The narrator praises the knightly chivalry that led Prince Arthur to help free the Redcross Knight from his imprisonment. Eventually, it is time for Arthur to take his leave of the Redcross Knight and Una. Una asks where Arthur comes from, but Arthur replies that he was taken away at a young age and trained to be a knight, and so he doesn’t know.
Although chivalry isn't necessarily a religious virtue, it is closely related to the Redcross Knight’s holiness. Arthur and Redcross make good companions because they have similar chivalric values. Arthur’s mysterious origins are consistent with how he’s portrayed in other stories.
Arthur talks about how the great wizard Merlin helped tutor him. Merlin told him that he was the heir of a king and would bring the light of truth. Arthur says that he has a secret wound, and Una asks what wound could trouble a gentle knight like him. Arthur explains that his wound is love. While he ignored love when he was younger, one day he was traveling through a forest and got off his steed to take a rest in the green grass when suddenly, in his slumber, he was greeted by a royal maiden.
This whole canto combines familiar information about the legendary King Arthur with new details that Spenser either invents or modifies in order to fit Arthur into his own poem. Like many knights, Arthur values love above all else, and while this trait isn’t necessarily unique to Spenser’s version of the character, the specifics of Arthur’s love will be.
The royal maiden filled Arthur with joy. They talked for a while, and when she left him, she revealed that she was called the Faerie Queene. When Arthur awoke, he was in love with the woman from his dream and vowed to go try to find her. He regrets that he may be seeking in vain, but Una reassures him that the Queene of Faeries must be honored to have a knight as brave and skilled as Arthur. The Redcross Knight talks about his own love for Una.
Because Arthur has been proven to be such a virtuous and strong character, his adoration of the Faerie Queene confirms that she really is as wonderful as the Redcross Knight believes her to be. Though many characters in the story have flaws or make mistakes, the Faerie Queene herself seems to be infallible or close to it.
Arthur and the Redcross Knight shake hands, bound in friendship. Arthur gives the Redcross Knight diamonds, and in reply, the knight gives him a book containing the New Testament. They part, as Arthur goes off to seek his love.
This isn’t the last time Arthur shows up in the poem—although he is never really the main character, he is nevertheless one of the most consistent elements in the poem after the Faerie Queene herself.
As Una and the Redcross Knight travel, they run into an armed knight who is galloping towards them quickly, seemingly on the run from some enemy. When the Redcross Knight approaches the other knight (Sir Trevisan) and asks what’s the matter, the knight takes a while to come to his senses. At first, Sir Trevisan would prefer not to say what’s troubling him, but he eventually agrees to speak after the Redcross Knight reassures him that he’s out of danger.
The poem has already established that helping fair maidens is an important part of chivalry, and this section helps establish that helping fellow knights in need is equally important. Sir Trevisan seems to be a virtuous knight, though not one nearly as strong as Redcross or Arthur.
Sir Trevisan speaks about how he used to keep company with a knight named Sir Terwin, who was a brave knight but who was unhappy because he loved a lady who was too proud to love him back. As Trevisan and Terwin rode away from the lady, they ran into a man called Despair who asked them who they were and what they’d been doing.
Like Error, Despair is another monstrous figure with a very literal name. Fittingly, the things that Despair does to brave knights are similar to what despair (the emotion) would do to them.
Sir Trevisan continues telling the story of how Despair listened to Trevisan and Terwin’s stories, then provided a rope to Trevisan and a rusty knife to Terwin, trying to persuade them both to kill themselves. Terwin did kill himself, but Trevisan was so afraid that he rode off at once. He believes he will keep riding and never know rest after seeing Despair, but he agrees to lead the Redcross Knight to Despair’s dwelling place.
Just as despair can lead to suicide, so too does Despair lead knights to suicide. Like some of the medieval texts that inspired it, The Faerie Queene often includes allegories that can be read as very literal advice for how to live a virtuous life or how to avoid living an unvirtuous one.
Sir Trevisan leads the Redcross Knight and the others to a cave that’s so dark it resembles a grave. The Redcross Knight enters the cave and sees Despair sitting on the ground in the blood of Sir Terwin, with long, greasy hair and ragged clothes with thorns in them.
The grave-like appearance of Despair’s lair highlights how dangerous despair can be. The monster sits in the blood of his victim, providing a visceral image of how Despair is a killer.
The Redcross Knight confronts Despair, saying that he should pay a price in his own blood for what he did to Sir Terwin. Despair, however, argues that what he did to Terwin was just and that now Terwin gets to enjoy eternal rest. According to Despair, a long life just gives more opportunity for sin, and more sin leads to a greater punishment after death.
Despair’s arguments here are meant to sound convincing, even though many readers probably know that Redcross will ultimately win this encounter. When evil is powerful, it makes the victory of the hero all the more meaningful.
Despair suggests that the Redcross Knight himself should lie down and take a rest so that he can be free from fear, sickness, sorrow, pain, and other difficult parts of life. He says that surely the Redcross Knight must have already heard death calling to him when he was locked up in the dungeon. He asks why the Redcross Knight would prolong the day of his death when surely, he has already built up a heaping pile of sins that he’ll have to account for on the day of judgement.
Despair is relentless in his arguments, just as real despair tends to hound people. Despite the Redcross Knight’s immense holiness, he is in a weakened state after his long stay in Orgoglio’s dungeon, and this makes him particularly vulnerable to the words of Despair.
Despair lists some of the Redcross Knight’s specific sins, such as the way he was false with Una and instead chose to serve the evil Duessa. Despair says it’s God’s law that sinners should die, and so it is better that the Redcross Knight kill himself willingly and finally end his sorrows.
Despair uses Redcross’s own flaws against him. From a certain logic, his argument that Redcross is a sinner does seem to make sense, even if it’s not ultimately true. Christian teaching would counsel Redcross to repent of his sins, not put himself in God’s place by ending his own life through suicide.
The Redcross Knight is moved by Despair’s words and thinks back on all the sins he’s committed, quaking. Despair sees that his words have weakened the knight. As the Redcross Knight sees death ahead of him, Despair brings out swords, ropes, poison, and fire for the knight to use against himself. Instead, however, the knight takes a dagger that he already has and holds it out in a trembling hand.
Interestingly, Despair isn’t a monster that kills his victims outright but rather a monster that leads the victims to kill themselves. The objects that Despair provides for Redcross all have a clear connection to suicide. Redcross chooses the dagger, which would traditionally be stabbed through the heart, suggesting how his despair is related to how he treated Una.
Just as the Redcross Knight is about to strike himself with his dagger, however, Una comes in and grabs it, throwing it down. She asks if he is really still the same knight who is able to slay a dragon in battle, then advises him not to listen to Despair’s words. She reassures him that heaven is merciful, then tells him that he must get out of Despair’s cave at once.
Una, despite her physical weakness, is a powerful force of faith, and here her strong faith literally saves Redcross’s life. Although the poem is perhaps ultimately sexist in the way it portrays most women as weak or conniving, there are exceptional characters and moments, like this one, that complicate this portrayal.
The Redcross Knight rises up and gets ready to leave. When Despair realizes that he’s lost his power over the knight, he tries to hang himself with a rope. But Despair has tried to kill himself before, and no matter how many times he tries, death never comes.
It is darkly ironic that Despair leads knights to commit suicide but he can’t commit suicide himself no matter how many times he tries.