ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Spenser's The Faerie Queene
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012]


Backgrounds: NA 535-37 (humanist reverence for the classics); 554 (the "heroic mode" and comments on the Faerie Queene); 766-9 (headnote to Spenser and to the Shepheardes Calender); 775-77 (headnote to the Faerie Queene); also review Sidney's comments on "heroical" poetry, NA 1065, and comments on Pastoral Poetry guide concerning Renaissance attitudes toward the epic. Read carefully the information on the "epic" genre (e-reserve reading in PolyLearn from Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms), paying particular attention to epic conventions. 

Primary Readings: Book I of The Faerie Queene: Opening letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, four-stanza prologue, and cantos 1 and 2 (NA 777-806).

Also review selections from The Shepheardes Calender, "To His Booke" and "October" (NA 769-774) 
On the Epic:  read or review Sidney's comments on "heroical" poetry (i.e. the epic, NA 1065); note that he considers it "the best and most accomplished kind of poetry." Review NA 535-7 on humanist reverence for the classics and NA 554 on the heroic mode. Review comments on Pastoral Poetry guide concerning Renaissance attitudes toward the epic. Read carefully the information on the "epic" genre in your e-reserve reading (or handout) from Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms, paying particular attention to epic conventions; be able to explain how Spenser uses/adapts epic conventions in The Faerie Queene.

Review the headnote on Spenser (NA 766-68); know his life span (dates), social class, religious affiliation, education, professional activity, and poetic aspirations.  Know the dates of composition and/or publication of his principal works.  Review comments on Pastoral Poetry guide concerning Spenser's poetic ambitions.  Know the contents and significance of The Shepheardes Calendar (see NA 769); the classical and vernacular poets whom he most admired and tried to emulate. 

Read carefully the background information on The Faerie Queene (NA 775-7). Be able to explain in what respects the Faerie Queene represents the following genres: national epic (the level of "historical allegory" -- see NA 775); chivalric or Arthurian romance; the hybrid form "epic romance" (as in the works of Italian poets Ariosto and Tasso); and courtesy book. Be able to define or characterize these genres, including typical epic conventions (see Glossary of Literary Terms e-reserve reading or handout). Know which of these genres were written by Homer, Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso, and Castiglione (known to Spenser in the English translation of Hoby), and the titles and languages of their works.  Know what is meant by the "books," "cantos" and "stanzas" of The Faerie Queene and be able to distinguish between them.  Be able to describe the Spenserian stanza used in  The Faerie Queene (rhyme scheme and meter; see NA 776 and A24). Know how many books Spenser originally planned to write, what was actually completed, and when which books were published.  Be able to define allegory (see below) and to describe both the surface story (literal meaning) and the two principal allegorical levels in the poem, religious/moral and national/historical.


Definition: Allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons within a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative. Allegory implies two levels of meaning -- the literal (what happens in the narrative) and the symbolic (what the events stand for, outside the narrative). It evokes a dual interest: in the events, characters and setting presented; and in the ideas they represent or the significance they bear. Allegory may involve the personification of abstract qualities (e.g. Pride, Beauty, Death); it can also represent a historical personage (e.g. Gloriana = Queen Elizabeth), a category of individual (e.g. Everyman = all mankind), or another sort of abstraction (Una = the True Church). Characters, events and setting may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the key is that they have meanings independent of the action in the surface story. On the surface, Everyman is about a man about to leave on a trip and the people he meets; the Faerie Queene about a knight killing a dragon and rescuing a princess. On the allegorical level, however, both are about the duties of a Christian and the way to achieve salvation.

Note that the simple use of personification (e.g. talking animals or teapots) does not constitute allegory in and of itself; in an allegory, characters and objects usually symbolize abstract qualities, and the events recounted convey a coherent message concerning those abstractions. Allegory is frequently, but not always, concerned with matters of great import: life and death; damnation and salvation; social or personal morality and immorality. It can also be used for satiric purposes.

In FQ, allegory exists on several levels: religious, historical, mythological. Some characters are named for qualities or actions they represent (Error, Despair); others' names are foreign terms for such qualities (Sans foy = French for "without faith"; Speranza = Italian for "Hope," etc.) Book I contains both religious and historical allegory. Redcrosse Knight is an "Everyman" who represents Holiness or Faith, i.e. how to be a true Christian. Book I is also an allegory of English Church History: in this respect, Redcrosse Knight = St. George, patron saint of England (and so England itself); Una = the "one true faith," Protestantism; Archimago = the pope; Duessa = the duplicitous "false" faith (according to Spenser), Catholicism.

Plan and Purpose of the Poem

In its initial conception, the FQ as a whole was to function as a Courtesy Book (like Castiglione's The Courtier; see NA 533 and 704): there were to be twelve books on the twelve virtues appropriate to a gentleman, each represented by a different knight (our readings are from Book I, which  is about the virtue of Holiness, or religious faith). Although only six books were completed, FQ is 36,000 lines long!! Prince Arthur, who alone possesses all twelve virtues, plays a part in each book. His mission is to search for his beloved Faerie Queen, Gloriana. On an allegorical level, this couple represents England ( = Arthur) being espoused to Queen Elizabeth ( = Gloriana).

