Welcome to our resource and summary of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This is an alegorical poem that emerged in the late sixteenth century, and remains one of the largest poems in the English language.
Edmund Spenser was a contemporary of other great writers like William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, but despite the overflow of talent in that era, Spenser still managed to gain some notoriety when Queen Elizabeth I granted him a lifetime pension of 50 pounds a year for his work.
What is The Faerie Queene?
The Faerie Queene is a work of Renaissance literature, divided into six parts, though Edmund Spenser had originally planned on composing six more. The first three were completed cerca 1589 when they were first presented to the queen, and published a year later.
In 1596, the three books were republished along with the three that followed. Spenser had originally planned on writing 12 volumes, but died before his work was complete. Fragments of a seventh volume still survive.
The plot follows several knights, each of which embodies a different virtue. These virtues for the first six volumes are:
It appears the virtue for the unfinished seventh volume would have been on Constancy. It is unknown what the virtues would have been for the remaining five volumes, but it is clear that two virtues were embodied by the characters of Gloriana (The Faerie Queen herself) and Arthur, that of Glory and Magnificence, respectively.
The poem is highly allegorical, often containing allusions to the theological and political ideology of the day. Some characters take forms representing certain virtues or sins. Some, like one of the primary antagonists, Duessa, represent that Catholic church. Others, like the Faerie Queene herself, represented Queen Elizabeth.
It was very clear that Spenser wanted to get on the good side of the queen and her nobility. Indeed, the poem starts with a lengthy letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, probably a sponsor for the work.
Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, was born in East Smithfield, London, around 1552. He grew up in London and eventually went to Cambridge for his education, where he studied at Pembroke College. At the age of 26 he became a secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, John Young. A year later, he had his first publication (The Shepheardes Calender). That was also the time when he married his first wife, Machabyas Childe, with which he had two children.
Spenser would spend a lot of time in Ireland, where he served under Lord Arthur Grey. But even after his service ended, he remained in Ireland, as he had acquired land there.
As mentioned above, Spenser published the first three volumes of The Faerie Queene in 1590 at the age of 38. But only four years after that, his wife died. He later remarried Elizabeth Boyle and they had one son.
In 1596, Spenser published the next three volumes of The Faerie Queen, but sadly he died three years later in London before he could complete any other volumes. He remains buried in the “Poet’s Corner” of Westminster Abbey.
Other publications by Spenser include: The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Complaints (1591), Axiochus (1592) Daphnaïda (1592), Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595), Astrophel (1595), Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), Fowre Hymnes (1596), Prothalamion (1596), Babel, Empress of the East (1596), and A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande (published posthumously in 1633).
The Spenserian Stanza
The Faerie Queene is notable for being composed entirely in a new rhyming stanza, invented by Spenser himself, and therefore now called the Spenserian Stanza. It contains nine lines with iambic pentameter. The first eight have five pentameters, and the ninth has six. The rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC. The Faerie Queene contains over two thousands of these stanzas.
The Faerie Queen is a very long and epic poem. The stories are detailed and full of multiple levels of meaning. What follows is a general summation of a highly extensive work.
Book 1: Brief Summary
Chief Virtue: Holiness
Our main characters are the Redcrosse Knight, so named for a red cross on his shield and armor, and Una, a princess whose home has been beset by a dragon. Together with a dwarf companion, they are setting out to defeat the dragon at the behest of The Faerie Queene.
Together, they encounter many adventures, starting with a monstrous beast called an “Error”. Later they are separated by the magician, Archimago, who deceives the Redcrosse knight into thinking that Una has been unfaithful.
The Redcrosse knight is later enchanted by the sorceress, Duessa, and taken to the House of Pride, where his holiness is eroded.
He then goes to the castle of Orgoglio, a giant who imprisons him for months.
Thankfully Una has found help in Prince Arthur, and they help spring the Redcrosse Knight from his prison and kill the giant.
But the Redcrosse knight is in bad shape, and after nearly killing himself whilst battling a demon called Despair, he and Una go to a place called the House of Holiness.
