English Literature
The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene

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The Faerie Queene: An Epic Poem and Literary Influence

In 1596, Edmund Spenser, serving as Secretary to the Deputy of Ireland, wrote The Faerie Queene with the intention of gaining favor with Queen Elizabeth and securing a place in court. As a prominent literary figure in the 16th century, Spenser's work also left a lasting impact on renowned poets such as John Milton and John Keats.

The Historical and Literary Context of The Faerie Queene

To understand Spenser's motivations for writing The Faerie Queene, we must delve into the time period in which he wrote. During this era, Spenser drew inspiration from medieval romance, incorporating allegory and his own unique form of poetry into his series of romantic tales.

Named the Spenserian Stanza, this form of poetry combined elements of classical and English verse and was used in all six books of The Faerie Queene. Although critics at the time deemed his work outdated, as it focused on knights, damsels, and fantastical creatures rather than popular genres and styles derived from Greek and Roman literature, Spenser's work remained popular and even earned him a pension from Queen Elizabeth.

An Overview of Medieval Romance

Medieval Romance was a popular genre during the Middle Ages, often centered around Arthurian legends. The basic plot typically involved a questing knight facing various dangers before confronting a powerful enemy. The reward for the knight's victory was often a lady's hand, or the rescue of one. These knights embodied the chivalrous virtues of the court, warrior, and Christianity, displaying respect, bravery, and piety through their actions and behavior. A well-known example of a medieval romance is Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.

The Allegory in The Faerie Queene

Spenser was renowned for his use of allegory in The Faerie Queene, employing characters and symbols to convey moral, political, and religious ideas. This literary device was often used to educate or make statements about the political and religious aspects of the time.

The Structure and Style of The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene is an epic poem comprised of 36,000 lines and over 4,000 stanzas. Each stanza is written in the Spenserian Stanza, consisting of nine lines with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the final line in iambic hexameter. In iambic pentameter, each line contains ten syllables with the stress falling on every second syllable. Iambic hexameter is similar, but has twelve syllables instead of ten.

The Historical Climate

During Spenser's lifetime, the Church of England was the official religion, and Catholics were marginalized and persecuted. This break from the Catholic Church occurred during the reign of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, and briefly reverted to Catholicism under the infamous "Bloody Mary." The tension between Protestants and Catholics often erupted into violent conflicts.

Catholic-Protestant Tensions in English Society

Although England was predominantly Protestant during Queen Elizabeth's reign, she also ruled over Ireland, where the majority of the population were Catholics. The Protestant rulers in Ireland oppressed and looked down upon their Catholic subjects, leading to tension and violence. As someone who spent most of his life in Ireland as the Secretary to the Deputy, Spenser was greatly influenced by the Irish countryside, which is reflected in his natural descriptions in The Faerie Queene. However, he was not fond of the Irish people or their faith, as evidenced by a scathing letter he wrote on the state of Ireland and his portrayal of the Catholic Church as a destitute institution in The Faerie Queene.

A Brief Overview of The Faerie Queene

The first book of The Faerie Queene follows the quest of the Knight of the Red Crosse (or of Holiness) and his companion Una, as they seek to defeat a dragon on behalf of Queen Glorianna.

Book I: The Red Cross Knight and Una

The epic poem "The Faerie Queene" follows the journey of various knights as they fight against evil to uphold the virtues of chivalry. In Book I, the main character is the Red Cross Knight, who is accompanied by the virtuous Una. However, their journey takes a dangerous turn when they encounter the female monster Errour and must seek refuge in the woods. There they meet the deceiving sorcerer Archimago, who convinces the Red Cross Knight that Una is unfaithful. Believing her to be sinful, the Red Cross Knight decides to leave her.

The Tale of Sir Artegall and Sir Scudamore in The Faerie Queene

In the mystical land of Faerie, two valiant knights, Sir Artegall and Sir Scudamore, engage in a fierce battle of strength and courage. As the fight intensifies, a third warrior, Britomart, suddenly appears and reveals herself as a woman. This revelation leads to unexpected consequences as both knights develop strong feelings towards her. But as Artegall declares his love for Britomart, he sets off on a quest, leaving her and Scudamore behind.

