Una thinks of her parents, the King and Queen, who are still in their castle, captive to a dragon, and so she tells the Redcross Knight that they must ride in that direction. When they get there, they hear a hideous roaring sound from the dragon. The Redcross Knight asks Una to stand aside, so that he can go into battle. The narrator calls upon a muse as well as on Mars, the god of war, as he prepares to tell of the upcoming battle.
The narrator’s mention of Mars helps set up what will be the climactic final battle of the first book. It might seem early in the poem for such a climactic moment, but in fact, each of the six books has a largely self-contained story, even if many characters and events do carry over from book to book.
The dragon speeds toward the Redcross Knight. It is armored with seemingly impenetrable scales and has giant wings like sails. Its tail, claws, and jaw are dangerous, and its eyes burn with anger. The creature is so fearsome that even the Redcross Knight almost quakes.
The dragon is the most fearsome foe that Redcross has faced so far, and so it will be the ultimate test of the new virtues he learned at the house of the holy.
Despite his fear, the Redcross Knight readies his spear and rides toward the dragon, trying to impale it, but he can’t pierce its hard hide, and he and his horse are knocked to the ground.
The beginning of the battle demonstrates that standard fighting tactics won’t be enough to slay such a powerful beast.
The dragon spreads its wings and lifts off the ground. It takes the Redcross Knight and his horse with it as it flies before coming back down. Once it’s down, the knight strikes a blow that glances off the dragon’s neck but pierces under its wing. The wound lets out a whole river of blood—enough to power a water-mill.
Redcross lands a serious blow on the dragon, demonstrating how he learned well at the house of the holy and is no longer the weakened knight who got humbled by Orgoglio. Spenser often uses vivid imagery to describe gore, as he does here with the watermill of blood coming out of the dragon.
The dragon gets ready to blow fire. The Redcross Knight attempts to strike another blow, but this one doesn’t even leave a mark on the dragon, frustrating the knight. Suddenly the dragon breathes out its fire, burning the Redcross Knight under his armor. The knight takes off his armor and helmet.
Despite Redcross’s early advantage, however, the dragon proves that it won’t go down easily. The loss of Redcross’s armor suggests that he has nothing left to protect him, except perhaps his faith.
The Redcross Knight is so wounded and exhausted that he feels like he wants to die. Luckily, the well of life is nearby, a miraculous well that can bring the dead to life and undo decay. The knight is thrown back and falls into the well. Seeing the knight go into the well, the dragon believes it has won.
As it does elsewhere in the poem, water provides a miraculous, healing function here. Just as the waters of baptism wash sin away, the waters of the well here will wash Redcross’s wounds away.
Una watches everything from a distance in dismay. At last, however, the next morning she sees the Redcross Knight come out of the well, looking reborn. The dragon can’t believe what it sees. The knight hits the dragon right on the scalp, leaving a big wound and dazing it.
Both the dragon and Una assume that Redcross has lost, showing how it can look at times like evil has won when in fact virtue is still fighting. Redcross comes back with a powerful attack to prove he’s even stronger after being fortified by the miraculous water.
The narrator wonders whether the Redcross Knight’s blade was strengthened in the well. In any case, the wound enrages the dragon. The dragon uses its tail to sting the knight’s shoulder, where it gets stuck. Remembering his honor, however, the Redcross Knight doesn’t let the wound stop him and instead chops off the dragon’s tail, leaving only a stump.
The Redcross Knight begins to weaken the dragon. While lopping off its tail isn’t nearly as significant as lopping off its head, it nevertheless shows that Redcross has begun to reduce the dragon’s power.
The dragon is enraged again. It springs up, then grips onto the Redcross Knight’s shield. The knight tries to pry the shield away but isn’t strong enough. The knight strikes at the joint of the dragon’s foot, hewing it off, but it still hangs on to the shield.
The dragon recognizes that the shield is the source of Redcross’s power, and so it tries to pry it away, but Redcross is so strong in his faith (which the shield represents) that the dragon can’t tear it away.
Even more angry, the dragon spews out more flames. The Redcross Knight falls back, and even with God’s guidance on his side, he stumbles down. Fortunately, the tree of life (the blessed tree from the Garden of Eden) has a stream of Balm coming out of it like a well, and the knight falls into this stream. Like the well from earlier, the stream gives life and saves the knight from death.
The flames of the dragon are perhaps representative of the torturous fires of hell. Even someone as strong as Redcross can be hurt by the full force of the dragon. At the same time, however, Redcross’s faith seems to ensure that there will always be a conveniently located healing stream wherever he falls.
Night falls, and the dragon leaves the Redcross Knight alone for the moment. Una is again worried about her champion, but his wounds are being healed, and by the next morning, the knight rises up again, fully restored.
The many ups and downs of the Redcross Knight resemble a passion play, a medieval Christian ritual which reenacts how Jesus suffered and even died before ultimately being resurrected.
The dragon is waiting for the Redcross Knight, dismayed to see him looking healthy but still too full of rage to give up the fight. The dragon tries to swallow the knight whole, but the knight takes the opportunity to run his sword right into the dragon’s mouth.
The mouth is the source of the dragon’s fire, and by extension all its power, so it is fitting that the mouth is where Redcross strikes his final blow that slays the dragon for good.
The dragon falls and dies, letting out clouds of smoke. The Redcross Knight and Una both tremble at how big the dragon looks as it falls. Una warns not to approach the dragon in case it’s still alive, but it doesn’t stir, and so finally she prays in thanks to God and also thanks her knight.
Even in death, the dragon looks fearsome, suggesting how powerful it truly was in life. Nevertheless, the smoke that emits from the dragon reveals that it has lost its power to spew flame and is now harmless.