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The Faerie Queen: Book I ¦ Edmund Spenser (1590)

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

The Faerie Queen is the English equivalent of the Homeric epics, Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy. Each book explores a virtue, usually through a single Knight (though this theme becomes less prominent in later books, as stories begin to overlap). The first book is probably the most self-contained and (for that reason) well-constructed. This isn't to say the later books aren't worth reading, they have some of his best characters! But if you are intimidated by this 1,200-page book of over 36,000 lines of Spenserian verse, know that you can take this first book (just 200 pages), as the self-contained story of the Redcross Knight and Lady Una.

I've broken down my reading of this epic into two cantos a day, read over a coffee (instead of that pesky news). This way, I can finish a book each week, with a day to write on Sundays. I'd recommend this strategy if you're considering this challenging read.

Book 1 tells the story of the Knight of the Redcross and his lover, the Lady Una. Una is the daughter of a King and Queen whose city has been laid under siege by a dragon. Their daughter escaped the city and sought her Knight, and the tale picks up with them adventuring toward the city to confront the dragon. Along the way they are waylaid by the mischievous Archimago, an evil wizard, who bewitches the Redcross Knight to make him believe that Una has been unfaithful. Furious, the Redcross Knight leaves his love and is further entrapped by the false Duessa, a hag disguised as a beauty, who, much like Circe, seduces men only to trap them (sometimes inside trees, for example).

It is somewhat of a shame that the Redcross Knight does not appear much after the first book, because he is easily one of Spenser's deepest characters. That said, his character arc is so complete that a return would be pointless. From the start of the story, we get the sense that all is not well with the Knight.

But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore, The deare rememberance of his dying Lord, For whose sweete shake that glorious badge he wore, And dead as liuing euer him ador'd: Vpon his shield the like was also scor'd For soueraine hope, which in his helpe he had: Right faithfull true he was in deede and word, But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad, Yet nothing did he dread, but euer was ydrad

He is suffering from a kind of depression which only grows throughout the story, as he suffers defeats and humiliations at the hands of Archimago and Duessa, and is forced to confront the brutality of violence and death as he defeats his foes. Far from the typical stoical knight who can hack of a head like it was flicking the head off a dandelion, the Redcross Knight is wracked with guilt and inner turmoil. Throughout the Faerie Queen, Spenser personifies human emotions, vices and virtues, and when the Knight comes across Despair in the woods, this personification convinces the Knight to contemplate suicide. This takes us to one of the most moving parts of the poem:

Who trauels by the wearie wandring way,

To come vnto his wished home in haste,

And meets a flood, that doth his passage stay,

Is not great grace to help him ouer past,

Or free his feet, that in the myre sticke fast?

Most enuious man, that grieues at neighbours good

And fond, that ioyest in the woe thou hast,

Why wilt not let him passe, that long hth stood

Vpon the banke, yet wilt thy self not passe the flood?

He there does now enioy eternall rest

And happie ease, which thou doest want and craue,

And further from it daily wanderest:

What if some litle paine the passage haue,

That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter waue?

Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,

And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet graue?

Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,

Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.

The knight much wondred at his suddeine wit,

And said, The terme of life is limited,

Ne may a man prolong, nor shorten it;

The souldier may not moue from watchfull sted,

Nor leaue his stand, vntill his Captaine bed.

Who life did limit by almightie doome,

(Quoth he) knowes best the termes established;

And he, that points the Centonall his roome,

Doth license him depart at sound of morning droome.

Fortunately, Una is able to cure her Knight by taking him to the house of Holinesse, where he has visions of heavenly bliss and has his faith restored. With his courage and faith back, he is able to finally confront the dragon. The personification of the Knight's despair and his holiness and faith into characters creates a wonderful allegory for a divided mind, split into multiple facets of personality. It's my favourite part of the first book.

Spenser is forever contrasting virtue and vice throughout the poem. For Spenser, vice is something unstable, shifting, and destructive. We see this in the lack of integrity to the shapes of both Archimago and Duessa, shapeshifters both, who use their powers constantly to deceive their victims. We also see it in the fantastic set-piece when Duessa (disguised as the beautiful Fidessa) comes to Hell, where we get a train of the personification of every deadly vice. Just as the villains are unstable shapeshifters, so is the castle that these monsters call home.

It was a goodly heape for to behold,

And spake the praises of the workmans wit;

But full great pittie, that so faire a mould

Did on so weake foundation euer sit:

For on a sandie hill, that still did flit,

And fall away, it mounted was full hie,

That euery breath of heauen shaked it:

And all the hinder parts, that few could spy,

Were ruinous and old, but painted cunningly.

On the other hand, virtue is something that is stable and unchanging. This makes sense; the virtuous person is someone who has the ability to control his or herself. They can control their nasty thoughts, or evil impulses, and this is reflected in their physical integrity. Whereas someone who gives in to their vices lacks that kind of integrity, and as a slave to whims and desires, is constantly shifting, giving an unstable personality.

Book 1 of the Faerie Queen gives us a typical, traditional tale of a Knight on a Quest to slay a dragon for his Lady. But beneath that, it spins psychologically rich story of a man with a conscience troubled by his work, as well as the horror of pain and suffering in the world. Although the virtue of Holiness is not necessarily one that bears much appeal in our more secular age, there is a secular interpretation of this story. What the Knight lacks, and what he gains in the Temple of Holiness, is faith in humanity. In our ability to uncover trickers and seducers like Achimago, and Duessa, and to slay the Dragons that threaten to destroy us.

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