The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Book 5, Cantos 1–3 | Summary



Book 5, Proem and Canto 1

The author opens Book 5 with "Contayning the Legend of Artegall, or of Justice."

The proem compares the past "golden age" to the time in which the poet is writing. In the golden age people desired goodness and truth for its own sake. Now that people's morals are corrupted, Virtue has become vice. When the poet looks into the heavens he sees changes in planetary motions. He interprets these changes as signs the gods are forsaking the planet. By contrast the ancient reign of Saturn was a time of peace. People respected justice, the virtue most closely resembling God himself.

But the ancient times did see some wickedness. Heroes rose to defeat it like the knight Artegall whose journey is the subject of Book 5. His quest is to save the maiden Irena from the giant Grantorto. The Faerie Queene selected Artegall for this task because he has been well trained in justice. His mother Astraea, a goddess who lived among mortals, taught him how to tell right from wrong. She also gave Artegall a powerful sword and an assistant—Talus, the iron man.

Artegall and Talus depart on their quest. They find a squire weeping beside a lady. Her head has been cut off. The squire explains he and his lady encountered a cruel knight, Sanglier, who wanted to switch ladies with the squire. When the squire and ladies refused Sanglier stole the squire's lady and cut off his own lady's head in rage.

Artegall finds Sanglier who denies all guilt. But Artegall can tell Sanglier is lying. He asks the knight and squire to abide by his judgment, and they agree. Then he proposes the two divide the dead and living women equally. Whoever disagrees will carry the dead lady's head as punishment.

Sanglier likes this idea and prepares to slay the living lady. But the squire offers to carry the dead lady's head so the living lady won't suffer harm. Artegall decides the squire is worthy of the living lady since he truly cares for her. Talus forces Sanglier to carry his dead lady's head. Gratefully the squire offers his service to Artegall, but Artegall refuses.

Book 5, Canto 2

Dony, the dwarf who sought Florimell in Book 3, encounters Artegall and Talus. He reports Florimell is safe and engaged to be married. Artegall wants to attend the wedding, which is in three days. To get there, however, Dony and Artegall will have to cross a bridge where the powerful, cruel guard Pollente extorts travelers for money. If travelers refuse him he drowns them in the river below. His daughter Munera is his accomplice who steals riches from the dead.

Artegall asks Dony to take him to the bridge. There Artegall kills Pollente after a struggle in the water. He hangs Pollente's head on a pole as a warning to other powerful men not to take advantage of the weak.

He then enters the castle to find Munera. She tempts him unsuccessfully by throwing gold and riches over the castle wall. Talus and Artegall force their way in and kill Munera after chopping off her hands and feet. Artegall destroys the castle and reforms the customs of the bridge.

Continuing on their journey Artegall and Talus see a giant who has gathered a great crowd. The giant has a pair of scales and boasts he can weigh everything in the world equally. He promises to balance the earth and the sea, the fire and the air, and heaven and hell. If he sees any surplus he will restore the substances to equality. He claims human nations also suffer from this problem; some steal the equal share of others.

Artegall believes the giant is taking advantage of his audience. He tells the giant everything was designed in balanced proportion by the creator already. The giant argues the universe is out of order. Seas take up space belonging to the earth. Rich people have far more wealth than the poor. The giant promises to restore equality to the planet and to humanity.

Everything is perfectly balanced by the divine creator's design, Artegall responds. The tides always restore the earth to its rightful place. The creator also sets earthly rulers on their thrones and decides who will have power. How can the giant weigh great things like the wind, Artegall asks, if he can't weigh a single word coming out of his mouth?

When the giant offers to weigh two words, the words fly out of his scale. The giant still insists he can weigh right and wrong correctly. Artegall decides to try his theory. Placing truth and falsehood on the scale, Artegall sees truth outweighs falsehood. He tries again with right and wrong; right outweighs wrong.

The giant is furious. Artegall calms him and says humans must judge right and wrong themselves through their ears and minds. He then challenges the giant to weigh two wrongs on each side. The giant does so and finds them equal; right balances them in the middle.

