A knight in armor dented from fierce battle rides across a plain. He is a faithful knight who wears a red cross on his chest and his shield (and so he is called the Redcross Knight). He has been sent on a quest to slay a dragon by the great queen of Faerie Court in fairy land, Gloriana.
Gloriana (aka The Faerie Queene) is the stand-in for Queen Elizabeth, who is mentioned by name in the proem and in the poem’s dedication. While some have speculated on Spenser’s motives for dedicating the poem to Elizabeth (for example, if he was trying to flatter her to win a place in her court for himself), if one takes the poem at face value, it is a celebration of Elizabeth’s rule and of British culture in general. As the subtitle to this book suggests, the Redcross Knight represents the virtue of holiness, and so it’s fitting that his shield has a red Christian cross on it. The shield is so important that it gives the knight his name.
A lovely lady (Una) mounted on a white donkey rides alongside the Redcross Knight. She is very innocent and seems to have a hidden concern in her heart. She is virtuous and comes from a royal lineage. Riding behind the lovely woman is a dwarf, who carries the things the woman will need on her journey.
Una is the first of many virtuous ladies in the poem defined by her innocence and chastity. While chastity plays a role in many religiously inspired works, it is particularly significant in The Faerie Queene because Queen Elizabeth (to whom the poem is dedicated) was an unmarried queen—something that was very unusual at the time.
It begins to storm, and the Redcross Knight and the lovely lady are forced to take shelter in some trees. After the storm passes, they have a hard time finding their way back to the path they were taking earlier. The paths go in many different directions, so they end up taking the path that looks most beaten-down from use.
Characters in the poem often aren’t named the first time they appear. Although the lady in the poem is named Una, her name isn’t actually used until later in this book.
The Redcross Knight, the lovely lady (Una), and the dwarf arrive at a cave deep in the woods. The lady cautions about danger ahead. But the knight argues that it’s better to overcome fear of the unknown and bravely go forward. The lady replies that she knows the dangers of the area better, and that a monster called Error lives in the cave.
All of the knights in the poem follow a code of conduct called chivalry. One of the worst things a knight can do is appear cowardly, and so in this case, the Redcross Knight doesn’t back down from the challenge of the unknown cave.
The Redcross Knight remains determined to enter the cave, despite the lovely lady’s warnings. He goes forward and sees Error, which is a half-serpent, half-woman monster, lying on the ground with her tail in knots. She is surrounded by thousands of offspring that suck poison out of her.
Many of the characters and particularly the monsters in the poem have very literal names, with forms that represent what their names mean. Errors, for example, have a “poisonous” effect on the soul, and so the monster Error has poison in her blood.
Error sees the Redcross Knight and backs away, preferring to remain in darkness. But the knight uses his sword to force Error to stay in the light, angering her, and prompting her to attempt to attack with her stinger. The knight responds with a strike that hits the monster’s shoulder.
Errors are often made due to ignorance, and so it makes sense that the monster Error prefers to stay in the darkness. Being “brought to light” is what causes Error to weaken.
Error is stunned, but soon her body rises back up. The monster wraps around the Redcross Knight, trapping him. The lovely lady cries out that the knight must use his faith to strangle the monster, or else he’ll be strangled first. The knight gets one hand free and grips the monster fiercely, causing her to release her own grip.
While the knights in the poem are powerful and brave, they are not impervious to the many villains they face. Even a knight as holy as Redcross is vulnerable to Error (as well as to error), something that foreshadows later events in the poem.
Error vomits out poison, mixed with various books and papers as well as eyeless frogs and toads. The Redcross Knight nearly chokes on the awful smells, but the monster’s foul offspring can’t hurt him. The knight gathers his strength and this time manages to successfully chop Error’s head from her body. Black blood spews out.
Error’s offspring are an important part of her character, since the implication is that errors lead to more errors. The presence of books and papers in her vomit symbolizes false teachings—which, for Spenser, included non-Protestant Christian teachings.
Error’s offspring gather around her body and suck the remaining life out of it. The offspring eat so much that they burst, killing themselves. The lovely lady congratulates the Redcross Knight, saying that he is worthy of his armor (which bears the red cross symbolizing Christianity).
By chopping Error’s head off, the Redcross Knight solves the root of the problem. Without Error’s head, even her children can’t survive, and so this section shows how, while errors can multiply, they can also all be destroyed together with decisive action.
The Redcross Knight mounts his steed again with the lovely lady and rides back the way they came. Eventually, they come upon an old Sire in long black clothes, with a long beard and a book hanging around his belt.
Although there’s an overarching plot and plenty of recurring characters, the poem has an episodic structure, and once one adventure concludes, it’s on to the next one.
The Sire salutes the Redcross Knight. He begins to tell the knight of a nearby evil creature, which the knight eagerly asks about. The Sire advises the knight to rest before confronting the evil creature, and so they all go back to the old Sire’s home.
One of the key parts of chivalry is that a good knight will always help people in need, and so this is why Redcross is interested in defeating the evil creature.
The old Sire lives in a humble home in a dale by the edge of the forest, not far from a small chapel. It turns out, however, that the Sire is actually an evil sorcerer called Archimago. While the Redcross Knight and the lovely lady are asleep, Archimago looks up some curses in his magic books. He summons legions of flying sprites.
The Sire, who turns out to be the evil wizard Archimago, is just one of many characters in The Faerie Queene who turn out to be different than they appear on the surface.
Archimago sends two sprites in particular to trouble the Redcross Knight in his sleep. One sprite gives the knight dreams of lust, while the other takes the shape of the lovely lady (whose name is Una) and seems to lay beside him.
Just as chastity is associated with the virtuous characters in the poem, lust is a trait associated with villains and flawed characters. Here, Archimago tries to stir up lust in the Redcross Knight in order to draw him to the dark side.
At first, the Redcross Knight is enchanted by Una’s beauty, but when she offers him a kiss, suddenly he realizes that something is wrong. He is so angry that he almost decides to slay her, but he calms his anger and decides to test her instead. The false Una tearfully confesses her love to the knight, but the knight, troubled by what he hears, nevertheless resists her temptations and eventually falls back asleep.
The Redcross Knight isn’t immune to temptation, but ultimately, his commitment to chivalry allows him to stay chaste. In fact, he is so committed to chastity that he considers slaying Una (or at least the sprite pretending to be Una) in order to keep his virtue.