Though beauty is one of the most tempting things on earth, nothing can stop Sir Arthegall from completing his duties to the Faerie Queene Gloriana. Back on his quest, he comes across a damsel (Samient) riding quickly past. She is being chased by two knights, who are being chased themselves by a third knight (Arthur).
This passage stresses Arthegall’s commitment to serving the Faerie Queene, even though he has been distracted from his main quest for the entirety of this book and is about to be distracted again. Rather than painting Arthegall as hypocritical, however, Book V illustrates how wide-ranging a knight’s responsibilities were and how big a role helping strangers played in a knight’s duties.
Samient sees Arthegall and asks for help. He responds by killing one of the knights chasing her, then Arthur kills the other knight that was chasing the damsel. Arthegall and Arthur ready their weapons against each other, but Samient tells them to calm themselves. Arthegall and Arthur apologize to each other and quickly begin to admire each other.
Arthur often greets heroic knights suspiciously when he first sees them, but he remains a good judge of character and soon recognizes Arthegall for the just knight that he is. As with many of the protagonists in the poem, Arthegall soon befriends Arthur and comes to rely on him for assistance.
Arthegall asks who the two knights they just killed were. Arthur doesn’t know; he just saw them chasing Samient. The damsel explains that she serves a renowned virgin queen named Mercilla. But despite the queen’s virtue, a wicked man wants to steal the throne, motivated by his wife Adicia.
The virgin queen Mercilla is yet another Queen Elizabeth-inspired character in the story. Though her virginity seems to be a source of power for her, it also draws unwanted attention from jealous rivals.
Despite the problems Adicia causes, Mercilla wants to deal with her in a friendly, peaceful way. She sent Samient as a messenger, but Adicia didn’t respect the normal rights of a messenger and kicked the damsel out like a dog, rejecting the peace offering. She then sent the two knights out to chase after Samient (where they were killed by Arthegall and Arthur).
Mercilla is associated with mercy, perhaps to a fault, allowing other characters to take advantage of her. She both complements and contrasts with Arthegall, who represents a version of justice that is arguably merciless at times, particularly when he sends Talus out to do his work.
Arthegall proposes dressing up in the armor of one of the slain knights and pretending that Samient is their prisoner. They go to the court of the evil man, called the Sultan, who wants to overthrow Mercilla because of his wife Adicia. Arthur soon arrives and demands that Samient be let go. The Sultan refuses and prepares to fight.
The villainous Sultan continues the trend in the poem of villains who are clearly meant to represent Muslims (or at least British stereotypes of what Muslims were). More broadly, he represents all usurpers who would try to challenge the legitimate rule of a queen like Mercilla or the real-life Elizabeth.
The Sultan battles Arthur while mounted in his chariot. He manages to strike a serious wound on Arthur’s side. Just then, however, Arthur grabs his shield from a shady place, and the light causes the Sultan’s horses to sprint off in the opposite direction, taking the chariot with them. The Sultan is helpless to stop them. Arthur chases after the Sultan, finding that his body has been broken from the fast, treacherous carriage journey and that only his shield and armor remain.
Arthur uses the light from his shield to defeat the Sultan—both light and shields are heroic symbols that represent knowledge and protection respectively. The Sultan being killed by his own horses is a form of justice that reflects how he got carried away with his own ambition in trying to claim the throne for himself.
Arthur brings back the Sultan’s armor and hangs it up, enraging Adicia. She plans to kill Samient with a knife, but Arthegall intervenes. This only increases Adicia’s anger. She wanders off, eventually turning into a tiger and unleashing her wrath on any man or beast that crosses her path. Arthegall rids the castle of any knights still loyal to Adicia, then welcomes Arthur as the day’s victor.
Adicia’s transformation into a wandering tiger suggests both the strength of her wrath and also how unfocused it is, lashing out at whatever crosses her path. Like the Sultan, her punishment fits her personality and specifically her flaws that led her to challenge Mercilla.