Edmund Spenser,The Faerie Queene

We press on to the late sixteenth century with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, a unified series of allegorical verse tales, each illustrating a different knightly virtue. The action in the poem is highly entertaining and the characters are charged with interest and meaning. But I should warn you that the reading may be a bit difficult—the intentionally archaic spelling and punctuation take some getting used to, and the strict adherence to a rigid scheme of rhyme and meter often make for awkward, highly "poetic" syntax. Compared to the works we've read thus far, this one is the most "dense," or intellectually intense. The language will get easier as you proceed, but the poem does require careful, alert, active reading on your part. I am confident you will find The Faerie Queene interesting and rewarding if you approach it with focused concentration and diligence, so make coffee, find a quiet room with bright lighting, and bear down on the reading! If you need to reread some stanzas a time or two to glean the meaning: do it! Your efforts will be richly rewarded! I believe you'll find that The Faerie Queene has a kind of magic and unique charm all of its own—the characters and adventures in The Faerie Queene are the sort that stay with you long after the reading.

Multiple purposes:
As our Norton editors point out, Spenser dedicated himself to becoming a great poet, and his multiple aims in The Faerie Queene were on quite a grand scale. In the prefatory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh published with the first three books of The Faerie Queene in 1590, Spenser indicates that his plan for the poem was to write twelve separate "books," each focusing on the adventures of a different knight, and the whole presenting examples of the "twelve different knightly virtues." He never completed the final six books, but we can of course still see that one central aim in the completed half of the poem was to "make vice ugly and virtue attractive" (Baugh 498). The focus on chivalry is indicated throughout with such passages as this one, from Book 5, Canto 2:

Nought is more honorable to a knight,
Ne better doth beseeme brave chivalry,
Than to defend the feeble in their right,
And wrong redresse in such as wend awry. (5.2.1-4)

As our Norton editors suggest, the poem as a whole was intended as a grand epic, but each book, separately, presents an individual chivalric romance, complete with knightly quests, heroic battles, and magical or fantastic foes. Spenser's concern was not limited to nostalgic or retrospective consideration of the bygone days of knights in armor, as we have seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Morte Darthur, however: he hoped his work would have a more immediate impact on his readers in their recognition of the qualities required to "fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" in his own day (qtd. in Abrams et al 359).

At the same time, Spenser hoped the twelve books would form "the great English epic," celebrating England as a great nation generally—it is important to remember that the first three books were published two years after the famous and glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588—and also celebrating more particularly the ruling English monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Spenser conveys the sentiment that the English viewed their increasingly powerful nation as fulfilling biblical prophecy, with the English as God's post-biblical "chosen people." So the poem has two clearly separate purposes: demonstrating knightly virtues and celebrating England in nationalistic terms.

But wait! There's a third purpose as well: championing England's Protestant Anglican Christianity and condemning (Spanish) Catholicism in the wake of England's break from Catholicism when Rome excommunicated Henry VIII for divorcing one wife, Catherine, so he could marry Ann Boleyn.

So in short, part of the challenge of reading Spenser's poem is juggling these three separate thematic concerns all at the same time: the chivalrous, the historical, and the religious.

The first of these three concerns, chivalry, is the most obvious in the poem, and we can appreciate Spenser's essential commentary on knightly virtues largely at the plot level. In Book 1, the chivalric quality Redcrosse represents is clearly "holiness" (Spenser calls him "the Knight of the Red Crosse, or / Of Holinesse"), and the adventures he undergoes test and refine his relative "holiness" as he is challenged by wily foes, the hermit magician, Archimago, and the "false Duessa" (first called "Fidessa"), his female traveling companion after Redcrosse abandons Una in disgust when Archimago tricks him into thinking she is wanton or unchaste.

Symbolism and allegory:
Spenser addresses the two other primary thematic concerns, the historical and religious, on different levels of meaning through allegory. In essence, allegory involves a coherent system of symbolism in a given work, where characters, events, and/or matters of setting operate on two (or more) different levels of meaning simultaneously. A symbol, simply put, is something in a literary work represented on the concrete, literal level of meaning that also has significant meaning on a higher plane of interpretation—beyond the literal level of the text. For instance, in a story about a man on his deathbed, the chiming of a clock may be on the literal level a descriptive detail of scene—the author's reporting of an actual sound the characters hear—but on a higher interpretive level, the chiming of the clock might symbolize the inevitable passing of time carrying the man to his death. The chiming could also symbolize the ringing of funeral bells. . . . For a non-literary example, consider the symbolism inherent in a black cat. Literally, a black cat is a feline quadruped prone to carrying fleas in its coat and ripping up furniture with its claws. On the symbolic level, though, black cats are thought to represent bad luck.