Literal Level Synopsis of Book I of The Faerie Queene:  Redcrosse Knight [ = RCK], representative of Holiness, has been commissioned by Gloriana, Queen of Fairy Land, to accompany Una to the kingdom of her parents and deliver them from the dragon that is scourging their land. Redcrosse and Una go through a series of adventures and encounter a series of enemies. Redcrosse defeats Error with Una's help, but cannot tell appearance from Reality through Archimago's deception. As a result, he abandons Una and becomes involved with Duessa. With help from Arthur and Una, he defeats a series of enemies: the brothers Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy (French for Faithlessness, Lawlessness and Joylessness); Orgoglio (Italian for pride); Despair; and the dragon (a fight lasting three days). At the end of Book I, Redcrosse is betrothed to Una and returns to the court of the Fairie Queene.

Remarks: Holiness = Righteousness, that knightly quality that was devoted to fighting sin or evil. In medieval tradition, one spoke of the "Christian Warrior" putting on the "armor of Christ" -- sometimes referring to actual Crusaders, but also a New Testament metaphor for living a Christian life. Redcrosse Knight aspires to Holiness, but he is young and inexperienced. In Book I he gains the experience necessary to be a true Christian knight. Una = Truth, or the one true religion (Anglican Protestantism, for Spenser); her white dress = purity; black cloak = mourning for sins of mankind; veil = concealment, i.e., truth is not always plain to see. Archimago (archmagician) = Hypocrisy; on historical level, the pope. He is dressed like a hermit, but is evil (an anti-Catholic jab against monks; similarly, in Dr. Faustus, Marlowe has Mephistophilis appear in the shape of a Franciscan friar; see scene 3 lines 23-26). On a historical level, the separation of Redcrosse and Una through the machinations of Archimago and seductions of Duessa (= Catholicism, or the "False" Faith) stands for the outlawing of Protestantism and the reestablishment of Catholicism under Queen Mary (i.e., Redcrosse = England; Una = the one true faith, Protestantism; Archimago = the Pope.)

Study Questions:

Read the four-stanza invocation preceding Canto 1 carefully. What is the effect of the allusions to mythological figures (the Muses, Cupid, etc.)? In what literary tradition is Spenser attempting to place his work? What is the significance of the allusions to Virgil? Note the division of Book I into twelve cantos. Is this structure itself an allusion to a classical model? What is Spenser trying to prove or to achieve? (Recall Sidney's Defense of Poesy.) What is significance of fact that Spenser wrote pastoral poetry in his youth and epic in his maturity? (To whom did he dedicate The Shepherde's Calendar?)

Read carefully the letter from Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh. Note his comments on his purpose in writing the poem; also his remarks concerning other poets (classical and modern) and where he sees himself as fitting into literary tradition. How does he explain choosing King Arthur (back when he was just a Prince) as a focus of his poem? What does he say about Arthur? (Is Arthur in fact a major character in what follows?) What does he say about allegory?

In the battle between Redcrosse Knight and Sans Foy (c. 2), what peculiarities do you notice in the descriptions of the battle or of the knights themselves? What do your observations suggest? How do these details shape the allegory? Consider also Redcrosse Knight's two battles with Pride (in the House of Pride; with Orgoglio). Why does he have to fight Pride twice? Is there any difference between the two battles?

What is the function of Duessa? Why does she appear when Redcrosse Knight ( = RCK) has been separated from Una? Note the significance of their names (Latin roots: one and two, like unity and duality . . . or duplicity). Why does Duessa lead RCK to the Palace of Pride? Who ultimately overcomes her, and how? What does she represent on the allegorical level(s) of the book? Since The Faerie Queene in some ways resembles an Arthurian romance, Duessa can be compared with the seductresses and sorceresses of Arthurian tradition (Morgan la Fee; Lady Bercilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight): she uses a negative form of "courtly love" to manipulate men. If you are unfamiliar with the notion of "Courtly Love," consult the online reading.

Is Spenser comfortable with feminine sexuality? Consider e.g. the references to Duessa's "nether parts"; the false Una in Canto 1 (her seductive speeches are based on courtly love poetry); the chaste and/or maternal women in the House of Holiness; the Faerie Queene Gloriana herself; allusions to Eve. What can you conclude about his attitudes toward women?

Redcrosse repeatedly fails to distinguish appearance from reality. Where and when does Spenser play with the appearance-reality motif? Note doublings, pairings of opposites and use of disguises that complicate distinction between appearance and reality. What is their purpose and effect? Compare/contrast several of these parallels (e.g. the House of Pride vs. the House of Holiness; Duessa/"Fidessa" vs. Una; the real and false Redcrosse Knights).

What can you deduce about Spenser's world view (particularly his ideas about religion and politics) based upon your reading of The Faerie Queene? To what extent is Red Cross Knight an "Everyman"?

Reading Tips: 

-- Book I of The Faerie Queene is LONG -- allow yourself adequate reading time!! A canto-by-canto reading guide follows these study questions; USE IT!!

-- Don't worry about every detail -- read for overall plot and an understanding of the primary (religious and historical) levels of allegory. Use the Reading Guide and NOTE THE PASSAGES TO WHICH IT DRAWS YOUR ATTENTION; they are the ones which might be included on a reading quiz or on the midterm exam, and they are also ones which you could fruitfully examine in an out-of-class or on an exam essay.

-- Because Spenser chose archaic language for the medieval flavor it gives, some words will be unfamiliar. CONSULT THE NOTES! In addition, spelling is eccentric; note the following common substitutions: y for i, u for w, u for v, v for u.