In the House of Holiness, the Redcrosse knight is able to heal from both his physical and emotional wounds, after which he is ready to battle the dragon. It is also at this point that we discover that the Redcrosse knight is actually St. George of legend.
St. George fights the dragon, wins, and the entire country is freed, to the joy of Una. St. George and Una are betrothed before he goes to continue working for the Faerie Queene.
Book 2: Brief Summary
Chief Virtue: Temperance
Our main character in book 2 is Sir Guyon, a knight known for his temperance, or self mastery in all things. He is accompanied by the Palmer, a religious pilgrim who also acts as a guide.
Together, they find a tragic couple and their baby. The husband, a knight named Sir Mordant, is dead, and his wife, Amavia, has just plunged a dagger into her heart. She tells them that a temptress named Acrasia had lured her husband away via sorcery, and then cursed him when Amavia tried to help him escape.
When Amavia dies, she is survived by her baby son, whom Guyon takes and brings to a castle run by a woman named Medina. She is the middle and represnets temperance as well, with her older and younger sisters represengint two other extremes.
Guyon continues to have adventures that reflect the theme of temperance. He stops a madman from killing a young squire, he tames a man named Pyrochles who is too eager for a fight, and he ignores the whiles of Phaedria as she tries to tempt him to stay on her island.
But he nearly loses when he is separated form the Palmer and runs into Mammon, a representation of greed. Mammon takes him to the underworld and tempts him with all the riches of the world. Guyon ignores this but is so tired when he reaches the real world again that he passes out.
Guyon might have died by the hand of Pyrochles and his brother had not the Palmer and Prince Arthur showed up. Together they all go to help a woman named Alma, then Guyon and the Palmer continue on their way.
Ultimately, they end up at the Bower of Bliss, a false paradise where Acrasia rules, and they manage to capture Acrasia to take her to the Faerie Queene.
Book III: Brief Summary
Chief Virtue: Chastity
The third book of The Faerie Queene centers around the theme of chastity. Appropriately, there are multiple characters that represent different aspects of chastity. Chief among these are:
- Britomart: who defends chastity through fighting
- Belphoebe: who defends chastity by hunting perverse men
- Florimell: who represents chastity by fleeing away from sex
- Amoret: who represents the forced loss of chastity through rape
- Malecasta: who represents a complete lack of chastity
Guyon and Arthur are travelling from their adventures in the last book when they run into Britomart, who manages to knock Guyon off his horse. Eventually, though, Guyon and Arthur run off after Florimell, after she rides past pursued by the Forester.
There are a few storylines going on here, so I’ll try to sort them out…
Britomart continues on and runs into Malecasta’s castle, where she saves the Redcrosse knight from being beaten up. When Malecasta develops a crush on her, she runs off and doesn’t look back.
Florimell is running from being chased by one man to another. Eventually she runs into a Witch and her son, and the son falls in love with her, but she runs off before anything can come of it. The Witch sends a monster after her, and she barely manages to escape by jumping onto a boat guided by an old man.
That old man eventually tries to assault her, and she is saved by Proteus…who then also tries to assault her. Then she is imprisoned for some time.
Satyrane is trying to find Florimell and runs into the monster that attacked her. He manages to defeat it, but is distracted by a giant carrying a squire. He saves the squire, and they also run into a knight named Paridell. Together, they travel until they arrive at Malbecco’s castle.
Then Britomart shows up again, and when Malbecco refuses to let them in, they threaten to burn the gate down. So Malbecco lets them in and Paridell seduces his wife and they run off in the morning.
Britomart continues on her own and runs into Scudamore, who is nearly dead with grief for losing his love: Amoret. Britomart then travels to Busirane’s castle and rescues Amoret from horrible torture.
Book 4 is a little different than some of the others, as it’s more a continuation of book 3 than a new book. It’s focus knights don’t really take up that big of a role, and instead it focuses on characters we’ve already met, such as Britomart. Brit and Amoret (who she rescued in the last book) are traveling together, though for some reason Amoret doesn’t know that Britomart is a woman, and is fearful of her. They come across a tournament where the victors get to compete for ladies, possessing them if they win (super not progressive). One man wants Amoret, and Brit fights him and wins. Later she reveals she is a woman and Amoret is now okay with being her companion.
