Faerie Queene Spenser

In a letter dated 23rd January 1589 Edmund Spenser (1552 - 1599) addresses the contemporary poet Sir Walter Raleigh (1552? - 1618) with the aim of 'expounding his whole intention in the course of this worke [The Faerie Queene] which for that it giveth great light to the reader...' (Spenser, A letter to Raleigh, 15). In this very same letter Spenser refers to his poem as 'being a continued Allegory' (Spenser, A letter to Raleigh, 15). 'Continued' not necessarily in the sense of uninterrupted, but simply in the sense of repeated. In other words, The Faerie Queene is full of Allegories of various kinds. But before embarking upon the adventurous discussion about the use of Allegories in a 16thcentury poem comprising about 4000 stanzas, it might be a good idea to define the lexis Allegory first.

The Colliers encyclopedia comes up with the following explanation:

[An] Allegory [is] a method of representation, usually literary but also including the visual arts, in which the thing portrayed stands also for something else; the thing may be a person, an act, or an abstract idea...The term is most commonly applied to a fictional narrative in which the author intends their characters and their actions to be understood in a sense different from the surface meaning, so that the secondary meaning becomes more significant than the primary. The clearest example in English, and one of the best anywhere, is Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Spenser's The Faerie Queene is more complex and not entirely consistent, the figures being not only characters in a story but also abstract qualities, but sometimes actual contemporaries, and often all three at once. (Bahr, see: Allegory, 571).

By looking, let us say, at a piece of written art, we may be very well capable of understanding what the individual words mean, but there might be also another meaning underlying these words and it is entirely up to us, the reader, to decode this other allegorical meaning. At this point, I would like to quote Hanson, who states in the preface of his book Allegory and Event that an 'Allegory is the interpretation of an object or person or a number of objects and persons as in reality meaning some object or person of a later time'. (Hanson, 7). Bearing these two definitions of the term Allegory in mind, let us return to the poem The Faerie Queene in order to see if there are any connections between the book itself and the historic past.

There is no doubt that the 16thcentury was a period full of religious uncertainties and confusions for the people of that day. It was a time that is now widely known as the Reformation. When we think of the Reformation three people who played a crucial part in changing the religious beliefs of that time may come to our mind at once: Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. Martin Luther was the first who dared to stand up to current dogmatic beliefs by publishing revolutionary theses and manifestos. Whereas in Germany the Reformation was a more or less spontaneous movement, in Great Britain it expanded itself over almost a century, spanning the reigns of four different kings and queens, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. There was a constant flux as far as religious faith was concerned. Henry VIII (1509 - 1547) broke with the Pope, which was presumably more due to political than religious reasons. His successor Edward VI (1547 - 1553) reinforced the up-and-coming change in religion, whereas Mary I (1553 - 1558) was set on advancing with Catholicism again. It was not until under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) that the last and also most significant change took place. From this time onwards Protestantism finally gained recognition. So, over a period of seventy years, no uniform main religion existed. There is no doubt that this long period of time, a time that was full of uncertainty and doubts, has left its marks on literary works of this time.

Having talked about Allegory and its definition at the very beginning of this discussion, it might be well worth asking ourselves whether we are dealing with a historical Allegory when talking about The Faerie Queene, since many contemporary people and events allude to its narrative. Upon reading the first Book it becomes quite clear that a historical thread connected to the Reformation runs through the narrative. It is of course extremely tricky to claim - and many critics do doubt it severely - that any of these allusions are of relevance. And yet, I wish to look at the narrative of The Faerie Queene and draw possible parallels to historic events and people of this time. There are many passages that reveal a double reference and this must not go by the board.

In the first Canto we get to know a gentle knight wearing a 'bloudie Crosse' (Spenser, Bk I, i, 2 1) as a badge. As the narrative progresses, we find out that the knight is no other than St. George, a descendant of Old Saxon kings of the land.

For well I wote, thou springst from ancient race

Of Saxon kings,...