*  *  *

Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene
A Canto-by-Canto Reading Guide

You are expected to read all assigned pages: the opening Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, the four stanzas preceding Canto 1, and these sections: Cantos 1, 2, 4-5 (The House of Pride), the appearance of Arthur in Cantos 7-9, Red Crosse Knight's ( = RCK)'s encounter with Despair in Canto 9, stanzas 21-53; Canto 10 (The House of Holiness), and pp. 759 to end (defeat of Dragon in Canto 11; all of Canto 12). You may skim parts of cantos 7-9 that don't include Arthur and the first part of RCK's battle with the dragon in c. 11.

The following guide cannot replace reading the text, but it SHOULD make your reading/studying easier. DO refer to your text as you go through the guide, including looking up passages from other sections that are cited as examples (e.g. second invocation of the Muse in c. 11).

The Opening Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh and 
the Four Introductory Stanzas

Note the explicit statements concerning Spenser's poetic ambitions in the dedicatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh (whose Discovery and Empire of Guiana and "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" we read earlier this quarter).  Spenser explicitly cites two classical and two vernacular models for his work:  the Greek epic poet Homer, author of the The Odyssey; the Roman (Latin-language) epic poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid (which was modelled on Homer's Odyssey); and the Italian poets Ariosto and Tasso, authors of the"romantic epic" works Orlando Furioso and Gerusalemme liberata, respectively.  Like the Italian "romantic epics," Spenser's Faerie Queene contains both epic and romance elements. But it is clear that he is primarily interested in establishing himself not as the English Ariosto but as the "new Virgil," the great epic poet of Elizabethan England.  In this regard, his poetic ambitions are akin to those of the medieval Italian poet Dante, who similarly saw himself as Virgil's literary heir. (Dante's epic poem The Inferno recounts a visit to Hell in which the shade of Virgil serves as Dante's guide; he thus depicts himself as literally "following in the footsteps" of his illustrious literary forebear.)

A first example of how Spenser achieves these ambitious poetic goals is found in the four opening stanzas of the poem. Note, e.g., Spenser's reworking of the classical epic element of the Invocation of the Muse in stanzas 1 and 2, in which he explicitly compares himself to Virgil: both turned from youthful works in the pastoral mode (a reference to the Shepheardes Calender, modelled on Virgil's eclogues) to the higher form of the epic. Spenser thus likens his poetic enterprise in writing the FQ to that of Virgil in writing the greatest of all Latin epics, the Aeneid. Note that there is a second Invocation of Spenser's Muse (probably Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry), in canto 11 stanzas 5-6, just before Spenser begins his account of the climax of the poem, RCK's battle with the dragon. Note also the twelve-part structure of the FQ (cf. 623, 625): there were to have been twelve books, each containing twelve cantos; Spenser's model is again Virgil's Aeneid, which is also made up of twelve books. 

The same desire to associate his poetic enterprise with that of Virgil (and thus his poem with the entire classical literary tradition, of which Virgil's epic was regarded by Humanists as the supreme work) is found in the implicit reference to Virgil in line 9, "Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song." This line is an adaptation of Virgil's famous statement of his own epic subject matter in the opening line of the Aeneid: "I sing of warfare and a man at war..." (trans. Robert Fitzgerald). On the literal level, FQ is obviously the tale of RCK's heroic completion of a dangerous quest: he must defeat an evil dragon, thereby liberating both Una's parents and their kingdom. This quest is reminiscent of the exploits of epic figures such as Beowulf, Odysseus/Ulysses or Aeneas. A Romance element is however introduced into the epic formula by the fact that RCK has undertaken the quest at the request of a lady, Una, who is also his love interest (an element conspicuously lacking in many epics).

There are numerous other epic elements in the FQ: one of the most notable is the descent into Hell described in C. 5, st. 31-44. Since Virgil's Aeneid, a trip to the underworld has been considered an obligatory episode in an epic work; any epic poet worth his salt has to include one, because it is expected, and because it lets him claim his work is as good (and as all-inclusive) as Virgil's. Again, Spenser may have been inspired by the great 14th-century Italian poet Dante, who devoted an entire book of his Christian epic poem, the Divine Comedy, to a first-person account of his journey through Hell. In the Inferno, Dante the poet must travel through Hell on his way to Christian truth because he has gotten lost in a wilderness reminiscent of the "wandring woods" where RCK goes astray in FQ c. 1 (and elsewhere); as noted above, Dante's guide upon that journey through Hell is Virgil himself. Spenser may have borrowed his terminology from Dante as well: "canto" is the Italian word for song, and is used to describe the divisions of Dante's poem. Note that there is also a shorter visit to the underworld in c. 1, where Archimago sends messengers to Morpheus to obtain the false dreams he will use to deceive RCK (1.36-47).

While the epic elements in the FQ are numerous and striking, the difference between Spenser's poetic enterprise and that of Virgil are as noteworthy as the similarities. As mentioned above, he includes a LOVE ELEMENT not present in classical epic; instead, it is borrowed from one of Spenser's other literary models, medieval Arthurian romance (cf. the reference to "Knights and Ladies gentle deeds" in line 5), and from the Italian "romantic epics" of Tasso and Ariosto (poets also referred to in the letter to Raleigh); these romantic epics similarly grafted "love stuff" onto the classical, war- and male-oriented epic model found in Virgil, the Greek epic poet Homer, or Beowulf. This new influx of the "love" element into a previously male- and war-oriented form is also suggested by Spenser's reference to Cupid in stanza 3, as well as by the invocation of both Venus, the classical Goddess of Love, and Mars, the classical God of War, in the same stanza: they will assist the nine Muses in helping Spenser present the "warres" and "faithfull loves" alluded to in line 9.