They continue traveling and come across the villain, Duessa, who is traveling with Ate, who is a very horrible person by her description. They are also traveling with two knights: Blandamour, and Paridell, who we met in the last book. Britomart and Amoret manage to ride off, but another knight, Scudamore, also runs into the bad guys and has some problems with them. For one, he is tricked into thinking that his love, Amoret, is being disloyal to him. He runs off all in a huff.
Blandamour and Paridell continue on their way until they find a knight named Sir Ferraugh, who we learn had been the one to steal the False Florimell. Blandamour decides Florimell is one hot babe, so he easily defeats Sir Ferraugh for her hand. Paridell, who hadn’t cared up to this point, now becomes jealous when he sees Blandamour and False Florimell flirting with each other, so he and Blandamour fight for a long time until who shows up but the Squire of Dames who we met in the last book. The squire is surprised to find Florimell with them, since he thinks she is far away (which the real Florimell is), and tells them that there’s a tournament where they could compete for Florimell’s girdle, currently held by Sir Satyrane.
This idea placates the two fighting knights and they all set out to find this tournament. On the way they encounter two knights named Cambell and Triamond, with their respective ladies, Cambine and Canacee. These are the two characters for which the book is named, the two knights that are supposed to represent friendship. We get a lengthy explanation about where they come from and how they ended up together. Turns out Triamond used to have two brothers with him, and the three of them were all in love with Canacee who is Cambell’s sister, and they all decided to fight Cambell to determine who is the best and should marry Canacee.
Cambell kills Triamond’s two brothers but their spirits enter into Triamond, giving him extra strength and two extra lives in a very Super Mario-type turn of events (way to be ahead of the times, Mr. Spenser). But Cambell has a magic ring that makes him heal quickly, so the two are pretty evenly matched for a while. They fight until Triamond’s sister shows up and asks them to stop fighting. Cambell become enamored with Triamond’s sister so, long story short, he ends up with her and Triamond ends up with Canacee, and the two become best friends forever.
So now it’s just the four of them, which is where they run into Paridell and Blandamour. Rather than fight each other, they all proceed to the tournament to duke out any of their problems there. The tournament has a lot of fighters. At first, Satyrane wins the day, wounding Triamond. Then Cambell and Triamond seem to be doing well. But later another knight steps in, and this knight is none other than Artegall, though we don’t know it yet. Turns out Britomart is also participating, and no one knows who she is either. She fights Artegall, not knowing that they are destined to be lovers, and she knocks him on his you-know-what and wins the day!
Satyrane, Cambell, Trimond, and Britomart are all considered victors, but Britomart is voted the best. Also, Florimell’s girdle doesn’t stay fastened around the False Florimell because it’s apparently magic and only works for virtuous women. The only woman it stays fastened around is Amoret. But even though the girdle didn’t stick, False Florimell is voted most beautiful and is therefore awarded to Britomart, the best knight. But Britomart would rather have Amoret, so False Florimell eventually goes with, of all people, Braggadochio who had appeared earlier.
Britomart and Amoret continue on their way to find Artegall (who they didn’t know was actually at the tournament) and Scudamore, who is still out there with Glauce, convinced that Amoret and Britomart have a thing together. Scudamore and Glauce are traveling and stay in a cave, where they find a blacksmith named Care, who gives you bad dreams. He is somehow hurt in a spiritual way by this man, and he continues traveling the next day in a foul mood.
Soon he comes on Artegall, who is seeking Britomart to have revenge on her for whipping his butt in the tournament. When Scudamore figures out this is the same person he thinks has Amoret, they decide to conspire together. At that moment, Britomart shows up (without Amoret) and they all get into a fight. Eventually Brit’s helmet is knocked off and she is revealed as a beautiful woman. Artegall and Scudamore stop what they’re doing and Britomart finally sees Artegall’s face. They all go off to search for Amoret (who Britomart somehow lost) and Brit and Artegall start to fall in love.
