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The Faerie Queene, Book IV: On Friendship (1956)

The Fourth book of the Faerie Queene is an odd one. Firstly, it’s title “The Legende of Cambel and Telemond, or of Friendship” gets the name of one of the friends wrong (it’s Cambel and Triamond). Second, the titular friends play only a fleeting role in this book, which largely follows the plot of Britomart’s Quest book III. It is her that the Lady Knight finally meets her lover Arthegall. I’ve said earlier that, after book I, Spenser takes a much grander view of the plot, characters, and themes of his epic. Rather than telling self-contained stories, we enter a sweeping narrative with main plots and side-plots that are not always neatly wrapped up in a single book. The approach has its merits, Spenser’s world becomes more diverse and intricate, with many characters evolving slowly over the course of several books. At the same time, it has its drawbacks. Book I is so effective in part because it has a perfect three-act plot structure, and a focus on one central plot and theme. To be fair though, Spenser never finished the Faerie Queene and so it's hard to compare these unfinished plots with the perfectly sequenced and whole tale of Book I.

Spenser uses Knights’ Armour as a metaphor for friendship and love in two key moments of the book. First, to illustrate the bond of friendship between Triamond and Cambell, and second, to illustrate the romance of Britomart and Arthegall. And the differences between these two kinds of love.

Triamond and Cambell meet as enemies. Triamond, along with his two brothers, Diamond and Priamond, are slain by Cambell. But Cambell, thanks to some magical intervention on the part of his mother, is imbued with his dead brothers’ souls, and so manages to fend Cambell off just in time for his sister Cambina to arrive on a chariot pulled by lions. Cambell falls in love with Cambina, and Triamond falls in love with Cambell’s sister Canacee, and, through marraige, the four of them become Spenser’s illustration of true friendship.

Triamond and Cambell later find themselves in a tournament in which Triamond is wounded by a spear. Protecting his friend, Cambell dons his friend’s armour and goes into a battle. He also fails, and when Triamond recovers on the second day of the tournament, he re-joins the battel in Cambell’s armour. Through the exchanging of armour, Spenser shows how true friendships entail a kind of symbiosis of character, and a merging of identity.

Contrast this to Britomart and Arthegall, who also meet for the first time at this tournament. Their meeting doesn’t go too well: Britomart unseats Arthegall easily, and he, pride wounded (and not knowing Britomart’s female identity) swears revenge. The next time they meet, they have a ferocious battle in which the two of them quite literally break through each other’s armour by the force of their passion.

Like as the lightening brond from riuen skie

Throwne out by angry Ioue in his vengeance,

With dreadfull force falls on some steeple hie;

Which battring, downe it on the church doth glance,

And teares it all with terrible mischance.

Yet she no whit dismayed, her steed foresooke,

And casting from her that enchaunted lance

Unto her sword and shield her soone betook;

And therewithal at him right furiously she stroke.

So furiously she stroke in her first heat,

Whiles with long fight on foot he breathless was,

That she him forced backward to retreat,

And yield vnto her weapon way to pas:

Whose raging rigour neither steele not bras

Could stay, but to the tender flesh it went,

And pour’d the purple bloud forth on the gras;

That all his mayle yriv’d and plates yrent,

Shew’d all his body bare vnto the cruell dent

At length when as he saw her hastie heat

Abate, and panting breath begin to fayle,

He through long sufferance growing now more great,

Rose in his strength, and gan her fresh assayle,

Heaping huge strokes, as thicke as shower of hayle,

And lashing dreadfully at every part,

As if he thought her soule to disentrayal.

Ah cruell hand, and thrise more cruell hart,

That workst such wrecke on her, to whom thou dearest art.

What yron courage euer could endure,

To worke such outrage on so faire a creature?

And in his madnesse thinke with hands impure

To spoyle so goodly workmanship of nature,

The maker self, resembling in her feature?

Ceres some hellish furie, or some feend

This mischief framd, for their first loues defeature,

To bath their hands in bloud of dearest freend,

Thereby to make their loues beginning, and their liues end.

Thus long they trac’d, and trauerst to and from,

Sometime puresewing, and sometimes pursewed,

Still as aduantage they espyde thereto:

But toward th’end Sir Arthegall renewed

His strength still more, but she still more decrewed.

At last his lucklesse hand he heau’d on hie,

Hauing his forces all in one accrewed,

And therewith stroke at her so hideouslie,

That seemed nought but death mote be her destinie.

The wicked stroke upon her helmet chaunst,

And with the force, which in it selfe it bore,

Her ventayle shard away, and thence forth glaunst

A downe in vaine, ne harm’d her anymore.

With that her angels face, unseene afore,

Like to the ruddie morne appeard in sight,

Deawed with siluer drops, through sweating sore,

But somewhat redder, than beseem’d aright,

Through toylsome heate and labour of her weary fight.

Unlike Triamond and Cambell, whose identities merge with their love, as symbolised through the sharing armour, Britomart and Arthegall destroy each other’s outward identities by destroying each other’s armour. For Britomart and Arthegall, there is no artifice, not even a shared one. At the end of their fight, there is no armour left; they are mutually exposed and vulnerable. For Spenser, romantic love demolishes all external artifice and pretensions to some constructed and immovable identity, leaving the lovers with knowledge of the true person underneath. For Britomart and Arthegall, seeing each other with artifice removed marks the beginning of their romance together, as their virtuous character is revealed through their physical beauty. But, as characters like Duessa and the false Florimill suggest, sometimes even beauty can be an armour that we must break through to see what lies beneath. And sometimes love, revealing us as we truly are, sends lover’s to the sword and not the rose.

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