Spenser's use of the word "moralize" points to another aspect of his poem not present in previous classical OR romantic epics (although found in Dante): it is a religious (and historical) ALLEGORY, meant to present a MORAL message to the reader concerning the "True" Church (Anglican Protestantism) and the duty of the Christian to have Faith in same. This religious aspect of the allegory is alluded to in the letter to Raleigh, NA 624-7, e.g. when Spenser explicitly explains that RCK represents Holiness, and that his armor (emblazoned with a red cross, whence his name) is identical to that of the Christian, as described in Ephesians 6.13-17 (a biblical reference making clear the Christian level of Spenser's allegory; cf. NA 626 n. 2, as well as references to RCK's armor in canto 1 stanza 27, canto 2 stanza 18, canto 3 stanza 35, canto 4 stanza 50, canto 7 stanza 2, etc.)

Finally, the reference to Queen Elizabeth in stanza 4 links her to classical tradition: her light is like that of Phoebus (Apollo)'s lamp, the sun; Apollo is the Greek god associated with knowledge. learning and poetry, and is frequently invoked by Humanists as a patron of the Arts. The allusion to Elizabeth also brings in the historical level of allegory in the FQ, in which Gloriana, the Faerie Queen, is an allegorical representation of Elizabeth, queen of England; Una represents the Church of England, Anglican Protestantism; and RCK is Saint George, patron saint of England, as well as a symbol of what Spenser considered the "right" kind of (English) Christian -- i.e., an Anglican Protestant, not a Catholic.

Canto 1: The Quest

C. 1 st.1-5 [ = canto 1, stanzas 1-5]: Introduction of RCK and Una; first reference to Gloriana, the "Faerie Queene" (RCK grew up at her court -- cf. c. 10 st. 58-66 -- which is where Una goes looking for assistance in the form of a brave knight). Damsels in distress coming to court to seek the aid of a knight are typical of Arthurian romance, as well as of the romantic epics of Tasso and Ariosto. Here we also find the first reference to RCK's specific quest: he is to fight a dragon in order to free Una's parents and liberate their kingdom (cf. also c. 7 st. 43-47, c. 11 st.1-3, and all of c. 12). In typical medieval romance (or romantic epic) fashion, the FQ will recount a series of adventures which occur while the hero (RCK) is striving to accomplish his quest.

The first of these adventures is RCK's encounter with Error. Note that RCK and Una would not have arrived at Error's cave had they not lost their way (cf. st. 10), and note also what it is that initially leads the couple astray: they get lost while indulging in typical courtly love-type flirtation -- "with pleasure forward led,/ Joying to heare the birdes sweete harmony" (FQ 1.64-65 [ = canto 1, lines 64-5; cf. also st. 10). This negative depiction of courtly love, the seductive power of which tends to distract the hero and lead him astray (even when the object of his affection is as chaste and pure as Una), is related to Spenser's anti-feminism: he seems to distrust women in general and erotic love in particular. Female bodies are invariably associated with sin and corruption, unless the women in question are chaste virgins like Una, Gloriana, or the sisters Fidelia and Speranza in the House of Holiness (or maternal rather than erotic figures, like Dame Caelia's third daughter, Charissa). On the theme of the association of evil with feminine sexuality, note that Duessa -- a lady with very active "nether parts" -- manages to captivate RCK only by (falsely) claiming to be a virgin (c. 2 st. 25); he mistakenly prefers her false appearance of purity over Una's real, but unapparent, innocence. RCK abandons Una because he is convinced of her "wantonness": not only does he think that she has offered to sleep with him -- cf. c. 1 st. 43-55 -- but he believes that she has indulged in lechery with a "lusty squire" after his shocked refusal of her advances (cf. c. 2 st. 3-8). The conventions of "courtly love" will continue to get "bad press" throughout the FQ by their close association with the evil wiles of Duessa (see further discussion under c. 2, below). 

It is also interesting to note the sort of path down which the unsuspecting couple, "led with delight" (1.82), stray (st. 10): it is a beaten path that leads to Error's cave (st. 11); compare this well-travelled path with the "broad highway [...] / all bare through people's feet" that leads to the House of Pride (4.17-180; a similar reference is found at 10.86). Contrast both of these well-travelled roads with the rough, difficult, narrow paths leading to, and between structures within, the House of Holiness, c. 10 (look for references to paths in c. 10, st. 5, 10, 33, 35, 51, 55, 61). As noted above, the reference to the "wandering wood" (1.114) recalls the beginning of Dante's Inferno; compare also with the "wearie wandering way" (9.343) which leads the unwary traveller to Despair in c. 9 st. 39 and 43.

Another detail to note: what leads RCK into trouble, despite Una's warning, is his PRIDE (first of the Seven Deadly Sins) -- he cannot bear to turn away from an adventure ("shame were to revoke," 1.106), a trait which he shares with many knights from Arthurian romance. The idea of pride being the downfall of the Christian is constantly returned to in the FQ. It is also PRIDE that will lead RCK into his encounter with Despair, despite Trevisan's warnings (c. 9, st. 31-32); cf. also, in addition to the allegorical episode of the House of Pride and the encounter with the giant Orgoglio (Italian for "pride"), the association of the dragon with "outragious [sic] pride" (11.471) immediately before it is slain by RCK at the end of canto 11.

