Johann Heinrich Füssli 058

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Faerie Queene is an incomplete English epic poem by Edmund Spenser.


The first half was published in 1590, and a second installment was published in 1596.

The Faerie Queene found political favour with Elizabeth I and was consequently a success, to the extent that it became Spenser's defining work. The poem found such favour with the monarch that Spenser was granted a pension for life amounting to 50 pounds a year, though there is no evidence that Elizabeth I read any of the poem.[1]

Form and styleEdit

Faerie Queene Sept 06 005

The Faerie Queene is notable for its form: it was the first work written in Spenserian stanza, and is one of the longest poems in the English language.[2] It is an allegorical work, written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. In a completely allegorical context, the poem follows several knights in an examination of several virtues. In Spenser's "A 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 virtuous and gentle discipline."

A Celebration of the VirtuesEdit

The Faerie Queene Short Film

The Faerie Queene Short Film

A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589 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 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying twelve "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, although the influence of Thomas Aquinas can be observed as well. It is impossible to predict what the work would have looked like 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.

As it was published in 1596, the epic presented the following virtues:

  • Book I: Holiness
  • Book II: Temperance
  • Book III: Chastity
  • Book IV: Friendship
  • Book V: Justice
  • Book VI: Courtesy

In addition to these six virtues, 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 conteineth 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."

Politics and the poemEdit

Lecture on Spenser and The Faerie Queene

Lecture on Spenser and The Faerie Queene

The poem celebrates, memorializes, and critiques the Tudor dynasty (of which Elizabeth was a part), much in the way that Virgil's Aeneid celebration of Augustus Caesar's Rome. Like the Aeneid, which states that Augustus descended from the noble sons of Troy, 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 seen themselves or others partially represented by 1 or more of Spenser's figures.

Elizabeth herself is the most prominent example: she appears most prominently in her guise as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself; but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love; and perhaps also, more critically, 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. Although the world of The Faerie Queene is based on English Arthurian legend, 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.[3] The 5h Book of The Faerie Queene, the Book of Justice, is Spenser's most direct discussion of political theory. In it, Spenser both attempts to tackle the problem of policy toward Ireland and recreates the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots.


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."[4] Allowing that Jonson's remark may only apply to the Calendar, Bruce Robert McElderry, Jr., states, after a detailed investigation of the FQTemplate:'s diction, that Jonson's statement "is a skillful epigram; but it seriously misrepresents the truth if taken at anything like its face value."[5] The number of archaisms used in the poem are not overwhelming - ”one source reports thirty-four in Canto One of Book One, that is, thirty-four words out of a total 4,200 words, less than one percent.[6] 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."[7]

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

  • Infinitive in en: "Vewen," 1. 201, 'to view.'
  • Prefix y- retained in participle: "Yclad," 1. 58, 254, 'clad,' 'clothed'.
  • Adjective: "Combrous," 1. 203, 'harassing,' 'troublesome.'
  • Verb: "Keepe," 1. 360, 'heed,' 'give attention to.'[8]

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.[9]

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."[10] 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.[11]

Medieval subject matterEdit

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.[12] The prophecy was adopted by the British people 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.[13] 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.