Artegall realizes the giant isn't interested in justice but in extremes. Talus pushes the giant over a cliff. The crowd gets angry since they expected the giant to bring them riches. They turn on Artegall who doesn't want to get involved. He sends Talus to scare them away instead.

Book 5, Canto 3

The narrative returns to Florimell. After many trials she is about to marry Marinell, her true love. At their wedding feast Marinell and six other knights challenge the others to a joust defending Florimell's honor. Marinell beats all his competitors over three days of fighting. But on the third day the other knights band together and take him prisoner.

Just then Artegall and Braggadocio arrive. Braggadocio is still with the false Florimell who joined him after the tournament in Book 4. Artegall borrows Braggadocio's shield and rescues Marinell from his captors. When the knights want to honor Marinell's rescuer, however, Braggadocio takes credit. He says he fought for his own Florimell and brings the false Florimell forward. Even Marinell is amazed at the resemblance between the two Florimells.

Sick of Braggadocio's boasting, Artegall brings forth his own sword and shows his scars to prove he was actually the victor. He then asks the real Florimell to come forward. When she stands by the false Florimell, the false version melts into nothing. Her golden garland drops to the floor. The audience is in shock. The real Florimell puts on the garland, which fits her perfectly.

At that moment Sir Guyon, the hero of Book 2, comes forward. He wants to get his horse back from Braggadocio. When Braggadocio protests, Artegall asks what happened. Guyon relates how Braggadocio stole his horse in Book 2 after Guyon rescued the infant Ruddymane. At Artegall's request Guyon identifies a black spot in the horse's mouth and speaks the horse's name, calming him. This proves the horse belongs to Guyon.

When Artegall moves to fight the angry Braggadocio, Guyon intervenes and tells Artegall not to waste his time. Braggadocio's shame is punishment enough. Talus, however, shaves Braggadocio's beard and takes his armor. The wedding guests laugh at the strange turn of events.


Greek philosopher Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a jumping-off point for Spenser's description of the virtues, includes justice as a virtue related to the body politic—the people as a group or nation. Justice determines what each member of a society deserves and how they should get along.

Like Aristotle Spenser relates justice to the way rulers govern their people. Spenser believed monarchy or rule by kings and queens was the best form of government. In Canto 10 of the proem he defends the divine appointment and right of monarchs. A king or queen to Spenser was an earthly representation of God. Their law was God's law. Justice, therefore, brought God into human history.

This political belief is why Spenser thinks it's crucial to have the right person on the throne. He views Elizabeth I as a divinely chosen monarch. Book 5 includes a great deal of historical allegory; the enemies Artegall faces represent threats to Elizabeth's reign. By the time he wrote Book 5, though he continued to be loyal, Spenser was growing increasingly dissatisfied with Elizabeth's court. Earlier books glorified her virtues as a ruler. Now he dramatizes her struggle to retain power and the miscarriages of justice that resulted.

When Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene he was living in Ireland, an English colony where Protestants like Spenser struggled to gain ground. Ireland's residents were mostly loyal Catholics who rebelled against British rule. Artegall's main quest to free Irena is an allegory for England's attempt to establish Protestant rule in Ireland. Irena's name derives from Irenius, a name Spenser uses in his history of the country. Grantorto, whose name means "grand wrong," stands for the oppressive forces of injustice Spenser saw in the European domination of Catholicism. A savage giant, Grantorto also signifies Spenser's view of the Irish as wild and uncivilized.

Artegall himself may represent Arthur Lord Grey, the English deputy living in Ireland who worked to stabilize the colony. Spenser spent several years working for Grey. His portrayal of Artegall shows his support for Grey's work in Ireland.

Beyond the historical allegory, Book 5 offers an expansive version of justice. Throughout the book Artegall observes justice in three different forms. As a judge, he doles out reward and punishment—the simplest form of justice. Through Britomart he learns equity, or the ability to use discretion and judge cases not covered by the law. And at the palace of Mercilla he learns mercy, the skill of human and divine forgiveness.