Although RCK is successful in his literal battle with Error, note the concrete result of his contact with the monster: he immediately thereafter falls victim to the error of believing Archimago's deceptions. (Una is thus proved right: he should have swallowed his pride and turned away from Error's cave.) He is duped by false visions sent to trouble his sleep by the evil magician Archimago, who appears in the form of a black-clad, rosary carrying Catholic hermit (st. 29-30, 35) who offers the travellers shelter for the night (another motif borrowed from traditional Arthurian romances). Note the classical allusions (Pluto, Gorgon, Morpheus, the river Styx, the doors of Ivory and Silver) in this initial "descent to the Underworld" (st. 37-44; cf. also c. 5 st. 31-44). These false visions lead RCK to doubt the chastity (and therefore the goodness) of Una; RCK's error is thus that he is incapable of distinguishing Truth from Falsehood (symbolized in canto 2 by his abandonment of the true Una and taking up with the false Duessa). Archimago's deceptions introduce another important leit-motif in FQ: the idea that appearances are frequently deceptive, and in particular, that things that look particularly splendid or beautiful (i.e. good) often hide great corruption, ugliness and evil. This idea will be discussed more fully in relation to Duessa in canto 2.

Canto 2: Separation

By means of the false visions mentioned above, Archimago succeeds in separating Una and RCK. RCK immediately falls for a "scarlet woman" reminiscent of the Whore of Babylon of Revelation (cf. also her description in c. 7 st. 16-18): Duessa, here calling herself Fidessa ("Faith"), who appears in the company of Sans Foy (French for "without faith"). Sans Foy is clearly presented as Duessa's courtly lover (cf. st. 14), but after he is defeated by RCK, Duessa lies to RCK, using her feminine wiles to ensnare him in a courtly love-type relationship (stanzas 20-30). For similar negative use of "courtly love" motifs, cf. the way in which the seductions of courtly love recapture RCK after he has fled from the House of Pride (c. 7 st. 2-7) and Duessa's subsequent betrayal of RCK for the giant Orgoglio, whom she takes on as her new "courtly lover" (c. 7 st.14-16).

It is not surprising that Duessa's "love" be presented as a false and evil seduction: her very name (Duessa) suggests duplicity and deception (contrast with "Una" = "One"). The idea of Duessa's duplicity is returned to repeatedly in FQ: cf. for example Una's description of Duessa's false appearance in c. 7 st. 50 ("misseeming sweete," line 449), or her remark that Duessa's is "the face of falsehood" (c. 9 st. 49); cf. also Duessa's immortal words to Night in c. 5: "I that do seeme not I, Duessa am" (5.231). In the same passage (c. 5 st. 26), we learn that Duessa is the daughter of Deceit and Shame; it is further suggested that Night, mother of Aveugle (French for "blindness") and thus grandmother of Sans Foy, Sans Joy and Sans Loy, is also one of Duessa's forebears (c. 5, st. 22 & 25). Here, Duessa's identity is doubly a lie in that she does not even identify herself by her true name: instead, she calls herself "Fidessa" (a name derived from the Latin fides, or "Faith"; the context makes clear that she represents the false faith, i.e. Catholicism). Duessa/"Fidessa" makes up a story of her victimization at the hands of Sans Foy, just as she will later lie to Sans Foy's brother Sans Joy, claiming that she had remained chaste in spite of RCK's pursuit of her, and offering to become his mistress -- cf. c. 4 st. 44-51; she will just as easily transfer her favors to the giant Orgoglio in 7.14-18. Through her lies, the seductive "Fidessa" utterly captivates the clueless RCK (again note use of courtly love-type scenarios in st. 26-30); here the language of courtly love is presented as being unreliable, deceptive and even evil.

Duessa's true nature is revealed in the story told by the tree, Fradubio, in stanzas 30-44, but RCK is still too trapped in the snares of his error to understand that the evil "Duessa" described by the enchanted tree is identical to his own lady, "Fidessa." It is however obvious to US that the tale of Fradubio is identical with RCK's experience: both knights, initially in the company of their own true loves (Una, Fraelissa), come upon the "lady" Duessa accompanied by a knight. Both fight with and kill the knight who had been Duessa's escort, and both are led by deceptions and enchantments to abandon their own true loves (Una, Fraelissa), in each case replacing the "true" lady with the false and evil Duessa. Fradubio eventually recognizes his error, when he catches sight of Duessa's hideous "nether parts" (stanzas 40-41); the "false sorceresse" (2.305) punishes him by turning him into a tree. RCK is however too dense to see that the tale told by Fradubio also applies to himself ("Fidessa" manages to distract him from Fradubio's story by feigning fear). After "reviving" her, the smitten RCK continues on with his lady "Fidessa," oblivious to Fradubio's warning; before they depart, they once more engage in courtly love-type dalliance (cf. their kisses in st. 45).

Fradubio's description of Duessa's hideous nether parts picks up one of the leit-motifs mentioned above: imagery of a beautiful upper body or external appearance (or: the higher, visible portion of something) that conceals an ugliness underneath is found throughout the FQ. A similar description of Duessa is found in c. 8, st. 46-48; cf. also descriptions of Error (c. 1 st. 14) and the deadly sin Lechery (c. 4 st. 25). Related imagery of something grand built upon false foundations is found in the description of the House of Pride (c. 4 st. 5); in the simile used to describe the fallen Sans Foy (c. 2 line 173); and in the metaphor used to describe the defeated dragon (c. 11 st. 54).

