The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Book 1, Cantos 1–3 | Summary



Book 1, Proem and Canto 1

Typical of works of past centuries, Spenser provides a proem, a sort of preview, at the beginning of each book, telling what it will concern. In Book 1 this "overview" says "Contayning the Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Holinesse."

The proem explains that the Muse has asked the poet to tell the story of knights and ladies in Faery land. Although the poet feels unfit for the task, he still pledges to complete it with the help of Cupid the god of love and Mars the god of war. Finally, he asks the "Great Lady of the greatest Isle," the Faerie Queene Gloriana, to look on him with favor.

Book 1 chronicles the adventures of the Redcrosse Knight who represents the virtue of holiness. Canto 1 begins with a description of the Redcrosse Knight. The knight wears a cross on his shield as a memory of "his dying Lord," Jesus. Gloriana, the queen of Faery land, has sent the Redcrosse Knight on a task to defeat a dragon. He travels with Una, an innocent woman of royal descent, and a dwarf. The dragon has ravaged Una's kingdom, and she wants to help get revenge.

A rainstorm arises, and the travelers take shelter in a glade. Once the storm ends they search for a path in the woods but quickly get lost. They find a cave, and the Redcrosse Knight enters, although Una and the dwarf warn him the monster Error lives within. Error, a dreadful creature, who is half woman and half serpent, captures the knight easily. Una calls to the Redcrosse Knight to strangle Error. He does, and Error spews vomit full of books, papers, and serpents. The knight is shocked to see the serpents greedily drinking Error's blood and growing. But the serpents drink so much they destroy themselves. Una congratulates the knight on his victory over the monster.

The group keeps traveling and meets the evil wizard Archimago in disguise as an old man. He invites them to take shelter in his hermitage. They enjoy his stories of saints and popes. But after the travelers go to sleep, Archimago begins his wicked magic. He calls on Morpheus, the god of dreams, to plant false visions in the sleepers' minds.

The Redcrosse Knight has dreams of love and lust. He wakes, though enchanted, to a false version of Una who is actually a sprite sent by Archimago, trying to seduce him. He's repulsed and confused, since he thought Una was pure.

Book 1, Canto 2

The false Una, who is really an evil sprite, reports to Archimago that the Redcrosse Knight didn't give in to temptation. Archimago tries again, this time creating a false squire to lie with the false Una. Then Archimago wakes the knight and shows him proof of his lady's unfaithfulness. Enraged, the Redcrosse Knight takes the dwarf and departs, leaving Una to wander the woods alone. Archimago wants to trick Una further and disguises himself as the Redcrosse Knight.

The real Redcrosse Knight meets an evil knight named Sansfoy traveling with the lady Fidessa. The two battle, and the Redcrosse Knight kills Sansfoy. A grieving Fidessa tells the Redcrosse Knight her sad story; she was betrothed to a prince who died young. The Redcrosse Knight is moved and takes Fidessa with him.

When the Redcrosse Knight picks tree branches to make a garland for Fidessa's head, the tree wounds him. To his surprise the tree cries out for him to stop and leave Fidessa. The tree was once a man named Fradubio. Fidessa, who is actually the sorceress Duessa, turned Fradubio into a tree after he fell for her charms. In her true form, Duessa looks like a filthy old woman. The Redcrosse Knight is distressed by the story but continues to travel with Fidessa (Duessa).

Book 1, Canto 3

Una is still wandering the woods alone. She meets a lion who becomes her protector. With the lion's help Una seeks shelter with an old woman named Corceca and her daughter Abessa. Kirkrapine, a thief, visits the house at night. Kirkrapine regularly robs churches and brings Corceca and Abessa the spoils. This time the lion kills Kirkrapine before he can enter. Abessa and Corceca feel devastated the next morning to find Kirkrapine dead. They seek Archimago's help to call down curses on Una.

