The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene

by

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was born in London around 1552, although many details of his birth, even his parents’ names, aren’t known for certain today. He wasn’t from an upper-class background, and so he received aid when he went to Pembroke College (now part of Cambridge). In 1580, he went to Ireland to fight Catholic rebels, fighting next to the famous British explorer and writer Walter Raleigh. Legend has it that he began writing The Faerie Queene—by far his most famous work today—while sitting under a tree in North Cork, Ireland, that lived until it was struck down by lightning in the 1960s. Spenser published the first three books of The Faerie Queene in 1590. Its publication earned him a modest life pension from Queen Elizabeth, but he didn’t earn greater favor in the court and ended up spending much of his life in Ireland. He continued to write both long and short works, including the next three books of The Faerie Queene, which were published in 1596. Spenser died at age 46 while in London after being driven out of his castle in Ireland by Irish forces, and he is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
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Historical Context of The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, and her reign is one of the most important historic events that provide context for the poem. For about a thousand years prior to the reign of Henry VIII, England had been a predominantly Catholic nation, but Henry VIII’s disagreements with Pope Clement VII about the issue of divorce ultimately prompted England’s transition toward Anglican Protestantism. The transition was often tumultuous—at one point, when the line of succession was disputed, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days before being deposed and executed by the Catholic Mary Tudor (called “Bloody Mary” by her critics). Queen Mary herself, however, reigned for only a few years before being deposed and executed by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I, solidifying England’s status as a Protestant nation. Violence between Catholics and Protestants didn’t end, particularly in Ireland, where Spenser himself participated in the fight on behalf of the Protestants who supported Queen Elizabeth.

Other Books Related to The Faerie Queene

Both the style and subject matter of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are deeply indebted to works that came before it, particularly from ancient Greece and Rome and from the Middle Ages. In fact, the whole writing style of the poem was archaic at the time Spenser wrote it, using words and phrasing that would have been more common in the time of writer Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), who lived a couple hundred years before Spenser. Chaucer is specifically mentioned in The Faerie Queene and Spenser even re-uses some of Chaucer’s characters. Spenser’s constant references to Greek and Roman gods reflect the strong influence of classical epic poems on his work. Some of the most important influences are Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey), Virgil (The Aeneid), and Hesiod (a source for many Greek myths, particularly in Theogony and Works and Days). The Faerie Queene itself went on to become influential, and one of its most notable immediate successors is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is also a long epic poem that blends Greek and Roman myth with Christianity.
Key Facts about The Faerie Queene
  • Full Title: The Faerie Queene
  • When Written: Sometime between 1587 and 1596
  • Where Written: North Cork, Ireland
  • When Published: 1590 for the first three books, 1596 for the next three
  • Literary Period: Elizabethan
  • Genre: Epic Poem, Fantasy
  • Setting: A mythical medieval-inspired place known as “faerie land”
  • Climax: Each of the six books has a different climax in which one of the Faerie Queene’s subjects uses their virtue to defeat a villain.
  • Antagonist: False knights and pagans
  • Point of View: Although the first-person narrator is a character, most of the book is told in the third person.

Extra Credit for The Faerie Queene

Long Live the Queene. Although Edmund Spenser is not as widely read today as his contemporary William Shakespeare, The Faerie Queene has been cited as an influence on a wide range of pop culture works, ranging from books like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Phantom Tollbooth to the movie series Star Wars to the TV show The Crown and the video game series Dark Souls.

Stuck on the To-Read Pile. Although The Faerie Queene is dedicated to Elizabeth I and features several characters modeled on her, there is no conclusive evidence that she read even one of its over 36,000 lines.