A final detail to note in canto 2: the references to St. George, the patron saint of England, in stanzas 11 and 12. RCK will be identified as the future St. George in c. 10, st. 57-65. His fight with the dragon in c. 11, the narrative climax of the FQ, is thus on one level to be understood as the legendary battle between St. George and the Dragon.

Canto 3: Una's Adventures

Not assigned for this class. Mainly about the trials of Una. If you choose to skim it, note presence of false "Red Cross" (Archimago in disguise). The brother "Sans loy" = lawlessness (French name translates as "without law"). Abessa represents the monastic orders (the head of a convent is an Abbess); Corceca = Italian for "blind heart."

Cantos 4-5 (the House of Pride):

St.1: a warning to reader against the vice of inconstancy (of which RCK has shown himself to be guilty; on the theme of inconstancy, see also the description of the deadly sin Lechery, st. 24-26, where Spenser provides an explanation for RCK's inconstancy [line 226]). St. 2-3: see remarks above concerning the "broad high way" leading to House of Pride. St. 4-5: description of magnificent Palace built upon sandy foundation (see remarks above). Both the dazzling lady of the castle (Lucifera, named in line 100; note that name is a feminine form of Lucifer, the fallen angel who defied God and was expelled from heaven for his pride) and her court seem quite magnificent at first glance (st. 7-8); however, a disquieting note is introduced in st. 9 through the reference to Phaeton, and by st. 10 it is clear that Lucifera is the embodiment of Pride, first of the Seven Deadly Sins. Even RCK, who thus far has been stunning in his capacity to misinterpret everything he sees, is critical of the pride embodied in the Lady and her court (see st. 15 and 37).

St. 16-36: We understand that Lucifera is Pride, first of the Seven Deadly Sins, when she organizes a procession: Lucifera's coach is drawn by "six unequall beasts," each of which is ridden by one of Lucifera's six "sage Counsellours" (st. 18) -- the other six Deadly Sins. In each case, the animal in question is appropriate to the person (sin) riding it. The six counsellors and their mounts are: Idleness, depicted as a Catholic monk riding an ass (st. 18-20); Gluttony riding a pig (st. 21-23); Lechery on a goat (st. 24-26); Avarice on a camel (st. 27-29); Envy on a wolf (st. 30-32; note Spenser's remarks in st. 32 that criticism of famous poets is due to envy); and Wrath on a Lion (st. 33-35). Satan himself is the coachman, whipping on the animals from his perch on the wagon beam (st. 36), and Duessa has the place of honor next to Lucifera (st. 37).

St. 38-40: Sans Joy, brother of the knight Sans Foy slain by RCK (Duessa's original escort in c. 2) arrives and sees his brother's shield in the hands of RCK. Realizing that RCK has killed SF, the furious SJ vows to avenge his brother's death (like Gawain in Malory's Morte Darthur). He and RCK begin to fight, but are separated by Lucifera, who proposes a tournament the next day to settle their quarrel. St 41-43: SJ agrees to wait until next day; his speech and behavior are those of a courtly knight. St. 44-51: that night, Duessa sneaks into SJ's room. Using the language of courtly love, she claims to have been unwillingly abducted by RCK, who slew her true love SF; she always liked SJ just as much as his older brother, however, and would be consoled for SF's death if SJ would accept her love. St. 49: SJ accepts her love; st. 50: she warns him about RCK's charmed shield, weapons and armor (it has a red Cross on it which protects him from evil forces). She then slips secretly back to her bed. Note that this scene is reminiscent of the evil visions of Una sent by Archimago to RCK in c. 1-2. Duessa really does what RCK mistakenly thought Una did; he is equally in error in his opinion of both women.

Canto 5 begins with the preparations for the joust between RCK and SJ, clearly identified in st. 8-9 (lines 64, 73) as a battle between Good and Evil. St. 10-13: RCK is about to succumb to SF, whose blows are strengthened by his rage at his brother's death; however, when RCK hears the words of encouragement shouted to SJ by "Fidessa" (line 99), he mistakenly thinks the encouragement is intended for him (st. 12-113) and draws from it the inspiration needed to win the battle (another typical motif from the courtly love tradition). Without missing a beat, Duessa repeats her words, this time addressing them to RCK (st. 14). RCK then blows it again by paying homage to Queen Lucifera (st. 16) -- a sinister misuse of courtly behavior, given her identity as Pride, the first of the Seven Deadly Sins.

St. 19-44: Duessa, grieving for the wounded SF, visits Night, grandmother of the brothers SF, SJ and SL (who will persecute poor Una in Canto 6). The two women collect SJ's unconscious body and descend with him into the underworld; note classical allusions throughout passage (see remarks above). Their mission is to convince Aesculapius, the God of Medicine, to cure SJ (cf. st. 36 and 41-44). Initially hesitant, he is convinced by Night's flattering words to comply (st. 44; another example of how women use their wiles to get men to do things they shouldn't).

St. 45-53: Duessa then returns to the palace of Pride (st. 45), only to find that RCK has taken off, warned by his dwarf (an allegorical depiction of common sense) of the presence of hellish dungeons hidden beneath the magnificent castle. The final stanzas describe the prisoners of Pride. Note that here we find another instance of a beautiful upper portion (the stately palace) concealing a foul and evil secret (the hellish dungeons).

