With the Redcross Knight returned to faerie land and Una living happily in Eden waiting for him, Archimago begins plotting his next move. But Redcross is used to Archimago’s tricks by now and isn’t fooled. Because Archimago just wants to do evil and doesn’t care specifically who he affects, he turns his attention to a new knight that he happens to meet: Sir Guyon.
This first canto of the second book establishes the poem’s structure. While the books all tell a continuous story with many returning characters, the events are episodic, and the focus changes to a new character with each new book.
Like the Redcross Knight, Sir Guyon is elfin, and he has come traveling to faerie land with King Oberon and a Palmer (pilgrim on a religious trip). Archimago disguises himself as a squire and approaches them politely to try to deceive them. He tells them that he witnessed a so-called knight attacking a maiden nearby. Sir Guyon is angry and goes off to seek the evil knight at once.
As a villainous character, Archimago can’t change and can’t help going back to his evil ways, so even after his lack of success with the Redcross Knight, he simply decides to look for a new victim. While some evil characters like the dragon are feared for their strength, Archimago’s power is his ability to trick people.
They arrive and find a lady with her clothing torn and hair disheveled. When Sir Guyon tries to approach her, she only becomes more upset. At last, the woman begins talking about how she was betrayed by someone she trusted. She gives a description of the Redcross Knight. Sir Guyon is surprised because he has heard of the Redcross Knight and believes him to be righteous. It turns out this lady is in fact the evil sorceress Duessa, once again in disguise.
Reputation is important for all the knights in the poem. Knights who don’t follow the code of chivalry risk acquiring a bad reputation, while knights with a history of noble actions often achieve a level of fame for their heroic deeds.
Archimago and Duessa met up while Duessa was wandering naked in the woods after being defeated in the previous book. Eventually, using their disguises, they convince Sir Guyon to come with them to find the Redcross Knight.
Duessa seems to be unable to change and immediately goes back to her old ways, even after being shown mercy. The poem returns to the concepts of mercy and justice several times, raising the question of when justice should be more lenient and when it should be harsh.
Archimago provokes Sir Guyon to try attacking the Redcross Knight, but soon the two knights begin to talk. The Redcross Knight says he knows Sir Guyon is noble and that they have no quarrel. The old Palmer arrives and also says that Sir Guyon should have no reason to fight with the pious Redcross Knight. Guyon and Redcross pledge loyalty to each other, then Sir Guyon rides off with the Palmer.
As an old, holy man, the Palmer is not just a physical guide for Sir Guyon on his journey but also a spiritual guide. The previous book showed how even a knight as righteous as the Redcross Knight needed instruction from those with more experience in various virtues, and in this book, Guyon will grow from his relationship with the Palmer.
One day during his travels, Sir Guyon comes across the unusual scene of a woman (Amavia) covered in blood with a knife in her body and a happy baby playing in the blood near her lap. Next to them is the corpse of a dead knight. Sir Guyon pulls the knife out and manages to treat the woman’s wounds. He asks what happened to her.
New obstacles often arise in the poem without warning. Amavia has no connection to the events of the previous book and will start Sir Guyon off on a new adventure, since knights always help strangers they meet on the road, particularly women in distress.
Amavia says she wishes she could just die. At last, however, she begins to tell the story of Sir Mordant, a gentle knight that she loved (and who is the corpse beside her). Sir Mordant’s misfortune began when he met a false sorceress named Acrasia. Acrasia lured men to an island where she made them drunk with pleasure so that she could use them for her evil purposes.
Like Duessa, Acrasia is another tricky witch whose only goal in life seems to be luring men to their death. In a poem like The Faerie Queene that is so obsessed with the concept of chastity, it makes sense that the villains take the form of women who don’t follow the rules of chastity.
Amavia disguised herself as a pilgrim to sneak onto Acrasia’s island and try to find Sir Mordant. She found him enchanted by Acrasia’s evil charms. Amavia thought she could save Sir Mordant by taking him away, but when they left, he died the first time he drank water from a well. This is the end of Amavia’s story, and she dies soon afterwards, having seemingly stabbed herself in her grief. This moves Sir Guyon to tears.
Water returns as a symbol of purity. Here, however, Sir Mordant has been so hopelessly corrupted by Acrasia’s influence that when he tries to purify himself with real, uncontaminated water, his body rejects it and he dies.
Sir Guyon laments to the Palmer about how humans are mortal. He wants to bury Amavia and Sir Mordant, but the Palmer disagrees and says that temperance is important, so their burial should be left up to God. But eventually Sir Guyon convinces the Palmer to help him bury them. Guyon promises vengeance on Acrasia.
The Palmer is usually the one advising Sir Guyon, so it is noteworthy here that Guyon wins the argument. This section seems to suggest that, while the Palmer’s experience should be respected, sometimes the more youthful zeal of a knight like Sir Guyon leads to a better solution.