a big feast that night, and everyone goes to bed. Duessa secretly tells Sansjoy that she has been traveling against her will with the Red Crosse knight and sneakily pledges Sansjoy her loyalty. Sansjoy tells her that he will kill the Red Crosse knight the next day and then marry her.
The following morning, the Red Crosse knight is getting ready for battle. The two eat and drink, take oaths to observe the rules of fighting, and the battle begins after Lucifera and Duessa come out.
The battle is neck and neck, with both men very strong and talented, but Sansjoy gets the upper edge. After all, he is filled with rage that St. George killed his brother.
But Duessa suddenly calls out encouragement for St. George, and he gains the upper hand, when suddenly he is overcome by a dark cloud. Duessa tells Red Crosse that this means he’s won, but Red Crosse is skeptical. Also, Sansjoy appears to be trapped in this black mist. Weird.
Duessa visits Night
St. George goes back to the palace, where his wounds are healed, and he can get some rest. Duessa leaves that palace during the night, and goes to visit the aunt of Sansjoy and his two brothers: Night.
She tells Night that her nephews are in great danger, and that Night needs to intervene in order to save them. Night agrees, but doesn’t understand why Duessa cares.
Regardless, the two head off into the night, and rescue Sansjoy from the dark mist. For some reason, they think that the Underworld is a good place for him, so they take him there to recover from his wounds. On the way, they see the river Acheron, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and many of the dead that are being punished.
They take Sansjoy to a cave where he is tended to by Aesculapius, the God of medicine. We are told that this man is atoning for his sins against Hippolytus. And it is at this point that we get a little tangent about who Hippolytus is.
Tangent About Hippolytus
Hippolytus was a hunter who refused to marry, although many eligible women wanted to, including his own stepmother. When his father finds out, he is infuriated, and he arranges for Hippolytus’ death by sea monsters.
However, his father feels bad about this, and he takes the pieces of his son to Aesculapius, who brings him back to life. But Jupiter, who is not happy about Aesculapius playing God like this, immediately sends them to the Underworld for his punishment.
So this is the guy that is now tending Sansjoy at Duessa’s request. Together with Night, they all head back home.
When they return, they find the Red Crosse knight has left the castle after hearing about some captives that the dwarf had found. The Red Crosse knight vowed to save these people and left the City of Pride to avoid being captured.
The Red Crosse knight, having escaped from the House of Pride, is relieved but sad that Una has let them down (which, of course, she hasn’t).
Una and the Satyrs
Turns out Una is being carried away by Archimago and Sansloy, who now want to rape her. In terror, she screams for help, until a local group of dancing fauns and satyrs hear here, and they quickly come to her rescue, scaring both Archimago and Sansloy away.
These mythical creatures are led by Sylvanus, who is amazed by the beauty of Una. All the fauns and satyrs begin to worship her as a goddess, and she reminds Sylvanus of his old lover Cyparissus (they had a falling out after Cyparissus shot and killed his favorite deer).
Una, flattered, puts an end to the worship, but they are persistent and decide to worship her donkey instead. It just goes to show that you can’t understand mythical creatures.
At that moment, a knight appears, who we are told is a virtuous knight, and who also happens to be half satyr and half human. His mother was named Thyamis, and she had been engaged to a man named Therion. A satyr had captured her, and this knight was the result. The knight’s name is Satyrane, and he is known for his prowess throughout the land of Faerie.
He is enchanted with Una’s beauty, as everyone seems to be, and decides to stay with her. She is delighted by his company, but really misses St. George. Nonetheless, she accepts Satyrane’s help in escaping the satyrs.
In their travels, they come across a pilgrim who claims that he saw the Red Crosse knight die in combat with another knight. Satyrane goes off to find the knight to supposedly killed the Red Crosse knight, but Una cannot follow quickly because she is too distraught.
Satyrane finds the knight, who was actually Sansloy, and challenges him to a fight. Sansloy claims that he has not killed the Red Crosse knight, but agrees to the fight anyway until Una catches up with them.
Una, now terrified to find Sansloy there, runs away. The pilgrim watches on with delight, because he is actually Archimago in disguise! Dun dun duuunnn! And he goes running after you know while the other two knights are occupied.
We go back to Duessa, who returns to the House of Pride, surprised to find Red Crosse gone. She goes after him to find him resting at a fountain listening to the birds sing. She decides to relax with him at the fountain.