List of major characters Edit

Template:Over detailed

  • Acrasia, Seductress of knights whose name, among other things, indicates weakness of will. Guyon destroys her Bower of Bliss at the end of Book 2. Similar characters in other epics: Circe (Homer's Odyssey), Alcina (Ariosto), Armida (Tasso). Also the fairy woman from Keats' poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci". Acrasia is an unusual seductress, however, since she commands our sympathy, as well as our admiration for her exquisite bower, a spot Spenser does not want to leave. He describes it as "the most daintie Paradise on ground," and as made with such talent that "the art, which all that wrought, appeared in no place." While she is taken off in chains of adamant at the end of the episode, supposedly "to keep her safe and sound," while the man with whom she was found is allowed to go free after a bit of counseling.
  • Alma, Her name means "soul." She is the head of the House of Temperance in Book 2.
  • Amoret, The wife of Scudamour, kidnapped by Busirane on her wedding night, saved by Britomart. She represents the virtue of married love, and her marriage to Scudamour serves as the example that Britomart and Artegal seek to copy. Amoret and Scudamor are separated for a time by circumstances, but remain loyal to one another until they (presumably) are reunited.
  • Archimago, An evil sorcerer who is sent to stop the knights in the service of the Faerie Queene. Of the knights, Archimago hates Redcross most of all, hence he is symbolically the nemesis of England.
  • Artegal (or Arthegall), a British knight who is an ambivalent champion of Justice, which is in loosely represented by Aristotle. He meets Britomart, a female knight, after defeating her in a swordfight and removing her helmet, revealing her beauty. Artegal quickly falls in love with Britomart's beauty. Artegal has a squire,Talus, a metal man who wields a flail and never sleeps or grows tired but pursues and savagely kills any any who do not meet Artegal's inflexible notions of justice. He comes late to Satyrane's Tournament as an anonymous "Salvage Knight" with the motto "Salvagesse sans finesse" on his shield. He thus joins a group of characters in the poem who are characterized as "salvage" men, those who lie outside the cultivation of civility and art. Later, Talus does not rescue Artegal from enslavement by the wicked Radigund, because Artegal is bound by a legal contract to serve her. Only her death, at Britomart's hands, liberates him.
  • Arthur. One of the British knights. This is the same Arthur of the Round Table, but in Spenser's poem he is not yet king. He is in love with the Faerie Queene after having had a vivid dream about her, when she seemed to spend the night with him. He spends his time in pursuit of her when not helping the other knights out of their sundry predicaments, in either the seventh or eighth Canto of every Book. Prince Arthur is the Knight of Magnificence, the perfection of all virtues which sums them all up.
  • Ate, a monstrous and grotesque hag who lives on the border of Hell, she is able to disguise herself as beautiful, though she is not usually disguised as such. Ate opposes Book IV's virtue of friendship through spreading discord. She is aided in her task by Duessa, who is credited with raising her. Ate and Duessa mislead many knights, including the false knights Blandamour and Paridell into taking them as lovers.
  • Belphoebe, The beautiful sister of Amoret who spends her time in the woods hunting and avoiding the numerous amorous men who chase her. Timias, the squire of Arthur, eventually wins her affection after she tends to the injuries he sustained in battle; however, Timias must endure much suffering to prove his love when Belphoebe sees him tending to a wounded woman and, misinterpreting his actions, flies off hastily. Belphoebe is committed to chastity. She is modeled on the goddess of the moon, Cynthia.
  • Braggadocchio, a comic knight with no sense of honour. He steals Guyon's horse. He is not evil, just a dishonourable braggart.
  • Britomart, a female knight, the personification and champion of Protestant Chastity, which is characterized by monogamous marriage. She is young and beautiful, and falls in love with Artegal upon seeing his face in a magic mirror made by Merlin which she finds in her father's house. The mirror was made for the goddess Venus. She goes to Fairie Land accompanied by her nurse, Glauce, in order to find the knight she only knows as an image in the mirror. Britomart carries an enchanted spear that allows her to defeat every knight she encounters, until she loses to a knight who turns out to be Artegal. Parallel figure in Ariosto: Bradamante. Britomart is one of the most important knights in the story. She searches the world, including a pilgrimage to the shrine of Isis, and a visit with Merlin the magician. She rescues Artegal, and several other knights, from the Amazonian character, Radigund.
  • Busirane, the evil sorcerer who captures Amoret on her wedding night. When Britomart enters his castle to defeat him, she finds him holding Amoret captive. She is bound to a pillar and Busirane is torturing her. Britomart defeats him by forcing him to reverse his enchanted rhymes, but, in the 1596 edition, when she attempts to return Amoret to Scudamour, he has left.
  • Calepine, a knight who acts as Calidore's surrogate throughout much of Book VI.
  • Calidore, the Knight of Courtesy, hero of Book Six. He is on a quest from the Fairy Queen to slay the Blatant Beast.
  • Cambell, one of the Knights of Friendship, a character in Book Four, a member of a heroic foursome. Brother of Canacee and friend of Triamond. He marries Cambina, Triamond's sister.
  • Cambina, daughter of Agape and sister to Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond. Cambina is one of the heroic foursome central to Book IV. She is depicted holding a caduceus and a cup of nepenthe, signifying her role as a figure of concord. She marries Cambell after bringing an end to his fight with Triamond.
  • Canacee, Cambell's sister, whose magic ring renders the wearer invulnerable. After Cambell and Triamond's combat, Canacee marries Triamond and befriends his sister Cambina.
  • Colin Clout, is a shepherd, noted for his songs and bagpipe playing, that briefly appears in Book VI, being the same Colin Clout from Spenser's pastoral poetry, which is fitting because Calidore is taking a sojourn into a world of pastoral delight, ignoring his duty to hunt the Blatant Beast, which is why he set out to Ireland to begin with. Colin Clout may also be said to be Spenser himself.
  • Cymochles, a knight in Book II who is defined by indecisiveness and fluctuations of the will, as associated with water. He and his fiery brother Pyrochles represent opposing emotional maladies that threaten temperance. The two brothers are both slain by Prince Arthur in Canto VIII.
