The Faerie Queene

For other uses, see Fairy Queen (disambiguation).
The title page of The Faerie Queene, printed in 1596 for William Ponsonby

The Faerie Queene is an incomplete English epic poem by Edmund Spenser. Books I to III were first published in 1590, and then republished in 1596 together with books IV to VI. The Faerie Queene is notable for its form: it is one of the longest poems in the English language and the origin of a verse form that came to be known as Spenserian stanza.[1] On a literal level, the poem follows several knights in an examination of several virtues, though it is primarily an allegorical work, and can be read on several levels of allegory, including as praise of Queen Elizabeth I. In Spenser's "Letter of the Authors" he states that the entire epic poem is "cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devises," and that the aim of publishing The Faerie Queene was to "fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline".[2]

The Faerie Queene found such favor with Elizabeth I that Spenser was granted a pension for life amounting to £50 a year, though there is no evidence that Elizabeth read any of the poem. This royal patronage helped the poem to such a level of success that it became Spenser's defining work.[3]


Holiness defeats Error: an illustration from Book I, Part l of an 1895-1897 edition

Book I is centered on the virtue of Holiness as embodied in the Redcrosse Knight. He and his lady Una travel together as he fights the dragon Errour, then separate as the wizard Archimago tricks the Redcrosse Knight in a dream to think that Una is unchaste. After he leaves, the Redcrosse Knight meets Duessa, who feigns distress in order to entrap him. Duessa leads the Redcrosse Knight to captivity by the giant Orgoglio. Meanwhile, Una overcomes peril, meets Arthur, and finally finds and rescues the Redcrosse Knight from his capture, from Duessa, and from Despair. Una and Arthur help the Redcrosse Knight recover in the House of Holiness; there the Redcrosse Knight sees a vision of his future. He then returns Una to her parents' castle, rescues them from a dragon, and the two are betrothed after resisting Archimago one last time.

Book II is centered on the virtue of Temperance as embodied in Sir Guyon, who is tempted by the fleeing Archimago into nearly attacking the Redcrosse Knight. Guyon discovers a woman killing herself out of grief for having her lover tempted and bewitched by the witch Acrasia and killed. Guyon swears a vow to avenge them and protect their child. Guyon on his quest starts and stops fighting several evil, rash, or tricked knights and meets Arthur. Finally, they come to Acrasia's Island and the Bower of Bliss, where Guyon resists temptations to violence, idleness, and lust. Guyon captures Acrasia in a net, destroys the Bower, and rescues those imprisoned there.

Book III is centered on the virtue of Chastity as embodied in Britomart, a lady knight. Resting after the events of Book II, Guyon and Arthur meet Britomart, who wins a joust with Guyon. They separate as Arthur and Guyon leave to rescue Florimell, while Britomart rescues the Redcrosse Knight. Britomart reveals to the Redcrosse Knight that she is pursuing Sir Artegal because she is destined to marry him. The Redcrosse Knight defends Artegal and they meet Merlin, who explains more carefully Britomart's destiny to found the English monarchy. Britomart leaves and fights Sir Marinell. Arthur looks for Florimell, joined later by Sir Satyrane and Britomart, and they witness and resist sexual temptation. Britomart separates from them and meets Sir Scudamore, looking for his captured lady Amoret. Britomart alone is able to rescue Amoret from the wizard Busirane and reunite the lovers.

Book IV is centered on the virtue of Friendship as embodied in Sir Cambell and Sir Triamond.

Book V is centered on the virtue of Justice as embodied in Sir Artegal.

Book VI is centered on the virtue of Courtesy as embodied in Sir Calidore.


Allegory of virtue

Prince Arthur and the Faerie Queen by Henry Fuseli, circa 1788.

A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1590[4] contains a preface for The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for twenty-four books: twelve based each on a different knight who exemplified one of twelve "private virtues", and a possible twelve more centred on King Arthur displaying twelve "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, though the influences of Thomas Aquinas and the traditions of medieval allegory can be observed as well.[5] It is impossible to predict how the work would have looked had Spenser lived to complete it, since the reliability of the predictions made in his letter to Raleigh is not absolute, as numerous divergences from that scheme emerged as early as 1590 in the first Faerie Queene publication.

In addition to the six virtues Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy, the Letter to Raleigh suggests that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, which ("according to Aristotle and the rest") is "the perfection of all the rest, and containeth in it them all"; and that the Faerie Queene herself represents Glory (hence her name, Gloriana). The unfinished seventh book (the Cantos of Mutability) appears to have represented the virtue of "constancy."