Meanwhile, Britomart and Scudamore must confront their own issues and embark on an adventure to save Amoret, Britomart's former companion, from the clutches of a wild man. Along the way, they reunite with the famed King Arthur, who agrees to help them on their quest. As they journey together, Scudamore and Amoret's love is rekindled.

Book V: The Quest for Justice

In the fifth book of The Faerie Queene, the focus shifts to Sir Artegall and his quest to save Princess Irena from the giant Grantorto and restore justice to her kingdom. Accompanied by his trusty companion Talus, Sir Artegall encounters various forms of injustice, fulfilling his duty as the knight of Justice. Along with saving the princess, he takes it upon himself to right the wrongs in the kingdom, fulfilling his duty to Queen Glorianna.

In The Faerie Queene, Artegall, the knight of Justice, resolves a dispute between a knight and a squire. He ensures that the knight is punished for the murder of the squire's wife, while also protecting the squire's lady. Artegall also comes to the aid of Sir Guyon and Florimell, after a knight named Bragaddochio steals Guyon's horse and humiliates Florimell.

During a fierce battle, Artegall faces the Amazon Radingund and falls prey to her seductive advances. However, he remains faithful to his love for Britomart and is ultimately rescued by her. Despite his ordeal, Artegall continues on his quest and meets Arthur along the way, as they journey towards Princess Irena's kingdom.

Book VI: The Quest for Courtesy

The final book in The Faerie Queene follows Calidore, the knight of Courtesy, on his quest to defeat his nemesis, the Blatant Beast, who represents slander and lies. Similar to Artegall's restoration of justice, Calidore takes it upon himself to correct the discourteous behavior of other knights.

However, Calidore's journey is interrupted when he encounters a group of shepherds. Enchanted by their simple and peaceful way of life, Calidore abandons his role as a knight and becomes a shepherd. He also falls in love with a shepherdess named Pastorella, which ignites the jealousy of another admirer named Coridon.

When Pastorella is kidnapped by bandits, Calidore bravely saves her and brings her to the castle of Bellamoure and Claribell, who turn out to be her long-lost parents. Meanwhile, Calidore continues his quest to find and subdue the Blatant Beast, with the help of his shield and a muzzle. The beast is then paraded throughout the land as a symbol of the consequences of discourtesy. However, it eventually escapes and remains at large, prompting Spenser to reflect on the impact of slander and lies on society and ask for forgiveness in his own work.

Characters and Analysis in The Faerie Queene

The main protagonist, Red Crosse, represents the virtue of holiness and is often associated with St. George, the patron saint of England. His red cross on his hauberk is a nod to the English flag. In the story, holiness is portrayed as living according to the true religion, specifically the Church of England, while the Catholic Church is depicted as deceptive and manipulative through the character of Errour.

Errour, the antagonist, symbolizes the Catholic Church, often portrayed as spreading propaganda and attempting to manipulate Red Crosse. This is depicted in the story when Errour ensnares Red Crosse and it is only with the help of Una, representing truth, that he is able to break free and fight against the deceptive practices of the Church.

The Symbolism of Virtues in Spenser's Faerie Queene

In Spenser's epic poem, Faerie Queene, the characters and their virtues hold deeper symbolic meanings. Among these characters, Una, Duessa, Guyon, Britomart, Archimago, Artegall, Arthur, and Calidore represent various medieval virtues and themes. Through their journeys, Spenser also conveys his criticism of the Catholic Church and emphasizes the importance of moral virtue.


Una, meaning "one" in Latin, is the embodiment of truth and represents the idea of the True Church being united. Spenser's use of her as a symbol is significant as he goes on to portray the Catholic Church, whom he believed to be deceptive and exploitative, as the opposite of Una.


Duessa symbolizes falsehood and the False Church. She is often compared to Bloody Mary and meets a similar fate, as she is ultimately beheaded. Through Duessa, Spenser highlights his criticism of the Catholic Church's abuse of doctrine and manipulation of virtues.


