The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spencer: Summary and Critical Analysis

Edmund Spencer's prime motive in writing The Fairie Queene was to demonstrate virtues of a gentleman or a noble person. The virtues were to be illustrated by a series of adventures of the twelve knights who represented one virtue each among the twelve gentlemanly virtues of King Arthur before he was king. For instance, Red Cross Knight in the first book represents holiness and the rest of the five knights which Spenser completed only in six books represented temperance, friendship, chastity, justice and courtesy.


Edmund Spencer (1552-1599)

Spenser's period of the Renaissance was greatly interested in the idea of a perfect gentleman. The typical Renaissance man would be open and critical minded, studious and adventurous, practical and talented in many disciplines, and so on. But Spenser added strong moral and religious qualifications in the idea of the gentleman. Unlike the model man of the medieval age, who was supposed to be saintly, and also unlike the entirely Renaissance model of intellectual man, however, Spenser's model was a mixture of the moral man whose moral and spiritual virtues are practically tested and verified in the corporeal world. Spenser is a synthesizer. The people of his time were interested in reading the "Book of God's words" (the Bible) and pass their exams in the "Book of God's works" (Nature/world). His gentleman is one who has proved himself a worthy scholar, soldier as well as a courtier. So, Spenser is a Renaissance Christian Idealist in this sense also.

The virtue of holiness needs some explanation, since in modern parlance this quality would not normally be associated with a military man but rather with a churchman. It must be remembered that throughout medieval and Renaissance, literature books were written and sermons preached on the "Christian warrior " signifying that every good Christian was to "gird on the Armour of Christ'' in the fight against sin. For Spenser, then, the term suggests righteousness. The virtues, even of truth and holiness of Book I Canto I, were medieval Christian ideals to be put to practice by the Renaissance man.

At the beginning of the story the Red Cross is a young man aspiring to holiness. But until now his virtue is not yet tried and verified. So he commits mistakes before he achieves perfection. This knight represents one of the moral virtues required in the perfect gentleman like Prince Arthur.

Una, whom the knight is pledged to serve and defend, stands for truth, or the one true religion ("una vera fides" means "truth is one"). Book I is the story of their joint venture; their setting out together, battle against error and hypocrisy (canto I), then their separation, their reunion, success and return. The symbolism in the costuming of the hero and heroine tells us that the battle is not only an adventure of a strong man, but also the venture of a strong and moral mind. It is a Christian, Protestant, English, Chivalric as well as a Renaissance humanist battle against evil forces that stand on the way of becoming a man with all these virtues. The knight bears a "bloody" cross, the emblem of Christian faith; the lady is gowned in white for purity and innocence, though she wears a veil to suggest that truth is not always plain to see.

The encounter with monster error in the dark wood suggests the type of trial constantly facing the man who aspires to righteousness, but who is untried in the ways of the world. The tangling coils of the she-monster's tail and her vomit of stinking books and pamphlets almost overcome the hero, who is only saved by the counsel of truth and the force of faith. Strength, courage, and good intentions are not enough to meet this trial. The seemingly pious hermit who offers his humble shelter to the Red Cross Knight and Una, Archimago, the arch-magician, stands for Hypocrisy. The knight's blunder in this episode, when he considers himself to be acting on high moral principles, is succumbing to the machinations of a vicious tempter who is apparently good but actually evil, the chief manner of the devil's behavior. His weakness is a sign of inexperience, a failure to distinguish appearance from reality.

On the level of allegory of the history of mankind, the episode signifies the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, or man's loss of his original purity through the subtle persuasion of Satan. Finally, according to the historical allegory the separation of the Red Cross Knight and Una through the machinations of Archimango stands for the outliving of Protestantism and the reestablishment of Catholicism in the reign of Queen Mary (Mary Tudor, or "Bloody Mary"). Archimago, the instrument of the separation, is identified as the pope, and Duessa who figures in following episode, represents Queen Mary of Scotland. The evil characters are historically as well as symbolically Catholic people.