Una and the Lion by Briton Rivière (1840–1920).

The Faerie Queene was written during the Reformation, a time of religious and political controversy. After taking the throne following the death of her half-sister Mary, Elizabeth changed the official religion of the nation to Protestantism.[6] The plot of book one is similar to John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, which was about the persecution of the Protestants and how Catholic rule was unjust.[7] Spenser includes the controversy of Elizabethan church reform within the epic. Gloriana has godly English knights destroy Catholic continental power in Books I and V.[8] Spenser also embodies many of his villains with "the worst of what Protestants considered a superstitious Catholic reliance on deceptive images".[9]


The poem celebrates, memorializes, and critiques the Tudor dynasty (of which Elizabeth was a part), much as Virgil's Aeneid celebrates Augustus Caesar's Rome. The Aeneid states that Augustus descended from the noble sons of Troy; similarly, The Faerie Queene suggests that the Tudor lineage can be connected to King Arthur. The poem is deeply allegorical and allusive; many prominent Elizabethans could have found themselves partially represented by one or more of Spenser's figures. Elizabeth herself is the most prominent example. She appears in the guise of Gloriana, the Faerie Queen, but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love. Perhaps also, more critically, Elizabeth is seen in Book I as Lucifera, the "maiden queen" whose brightly lit Court of Pride masks a dungeon full of prisoners.

The poem also displays Spenser's thorough familiarity with literary history. The world of The Faerie Queene is based on English Arthurian legend, but much of the language, spirit, and style of the piece draw more on Italian epic, particularly Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered.[10] Book V of The Faerie Queene, the Book of Justice, is Spenser's most direct discussion of political theory. In it, Spenser attempts to tackle the problem of policy toward Ireland and recreates the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots.


Some literary works sacrifice historical context to archetypal myth, reducing poetry to Biblical quests, whereas Spenser reinforces the actuality of his story by adhering to archetypal patterns.[11] Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser does not concentrate on a pattern "which transcends time" but "uses such a pattern to focus the meaning of the past on the present".[11] By reflecting on the past, Spenser achieves ways of stressing the importance of Elizabeth's reign. In turn, he does not "convert event into myth" but "myth into event".[11] Within The Faerie Queene, Spenser blurs the distinction between archetypal and historical elements deliberately. For example, Spenser probably does not believe in the complete truth of the British Chronicle, which Arthur reads in the House of Alma.[11] In this instance, the Chronicle serves as a poetical equivalent for factual history. Even so, poetical history of this kind is not myth; rather, it "consists of unique, if partially imaginary, events recorded in chronological order".[11] The same distinction resurfaces in the political allegory of Books I and V. However, the reality to interpreted events becomes more apparent when the events occurred nearer to the time when the poem was written.[11]

Symbolism and allusion

Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser creates "a network of allusions to events, issues, and particular persons in England and Ireland" including Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, the English Reformation, and even the Queen herself.[12] It is also known that James VI of Scotland read the poem, and was very insulted by Duessa – a very negative depiction of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.[13] The Faerie Queene was then banned in Scotland. This led to a significant decrease in Elizabeth's support for the poem.[13] Within the text, both the Faerie Queene and Belphoebe serve as two of the many personifications of Queen Elizabeth, some of which are "far from complimentary".[12]

Though it praises her in some ways, The Faerie Queene questions Elizabeth's ability to rule so effectively because of her gender, and also inscribes the "shortcomings" of her rule.[14] There is a character named Britomart who represents married chastity. This character is told that her destiny is to be an "immortal womb" – to have children.[14] Here, Spenser is referring to Elizabeth's unmarried state and is touching on anxieties of the 1590s about what would happen after her death since the kingdom had no heir.[14]

The Faerie Queene's original audience would have been able to identify many of the poem's characters by analyzing the symbols and attributes that spot Spenser's text. For example, readers would immediately know that "a woman who wears scarlet clothes and resides along the Tiber River represents the Roman Catholic Church".[12] However, marginal notes jotted in early copies of The Faerie Queene suggest that Spenser's contemporaries were unable to come to a consensus about the precise historical referents of the poem's "myriad figures".[12] In fact, Sir Walter Raleigh's wife identified many of the poem's female characters as "allegorical representations of herself".[12] Other symbols prevalent in The Faerie Queene are the numerous animal characters present in the novel. They take the role of "visual figures in the allegory and in illustrative similes and metaphors".[15] Specific examples include the swine present in Lucifera's castle who embodied gluttony, and Duessa, the deceitful crocodile who may represent Mary, Queen of Scots, in a negative light.