Guyon represents the virtue of Temperance, emphasizing the importance of moderation during the medieval period. This virtue highlights the significance of not overindulging and not judging others for their choices.


Britomart embodies the knightly virtue of Chastity, reflecting the belief that sexuality should only exist within the confines of marriage. She is portrayed as the heroine of the epic, emphasizing the importance of this virtue in leading a righteous life.


Archimago, dressed like a friar or monk, symbolizes the Catholic Church in the poem.

In Edmund Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene, the character of Artegall represents God's justice and the importance of correcting injustices within the kingdom. Meanwhile, Arthur symbolizes the culmination of all knightly virtues, emphasizing the value of striving towards these virtues. Similarly, the knight Calidore represents courtesy and reminds us of the significance of treating others with kindness and respect.

The Main Themes of The Faerie Queene

Allegory and Medieval Romance

The Faerie Queene follows the medieval romance tradition, with the knights' quests serving as an allegory for the Christian journey of staying true to virtuous beliefs and overcoming sin.

Religious Superiority

Spenser uses the poem to highlight his belief in the supremacy of the Anglican Church. The False Church and its deceitful nature serve as a cautionary tale, warning against straying from the True Church.

Moral Virtues

The underlying message of The Faerie Queene is the importance of emulating noble virtues and living a good Christian life. Holiness and chastity are emphasized as the most prominent virtues, with Britomart being portrayed as the true heroine of the story.

The Symbolism and Allusion of Christian Marriage in The Faerie Queene

Spenser uses the character of Britomart to celebrate Christian marriage throughout the poem. The knights who resist sexual temptation are ultimately saved by her, while those who succumb often meet a tragic fate. Additionally, many characters in the poem delay being together until they are married and have completed a quest, emphasizing the value of marriage and moral restraint.

Allusions to Politics, Religion, and the Bible

Spenser uses allusions to political and religious figures, as well as the Bible, throughout The Faerie Queene. These allusions serve to portray Catholics and their allies as enemies of the state and servants of the Devil, while praising Queen Elizabeth. Spenser's work also serves as anti-Catholic propaganda, a means for him to gain favor with the queen and secure a position in her court. The allusions would have been well-received by those in power, as Catholicism was not accepted in court at the time.

The Significance of Clothing Red Crosse with the Armor of God

Red Crosse's armor, described as old yet mighty and filled with dents from previous battles, is a direct reference to St. Paul's Armor of God. This serves as an encouragement for Christians to emulate Red Crosse's character and actions, making him a role model for others. This would have been well-received at the time, with many aspiring to embody such Christian virtues. The first book of The Faerie Queene can also be seen as Red Crosse's journey to learn how to resist the devil's schemes, further highlighting the significance of his armor.

The Faerie Queene - A Symbolic Medieval Romance by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene was written by Edmund Spenser, a 16th century English royal secretary, in honor of Queen Elizabeth. It is an allegorical poem that follows the adventures of knights on a quest for chivalry and virtue.

  • Spenser's inspiration for The Faerie Queene came from his desire to praise the queen and promote her reign.
  • The poem is a total of six books, with each book having its own distinct plot, but all following the general structure of a medieval romance.
  • However, Spenser was never able to complete his epic masterpiece, leaving it unfinished at just over 36,000 lines.
  • The characters in The Faerie Queene are representations of Christian virtues, such as Holiness, Chastity, Temperance, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy.

Interesting Facts about The Faerie Queene

  • With its grand total of 36,000 lines, The Faerie Queene is one of the longest poems in the English language.
  • Spenser's use of allegory and symbolism throughout the poem has made it a staple in English literature and a classic example of Renaissance writing.
  • The Faerie Queene has been interpreted in many ways over the years, with some critics seeing it as a commentary on the political and religious climate of Spenser's time.
  • Through the journeys of his knights, Spenser addresses the importance of moral virtues and the consequences of giving in to temptation.

To Sum It Up,

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser is a masterpiece that explores complex themes and moral lessons through the guise of a medieval romance. Through its enduring popularity and relevance, it has solidified its place in literary history and continues to captivate readers to this day.

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