Whereof Georgos he thee gave to name;

(Spenser, Bk I, x, 65 1-2 and Bk I, x, 66 6)

Red Cross is a knight who serves Gloriana. Accompanied by fair lady Una, he sets out to fight 'a Dragon horrible and stearne' (Spenser, Bk I, i, 3 9). This huge and horrid monster has devastated the kingdom of Una's parents and, what is more, also keeps them in captivity. Red Cross knight has to undergo a tough struggle, before he is eventually able to defeat the dragon. Some critics believe that within this narrative Spenser wants to portray the ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants. But let us go through the main stages of Red Cross knight's journey and England's history step by step, picking out the striking parallels.

The bold Red Cross knight, equipped with 'mightie armes and silver shield' (Bk I, i, 1 2), fighting under the auspices of the queen of faerie land portrays quite clearly an Englishman of the reformed church, id est, he is a representative of Protestantism and contests the conspiracies of the Catholic church of that time. On his journey this courageous knight is accompanied by fair lady Una, who, on her part, represents the 'truth of the word of God revealed in His gospel' (Hamann, 23). On their travels Una and the knight have to put up with many unforeseen setbacks such as a storm. After having sought shelter, they are completely lost in the forest. They 'cannot find that path, which was first showne, But wander to and fro in wayes unknowne,...' (Bk I, i, 10 4-5). Eventually, Red Cross knight and Una happens on a cave, in which the serpentine, light-hating monster Error lives. When Red Cross knight tries to strangle Error, she throws up all sorts of ghastly things, among which there are papers and pamphlets. (see Appendix, a). These books might be catholic books of priests...books of error. We assume that Spenser wanted to express the doubts that a reformed Englishman may have had. Moreover, the lengthiness of this change in religion quite often also caused some danger for a new believer. Red Cross knight is in danger when he fights Error and so were the Englishmen when they converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. So to say, Red Cross knight's struggle with Error portrays the struggle between the new and the old faith.

What occurs next in The Faerie Queene is analogue to the history of that time. Red Cross knight meets Archimago and Duessa; the former being a wicked magician, the latter a foul and false-hearted witch. Whereas in Gloriana Queen Elizabeth is portrayed, Duessa mirrors Mary of Scotts. Mary, Elizabeth's predecessor, 'had drawn so many Englishmen from the path of truth and loyalty' (Hamann, 23). And so does Duessa by taking in the Red Cross knight. The way in which Duessa is represented in Book I, ii, 13 and Book I, viii, 46-48 (see Appendix, b), can be paralleled with the view an English Protestant had of the Roman church. Duessa is the embodiment of false-heartedness and, as her name implies already, she plays a double game. She shows false attractiveness and so did the Roman church. Their outward appearances seem to be fair, but deep down they are deformed.

However, since no-one wants the evil and spitefulness to gain the upper hand over the good, Spenser introduces King Arthur to us. King Arthur stands for Magnificance, id est, he is a representative of all that is good and manly. He is virtuous, a real gentleman and, what is more, he is always there to help when his help is most needed. In crucial moments he appears to rescue or support the knights. At the very end he is, however, not present, as not to lessen the knights' fame and glory. Thus, in a figurative sense, King Arthur is the embodiment of the glory of Britain. In Book I King Arthur appears when the Red Cross knight is held prisoner in a dark dungeon by the scary giant Orgoglio. King Arthur has come to rescue the knight...or has he come to rescue England, fighting under the auspices of Elizabeth I? Just as King Arthur succeeds in rescuing the knight from his foe, so does he in freeing England from its Roman enemies. Orgoglio is killed and Duessa's seven-headed monster of the Apocalypse is one head worse off. And as if Spenser wants to plead mercy for the conquered Catholics, the Red Cross knight spares Duessa's life and sends her away, stark naked as she is. In this scene we can detect the Roman church personified in Duessa. Every-one can see their real selves.