The House of Busirane episode in Book III in The Faerie Queene is partially based on an early modern English folktale called "Mr. Fox's Mottos." In the tale, a young woman named Lady Mary has been enticed by Mr. Fox, who resembles Bluebeard in his manner of killing his wives. She defeats Mr. Fox and tells about his deeds. Notably, Spenser quotes the story as Britomart makes her way through the House, with warning mottos above each doorway "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold." [16]


Spenser's intentions

While writing his poem, Spenser strove to avoid 'gealous opinions and misconstructions" because he thought it would place his story in a "better light" for his readers.[17] Spencer states in his letter to Raleigh, published with the first three books,[14] that "the general end of the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline".[17] Spenser considered his work "a historical fiction" which men should read for "delight" rather than "the profit of the ensample".[17] The Faerie Queene was written for Elizabeth to read and was dedicated to her. However, there are dedicatory sonnets in the first edition to many powerful Elizabethan figures.[18]

Spenser addresses "lodwick" in Amoretti 33, when talking about The Faerie Queene still being incomplete. This could be either his friend Lodowick Bryskett or his long deceased Italian model Ludovico Ariosto, whom he praises in "Letter to Raleigh".[19]


The dedicatory page of the 1590 edition of Spenser's Faerie Queene, reading: "To the most mightie and magnificent Empresse Elizabeth, by the grace of god, Queene of England, France and Ireland Defender of the Faith &c."

The poem is dedicated to Elizabeth I who is represented in the poem as the Faerie Queene Gloriana, as well as the character Belphoebe.[20] Spenser prefaces the poem with sonnets additionally dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Burleigh, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Northumberland, the Earl of Cumberland, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Ormond and Ossory, High Admiral Charles Howard, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Grey of Wilton, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir John Norris, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Countess of Pembroke (on the subject of her brother Sir Philip Sidney), and Lady Carew.

Social commentary

In October 1589, Spenser voyaged to England and saw the Queen. It is possible that he read to her from his manuscript at this time. On 25 February 1591, the Queen gave him a pension of fifty pounds per year.[21] He was paid in four instalments on 25 March, 24 June, 29 September, and 25 December.[22] After the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, Spenser found himself disappointed in the monarchy; among other things, "his annual pension from the Queen was smaller than he would have liked" and his humanist perception of Elizabeth's court "was shattered by what he saw there".[23] Despite these frustrations, however, Spenser "kept his aristocratic prejudices and predispositions".[23] Book VI stresses that there is "almost no correlation between noble deeds and low birth" and reveals that to be a "noble person," one must be a "gentleman of choice stock".[23]

Throughout The Faerie Queene, virtue is seen as "a feature for the nobly born" and within Book VI, readers encounter worthy deeds that indicate aristocratic lineage.[23] An example of this is the hermit to whom Arthur brings Timias and Serena. Initially, the man is considered a "goodly knight of a gentle race" who "withdrew from public service to religious life when he grew too old to fight".[23] Here, we note the hermit's noble blood seems to have influenced his gentle, selfless behaviour. Likewise, audiences acknowledge that young Tristram "speaks so well and acts so heroically" that Calidore "frequently contributes him with noble birth" even before learning his background; in fact, it is no surprise that Tristram turns out to be the son of a king, explaining his profound intellect.[24] However, Spenser's most peculiar example of noble birth is demonstrated through the characterization of the Salvage Man. Using the Salvage Man as an example, Spenser demonstrated that "ungainly appearances do not disqualify one from noble birth".[24] By giving the Salvage Man a "frightening exterior," Spenser stresses that "virtuous deeds are a more accurate indication of gentle blood than physical appearance.[24]

On the opposite side of the spectrum, The Faerie Queene indicates qualities such as cowardice and discourtesy that signify low birth. During his initial encounter with Arthur, Turpine "hides behind his retainers, chooses ambush from behind instead of direct combat, and cowers to his wife, who covers him with her voluminous skirt".[25] These actions demonstrate that Turpine is "morally emasculated by fear" and furthermore, "the usual social roles are reversed as the lady protects the knight from danger.[25] Scholars believe that this characterization serves as "a negative example of knighthood" and strives to teach Elizabethan aristocrats how to "identify a commoner with political ambitions inappropriate to his rank".[25]

Poetic structure

The Faerie Queene was written in Spenserian stanza, which was created specifically for The Faerie Queene. In this style, there are nine iambic lines – the first eight of them five footed and the ninth a hexameter – which form "interlocking quatrains and a final couplet".[26] The rhyme pattern is ABABBCBCC. Over two thousand stanzas were written for the 1590 Faerie Queene.[26] Many see Spenser's purposeful use of archaic language as an intentional means of aligning himself with Chaucer and placing himself within a trajectory of building English national literary history.