  • Chrysogonee, Mother of Belphoebe and her twin Amoretta, she was impregnated by sun-beams when she slept on a bank. Chrysogonee hid in the forest and becoming tired she fell asleep and gave birth to twins. Found by Venus and Diana, the newly-born twins were taken: Venus takes Amoretta and raises her in the Garden of Adonis; and Diana takes Belphoebe.
  • Duessa, a female character who personfies Falsehood, and, though grotesque, has the power of appearing beautiful. in Book One, known to Redcrosse as "Fidessa," she seduces him. As the opposite of Una, she represents the "false" religion of the Roman Catholic Church. She initially assists the evil enchanter, Archimago.
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  • Florimell, a lady in love with the knight Marinell, who initially rejects her. Hearing he was wounded, she set out in search and faced various perils, culminating in her being captured by Proteus. She is reunited with Marinell at the end of Book IV, and is married to him in Book V.
  • Glauce, an elderly woman who serves as Britomart's squire.
  • Gloriana, the "Faerie Queene" herself.
  • Guyon, the Knight of Temperance and the hero of Book Two is one of the Elfin knights. He is one of the Knights of Maidenhead and carries the image of Gloriana on his shield. According to the Golden Legend, St. George's name shares etymology with Guyon, which may mean "the holy wrestler." He is another ambivalent character, as his utter destruction of the Bower of Bliss indicates: despite many episodes designed to teach him the virtue of temperance, he still has not learned it by the end of Book II.
  • Malbecco, protective husband of the lascivious Hellenore. When she is seduced by Paridell, he metamorphoses into a hideous creature, representing jealousy itself.
  • Malecasta, a decadent, jaded sophisticate who invites the weary knights to dinner. She studies Britomart at the feast, and tries to seduce her, unaware Britomart is a lady until Malecasta feels the sting of Britomart's magic sword.
  • Marinell, "the knight of the sea"; son of a water nymph, he avoided all love because his mother had learned that a woman would do him harm; he was struck down in battle by Britomart, though not mortally wounded.
  • Merlin, who is much the same as in Arthurian legend. A young Britomart goes to see Merlin after falling in love with Artegal, and he instructs her on how to proceed.
  • Orgoglio, a giant representing Pride who attacks the Redcrosse Knight when he is traveling with Duessa, and takes Duessa as his lover.
  • Palladine, a minor character, but important in that she is a female knight who is dedicated to chastity.
  • Paridell, a false knight and a seducer of women. His name derives from that of the Trojan prince Paris. In Book Three, he runs off with Malbecco's wife, Hellenore.
  • Pastorella, a woman raised by shepherds but revealed in the last Canto of Book 6 to be actually the daughter of Sir Bellamoure and Lady Claribell.
  • Pyrochles, in Book Two, associated with fire as his brother, Cymochles, is with water. The two serve as examples of two emotional maladies that threaten temperance. Pyrochles is eventually beheaded by Prince Arthur in Canto VIII, preferring to die rather than accept Arthur's invitation to join him as one of his knights.
  • The Redcrosse Knight, hero of Book One as the knight of Holiness. Introduced in the first canto of the poem, he bears the emblem of Saint George, patron saint of England; a red cross on a white background is one of the two crosses on the flag of England (the other is that of St. Andrew). The Redcross Knight is prophesied to become Saint George in Canto X. He also learns that he is of English (Saxon) ancestry, having been stolen by a fairy and left in a furrow in a field in Faerieland; as a changeling he thus lives out the name George, or man of the earth. In the climactic battle of Book I, Redcrosse slays the dragon that has laid waste to the land of Una's parents, which represents Eden. He marries Una at the end of Book I, but leaves shortly after the wedding to fulfill his commitment to Gloriana.
  • Sansfoy, Sansjoy and Sansloy (names from the old French meaning "Faithless", "Joyless" and "Lawless"), three saracen knights who fight Redcrosse in Book One.
  • Satyrane, half-satyr, he is the son of a woman who was repeatedly raped by a satyr. Though this means that he is 1/4 beast, and he was raised in the wild, he epitomizes the urge toward virtue innate in the natural human. Befriended by Una, whom he protects, he does not have the power necessary to ultimately put down evil. For example, his fight against Sansloy ("without law") remains unconcluded. He spends his youth and episodes throughout his life fighting against beasts, suggesting his ongoing effort to put down the savageness in himself. He is one of the Knights of Maidenhead. Satyrane finds Florimell's girdle, which she drops while flying from a beast. He holds a three day tournament for the right to possess the girdle. His Knights of Maidenhead win the day with Britomart's help. He is in some way a foil to Artegal, who comes to the tournament as a Salvage Knight.
  • Scudamour, the lover of Amoret. His name means "shield of love". This character is actually based upon a real person, Sir James Scudamore, a jousting champion and courtier to Queen Elizabeth. Scudamour loses his love Amoret to the sorcerer Busirane. Although the 1590 edition of the Faerie Queene has Scudamour united with Amoret through Britomart's assistance, the continuation in Book IV has them separated, never to be reunited.
  • Talus, an "iron man" who helps Arthegall dispense justice in Book Five.
  • Timias, Prince Arthur's squire and lover of Belphoebe. His relationship with Belphoebe is generally thought to represent that of Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I.
  • Triamond, one of the Knights of Friendship, a hero of Book Four. Friend of Cambell. One of three brothers; when Priamond and Diamond died, their souls joined with his body. After battling Cambell, Triamond marries Cambell's sister, Canacee.
  • Trompart, Braggadocchio's cunning squire. His name derives from the French tromper, "to deceive".
  • Una, the personification of the "One True Church". She travels with the Redcrosse Knight (who represents England), whom she has recruited to save her parents' castle from a dragon. She also defeats Duessa, who represents the "false" (Catholic) church and the person of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a trial reminiscent of that which ended in Mary's beheading. Una is also representative of Truth.
The Fairy Queen - Overture, by Henry Purcell