Turns out Amoret had been accosted by a savage man who rapes his victims. She and two other women held by this savage man are rescued by Arthur’s old squire, Timias, and Amoret’s sister Belphoebe. After a brief side note involving a miscommunication between Timias and Belphoebe, we find that Arthur shows up to find Amoret and Aemylia (one of the other woman who was kidnapped by the savage man) near death. He helps them and they have some adventures together until Aemylia is reunited with her lover.
Later Arthur is riding with Amoret and they come across a bunch of knights who are all fighting for the love of Florimell (still) as well as Britomart and Scudamore. When the knights turn on Britomart, Arthur intervenes and calms everyone down. Scudamore is then asked how he and Amoret got together.
Scudamore tells a rather out-there story of how he had won a shield from a bunch of knights which somehow meant that he claimed Amoret’s love. He then led Amoret out of a temple of Venus after having gone through various trials (of which Amoret is the prize), even though she doesn’t want to go. Heads up, there’s some feminist problems in this part.
But remember Florimell, the real Florimell? Well she’s been tucked away in a cave for all this time, at the whim of Proteus. Her love, if you recall, was Marinell who had been injured by Brit. But one day it so happens that Marinell’s mother, Cymodoce, is attending a big ocean/river party which just happens to be hosted by Proteus. Marinell goes with her though he has to wait outside because he’s half mortal. While there, he hears Florimell’s voice and falls in love. Over the next little while, he’s literally sick with love, and once his mother finds out why, she goes to Neptune for help. Neptune agrees to get Florimell out of Proteus’ lair, and she is taken to Marinell.
Book V tells the story of Artegall, Britomart’s love, who we met in the last book. He’s a knight of Justice, which is the theme for this book. He’s been tasked by the Faerie Queene to accompany a lady named Eirena to free her land from a tyrant named Grantorto. Apart from the two of them they also have a person called Talus, who is kind of a Faerie robot. Don’t ask.
On the way they run into a squire crying over the headless body of a lady. The squire tells them that he had been traveling with another lady, who was carried off by a knight. This nefarious knight had had a lady with him, and he’d cut off her head. So Artegall, being the just man that he is, demands to know where he can find this knight, avenge the dead lady, and bring back the live one. Artegall sends Talus after the knight, who easily finds him, knocks him out, and brings both him and the lady back to Artegall. The knight is named Sanglier, and he claims that the squire killed the lady. Artegall acts as arbiter and suggests (like King Solomon) that they cut the live lady in half so each one can take a portion. Of course, the knight is okay with this but the squire is mortified, thus cluing Artegall as to who is in the right. Sanglier is punished by having to carry the dead lady’s head everywhere.
They run into a dwarf who belonged to Florimell. The dwarf tells them that Florimell is safe and about to marry Marinell, and they’re all happy about this. But the dwarf has been trying to get past a Saracen who blocks a bridge. So Artegall helps him, kills the man, Talus also kills the man’s daughter, and they all go on their way. They later come across a giant who wants to make land, air, and water all equal. Artegall gets into a heated debate about whether this is a good thing, which also kind of turns into an argument about equality in general, with Artegall arguing against it (let’s remember this is the 16th century). Talus kills the giant, then also kills all the people who protest at this. Talus is kind of scary, you guys.
While traveling, they come across Braggadochio with the False Florimell. Artegall is upset that Florimell is with another man when she’s supposed to be with Marinell. But as they come to where Marinell and Florimell were supposed to be married, they find he’s fighting a bunch of men for the real Florimell’s hand. Artegall steps in and helps. Braggadochio later reveals the False Florimell, and everyone is astounded, but False Florimell melts away when she comes into contact with the real Florimell. Oddly, at that moment, Sir Guyon shows up and attacks Braggadochio for stealing his horse way back in book 2. So Talus punishes Braggadochio by breaking his armor, marking his face, and exposing him as a coward.
After serving as arbiter for some other people, Artegall comes across some warlike women who are about to hang a man. He stops them and the man, Sir Turpine, tells them that about an Amazon woman who makes men dress in women’s clothing and do women’s work, and they are hanged if they resist, which is what Artegall just prevented. Turpine leads them to the Amazons, and Artegall and Talus fight with them all day until the Amazon leader asks to face Artegall in single combat the next day.