His enforcer Talus represents the strict execution of the law through revenge. The Latin term is lex talionis, also known as "eye for an eye" justice. While Artegall focuses on teaching lessons to the unjust, Talus enacts violent retribution. Their partnership suggests Talus's version of justice is sometimes necessary but insufficient on its own. It must be moderated with discretion and wisdom.

The proem deals with justice on a global level. Spenser's framework for the decline of justice is based on Greek poet Hesiod's (c. 700 BCE) conception of the four ages of the world—gold, silver, bronze, and iron. The golden age was harmonious. In the silver age men began defying the gods. By the bronze and iron ages human affairs had descended to violence, conflict, and rebellion. In the political and religious strife of Spenser's own time he sees a "stonie" or stone age where human hearts are hardened. He hopes for a return to the golden age in Elizabeth's reign—a subtle plea to Elizabeth to do the right thing.

Another signal of decline to Spenser is the erratic movement of the planets. He and most of his contemporaries accepted the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, a model created by Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100–c. 70 CE) in 150 CE. Ptolemy's model placed Earth at the center of the universe. Other planets and heavenly bodies moved around the Earth in circular motions or spheres. Spenser saw justice as a cosmic issue. If the planets were out of order, life on Earth would be out of order as well. In Canto 2, Stanza 35 Artegall reiterates the idea of a geocentric universe or a universe with Earth in the middle.

Part of Artegall's job is to restore order to disorder. At the beginning Artegall delivers a simple form of justice: settling disputes. Canto 1 presents an updated version of a biblical story in 1 Kings featuring King Solomon, known in biblical legend as a wise ruler. When two women fought over a baby Solomon suggested the baby be cut in half. One woman objected, saying she'd rather surrender the child than see it harmed. Solomon determined her to be the true mother. Artegall uses a similar test, proving justice involves more than using an equal measuring stick. It requires discretion and humanity.

In Canto 2 Artegall moves on to defending people from extortion or manipulation by false rulers. Pollente and Munera's abuse of their political power becomes an offense worthy of death. Munera's name is based on the Latin munus, a word for a gift or bribe.

Artegall's arguments with the giant give a clearer sense of Spenser's worldview. As a Christian knight Artegall believes justice is determined by God in heaven. The giant seems to be creating equal distribution in the universe. But he ignores the order Artegall believes is already present in the earth and heavens. Though the sea may encroach on the land, it will eventually return to its rightful place. And since God's creation is a perfect act, only God can change creation. In the Two Cantos of Mutability Spenser repeats the idea that all changing phenomena in the universe will someday be restored to their original, ideal states.

Human circumstances and social status are also divinely appointed according to Spenser. While the giant wants money to be distributed equally Artegall says everyone has exactly what they need. A just world is not a world where everyone has the same fortune. It's a world where everyone knows their place. God appoints rulers, Artegall says, echoing Spenser's view of the divine right of kings. And God decides how much misfortune people can handle. Canto 2, Stanzas 41–43 adapts an argument from the biblical book of Job. When the suffering Job searches for meaning and purpose, God tells him to accept the divine plan.

When Artegall tests the giant's scale, he finds, as he suspected, right and wrong aren't equal. Here Spenser refers indirectly to Aristotle's theory of virtue as a mean or average between two extreme vices. Since right is a virtue and wrong is a vice, they can't be balanced. And since there are many falsehoods but only one truth, these two states can't be balanced either.

Canto 3 weaves together many ongoing plot points to let Artegall and Talus enact justice in everyday life. Florimell gets married to her rightful lover. The deceptive false Florimell disappears. Marinell survives an attempt by other knights to capture him on his wedding day. The proud petty criminal Braggadocio gets his comeuppance. And Guyon, the knight from Canto 2, finally gets his horse back. Talus even shaves Braggadocio's beard as a sign of disgrace and a warning to other false knights.

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