The Fairy Queen - Overture, by Henry Purcell


H. Purcell - The Fairy Queen "O Let Me Weep" Sylvia McNair



  • Black, Joseph (Ed). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Concise Edition, Vol. A. Broadview Press, 2007. ISBN 1-55111-868-8
  • Davis, Walter. "Spenser and the History of Allegory", English Literary Renaissance 32.1 (2002): 152-67.
  • Glazier, Lyle. "The Struggle between Good and Evil in the First Book of "The Faerie Queene". College English, Vol. 11, No. 7. (Apr., 1950), pp. 382-387.
  • Levin, Richard A. "The Legende of the Redcrosse Knight and Una, or of the Love of a Good Woman." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 31:1 (Winter, 1991): 1-24.


  1. Spenser, Edmund (1984). Thomas P. Roche, Jr., with C. Patrick O'Donnell Jr.. ed. The Faerie Queene. Penguin Books. p. 11 (Further Reading). ISBN 0140422072. 
  2. Loewenstein, David; Mueller, Janel M (2003), The Cambridge history of early modern English Literature, Cambridge University Press, p. 369., ISBN 0-521-63156-4 
  3. Abrams, M.H. Ed. Norton Anthology of English Literature 7th Ed. Vol. 1. W.W. Norton & Co. (2000) NY. p. 623.
  4. McElderry, Jr., Bruce Robert (March 1932). "Archaism and Innovation in Spenser's Poetic Diction". PMLA 47 (1): 144-170.  p. 144.
  5. McElderry 170.
  6. Parker, Roscoe (1925). "Spenserâ's Language and the Pastoral Tradition". Language (Linguistic Society of America) 1 (3): 80-87.  p. 85.
  7. McElderry 159.
  8. Parker 85.
  9. Turnage, Maxine (1970). "Samuel Johnson's Criticism of the Works of Edmund Spenser". SEL: Studies in English Literature (Linguistic Society of America) 10 (3): 557-567. ISSN 00393657.  p. 567
  10. Draper, John W. (March 1932). "Classical Coinage in the Faerie Queene". PMLA 47 (1): 97-108.  p. 97.
  11. Cañadas, Ivan (2007). "The Faerie Queene, II.i-ii: Amavia, Medina, and the Myth of Lucretia". Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 15 (2): 383-394. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  12. Geoffrey Of Monmouth - The Prophecies of Merlin
  13. Millican, Charles Bowie. Spenser and the Table Round. New York: Octagon Books, 1932.

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