Continuing her travels, Una meets Archimago disguised as the Redcrosse Knight. She thinks she's reunited with her knight and rejoices. The two encounter Sansfoy's brother Sansloy, who believes Archimago is the knight who killed his brother. Sansloy vows revenge and attacks, but stops when he realizes the knight is truly Archimago, a sorcerer he respects. When Sansloy approaches Una, the lion leaps to defend her. But, Sansloy kills the lion and forces Una to accompany him.


The Book 1 proem, or preface, has the lofty task of opening an epic. Spenser employs the classical epic opening by calling on the Muses to inspire him. Like the Roman poet Virgil before him, Spenser leaves behind pastoral poems for the more demanding epic form. He describes his switch from the "Oaten reeds" of pastoral poetry to the heraldic trumpets of heroic poetry. But, as Spenser also writes a romance of knights, ladies, and courtly love, he calls for the assistance of Cupid, the winged god of love, along with Mars, the god of war.

In addition to its epic scope and romantic whimsy, the book provides an allegory where characters represent abstract ideas. Spenser's allegory uses both historical and moral aspects. Many plot twists symbolize historical events in England, and many characters represent different virtues and vices.

Gloriana, the revered queen of Faery land, represents the historical figure of Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser's royal patron, Queen Elizabeth, has become a paragon of virtue and royal grace. The proem mentions Tanaquill, a legendary Roman queen and prophetess whose glory Spenser compares to Elizabeth.

The Redcrosse Knight stands for both the virtue of holiness and the mythological figure of Saint George, the 3rd-century martyr. The patron saint of England, Saint George modeled selflessness as a Christian who died for his faith. The cross on the Redcrosse Knight's shield is traditional Christian iconography. The Christian Gospel tells the story of Jesus the son of God dying on a cross to save mankind. The cross signals the faith and allegiance of its wearer. The Redcrosse Knight's armor also has a biblical basis, which Spenser mentions in his introductory letter. The book of Ephesians lists pieces of armor believers should wear to protect themselves from the devil. Each piece of armor is linked to a virtue. The biblical list works metaphorically—it does not refer to a real suit of armor but to a mental mindset. Spenser makes the metaphor literal with the Redcrosse Knight. He believes Catholic forces attack the Protestant. In the Redcrosse Knight, the poet writes a warrior for true religion.

Like the knights who follow him, the Redcrosse Knight has the battle readiness and strength of an epic hero. Spenser frequently borrows a technique from Greek poet Homer—the extended or Homeric metaphor running several lines long. Homer and other poets use these metaphors to exalt their heroes through long, artistic descriptions of their skill. Fittingly Spenser uses extended metaphors in battle scenes beginning in Canto 2, Stanza 16 as the Redcrosse Knight faces off with Sansfoy.

Redcrosse benefits from the aid of a companion. Una, whose castle is besieged by a dragon, stands for the purity of the one true Church—which Spenser believes to be the Protestant Church of England. The name Una derives from the Latin word for one. Spenser's characters frequently have symbolic names. She's in mourning, and her black clothes reflect her sorrow at the loss of her kingdom. But, her lamb is a Christian emblem of innocence and the suffering of Jesus, showing Una is just as devoted as Redcrosse.

Though the characters are guided by faith, they don't immediately find their way. The detailed descriptions of the trees are borrowed from English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's (c.1342–1400) Canterbury Tales. The many trees create a diverse world where someone can easily become lost. Italian epic poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), who has a similar Christian vision, begins his epic poem The Divine Comedy (written 1308–14) with his hero lost in a dark wood just as Redcrosse is. Like Dante's hero, Redcrosse will move from darkness to light.

His initial missteps may reflect how the Protestant Church, according to Spenser, let itself be corrupted by Catholic influence. Mistakenly, the Redcrosse Knight thinks he can defeat Error on his own. Instead, he confronts a flood of false teachings. The books and papers the monster vomits represent theological treatises defending Catholicism. Spenser thinks the true religion is not up for debate. Error's spawn resemble the frogs coming from the mouths of false prophets in the biblical book of Revelation, a source Spenser returns to in Book 1 for images of evil. The quick birth of the spawn shows how easily false doctrines spread. But, their death from Error's blood signals how spontaneously these doctrines often self-destruct.