But this is no ordinary fountain, because of course it’s not, it is the home of a nymph, who had actually displeased the goddess Diana while they were out hunting. Diana has curse the nymph so that whoever drinks the water of the fountain would immediately become lazy.
And it turns out St. George has had a drink, so he is content to just sit and talk to Duessa, who he still thinks is Fidessa.
The Giant Orgoglio
At that moment, an enormous giant named Orgoglio, the son of Aeolus, the god of the wind, and Mother Nature, comes and attacks the Red Crosse knight with a spear made of an entire tree.
Of course, St. George cannot fight, but barely manages to avoid the first blow. Duessa entreats the giant, telling him that they will both become his servants. The giant thinks Duessa is pretty, so he agrees to bed her and throw St. George into the dungeon.
Turns out Duessa and Orgoglio make a great match, and they even adopt a pet monster was seven heads and a huge tail. That monster becomes Duessa’s steed. Meanwhile, the dwarf, who has been along for this entire ride, gathers his master’s armor, and heads off to find help.
The Dwarf Finds Una
And who does he run into but Una, who was still running away from Sansloy and Archimago, who are running away from Satyrane.
When Una sees the dwarf, she realizes that something’s wrong, and faints not once, not twice, but three times before the dwarf will actually tell her what happened. She is so distraught because she just loves St. George that much.
She resolved to help, and travels with the dwarf for a while until they come across a new knight.
The Once and Future…you know
Now this guy, he is amazing. He has some of the most incredible armor that they have ever seen, including an awesome helmet, a dragon crest, a shield with a veil made of pure diamond, and he has a young squire that rides beside him.
And while we are told that this knight does not do any magic, he is known to be a traveling companion of the wizard Merlin, yes that Merlin.
Yes, this is Arthur, although he is not named at this point.
Arthur persuades her to tell him what happened, and she spends the next little bit filling him in. Hearing her story, Arthur vows to help her find and rescue the Red Crosse knight.
Sadly, the Red Crosse knight is not doing well, still locked up in the giant’s dungeon.
Arthur is Awesome
Arthur and Una come to that castle, and Arthur uses a magical horn that opens up every door in the castle.
The giant comes out to fight Arthur, who has no trouble taking the giant down. Duessa is horrified by the site, and rushes in to fight, but she is stopped by Arthur’s squire. She weakens the squire with a spell, and sends her seven headed pet after him.
Naturally, Arthur rushes to save his squire and attacks the seven headed beast. But this allows the giant to regain his footing, and he attacks Arthur with renewed vigor.
But Arthur is still able to blind the giant with his shield, then cuts off his legs and kills him. When Duessa tries to flee, Arthur’s squire prevents her from doing so.
Una is incredibly relieved at this outcome, and thanks Arthur and his squire for their help. She tells them not to let Duessa go, but that they must first find the Red Crosse knight.
Arthur Finds the Red Crosse Knight
Arthur searches the castle for St. George, and comes across an old man named Ignaro. Ignaro, as it happens, is the father of the giant. He keeps the keys to the castle, but cannot tell Arthur where St. George is. So Arthur just grabs the keys and goes looking for himself.
He finally finds an iron door that he can’t open, but he hears someone responding. Arthur burst through the doors, and finds the Red Crosse knight there, and Arthur helps him get out.
Poor St. George has been in there so long that he can barely tolerate the light of the sun, and he is incredibly thin. Una’s distraught to see him in such bad shape, but Arthur tells her not to worry. Instead, he is rightfully concerned about what they should do with Duessa.
Una tells them that they should take her magical robes and send her away packing.
They do this, and they discover how she is actually a monstrous old hag in disguise as a beautiful woman. Duessa leaves, and the traveling companions stay in the giant’s castle to rest.
Now that they have rested, Una asked Arthur to tell them who he is (we haven’t actually learned this yet). Arthur won’t tell them, but tells them that he was raised by a man called Timon, and by Merlin.
Background on Arthur in Faerieland
Una asked him why he is in Faerieland, and he doesn’t know, but he does reveal that he has a secret wound that constantly bleeds (seems like he might want to get that checked out), and he imagines that this has something to do with his purpose here.
When Una asked about the wound, Arthur tells her about how he had once taken a nap in the forest and dreamed about a beautiful woman lying near him. They had had a wonderful conversation, and she called herself the queen of the fairies. He has been looking for her ever since although this has nothing to do with a physical wound that he talked about, we learned that he is incredibly sad that he has not found this woman again. So it’s more of a metaphorical wound.
