The narrator laments that fair Una is in trouble. Nevertheless, she remains faithful as she wanders in search of the Redcross Knight. Suddenly, a Lion rushes out of the woods, with a fierce gaping mouth. But when it sees Una, its fury goes away.
Many cantos begin with the narrator making a brief commentary on the action. Here, the narrator builds sympathy for Una by describing her pitiful state.
The Lion puts aside its pride and anger and kisses Una’s feet. Una is moved to tears by new affection for the Lion. Una tells the Lion about how the Redcross Knight seemingly abandoned her. The Lion decides to guard Una as she continues on her search for the Redcross Knight.
Lions have long been a symbol of pride and power. Although pride sometimes takes on a negative meaning, here the Lion’s pride is closer to nobility. Throughout the poem, virtuous characters often have a strong connection to nobility.
The Lion keeps watch over Una as she sleeps and walks by her side as she travels across the land. After going through several deserted areas, at last Una finds evidence of a path where people have been recently walking. Una and the Lion come across a damsel (Abessa) carrying a pot of water.
Without her Redcross Knight, Una is metaphorically lost, and so this metaphor gets represented in the poem by a lot of literal wandering around through various lands.
Upon seeing the Lion, the damsel throws away her pot of water and flees back home to her blind mother. Una keeps traveling and comes to a closed door, which the Lion tears open. Inside, Una finds an old woman who prays 900 Our Fathers a day as well as 900 Hail Marys. It’s the blind mother. The blind mother wears sackcloth and fasts often.
The damsel’s fear of the Lion suggests that she is not as virtuous as Una, who has nothing to fear around the Lion. The blind woman who prays hundreds of prayers a day is a parody of Catholics (who have a repetitive prayer ritual called the rosary that Protestants like Spenser wouldn’t practice). Protestants and Catholics were in conflict in Spenser’s Britain, and this conflict often plays out in the poem, with Spenser favoring the Protestant side.
The day ends, and Una lies down to sleep under the Lion’s watch, still at the blind mother’s house. All of a sudden, in the middle of the night, someone begins to knock many times on the door. It is a criminal who robs sacred items from churches and steals alms meant for the poor. The criminal uses his stolen wealth to treat the damsel Abessa, the blind mother Corceca’s daughter.
Abessa’s love for a criminal confirms that she is not as virtuous as Una, who only loves the holy Redcross Knight. The mother’s blindness prevents her from seeing what her daughter is doing and can be interpreted as a kind of spiritual blindness as well.
The criminal gets a surprise when he comes into Corceca’s house and is suddenly pinned by the Lion. The Lion tears the criminal into a thousand pieces.
Although the Lion is tame toward the virtuous Una, he is merciless toward criminals.
The next morning, Una wakes up, still longing to see the Redcross Knight. Just then Abessa and Corceca notice that Kirkrapine (the criminal) has been killed by the Lion, and they begin to grieve. Una tries to leave, but Abessa and Corceca come after her, cursing the whole time.
Abessa and Corceca are upset by what the Lion did, but the poem suggests that they are simply facing the consequences at last for the sinful lives they were leading.
Una gets away from Abessa and Corceca. Suddenly she finds a knight whom she believes to be the Redcross Knight but who is actually Archimago in disguise. Una approaches him, weeping and asking where he’s been. She says she was afraid that he hated her and that she would never see him again.
Sometimes evil characters in the story are able to impersonate virtuous characters, while other times, their evil nature shows through. Perhaps here it is Una’s desperation that allows her to be tricked by a false version of the Redcross Knight.
Archimago (disguised as the Redcross Knight) tells Una that he left her to go on an adventure but that he vows now to remain her faithful servant. A joyful Una begins to ride with the knight, telling him about her journey so far with the Lion.
This section may seem to be joyful, but the reader knows that Archimago is a trickster, and so anticipation builds for what will eventually go wrong for Una.
Suddenly, Una and Archimago (disguised as the Redcross Knight) are approached by a fierce, sweaty rider with Sans loy written in red on his shield. The sight of the Redcross Knight causes the rider Sansloy to burn even hotter with rage and ready his spear. Sansloy attacks, and because Archimago’s fake redcross shield doesn’t have a real blessing on it, he is knocked off his horse and gored by the spear.
Archimago learns the hard way that when he disguises himself as the Redcross Knight, all other characters will treat him that way, not just Una. Archimago is an evil character who might otherwise be allied with Sansloy, but because he can’t drop his disguise around Una, he has to fight Sansloy and suffer the consequences.
Sansloy gets off his horse and promises to kill the Redcross Knight (who is actually Archimago in disguise) for what he did to his brother Sansfoy. Una pleads for Sansloy not to kill the knight, saying that he is the truest knight in the world. Her words don’t move Sansloy, but when he takes off Archimago’s helmet, he is shocked to recognize the old sorcerer.
This case of mistaken identity nearly gets Archimago killed, although Sansloy recognizes the old man once his helmet comes off. Helmets play an important role in disguising identity throughout the story—they represent how a person’s external appearance doesn’t always match with their inner selves.
Sansloy asks Archimago what he’s doing there. But Archimago is in a daze, so he doesn’t reply. Sansloy doesn’t kill Archimago. Next, the Lion tries to fight Sansloy. Sansloy, however, is skilled with weapons and manages to pierce the Lion through the heart. Una is frightened because she now has no one to protect her. She becomes Sansloy’s captive.
Virtuous characters in the poem aren’t invincible, and here the noble Lion gets killed by Sansloy, showing how even without the power of holiness on his side, Sansloy is nevertheless a formidable foe.