Well, Artegall looses the fight because he won’t hurt a woman, so he’s forced to wear women’s clothing like all the rest. However, it turns out both the Amazon leader and her maid both develop crushes on Artegall, who has none of it because he’s loyal to Britomart.
Which is the perfect transition to come back to Britomart. She is worried about Artegall, and one day she runs into Talus (who had escaped from the Amazons). She goes on a rampage to find him, killing several people in the process who try to stop her. After a brief stop at a temple of Isis of all people, she eventually kills the Amazon queen, barely stops Talus from exterminating all the rest, and rescues Artegall. But Artegall is determined to continue on his original quest, so Britomart mopes about wishing she could be with him more.
As Artegall continues, he saves a woman from two knights with the help of Arthur who also shows up. The lady says the two knights had belonged to an evil lady named Adicia, who had sent the two knights after the girl after she had brought them a message of peace. Artegall and Arthur decide they’re going to help the lady and her good queen by taking out the bad lady and her evil husband. So Arthur and Artegall dress up as the two dead knights, they go back to the evil castle and Arthur fights its king, named Souldan, to the death. Adicia seeks revenge and goes crazy, eventually roaming the world and becoming a tiger. Artegall chases out all the evil people and he and Arthur claim the place.
They eventually accompany the lady they had previously rescued (named Samient) to her queen, Queen Mercilla. While traveling, Samient tells them of another villain nearby, and naturally Arthur and Artegall want to do something about him. So they take care of that monster as well. Side quest: complete. When they finally arrive at Mercilla’s place, who just happens to be judging an important trial of none other than Duessa, from books 1-3. After presenting all the evidence, everyone agrees that she is guilty.
While they’re hanging out at Mercilla’s castle, several young men arrive and tell them of a tyrant that they want help getting rid of. Arthur decides to go with them and, as one might expect, rids the land of the tyrant. He then fights a large sphinx-like monster and destroys it as well.
But Artegall has finally gotten back to the original quest he started the book with, to help a princess named Eirene to get rid of a tyrant named Grantorto. He first finds out that Eirene has been taken captive by Grantorto and will be executed in ten days if he doesn’t do something about it. After a brief side mission where Artegall argues with a knight about losing his shield (a big no-no) and Talus slaughters a bunch of peasants, they take a ship to Eirene’s land (probably Ireland).
Artegall has several battles against Grantorto and his men, but eventually he kills the tyrant and puts Eirene back on the rightful throne. But as they are proceeding back to the Faerie Queen, they are attacked by some monstrous people, including a big multi-headed monster called the Blatant Beast. But Artegall chooses to simply ignore them somehow and proceed on his merry way.
The theme of book six is courtesy, though it is really more about not being slothful, which we’ll see in a bit. Our knight is Sir Calidore, who starts out the book by running into Artegall, who has just escaped from the Blatent Beast, which is perfect because Calidore is searching for this beast. Artegall tells him what he knows, and the two part ways. Calidore continues his quest until he runs into a castle where all women and men are shaved to make a blanket of human hair (gross). Calidore defeats the main lord of the castle, beats him, and sets everything right.
Next, Calidore comes across a lady and young man who had just killed a knight. The young man and the lady tell him that the knight deserved to die, since he was dragging the lady along forcibly as he rode on horseback. Apparently he had come across another knight/lady pair, and had so desired this new lady that he’d wounded the other knight, and when the lady he desired ran off, he became so mad that he began abusing his own lady. So Calidore agrees the knight deserved to die. Also, turns out this young man who killed the knight is none other than Tristan from the Tristan and Isolde legends.
Calidore catches up with the wounded knight and his lady and helps them get settled back at their home before setting off again. He later finds a knight named Celepine and his lady, Serena. But they are attacked by the Blatent Beast who nearly kills Serena. Calidore chases after the beast and Celepine tries to help his love, taking her to a castle where a very rude knight forbids them entrance. He eventually fights with this knight and also a wild man shows up to help. Weird.