Red Crosse jumps in and talks about how he loves Una just as much as Arthur loves this queen of the fairies (smooth George) and Arthur and Red Crosse exchange gifts. Arthur gives the Red Crosse knight a potion that will heal any wound, and the Red Crosse knight gives Arthur a beautiful book that can save the soul of the one who reads it.
And at that point they all part ways. Arthur goes to find the queen from his dreams, and Una and the Red Crosse knight go to fight the dragon.
The Encounter with Sir Trevisan
But the Red Crosse knight is still weak, and Una decides that they need more rest. However, they come across a knight on a winged horse, who is disheveled, missing armor, and even has a noose around his neck. He is clearly running from something.
When the Red Crosse knight goes to ask him what’s going on, he tells him that he needs to leave immediately. The mysterious knight tries to run, but St. George stops him and calms him down just enough to get his story.
The knight, named Sir Trevisan tells him that he was traveling with another knight named Sir Terwin, who had been in love with a lady who liked to lead him on. Together, they had run into a villain named Despair, who told them so many depressing things that they lost hope entirely (maybe don’t trust someone named Despair).
Red Crosse Battles Despair
Red Crosse vows to find Despair and kill him, and Sir Trevisan agrees to take him back to the cave where they had found the sorcerer. Despair lives in a dark cave, and he is currently sitting in the blood of Sir Terwin.
St. George accuses Despair of being a villain, but Despair isn’t all that concerned. In fact, he begins the tell the Red Crosse knight about the horrible life that Sir Terwin led, and that it was really better to die sooner than to die later.
He also goes on to describe St. George’s own sins, guilting him into thinking that he might as well die for what he’s done.
In fact, he is so convincing, that he convinces the Red Crosse knight to kill himself, but just before he can follow through with the act, Una comes to the rescue and takes the knife out of his hand, chastising him for being so weak (maybe not the best thing to say to someone who is suicidal).
Despair, seeing that he has failed, hangs himself.
We have learned that even those who are physically strong can still be vulnerable against spiritual or psychological demons. Way to be somewhat cognizant of mental health issues, Mr. Spenser.
They Visit the Houses of Healing
Clearly, St. George’s not in a great place. So Una takes him to the house of a woman named Caelia, a place of rest and refuge.
Una and St. George are welcomed in by an old Porter named Humilita, who welcomes them into an open courtyard where they greet other guests: Zele and Reverence. It is Reverence who takes them to see Caelia.
Caelia is glad to see Una, who is familiar with her importance, and who praises Una’s virtues. Una explains the situation to her, and while they are talking, Fidelia and Sperenza walked in, the former carrying a cup of gold and a sacred book, and the latter carrying an anchor.
They all seem to get along swimmingly, and Caelia has them escorted to a place where they can rest by a servant named Obedience.
After they had a chance to rest, Una asks Fidelia if she will take the Red Crosse knight as a student so he can learn wisdom and Christian morality. Because apparently these are the things he will need in order to fight the dragon.
Fidelia agrees, and St. George learns so much from her about God, sin, and virtue. In fact, he learns so much that he begins to be depressed about how bad of a person he is.
Una is concerned about this, so she asks Caelia for advice, and Caelia tells her to tell the Red Crosse knight to go see a man named Patience. The Red Crosse knight does so, and Patience proves very helpful in helping St. George remove his inner demons, even though this is a long and painful process.
Throughout this entire process, the love between Una and George grows.
Charissa also teaches the Red Crosse knight about different virtues, specifically love and mercy. In fact, a woman named Mercy also steps in and takes the Red Crosse knight to a hospital where seven attendants (in contrast to the seven deadly sins we saw earlier) continue to help him heal.
The seven are:
- The Guardian, who entertains and lodges all visitors
- The Lamer, who provides food and drink to those in need
- One in charge of distributing clothing
- One to assist prisoners and pay their ransoms
- One to console those near death
- One to properly bury the dead
- One to look after the orphans of anyone who has died
Sounds like good people.
The Red Crosse Knight is Shown His Future
Next, the Red Crosse knight goes to a chapel where a man named Contemplation is praying. The old man takes the Red Crosse knight to a mountain, where he is shown the city of God, a place described as too incredible to be put into words. The city is Jerusalem, and it is the place where God’s chosen people dwell.