Theological structure

Florimell and Proteus: an illustration from Book III, Part VII of an 1895-1897 edition.

In Elizabethan England, no subject was more familiar to writers than theology. Elizabethans learned to embrace religious studies in petty school, where they "read from selections from the Book of Common Prayer and memorized Catechisms from the Scriptures".[27] This influence is evident in Spenser's text, as demonstrated in the moral allegory of Book I. Here, allegory is organized in the traditional arrangement of Renaissance theological treatises and confessionals. While reading Book I, audiences first encounter original sin, justification and the nature of sin before analysing the church and the sacraments.[28] Despite this pattern, Book I is not a theological treatise; within the text, "moral and historical allegories intermingle" and the reader encounters elements of romance.[29] However, Spenser's method is not "a rigorous and unyielding allegory," but "a compromise among conflicting elements".[29] In Book I of The Faerie Queene the discussion of the path to salvation begins with original sin and justification, skipping past initial matters of God, the Creeds, and Adam's fall from grace.[29] This literary decision is pivotal because these doctrines "center the fundamental theological controversies of the Reformation".[29]


Myth and history

During The Faerie Queene's inception, Spenser worked as a civil servant, in "relative seclusion from the political and literary events of his day".[30] As Spenser laboured in solitude, The Faerie Queene manifested within his mind, blending his experiences into the content of his craft. Within his poem, Spenser explores human consciousness and conflict, relating to a variety of genres including sixteenth century Arthurian literature.[31] The Faerie Queene was influenced strongly by Italian works, as were many other works in England at that time. The Faerie Queene draws heavily on Ariosto and Tasso.[32]

The first three books of The Faerie Queene operate as a unit, representing the entire cycle from the fall of Troy to the reign of Elizabeth.[31] Using in medias res, Spenser introduces his historical narrative at three different intervals, using chronicle, civil conversation, and prophecy as its occasions.[31]

Despite the historical elements of his text, Spenser is careful to label himself a historical poet as opposed to a historiographer. Spenser notes this differentiation in his letter to Raleigh, noting "a Historiographer discourseth of affairs orderly as they were done…but a Poet thrusteth into the midst…and maketh a pleasing Analysis of all".[33]

Spenser's characters embody Elizabethan values, highlighting political and aesthetic associations of Tudor Arthurian tradition in order to bring his work to life. While Spenser respected British history and "contemporary culture confirmed his attitude".[33] his literary freedom demonstrates that he was "working in the realm of mythopoeic imagination rather than that of historical fact".[33] In fact, Spenser's Arthurian material serves as a subject of debate, intermediate between "legendary history and historical myth" offering him a range of "evocative tradition and freedom that historian's responsibilities preclude".[34] Concurrently, Spenser adopts the role of a sceptic, reflected in the way in which he handles the British history, which "extends to the verge of self-satire".[35]

Medieval subject matter

The Faerie Queene owes, in part, its central figure, Arthur, to a medieval writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his Prophetiae Merlini ("Prophecies of Merlin"), Geoffrey's Merlin proclaims that the Saxons will rule over the Britons until the "Boar of Cornwall" (Arthur) again restores them to their rightful place as rulers.[36] The prophecy was adopted by the Welsh and eventually used by the Tudors. Through their ancestor, Owen Tudor, the Tudors had Welsh blood, through which they claimed to be descendants of Arthur and rightful rulers of Britain.[37] The tradition begun by Geoffrey of Monmouth set the perfect atmosphere for Spenser's choice of Arthur as the central figure and natural bridegroom of Gloriana.