Canto 6: Una and the Satyrs

Continuation of Una's adventures from Canto 3; not assigned for this class -- but by all means, feel free!

Canto 7: Orgoglio and the fall of RCK

Duessa catches up with RCK in st. 1-7, using her feminine wiles to seduce him. Note evil depiction of courtly love-type dalliance beside the spring, and notice RCK's hypocrisy: as they lie on the ground engaging in amorous play (st. 7), RCK is committing with "Fidessa" the sort of actions he abandoned Una for supposedly engaging in (c. 1-2). RCK takes off his armor (7.17) and thus is open to the attack of the giant Orgoglio ( = Pride in Italian). Duessa shows her true colors by immediately transferring her affections to Orgoglio; as his mistress, she appears in the garb (and mounted on the dragon) of the Whore of Babylon (cf. pp. 701 n. 6 and 702 n.7). At Duessa's instigation, Orgoglio enslaves RCK, casting him in the dungeons of his castle. This episode represents a continuation of the House of Pride episode (Orgoglio is Italian for Pride).

In st. 29, Arthur providentially shows up; we suspect he will offer the despairing Una his assistance. In st. 35, we learn that Arthur, unlike RCK, cannot be deceived by any magical deceptions. St. 43-44 reveal that Una's homeland is the Garden of Eden; her parents can thus be identified as Adam and Eve, and the dragon that has "their kingdom spoiled" (1.7.392) is the evil serpent that caused the fall of mankind. Arthur offers Una his assistance in st. 52.

Canto 8: Arthur Rescues RCK

Allegorically, Arthur's fight with Orgoglio represents both the struggle of Protestantism with the Catholic Church and the battle between divine grace and evil. St. 4: Arthur sounds his horn to get into the castle of Pride (like Arthur's shield, the horn has the property of dispelling wicked enchantments -- cf. also st. 19-21). Orgoglio and Duessa appear; the latter is still dressed as the whore of Babylon and mounted on the apocalyptic Dragon of Revelation (st. 6 and 12; cf. 713 notes 3 and 4). After Orgoglio and the dragon have been killed, Una and Arthur enter the castle to free RCK. St. 30-34: they get no help from the doorkeeper Ignaro (Ignorance), but take from him the keys to the castle. St. 35-6: they pass an altar upon which blood sacrifices have been made (on religious level, a reference to the Herod's Massacre of the Innocents [Matthew 2.16]; on historical level, possibly an allusion to the Protestants massacred by Catholic persecution during the reign of "Bloody Mary"). RCK is found behind an iron door (st. 37-9), despairing and hoping for death (st. 38); he is carried forth by Arthur (st. 40). The delighted Una receives her knight (st. 42-3); her words of welcome resemble marriage vows (cf. 1.8.379). Una then decrees how Duessa will be punished: she will not be killed, but rather stripped of her robes, so that her previously hidden foulness can be seen by all (st. 45-50).

Canto 9: Arthur's Story; RCK's Encounter with Despair

Arthur (name revealed by Una st. 6) reveals his identity and love for Gloriana. Here is a positive depiction of courtly love: Arthur's devotion to Gloriana, with whom he fell in love after seeing her in a dream (st. 13-15), is a CHASTE variety of "courtly love" relationship, in which the hero longs for his lady but does not possess her carnally. His love is thus both a source of inspiration to him and a source of suffering. Arthur suffers some of the symptoms of love sickness -- pallor, sleeplessness, etc. -- described by Ovid (st. 16); his love is compared to a wound or sickness caused by Cupid's arrows (st. 7-12); Petrarchan comparisons are also used (his love is a flame that burns him without consuming him [st. 8-9]). Note the gifts exchanged by Arthur and RCK after the former has saved the latter (st. 18-19): Arthur gives RCK a magical balm symbolizing God's Grace; RCK gives Arthur a book, the New Testament (he is after all the allegorical incarnation of "Faith"!) 

ALSO NOTE: Arthur's words in st. 6, "Full hard it is [...] to read aright/ The course of heavenly cause, or understand/ The secret meaning of th'eternall might/ That rules mens wayes, and rules the thoughts of living wight" (9.51-54). In acknowledging the difficulty humans have in understanding God's will, Spenser is considerably humbler than will be a poet of the next literary generation. In writing Paradise Lost -- like Dante's Inferno or the Faerie Queene, an explicitly Christian epic -- Milton will claim that his purpose is no less than to "assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men" (PL 1.25-26).

RCK's Encounter with Despair (st. 21-53): Once freed by Arthur from Orgoglio's dungeons, RCK sets off with Una to complete his quest. They immediately encounter a terrified knight, Trevisan, who wears a noose about his neck (st. 21-22; named in line 284). Trevisan recounts his story: in the company of another knight (Terwin, who was suffering the pangs of courtly love sickness because of his lady's cruelty and pride -- cf. st. 27), Trevisan had encountered the "man of Hell" (9.248), Despair. St. 29: Despair's words bring the two knights to a state of -- surprise! -- despair. Terwin uses the rusty knife provided by Despair to kill himself; Trevisan almost uses the similarly provided noose to do the same, but instead bolts in terror. Despite Trevisan's warning (st. 31), RCK is too proud to turn away, and so proceeds to the Cave of Despair (st. 32; see remarks above). Note references to lost paths (st. 39 and 43; see remarks above), as well as resemblance between Despair's cave and that of Error in c. 1. Despair's slick rhetoric almost convinces RCK to commit suicide; the emphasis on guilt (st. 38), sin (st. 46) and the torments of Hell (st. 49-50) is an attack on what Spenser saw as Catholicism's excessive emphasis on guilt and punishment rather than on God's Grace. RCK is about to stab himself with a dagger (thoughtfully provided by the well-equipped Despair) when Una intervenes (st. 52-54). RCK is saved, and Despair hangs himself. RCK, much the worse for his encounter with Despair, is taken by Una to the House of Holiness for healing and recuperation.

