The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Allegory 5 key examples

Definition of Allegory
An allegory is a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and events. The story of "The Tortoise and The Hare" is... read full definition
An allegory is a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and events. The story of "The... read full definition
An allegory is a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and... read full definition
Book I: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Error :

Allegory is the central device of The Faerie Queene. The various quests undertaken by the poem’s protagonists are largely symbolic, as the reader tracks their progress through various spiritual obstacles towards Christian virtue. The first obstacle that Redcross faces in his journey in Book I is Error, a monstrous, serpentine creature whose name identifies her allegorical role in the poem. When Redcross journeys into the cave of Error in order to slay the beast, Spenser expands upon her allegorical role in the poem: 

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw 
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke, 
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw, 
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke 
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe: 
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was, 
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke, 
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras: 
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.

In the narrative of the poem, Error is a terrifying monster, but allegorically, she represents the erroneous beliefs that Spenser argues have deceived Christians. For the fiercely Protestant Spenser, these beliefs are specifically the false doctrines of the Catholic Church. She spews out a noxious “poyson” over Redcross, a pile of “bookes and papers” defending Catholic ideas. The blind “frogs and toades” are Catholics who cannot “see” the truth. Because of the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, these battles are not just physical but also spiritual; the Redcross Knight must overcome various falsehoods and deceptions in order to rescue “truth,” represented by Una. 

Book II: Canto XII
Explanation and Analysis—All in Moderation:

Each of the books of The Faerie Queene centers upon some knight who allegorically represents the virtue that is the primary theme of that book; just as Redcross represents Holiness, so too does Guyon represent Temperance. Guyon’s destruction of Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss can be seen as a complex allegory for the victory of temperance, or self-restraint, over immoderate pleasure. Of Guyon’s destruction of Acrasia’s lair, the narrator states: 

But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace braue, 
Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse; 
Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue 
Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse, 
But that their blisse he turn'd to balefulnesse: 
Their groues he feld, their gardins did deface, 
Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse, 
Their banket houses burne, their buildings race. 
And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place.

The conclusion to Book II highlights the broader complexities of Spenser’s allegorical framework. In denying the erotic pleasures of Acrasia’s bower, Guyon demonstrates his exemplary self-restraint and destroys a site that symbolizes immoderation. However, Guyon’s overly zealous destruction of the bower might also reflect a more subtle form of intemperance. He spares nothing from the “tempest” or storm of his wrath, saving neither their “goodly workmanship” nor their groves, gardens, arbors, houses, or buildings. Spenser’s language emphasizes that Guyon has done far more than he needs to in order to curb the threat posed by Acrasia, noting with some sympathy that the “fairest” place has been turned into the “fowlest.” Just as Redcross slays the beast Error and then immediately falls into error, Guyon’s destruction of the bower reflects the layered nuances of Spenser’s allegory. 

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Book III: Canto X
Explanation and Analysis—Jealousy :

At the end of the Malbecco episode in Book III, Spenser presents the reader with a glimpse into the workings of the poem’s allegorical structure. The cuckold Malbecco, who has become fixated on his wife’s betrayal and is unable to move forward with his life, becomes so fully consumed with his feelings of jealousy that he transforms into one of the poem’s allegorical figures. On his transformation from Malbecco to “Gealosie” (or Jealousy), the narrator writes: 

Yet can he neuer dye, but dying liues, 
And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine, 
That death and life attonce vnto him giues. 
And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine. 
There dwels he euer, miserable swaine, 
Haterull both to him selfe, and euery wight; 
Where he through priuy griefe, and horrour vaine, 
Is woxen so deform’d, that he has quight 
Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight. 

Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser presents various characters whose role is strictly allegorical and whose names generally reflect that status, such as Error and Despair. Here, Spenser presents the process by which a previously “human” character can become entrapped in an allegorical role. Having become completely consumed by one single feeling—Jealousy—Malbecco loses his human characteristics, becoming an inhuman figure who can “neuer dye” but instead “dying liues.” Having begun to take “painefull pleasure” in his own envious feelings, he has become “so deform’d” that he no longer even remembers being Malbecco and is now known only as “Gealosie.” Here, Spenser reflects upon the complicated interplay between the individual characteristics that make up “character” and the symbolic demands of allegory. 

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Book IV: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Conflict :

In Book IV, Spenser introduces the character of Ate, who allegorically represents strife, or conflict, within the poem. She is soon revealed to be a formidable force, responsible for virtually every war across human history from antiquity to the present. Ate is one of Spenser’s most fully developed allegorical symbols; every physical feature of her body points back to her allegorical status as a representative of conflict. Describing her body, the narrator states: 

Als as she double spake, so heard she double, 
With matchlesse eares deformed and distort, 
Fild with false rumors and seditious trouble, 
Bred in assemblies of the vulgar sort, 
That still are led with euery light report 
And as her eares so eke her feet were odde,
And much vnlike, th’one long, the other short 
And both misplast; that when th’one forward yode, 
The other backe retired, and contrarie trode.

Befitting the conflicts that she arouses in others, Ate has a forked tongue and speaks with a “double voice” that sounds different to different listeners; so too does she hear “double” through her “deformed” ears that hear nothing but “false rumors” and "seditious trouble.” Spenser continues to develop this highly symbolic portrait, describing her “odde” feet that work against each other, suggesting that her own body is in conflict with itself. When one foot moves “forward,” the other “backe retire[s],” preventing her from moving forward, like two quarreling parties. 

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Book V: Canto II
Explanation and Analysis—Pollente :

In Book V: The Book of Justice, Spenser expands upon the political and economic structures of Faerie Land in order to dwell on the topic of justice as both a personal and public concern. While characters in the poem's previous books often represent attitudes or personal characteristics, the allegorical focus of Book V turns towards political threats to the stability of the Kingdom. The villainous Pollente is one such threat, standing in allegorically for monopolistic business practices that threaten the circulation of money and economic freedom. A dwarf reports on Pollente’s criminal activities to Arthegall and Talus, stating that: 

And dayly he his wrongs encreaseth more, 
For neuer wight he lets to passe that way; 
Ouer his Bridge, albee he rich or poore, 
But he him makes his passage-penny pay: 
Else he doth hold him backe or beat away. 
Thereto he hath a groome of euill guize, 
Whose scalp is bare, that bondage doth bewray, 
Which pols and pils the poore in piteous wize; 
But he him selfe vppon the rich doth tyrannize.

Pollente has taken exclusive control of a bridge and refuses to admit passage across it without a hefty toll. In the political allegory of Book V, he represents a monopolistic obstacle to trade and commerce, as goods cannot travel freely across Faerie Land due to his obstruction. As his “wrongs” increase, so too does his money, and the Dwarf claims that he is now rich enough to “tyrannize” upon the rich. 

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