Spenser's recurrent concern with glory, Gloriana and the like also reminds us of the Renaissance concept of reputation through the pursuit of knowledge and adventure, which was the passionate desire of every Renaissance man. Spenser had, however, Christianized the concept of glory as an achievement of moral life, too. In Faerie Queene, Queen Elizabeth symbolizes glory. Prince Arthur represents Magnificence, which includes all virtues. Magnificence means 'great' in thought, speech and action. If glory is the name or achievement, which Queen Elizabeth had already got, Magnificence is the quality or potential that Prince Arthur had to prove in order to win her hand. In the Faerie Queene Spenser assumed that the Queen was already perfect with glory (beside all other necessary virtues within it), and he wanted to demonstrate how the would-be king (Earl of Leisester/Arthur) had adventure to prove his gentlemanly/knightly virtues, cast in form of twelve adventures by different knights. But only six (and a part) books were completed. The combination of the 12 gentlemanly moral virtues makes up magnificence, which is required to win the love of the glorious queen. The epic was on one level a eulogy praising the queen and her favorite/lover as the epitomes of all human virtues. But Spenser also wanted to "instruct with delight" the "learned throng" of his time, showing them low their prince had achieved the qualities of "a gentleman or noble person".

Spencer was a celebrant of English nationality, empire and royalty. The Faerie Queen is at one level a tribute to his patron queen and the Earl of Leicester as well as a praise of the brave knights, and faithful citizens of England. At times the poet appears to be a mere flatterer. He identifies Queen Elizabeth with mythical goddesses as an embodiment of all perfection and as a paragon of all virtues. He calls her, Gloriana or the empress of all nobleness; Belephoebe, or the princess of all sweetness and beauty; Marcella, or the lady of all compassion and grace; Britomart or the armed votary of all pure; Cynthia the poetess and Tranquil in leaning a queen who was a goddess heavenly bright/ Mirror of grace and majesty drive” (The invocation to Faerie & Queen). The eulogy is too much sometimes!

But the Faerie Queen is not only a flattery. Spenser was a Renaissance man, influenced by Renaissance new Platonism and humanism, a celebrator of Physical beauty, love, romance and adventure, though he was a profound idealist and analyst of good and evil. The Faerie Queen is basically a romance on its surface, a romance about love and adventure of “brave (British) knights and faithful ladies;” Fierce wares and faithful loves shall moralize my song” (stanza 1). It is in this sense a romantic epic full of adventures and marvels, dragons, witches, giants, battles, enchanted trees and castles. It has intricate plots, amazing episodes heroic characters, elaborate descriptions and so on. But due to the allegory suggested by names of character and places and historical, religious and mythical allusions, the epic also teaches moral lessons along with the delight of surface romance.

As Spenser stated in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, The Faerie Queen was also supposed to be a “courtesy book”. He intended to teach his learned reader and the people the virtues of a perfect gentleman through its moral, religious and politico-historical allegories behind, the delightful romantic story. He said.” The general end (purpose) of the entire book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous discipline.” He planned to write twelve books; each one would be an adventure of a knight representing one moral virtue which he would prove by fighting against the evils in the course of the adventure. The first book, for example, narrates the romance, adventure of a British knight who represents ‘holiness’ on the moral level. Saint George, the patron saint of England on the legendary level, and one of the qualities of the earl of Leicester (on the historical level). He could complete only six books narrating the adventure of six knights representing 1.Holiness, 2.Temperance, 3.Chastity 4.Friendship, 5.Justice, and 6.Courtesy. The other six are never mentioned, and Spenser didn’t write those planned books. All the twelve knights were supposed to represent the twelve qualities of a noble gentleman whose perfect example was the earl of Leicester. The fairy queen sends these knightly on different adventures as opportunities to prove their gentlemanliness and knightly qualities.

For The Faerie Queen, Spencer originated a nine line verse stanza, now known as the Spenserian stanza – the first eight lines are iambic pentameter, and the ninth, iambic hexameter, the rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc. The melodious verse, combined with Spenser’s sensuous imagery and deliberate use of archaic language evocative of the medieval past (as in the earlier Shepherd's Calendar), serves not only to relieve the high moral seriousness of his theme but to create a complex panorama of great splendor. Spenser’s lush and expansive imagination and vigorous approach to the structure made him a powerful influence on John Milton and the romantic poets, including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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Shrestha, Roma. "The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spencer: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 4 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/the-faerie-queen.html.