The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Book 1, Cantos 4–6 | Summary



Book 1, Canto 4

The Redcrosse Knight is still traveling with Fidessa, now revealed to be the sorceress Duessa. They enter the House of Pride, a grand castle built on a flimsy foundation. Lucifera, the queen of the house, sits with a dragon at her feet. She holds a bright mirror that she often uses to look at herself. Lucifera rules the kingdom with tyranny and aspires to godliness. Six wizards advise her.

The residents of the house greet and entertain Duessa and the Redcrosse Knight. Lucifera calls for her magnificent coach, pulled by her six wizards riding six beasts. The beasts represent six deadly sins—Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath. Satan follows at the end. Duessa joins the coach and rides by Lucifera. But the Redcrosse Knight, who dislikes the people at the castle, walks away.

He meets Sansjoy, the third brother of Sansfoy and Sansloy. Sansjoy also seeks vengeance on the Redcrosse Knight for killing Sansfoy. The two battle until Lucifera stops them. They pledge to continue their battle the next morning. At night, Duessa warns Sansjoy the Redcrosse Knight has an enchanted shield and armor. She pledges her loyalty to Sansjoy.

Book 1, Canto 5

The Redcrosse Knight and Sansjoy battle in the morning. As the Redcrosse Knight prepares to defeat Sansjoy, a dark cloud covers Sansjoy, and he disappears. The castle praises the Redcrosse Knight as the winner of the battle.

As night falls, Duessa pleads with the goddess Night to save Sansjoy. Night takes Sansjoy to the underworld where the healer Aesculapius cures him. Aesculapius was condemned to hell for bringing a man back from the dead, which threatened the gods' power.

When Duessa returns to the House of Pride, the Redcrosse Knight is gone. The dwarf told the knight about the castle's dungeon where prideful men and women are held captive. Fearing danger, the Redcrosse Knight left as soon as possible.

Book 1, Canto 6

Sansloy still holds Una captive. He tries and fails to seduce her. They find a group of fauns and satyrs in the woods who take pity on the distressed Una and bring her to their leader Sylvanus. The creatures worship Una despite her protests.

Soon Satyrane, a famous warrior who is a satyr, half man and half goat, comes to visit his family. He and Una become friends. She tells Satyrane she seeks the Redcrosse Knight, and he decides to help her.

Una and Saytrane meet Archimago disguised as a pilgrim. He lies to them and says the Redcrosse Knight died in battle with Sansloy. Satyrane vows revenge. Archimago takes the two to Sansloy, who denies the story but fights Satyrane anyway. Una runs off, afraid of Sansloy. Archimago chases her.


Duessa easily tires of the hard path, signaling she isn't ready for the challenges of true faith. The biblical gospel of Matthew indicates the broad and easy way is the path to destruction. The Redcrosse Knight hasn't caught on to her true identity despite the poet's Book 1, Canto 4 warning for knights to be wary of fraud.

The broad path leads Redcrosse to a stop most of the knights will make—a place celebrating the vice opposed to the book's central virtue. Though Spenser doesn't follow Aristotle's program exactly, he imitates the concept of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics where each virtue has an enemy vice. To Spenser, the enemy of holiness is pride. And the castle, like Duessa, is deceptive. It looks well-built but it rests on a weak foundation. Lucifera has a similar gloss; she shines more brightly than her throne does. Her light amazes everyone, showing the deceptive allure of the proud.

Lucifera is named after Lucifer, the proud angel who was cast out of heaven for wanting to ascend to God's throne. Lucifer eventually became Satan, the biblical devil. The origin story of Satan led many early Christians to call pride the original or first sin. Following this tradition Spenser relates Lucifera to Pluto and Proserpina, the king and queen of hell in Greek myth. He also indicates Lucifera is not the rightful ruler of any kingdom.

Her six advisors round out the seven deadly sins, each with a beast representing their sin. Pride itself is the seventh sin. According to medieval theologians, pride is the gateway sin opening the door to all others. Each stanza uses animal symbolism and graphic descriptions to give each vice its own personality. Personification or human representation of an abstract quality is a frequent device in Spenser's allegory. Many characters are named specifically after the vice they represent. The seven deadly sins are exaggerated for effect. Gluttony can't stop eating, Avarice guards a heap of gold, and Lechery loves every woman he sees.

After seeing a parade of evil, the Redcrosse Knight is ready to fight for the cause of good. Spenser repeats the phrase "So th'one for wrong, the other strives for right" in Canto 5, Stanzas 8–9 as Redcrosse and Sansjoy battle. This repetition emphasizes the high stakes. Even though the Redcrosse Knight is battling for righteousness he's still living in sin; he's with the false Duessa. He can't defeat Sansjoy, who represents the loss of joy or the last stage of spiritual death.

At this point, Duessa is more powerful than the Redcrosse Knight. She calls on Night, a pre-Olympian goddess considered the oldest of the gods in Greek tradition. Night existed before the world itself. Spenser portrays her as a primal source of evil with her own frightening wisdom. She has predictions for "the sonnes of Day" or the faithful elfin knights in Faery land. Though they may be winning now she believes they will suffer later. The introduction of Night bolsters Spenser's portrayal of the sinister yet powerful forces the Redcrosse Knight faces.

Hell provides its own catalog of horrors. Manipulation reigns. Duessa convinces the doomed healer Aesculapius to complete the same process he was cast into hell for, telling him he has no hope anyway. Mythological characters face eternal torture for their crimes. Ixion is bound to a wheel of iron; Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a mountain eternally. When he's describing the underworld, Spenser follows in the footsteps of epic writers like the Greek poet Homer and the Italian poet Dante. Other poets from the classical and Renaissance eras include "catalogues of the damned" or lists of the residents of hell and their punishments. Roman poet Ovid's (43 BCE–17 CE) Metamorphoses was an especially strong classical influence on Spenser. All poets include a rotating cast of hell's characters and features, like the river Styx or Cerberus the three-headed dog who guards the gates.

The dungeon in the House of Pride is a similar catalogue of the damned. Only this time, the sufferers are kings, queens, and leaders of fallen empires. Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar (12th century BCE) were proud Babylonian rulers described in the Bible. Cleopatra (c. 70–30 BCE) was an Egyptian queen. Alongside these rulers are corrupt consumers of Spenser's own age. He hints they may suffer a similar fate. His larger point, however, is the destruction pride wreaks on nations.

While the Redcrosse Knight struggles to escape evil, Una has a civilizing influence on the wild satyrs of the forest. Satyrs, half man and half goat, were associated with lust and revelry. They honor Cybele, a goddess who ruled over nature and who encouraged wild, abandoned worship rituals. Una is someone different. She discourages the satyrs from committing the sin of idolatry by worshiping her.

And she meets Satyrane, a recurring character who links chivalric knighthood with pagan mythology. His education resembles the story of Greek mythological warrior Achilles who was taught by a centaur. Una takes on the role of Satyrane's human mother by teaching him faith and virtue.

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