The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Symbols

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Almost all characters and locations in The Faerie Queene have a symbolic meaning. Some symbols, however, recur in the narrative in a subtler but equally important way.

Florimell's Golden Garland

The golden garland or girdle symbolizes chaste, pure love and devotion. The rare and expensive material of gold reflects how uncommon and valuable true chastity is. Book 4, Canto 5 gives the garland a divine origin story; it was forged by Vulcan the god of fire. Florimell's garland becomes the prize of a competitive tournament in Books 3 and 4. Like chastity itself, the garland is something many people seek but few can actually attain. Only Amoret and Florimell, women who have suffered to remain faithful to their lovers, can wear it successfully.

The Redcrosse Knight's Shield

The shield and its red cross symbolizes holiness. In Christian tradition Jesus was executed on a cross to take the punishment for human sin. The cross is a Christian emblem signifying Jesus's suffering and death. The red color represents the blood Jesus shed. The Redcrosse Knight wears the shield to honor this sacrifice and to remind him of the divine hope Jesus offers. Redcrosse will similarly suffer before he achieves victory; he even dies twice while fighting the dragon in Book 1, Canto 12.

Spenser adds a layer of political allegory when the shield recurs in Book 5, Canto 11. The knight Burbon, knighted by Redcrosse, wears a shield with the same emblem. Though the shield leads Burbon to many victories he discards it under pressure from his enemies. Artegall criticizes him for defying the principles of knighthood. When Burbon promises he still believes in the ideals the shield represents, Artegall calls him a hypocrite. Burbon represents Henry IV or Henry of Bourbon (1553–1610), a French king in Spenser's time. Once a faithful Protestant, Henry IV converted to Catholicism so he could keep popular support. Spenser believes Henry IV abandoned a true religious faith for a false one just as Burbon abandons his shield.

The Blatant Beast

The major villain of Book 6, the Blatant Beast, symbolizes the dangerous effects of slander or false statements aiming to damage someone's reputation. When the beast first appears at the end of Book 5 he joins the hags Envy and Detraction to spread lies. This trio of evil indicates envy is a key ingredient in slanderous statements. And the wounds of the Blatant Beast, like the impacts of slander, are difficult to cure. Serena and Timias can heal from the Beast's wounds only by living above reproach and avoiding occasions to gossip.

In Book 6, Canto 12 the beast reveals it has thousands of tongues, representing how widespread slanderous statements can become. The loudest of these tongues belong to men who speak thoughtlessly. The end of Book 6 says the beast continues his work in the world up until the present day. Even Spenser's own work can't escape the beast. Spenser indirectly refers to readers who believe his writing slanders their reputations and whose writings slander his critics.

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