Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Faerie Queene

Sir Arthegall and Talus meet Queen Mercilla (and her lion)

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 3 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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Everyone knows Shakespeare. Most know Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), at least by name, and Milton (Paradise Lost), and Dickens.

But surprisingly few know of Edmund Spenser, author of arguably one of the greatest works of British literature: The Faerie Queene.

Published during the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth the First--Spenser was a slightly older contemporary of Shakespeare--the work is a thinly-veiled allegory referring to Elizabeth, "the Virgin Queen." One of the longest poems in the English language, it examines chivalric virtues as a guide to, as Spenser put it, "fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline."

Based on the first three of its six books, Elizabeth granted Spenser a pension for life, though there's no evidence that she ever actually read it.

Each book features one knight in service to Gloriana--the Faerie Queene--and one virtue.

Book I examines Holiness in the person of "the Redcrosse Knight," who fights a monster named Errour, and then the tricks of an evil wizard named Archimago. He is captured by a giant named Orgoglio ("Pride" in Italian), and rescued by his lady love Una ("One," representing Truth), and recovers his health with the help of King Arthur.

In Book II, Sir Guyon embodies Temperance. He, too, faces Archimago's wiles, and sets out to deal with several knights who are evil, act rashly, or have simply been tricked into wrong behavior. He captures a witch and frees the knights who have been imprisoned by her.

Britomart, in Book III, is a lady knight (really!) who represents Chastity. Here the story's threads begin to come together, as Britomart meets Arthur and Guyon, and rescues the Redcrosse Knight. Meanwhile, she pursues another knight, Sir Artegall, with intentions of marriage.

Book IV continues the story of Book III, examining Friendship by showing the relationship of two knights, Cambell and Triamond, but also, surprisingly, following the course of two complicated love affairs, between Britomart and Sir Artegall, and between Sir Scudamore and his love, Amoret.

Book V looks at Justice in the person of Britomart's lover Sir Artegall. Along with his "metal man" companion, Talus--a kind of automaton--he sets off to free a damsel in distress (whose name, Irena, means "peace"), righting injustices along the way.

Finally, Book VI speaks of Courtesy (proper behavior) in the person of Calidore, who subdues a loud monster, representing slander, and amusingly named "the Blatant Beast."

A complex, well-told tale with a moral twist, The Faerie Queene is well worth the effort.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Answers in the first comment below.

  1. automaton
  2. blatant
  3. chastity
  4. chivalric
  5. damsel
  6. righting
  7. slander
  8. temperance
  9. thinly-veiled
  10. wiles

  1. speaking ill of others
  2. slightly hidden
  3. tricks
  4. moderation; self-restraint
  5. like a robot
  6. noble young woman
  7. making good; correcting
  8. knightly; virtuous
  9. proper sexual behavior
  10. obvious; offensively noisy


Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers in the first comment below.

1. What did Spenser say was his purpose in writing The Faerie Queene?
2. List virtues in each Book, and the knight(s) who embodied them.
3. What are the three causes of the knights' poor behavior listed in Book III?
4. What surprising aspect of "Friendship" is seen in Book IV?
5. What is unusual about Talus?

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Vocabulary: 1. E; 2. J; 3. I; 4. H; 5. F; 6. G; 7. A; 8. D; 9. B; 10. C

    Answers to the Questions (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly different)
    1. Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene to teach "a gentleman or noble person" virtue and proper behavior.
    2. The virtues and knights in each book are: in Book I, Holiness, the Redcrosse Knight; in Book II Temperance, Sir Guyon; in Book III Chastity, Britomart; in Book IV Friendship, Cambell and Triamond (plus two pairs of lovers); in Book V Justice, Sir Artegall; and in Book VI Courtesy, Calidore.
    3. Knights who act poorly are either (1) evil, (2) rashly (behaving without thinking), or (3) have been tricked.
    4. In Book IV, Spenser uses two stories of romantic love as a way to examine Friendship.
    5. Talus is a "metal man" or automaton, like a robot.