Since its inception four centuries ago, Spenser's diction has been scrutinized by scholars. Despite the enthusiasm the poet and his work received, Spenser's experimental diction was "largely condemned" before it received the acclaim it has today.[38] Seventeenth century philologists such as Davenant considered Spenser's use of "obsolete language" "the most vulgar accusation that is laid to his charge".[39] Scholars have recently observed that the classical tradition tucked within The Faerie Queene is related to the problem of his diction because it "involves the principles of imitation and decorum".[40] Despite these initial criticisms, Spenser is "now recognized as a conscious literary artist" and his language is deemed "the only fitting vehicle for his tone of thought and feelings".[40] Spenser's use of language was widely contrasted to that of "free and unregulated" sixteenth century Shakespearian grammar.[41] Spenser's style is standardized, lyrically sophisticated, and full of archaisms that give the poem an original taste. Sugden argues in The grammar of Spenser's Faerie Queene that the archaisms reside "chiefly in vocabulary, to a high degree in spelling, to some extent in the inflexions, and only slightly in the syntax".[41]

Samuel Johnson also commented critically on Spenser's diction, with which he became intimately acquainted during his work on A Dictionary of the English Language, and "found it a useful source for obsolete and archaic words"; Johnson, however, mainly considered Spenser's (early) pastoral poems, a genre of which he was not particularly fond.[42]

The diction and atmosphere of The Faerie Queene relied on much more than just Middle English; for instance, classical allusions and classical proper names abound—especially in the later books—and he coined some names based on Greek, such as "Poris" and "Phao lilly white."[43] Classical material is also alluded to or reworked by Spenser, such as the rape of Lucretia, which was reworked into the story of the character Amavia in Book Two.[44]


Spenser's language in The Faerie Queene, as in The Shepheardes Calender, is deliberately archaic, though the extent of this has been exaggerated by critics who follow Ben Jonson's dictum, that "in affecting the ancients Spenser writ no language."[45] Allowing that Jonson's remark may only apply to the Calendar, Bruce Robert McElderry, Jr., states, after a detailed investigation of the FQ's diction, that Jonson's statement "is a skillful epigram; but it seriously misrepresents the truth if taken at anything like its face value."[46] The number of archaisms used in the poem is not overwhelming—one source reports thirty-four in Canto I of Book I, that is, thirty-four words out of a total forty-two hundred words, less than one percent.[47] According to McElderry, language does not account for the poem's archaic tone: "The subject-matter of The Faerie Queene is itself the most powerful factor in creating the impression of archaism."[48]

Examples of medieval archaisms (in morphology and diction) include:

Major characters

Britomart viewing Artegal: an illustration from Book III, Part VII of an 1895-1897 edition
Florimell's Flight by Washington Allston
Prince Arthur, the Redcross Knights, and Una, illustrated by William Kent, 1751


  1. Loewenstein & Mueller 2003, p. 369.
  2. Spenser 1984, p. 15-16.
  3. Roche 1984, p. 11.
  4. Roche 1984, p. 1070: "The date of the letter—23 January 1589—is actually 1590, since England did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and the dating of the new year began on 25 March, Lady Day"
  5. Tuve 1966.
  6. Greenblatt 2006, p. 687.
  7. McCabe 2010, p. 41.
  8. Heale 1999, p. 8.
  9. McCabe 2010, p. 39.
  10. Abrams 2000, p. 623.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Gottfried 1968, p. 1363.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Greenblatt 2012, p. 775.
  13. 1 2 McCabe 2010, p. 48.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Heale 1999, p. 11.
  15. Marotti 1965, p. 69.
  16. Micros 2008.
  17. 1 2 3 Spenser 1984, p. 15.
  18. McCabe 2010, p. 50.
  19. McCabe 2010, p. 273.
  20. Spenser 1984, p. 16: "In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall person of our soueraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land . . . For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I doe expresse in Belphoebe"
  21. McCabe 2010, p. 112.
  22. McCabe 2010, p. 24.
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 Green 1974, p. 389.
  24. 1 2 3 Green 1974, p. 390.
  25. 1 2 3 Green 1974, p. 392.
  26. 1 2 McCabe 2010, p. 213.
  27. Whitaker 1952, p. 151.
  28. Whitaker 1952, p. 153.
  29. 1 2 3 4 Whitaker 1952, p. 154.
  30. Craig 1972, p. 520.
  31. 1 2 3 Craig 1972, p. 522.
  32. Healy 1999, p. 95.
  33. 1 2 3 Craig 1972, p. 523.
  34. Craig 1972, p. 524.
  35. Craig 1972, p. 555.
  36. Geoffrey of Monmouth.
  37. Millican 1932.
  38. Pope 1926, p. 575.
  39. Pope 1926, p. 576.
  40. 1 2 Pope 1926, p. 580.
  41. 1 2 Cumming 1937, p. 6.
  42. Turnage 1970, p. 567.
  43. Draper 1932, p. 97.
  44. Cañadas 2007, p. 386.
  45. McElderry 1932, p. 144.
  46. McElderry 1932, p. 170.
  47. 1 2 Parker 1925, p. 85.
  48. McElderry 1932, p. 159.


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