To repeat, an allegory is a narrative in which a coherent system of symbols works as a whole such that the story operates on two or more separate levels of meaning throughout. One of the most well-known examples is George Orwell's novella, Animal Farm. The surface level of this story is concerned with the interactions of barnyard animals on a farm owned by a man named Mr. Jones—and the story makes clear and complete sense on this level of being a tale about cows, horses, pigs, chickens, etc. But on the allegorical level, Animal Farm is a cautionary tale about the evils of Soviet communism, with direct one-to-one correspondence between specific animal-characters and actual historical figures important in Soviet Russian history: the pig Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, e.g., Snowball, another pig, represents Leon Trotsky, and the horse, Boxer, represents the "common man," and so forth.

In The Faerie Queene, the concern with historical matters is indicated as allegory most obviously with Queen Elizabeth I being represented by the characters of the Faerie Queene, or Gloriana, and Britomarte, Belphoebe, and others as well. The editors' footnotes point out some of the historical referents for different characters in our selections of the poem, but scholars agree that many of the allusions to historical matters that would have been clear to Spenser's contemporaries are now lost, or at best, very obscure to modern readers. Don't worry too much about the "historical" level as you read the poem: however interesting it might be to historians, Spenser's historical commentary is not our primary concern with The Faerie Queene in this ENGL 2121 course.

Do be more mindful of allegorical meanings involving religion, however. The allegorical intent is clearly indicated through the names of the characters: the first monster Redcrosse fights is named "Errour," for instance, and other characters introduced later in the poem include Vanity, Despair, Guile, and Envy—names that very clearly indicate allegorical intent. We meet the seven (Catholic) deadly sins as characters indicated directly by name in the final portion of this unit's reading: Pride, Sloth, Gluttony, Avarice, and so forth.

Keep foremost in mind that the English Reformation resulted in sharp division between Protestantism (the Anglican Church of England) and Roman Catholicism. The Christian virtue portrayed in Book 1 is obviously "holiness," but among the specific religious correlations between surface and allegorical levels to be mindful of are that Una represents the English Anglican Church, (truth, or "the true religion"), and her rival is Duessa, representing the Roman Catholic Church: Redcrosse is to be the protector and champion of the "true faith." Over the course of Book 1, Redcrosse is led astray by the obviously Catholic hermit-magician Archimago, and Redcrosse abandons Una, at least for a time, only to be joined by Duessa (described as the book of Revelation's "Whore of Babylon," which Anglicans interpreted as representing the Roman Catholic church). Duessa leads Redcrosse to the palace of Lucifera—you don't have to be an English major to realize that the oh-so-prideful "Lucifera" may have some intentional symbolic connection with the all-too-prideful Lucifer! As Alfred David points out, "The separation of Redcrosse and Una represents the separation Protestants saw between the primitive Christian church and Holiness during the reign of the Roman church" (19). I don't want to spill the beans of what happens next: we leave "our hero" hanging, at the end of Book 1, Canto 4, in the Palace of Pride and in company with the evil Duessa. And our heroine, Una, is alone in the wilderness, hotly pursued by the evil Archimago.

I caution you against relying upon online "study-aids," and I do absolutely expect you to read the text included in our Norton textbook. If you do find the reading exceedingly bewildering, however, you may refer to Mary Macleod's very simplistic prose version of the poem to supplement your reading of the original version. If you refer to this version, you should not read it in place of the Norton version, but you might read the Macleod version first, section by section, and then read the corresponding Norton version afterwards. I fully believe the original text is manageable reading, and I am not at all "recommending" reading both versions, but I do want to provide those of you who truly struggle with the reading some means of making it easier to understand or appreciate in the original language.
Here's a link to Macleod's version online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/sfq/

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Works Cited

Baugh, A.C. , ed. A Literary History of England. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1948.

David, Alfred et al. Teaching with The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. New York: Norton, 2000.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Signet Classics Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1946.