However, the evil has not been fully wiped out yet. Red Cross knight still has to overcome a most fierce and dreadful beast. A dragon, with a 'body monstrous, horrible, and vaste' (Bk I, xi, 8 7), with a 'huge long tayle' (Bk I, xi, 11 1) and 'yron teeth' (Bk I, xi, 13 2) and 'blazing eyes' (Bk I, xi, 14 1). After fighting incessantly for two days, the knight's last foe is eventually defeated. The beast is dead and so is the era of the Popery. Yet, Red Cross knight's mission has not found an end, since the queen of faerie land wants him to be still in her service, until the last struggle has been won: the struggle 'Twixt that great faery Queene, and Paynim King, That with their horrour heaven and earth did ring' (Bk I, xi, 7 4-5) In other words, Philip, who is just about to launch his great Armada against England, must be defeated.

I have tried to work out in how far objects or people of a later time do in fact relate to the narrative of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. It is blatantly obvious that the Reformation has left some traces on the poem. How precise history - as Hough states in the quote below - is reflected by the poem, is however extremely questionable.

Glorification of England and her queen through history and legend, passing allusions, sometimes more sustained, to the splendours and miseries and conflicts of the day - all this is a part of the intricate web of The Faerie Queene. But it is not a sustained historical allegory. If it is to be called allegory at all it is only an intermittent and occasional strain. But a better term...would be historical allusion. And the best way to deal with it is to appreciate it where it is evident, for what it is worth, as part of a crowded and complex pattern, one of the elements which helps to give such density to the whole; and to be at no great pains to look for it where it does not make its presence plain. (Hough, 130).


Due to lack of space, passages that are referred to in the essay may be looked up here.

a. The Faerie Queene, Book I, i, 20 1-9

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw

A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,

Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,

Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke

His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:

Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,

With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,

And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:

Her filthy parbreacke all the place defiled has.

b. The Faerie Queene, Book I, ii, 13 1-9

He had a faire companion of his way,

A goodly Lady clad in scarlot red,

Purfled with gold and pearle of rich assay,

And like a Persian mitre on her hed

She wore, with crownes and owches garnished,

The which her lauish louers to her gaue;

Her wanton palfrey all was ouerspred

With tinsell trappings, wouen like a waue,

Whose bridle rung with golden bels and bosses braue.

The Faerie Queene, Book I, viii, 46-48

So as she bad, that witch they disaraid,

And robd of royall robes, and purple pall,

And ornaments that richly were displaid;

Ne spared they to strip her naked all.

Then when they had despoild her tire and call,

Such as she was, their eyes might her behold,

That her mishaped parts did them appall.

A loathly, wrincklet hag, ill fauoured, old

Whose secret filth good manners biddeth not be told.

Her craftie head was altogether bald,

And as in hate of honorable eld,

Was ouergrowne with scurfe and filthy scald;

Her teeth out of her rotten gummes were feld,

And her sowre breath abhominably smeld;

Her dried dugs, like bladders lacking wind,

Hong downe, and filthy matter from the weld;

Her wrizled skin as rough, as maple rind,

So scabby was, that would haue loathd all womankind.

Her neather parts, the shame of all her kind,

My chaster Muse for shame doth blush to write

But at her rompe she growing had behind

A foxes taile, with dong all fowly dight;

And eke her feete most monstrous were in sight;

For one of them was like an Eagles claw,

With griping talaunts armed to greedy fight,

The other like a Beares vneuen paw:

More vgly shape yet neuer liuing creature saw.


Bahr, Lauren S., ed., Colliers Encyclopedia, vol.1 (New York, 1993).

Hamann, Albert, An Essay on Spenser's Faery Queen (Berlin, 1888).

Hamilton, A. C., The Spenser Encyclopedia (London, 1990).

Hanson, R. P. C., Allegory and Event (London, 1959).

Hough, Graham, A Preface to The Faerie Queene (London, 1962).

Roberts, Gareth, The Faerie Queene (Buckingham, 1992).

Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene (London, 1987).

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