Anyway, Celepine is doing better but Serena is not. So one day Celepine is wandering around and sees a bear carrying a human child in its mouth. So he follows and kills the bear to save the child. But he becomes lost in the process. As he’s trying to get back to civilization he comes across a woman named Matilda who is crying because she has no heir. Celepine feels bad for her so he gives her the baby he conveniently found and continues on to try and find Serena again.
Meanwhile Serena is hanging out with the savage or wild man, looking for Celepine, when they come across Prince Arthur and his squire, Timias. Timias (who had previously been living happily with Belphoebe) had been lured away and wounded by the Blatent Beast. They agree to team up to look for a cure for both Timias and Serena (who can’t be cured by regular means). They arrive at a hermitage and leave the two wounded people with a hermit. Arthur and the wild man continue on their own.
The hermit tells Timias and Serena that their real illness is that they just need to live good, virtuous lives and they’ll be fine, which is actually true. So they cure right up and continue traveling together. Meanwhile Arthur and the wild man go to avenge Serena of the hurt done to her by the rude knight for not helping them earlier. Arthur and the wild man beat this knight and stay the night in his castle. But the rude knight is still alive and plotting his revenge. This rude knight, by the way, is called Turpine. Turpine pursues Arthur and the wild man, but ends up failing and getting hung upside down from a tree for his treachery.
Meanwhile Serena and Timias find a poor woman named Mirabella being harassed by a giant named Disdain and a fool named Scorn. Timias tries to help, but ends up getting knocked out by Distain. Serena runs away in fear. Mirabella and Timias later get saved by Arthur, the wild man, and another knight. Poor Serena eventually gets picked up by cannibals and is barely saved by her lover Celepine right before she’s about to be offered as a sacrifice to some pagan god.
But we need to get back to Calidore. The knight has been tracking the Blatant Beast for a while now. Exhausted from his chase, he spends some time recovering with a family of shepherds. Turns out this family has a daughter named Pastorella, and Calidore falls head over heals for her. He ends up spending quite some time with these people, eventually gaining Pastorella’s favor but earning the jealousy of her suitors, particularly a man named Coridon.
One day, Calidore comes across a bunch of fairy ladies dancing on a beautiful hill, and unfortunately he startles them and they run away. One of these was apparently Gloriana, the Faerie Queen herself. When Calidore comes back, Pastorella is attacked by a tiger, and Calidore saves her, cementing her love for him. But unfortunately that love is not to last, because Pastorella and her whole family is later taken by bandits.
Calidore meets Coridon, who had escaped the bandits, and is told that a fight had broken out among the bandits and Coridon assumes everyone including Pastorella is dead. Calidore is mortified at this news, but they decide to go to the bandits on the off chance that she could still be alive. She is, and so Calidore and Coridon rescue her, kill a lot of bandits, and set everything right.
Calidore leaves Pastorella in the care of a nice noble couple he knows, then leaves to find the Blatant Beast. Turns out, Pastorella is the long-lost daughter of this couple, so that worked out splendidly. Calidore ends up finding the Blatant Beast, defeating him, tying him up, and parading him around Faerie Land. Though it is said that one day the Blatant Beast will escape.
The Unfinished Book VII and Beyond
There are unfinished fragments of what might have been Book 7 of The Faerie Queene that Spenser never finished. These are called The Mutabilitie Cantos. Though Spenser never finished the book, these fragments introduce a new character known as Titaness Mutabilitie, who has lofty ambitions to basically become the goddess of all the heavens. Interesting stuff.
But Spenser never finished that story, nor would he get to the other books that he had intended to write. He had originally planned on having 12 books, each with a different moral theme as the first six had. But that ambition never happened.
It is my goal to do the next best thing. My Faerie Queen series attempts to loosely adapt these first six books into stories that adhere to traditional story beats and fantasy tropes, in a sense updating Spenser’s vision for a modern audience. We hope to one day write six more, just as Spenser originally intended. But that story will have to wait for another time…
Characters in The Faerie Queene
- Arthur, Prince
- Palmer, The
- Redcrosse Knight
- Squire of Dames
- Witch and Her Son