Archimago presents a more challenging foe. His name, which means "false image," isn't revealed until the poet shows Archimago's power in hell. At first, he appears wise with the authority of age. He seems faithful, leading the Redcrosse Knight and Una to a chapel. Only when Archimago begins to praise saints and popes, all Catholic figures, does Spenser indicate something is wrong. Archimago also prays the Ave Maria, a Catholic prayer. His beads are the rosary beads of Catholicism.

Spenser associates Archimago with the pope, the head of the Catholic Church. However, his version of the pope is a dark one. Spenser compares the rituals of Catholicism to the occultism of magic, a practice associated with pagan or pre-Christian religions. (In fact, Catholicism did integrate some pagan rituals as early as the 4th century CE, when Pope Julius I fixed the December 25th date for Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Christ, to align with annual pagan festivals that celebrate reaching midwinter. Since then many customs from Greek, Druid, Roman, and Celtic cultures have been mixed with Christianity.) Protestants in Spenser's time went further. They connected the pope's role to the Antichrist, a formidable foe of the Church. And Spenser puts Archimago in league with hell itself. By shaming the true God, Archimago awakens the gods of the underworld in classical mythology, including Hades—called by his Roman name Pluto—and the fearsome Gorgon.

Archimago attacks Redcrosse where he knows it will hurt. Knights value purity, chastity, loyalty, and truth. By encouraging the Redcrosse Knight to indulge impure sexual desire and to doubt Una, Archimago compromises the knight's heroism.

The Redcrosse Knight is further challenged by the three evil brothers Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy. The Latin prefix sans indicates lack. Respectively the brothers' names mean someone without faith, without law, and without joy. Sansfoy, the first brother, despises the Redcrosse Knight's faith and his cross in particular. Their descent from Night and Aveugle, or Blindness, suggests the three brothers represent the process of spiritual blindness. The Redcrosse Knight risks losing faith, losing religious law, and finally losing joy or his own spirit. Spenser often calls enemy knights Paynims or Sarazins, both words referring to a pagan, or someone who doesn't believe in the Christian faith.

The introduction of Duessa hints at further challenges. Like Archimago, she appears in the disguise of someone faithful. Duessa and her shape-shifting nature represent the Catholic Church as a false sorceress. She's also identified with the biblical figure of the "Whore of Babylon," a female figure symbolizing evil in the Book of Revelation. Other Protestants linked Rome, the seat of Catholicism, to the Whore of Babylon. In a later canto, Duessa rides a beast similar to the scarlet beast the Whore of Babylon rides.

Her appeal as a young, pure woman represents the allure of the false church. Fradubio, whose name means "Brother Doubt" in Italian, is unsure of his faith and falls into her trap. Though Fradubio warns the Redcrosse Knight about Duessa's danger the reader isn't yet sure if Redcrosse believes him.

Una, his true lady, suffers without protection. Women are often in peril when the book's central virtue is under threat. For a while, the lion guarantees her safety. Lions stand for power and strength and can even represent defenders of the Christian faith. Una's lion inspires fear in the hearts of Abessa and Corceca who find their religion under threat. Corceca engages in Catholic ritual prayers—the Pater Noster ("Our Father") and Aves ("Hail Mary")—and uses rosary beads. Abessa has the name of an abbess or head in a Catholic monastery. She and Corceca live in darkness representing the spiritual blindness Spenser observes in Catholic practices. Spenser believes rigorous worship rituals aren't necessary for true faith; they should be replaced by good deeds and genuine devotion. This mindset is a form of Christian humanism, an early 16th-century movement discarding rituals in favor of simple belief in Christ's love.

Kirkrapine, the church thief in league with Abessa and Corceca, hints at more sinister dealings in the Catholic Church. His name combines kirk, an informal Scottish name for a church, with the word "rapine" or violent theft. To Spenser, Catholic nations and rulers encourage corruption while devotees like Abessa and Corceca benefit. At the same time, the hero and his lady both remain in the company of deceivers, still wandering in darkness.

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