Canto 10: The House of Holiness

SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH THIS ONE YOURSELF! Extremely rich allegory. Consider e.g. the House of Holiness in contrast to the House of Pride; characteristics of the female figures found in each of the two Houses; the different sorts of paths leading to the House of Pride and the House of Holiness (and between different parts of the House of Holiness) and the metaphorical implications of those differences; the view from the "highest mount " (st. 53-54) -- note also what that mountain is said to be "like"; consider the metaphorical implications of that comparison. Note the "historical" explanation of RCK's fight with the dragon: he will become St. George, Patron Saint of England, who was also said to have fought a dragon. . . Read carefully; also read back over earlier potions of study guide looking for comments on Canto 10. . .

Canto 11: RCK Fights the Dragon

You may skim the first part of Canto 11; read carefully from st. 43 to the end. After his recuperative visit to the House of Holiness, RCK is ready to face the dragon. Una brings him to her native land (st. 1-5) and sets him to the task. As mentioned above, Spenser's account of the battle with the dragon -- climax of the action of the FQ -- is preceded by a second invocation of the Muse in st. 5-6. The battle with the dragon will last 3 days, a reference to the 3 days from Good Friday to Easter, the time needed for Christ to complete his conquest of Hell. (After his death on the cross but before his resurrection, Christ was thought to have descended into Hell to liberate the souls of the righteous dead, including Adam and Eve; this episode is known as the "Harrowing of Hell.") Note however that RCK is the allegorical representation of a human saint (George) rather than of Christ; human saints conform to the image of God, but are not God themselves -- to so style oneself would be an act of presumptuous pride akin to that of Milton's Satan, thrown out of heaven because he wanted to be God's equal, or of Adam and Eve succumbing to the temptation of being "like God" in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

On the first day of the three-day battle, RCK succeeds in wounding the dragon's wing (st. 20), but is almost killed; however, he providentially falls into a healing spring, the Well of Life (st. 29-30; passage is an allegorical reference to the sacrament of baptism); its magical powers, combined with the night-long prayers of Una (st. 32), heal the knight, enabling him to take up the battle with the dragon the next morning. On day 2, RCK manages to cut off dragon's tail (st. 39), but once again he is almost killed. St. 43 picks up with the flame-breathing dragon scorching RCK, who falls (st. 46) at the foot of the Tree of Life, from which flows a healing balm (st. 48). The balm, together with Una's night-long prayers (st. 50), again heals RCK, enabling him to defeat the dragon on the third day (st. 53). Note allusions to Eden in st. 46-47 (Una's parents are Adam and Eve, and their kingdom is the Garden of Eden); note also reference to the dragon's pride (11.471) and the metaphor of a cliff with false foundations used to describe the fallen beast (see comments above). Una of course gives prayers of thanks to God for her Knight's victory (st. 55). In addition to religious level of allegory (Christ battling Satan to release Adam and Eve from the sin caused by their fall in the Garden of Eden), note historical level of allegory: the triumph of RCK also represents the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism in England and the freeing of the English people, symbolized by Una's father and mother, from what Spenser considered to be a "false" religion (Catholicism).

Canto 12: Conclusion

The victory of RCK over the dragon is celebrated by Una, her parents, and their people (st. 1-16). RCK announces that he is bound to return to the court of Gloriana to serve her for six more years (st. 18); Una's father proclaims RCK's betrothal to Una (st. 19-21; the princess whose hand is won through the successful completion of a quest is another motif typical of medieval romance -- and modern fairy tales). Una, overjoyed, removes her black cloak and veil (st. 22), revealing the white garment underneath, which enhances her dazzling beauty (st. 23-24). Una is thus again the opposite of Duessa -- she has hidden great splendor and beauty under a somber exterior, whereas Duessa hid great ugliness (her hideous "nether parts") under splendid robes. Before the betrothal can be celebrated, however, Duessa tries one last trick, sending a messenger to say that RCK is not free to enter into an engagement with Una, since he has pledged his troth to her, in the person of Fidessa (st. 24-28). Una's father is concerned (st. 29-30), but as RCK tells him of the treachery of Duessa (st. 31-32), Una breaks in, explaining that "Fidessa's" letter is just another one of Archimago's tricks (st. 33-34). The messenger is unmasked, revealed to be Archimago in disguise, and thrown into a deep dungeon (st. 36). The betrothal can then occur (st. 36-37). During the celebration (st. 38-41), heavenly music is heard. However (surprise, surprise!), Spenser does not allow the marriage to be consummated: RCK leaves the virginal Una to "mourne" him, awaiting his return, while he goes back to the court of the Faerie Queene (st. 41).

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2017

Click here for Pastoral study guide

Click here for Milton's Paradise Lost study guide

Return to ENGL 204 homepage
Return to ENGL 331 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!