The old man tells the Red Crosse knight that he is now ready to help Una, and that if he does so, he will be known as the great St. George, the future patron saint of England. The Red Crosse knight is amazed by this, saying that he is unworthy to receive such an honor, but the old man reminds him that he had promised Una to slay the dragon.
The Red Crosse knight agrees, and leaves to find Una. Together, the two finally leave Caelia’s house, fully healed, and ready to take whatever might befall them.
We now near the adventure that we have been sidestepping this whole time, the quest to vanquish the dragon and free Una’s parents.
They come to the dragon-ravished lands, and Una points at a tower where her parents are. Suddenly the dragon appears, great and terrible, and prepares to fight them.
St. George tells Una to hide up a hill and watch the battle unfold. The narrator also takes this moment to ask his muse to help him tell this particularly important part of the story.
Day One of the Battle With the Dragon
The dragon is huge, covered in impenetrable scales, his wings are as large as the sales of a ship, and he has a huge tail with a point at the end. His jaws are full of the blood and guts of his former victims, so yeah, he’s terrifying.
The Red Crosse knight gets understandably concerned as this beast charges straight for him. But though he is knocked over once, he manages to get a blow in. Unfortunately, that blow does nothing but irritate the dragon who grabs George and his horse and carries them far away.
While being carried, the Red Crosse knight manages to wound the dragon under the neck, which bleeds so much that the land around them floods, then the dragon uses his tail to trap George and his horse, and George tries unsuccessfully to wound the Dragon again.
The dragon then shoots fire at the Red Crosse knight, which nearly roasts alive right through his armor. At this point the Red Crosse knight is understandably disabled, but magically finds a well of life, a magical fountain that can bring him back from the point of death. Lucky.
Day Two of the Battle With the Dragon
The dragon, thinking that he has won, leaves St. George there overnight. Meanwhile, Una has been praying all night long for help. She is amazed to see the Red Crosse knight rise from the fountain, completely healed from his wounds.
The dragon is also amazed, and understandably confused, enough so that St. George is able to land a painful blow to the dragon’s head. The dragon stabs the Red Crosse knight in retaliation using his poisonous tail. And the Red Crosse knight also retaliates, and cuts off the tail.
The dragon then grabs St. George’s shield, and St. George cuts the dragon’s limb in two. The dragon is so furious that he fills the sky with fire and smoke, and the Red Crosse knight is forced to retreat.
St. George would likely have died then, but he falls backward into another lifesaving stream. In other words, he is the luckiest knight in the world.
Day Three of the Battle With the Dragon
Turns out this stream actually runs from the tree of life, a.k.a. the tree planted in the Garden of Eden, and this marks the second time that the battle takes a timeout. Una also remembers the healing balm that Arthur had given the Red Crosse knight, and she runs to him and uses it on his wounded body. The next morning, the Red Crosse knight wakes up completely healed again, and the battle continues.
The narrator interjects, telling us that this part of the story is almost over. But we don’t see it from the Red Crosse knight’s perspective, or even Una’s perspective.
Instead, we go to a watchman, who sees the dragon fall and runs to tell the king and queen (Una’s parents) what he has seen.
And there was much rejoicing.
Everyone is Freed
Everyone in the land goes down to see the Red Crosse knight and thank him for taking care of the dragon. Una is crowned with leaves, and the king offers gifts to the Red Crosse knight.
There is a big family reunion, and they all share a big feast where everyone tells everyone about the adventures that were had.
The king tells St. George that he should stay, but St. George tells us that he swore to serve the Faerie Queene for another six years.
Justice for Archimago
The king is disappointed, but tells St. George that once those six years are up, he should come back and marry Una. Una is about to speak her mind when a messenger runs into the hall carrying a letter that says that the Red Crosse knight should not marry Una, because he is already been promised to another woman.
Stunned, the king tells the Red Crosse knight to explain himself. George answers that he was tricked by Duessa and enchanted by magic that was too strong for him.
Turns out the messenger was actually Archimago in disguise,, and when he is confronted he tries to run. Thankfully he is captured, and thrown into the deepest, darkest dungeon.
With all of those loose threads tied up, there wis once again much rejoicing.
St. George then leaves in order to finish his servitude for the Faerie Queene. This marks the end of book one, but the narrator tells us that he will soon begin another.
Cite This Article
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur