The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Allusions 9 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Book I: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Saintes and Popes:

Spenser alludes satirically to Catholic practices and ideas throughout the poem as part of the Protestant polemic central to the work. After vanquishing Error, for example, the Redcross Knight and Una seek refuge in a home that resembles a Catholic monastery: 

Arriued there, the little house they fill, 
Ne looke for entertainement, where none was: 
Rest is their feast, and all things at their will; 
The noblest mind the best contentment has. 
With faire discourse the euening so they pas: 
For that old man of pleasing wordes had store, 
And well could file his tongue as smooth as glas; 
He told of Saintes and Popes, and euermore 
He strowd an Aue-Mary after and before.

At first, an elderly man (later identified as Archimago, one of the poem’s chief villains) opens his doors to the exhausted travelers, and he appears to be a kindly figure. However, Spenser’s subtle allusions to Catholicism signal to his Protestant readers that there is more than meets the eye in this scene. There is no “entertainement”  in the house, so instead the guests chat with their elderly host through the evening. The old man has a “tongue as smooth as glas,” suggesting that he is charming but also perhaps a wily or manipulative figure.

Through the night, he regales them with stories of “Saintes and Popes.” For many Protestants of Spenser’s day, such tales were considered to be dangerous deceptions used by Catholics to trick the naive and superstitious. So too does the elderly man repeat “Aue-Mary” ("Ave Maria" or “Hail Mary”), a prayer to Mary, the mother of Christ, whose prominent role in the Catholic Church was critiqued by many Protestant reformers. Through these various allusions, Spenser satirizes Catholicism and portrays this seemingly comfortable house as yet another spiritual trap that Redcross must overcome.

Book I: Canto IX
Explanation and Analysis—Arthurian Legend :

Throughout The Faerie Queene, Spenser alludes to a wide array of figures drawn from classical mythology, biblical narrative, and medieval romance. Perhaps the most consistent and pivotal source for Spenser is Arthurian legend, to which he alludes at various points throughout the poem. Though Arthur is not the principal hero of any of the books of The Faerie Queene, he often serves as a helper-figure, offering aid and guidance to Spenser’s “faerie” heroes and  serving as an ideal model of true virtue, strength, and heroism. After he rescues Una and Saves Redcross from the prison of Orgoglio the giant, he attempts to explain how he has found himself in Faerie Land, far from his home in England: 

Faire virgin (said die Prince) ye me require 
A thing without the compas of my wit: 
For both the lignage and the certain Sire, 
From which I sprang, from me are hidden yit 
For all so soone as life did me admit 
Into this world, and shewed heauens light,
From mothers pap I taken was vnfit: 
And streight deliuered to a Faery knight, 
To be vpbrought in gentle thewes and martiall might. 

Here, Spenser shows his willingness to adapt the materials that he draws from in his poem. It is as though Spenser has plucked Arthur from an early point in his own legendary story, before his royal paternity has been revealed to him. Spenser’s Arthur claims to have no knowledge of his parents, nor of his background, as he was taken right from his mother’s breast and “deliuered to a Faery knight” to be raised as a Faerie in Faerie Land. Spenser demonstrates his familiarity with the Arthurian legend to which he alludes, but he also modifies the legend to suit his own ends. Spenser incorporates figures from a wide array of literary and mythological traditions in his own symbolic representation of England and English history. 

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Book II: Proem
Explanation and Analysis—The New World :

In the Proem to Book II, Spenser alludes to various parts of the Americas that Europeans had only recently become aware of. Defending his epic poem against those who might regard it a pointless fantasy or “th’aboundance of an idle braine,” he states: 

But let that man with better sence aduize, 
That of the world least part to vs is red: 
And dayly how through hardy enterprize, 
Many great Regions are discouered, 
Which to late age were neuer mentioned. 
Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru? 
Or who in venturous vessell measured 
The Amazons huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?

In the previous stanza, Spenser confronts a hypothetical reader who might dismiss The Faerie Queene because of its reliance on figures and locations drawn from mythology. In his rebuttal, he argues that such a small percentage of the globe is known to Europe that nobody can really say with confidence what else might be discovered some day. To support this argument, he alludes to various locations in the “New World” as it was then known. How many people, he asks, had “euer heard of th’Indian Peru” until Spanish explorers first sailed there? So too does he allude to the Amazon River and “fruitfullest Virginia” in order to defend his interest in legends and myths. When Spenser wrote these lines, England had just founded the Virginia Colony, its first enduring colony in North America, named (like many characters in The Faerie Queene) for the “virgin queen” Elizabeth I. 

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Book II: Canto III
Explanation and Analysis—Belphoebe:

In introducing the character of Belphoebe in the poem, Spenser alludes to various mythological “warrior women” and also indirectly to Queen Elizabeth I, to whom the poem is dedicated. When the absurd duo Braggadochio and Trompart encounter Belphoebe in the woods, the narrator states: 

Such as Diana by the sandie shore 
Of swift Eurotas, or on Cynthus greene, 
Where all the Nymphes haue her vnwares forlore, 
Wandreth alone with bow and arrowes keene, 
To seeke her game: Or as that famous Queene 
Of Amazons, whom Pyrrhus did destroy, 
The day that first of Priame she was seene, 
Did shew her selfe in great triumphant ioy, 
To succour the weake state of sad afflicted Troy.

First, Spenser alludes to Diana, a virgin goddess and patron of hunters. Diana was famous for fiercely protecting her own chastity. In one famous myth, the hunter Actaeon accidentally stumbles upon her bathing, and in retaliation, she transforms him into a deer; he is promptly torn apart by his own hunting dogs. Next, Spenser references Penthesilea, “that famous Queene / Of Amazons” who participated in the invasion of Troy during the Trojan War. 

To readers in Spenser’s day, these references to virgin goddesses and female queens would have also been understood as allusions to Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as the “Virgin Queen” for refusing to marry or have children. In all instances, Spenser’s allusions signal to the reader that Belphoebe is a formidable figure. Braggadochio, however, fails to realize this and, earning Belphoebe’s displeasure, he  is almost shot with an arrow and impaled by a javelin in quick succession. 

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Book III: Proem
Explanation and Analysis—The Virgin Queen:

In the Proem to Book III, Spenser alludes heavily to Queen Elizabeth I, praising her as the ultimate exemplar of Chastity, the theme of the book. Discussing the difficulty of writing about this theme, the narrator states: 

It falles me here to write of Chastity, 
That fairest vertue, farre aboue the rest; 
For which what needs me fetch from 
Faery Forreine ensamples, it to haue exprest? 
Sith it is shrined in my Soueraines brest, 
And form’d so liuely in each perfect part, 
That to all Ladies, which haue it profest, 
Need but behold the pourtraict of her hart, 
If pourtrayd it might be by any liuing art.

The narrator acknowledges the difficulty of writing about chastity, which he describes as the “fairest vertue.” His gendered language in this passage links chastity to women and femininity. Why, the narrator asks, would he need to look to any “Faerie Forreine ensamples” (or in other words, foreign examples from Faerie Land) in order to find a good example of chastity, when this virtue is already most clearly “exprest” in “my Soueraine’s brest”? In referencing his sovereign, Spenser alludes directly to Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as the “Virgin Queen” because she never married or had children. Spenser offers an extravagant compliment to the Queen, from whom he sought royal patronage. “Ladies,” he claims, need only “behold the pourtraict of her hart” in order to have a perfect model of the virtue of chastity. 

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Book III: Canto IX
Explanation and Analysis—The Eyes of Argus:

Spenser alludes to the mythological figure of Argus in his depiction of Malbecco’s frantic and vain attempts to keep his wife away from other men. Of Malbecco’s paranoia, the narrator notes that: 

In vaine he feares that, which he cannot shonne: 
For who wotes not, that womans subtiltyes 
Can guilen Argus, when she list misdonne? 
It is not yron bandes, nor hundred eyes, 
Nor brasen walls, nor many wakefull spyes, 
That can withhold her wilfull wandring feet; 
But fast good will with gentle curtesyes, 
And timely seruice to her pleasures meet 
May her perhaps containe, that else would algates fleet

Here, Spenser writes on the “subtiltyes” or tricks of women, a conventional topic in early modern humor. Women, he suggests, will find a way to conduct an affair if they desire to do so, and no counter-measures can prevent this. He alludes to Argus, a giant in Greek mythology whose body was covered in hundreds of unsleeping eyes. A servant of Hera, he was charged with guarding Io, a white cow to whom Zeus was deeply attracted. In most mythological accounts, Argus is tricked into falling asleep and is then slain by Hermes on behalf of Zeus; through this allusion, then, the narrator implies that Malbecco’s attempt to keep his wife under his thumb will likewise prove futile or even perilous to him. 

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Explanation and Analysis—New Troy:

In the house of Malbecco, Paridell explains his personal history, recounting the story of the fall of Troy as described in The Illiad and claiming to be a direct descendant of the Trojan Paris. Here, Spenser alludes both to the subject of Homer’s earlier epic poem and also to one of the founding myths of Britain as a “Troynovant” or “New Troy” founded by Trojan refugees. Describing Britomart’s reaction to Paridell’s story, the narrator states: 

Whenas the noble Britomart heard tell 
Of Troian warres, and Priams Citie sackt, 
The ruefull story of Sir Paridell, 
She was empassiond at that piteous act, 
With zelous enuy of Greekes cruell fact, 
Against that nation, from whose race of old 
She heard, that she was lineally extract: 
For noble Britons sprong from Troians bold, 
And Troynouant was built of old Troyes ashes cold.

Britomart has a surprisingly strong reaction to Paridell’s story, feeling “empassiond” by the “piteous” destruction of Troy and outraged by the cruelty of the conquering Greeks. She has heard, the narrator reports, that “she was lineally extract” from the Trojans, as “noble Britons sprong from Trojans bold.” Here, Spenser alludes to the belief expressed by many medieval British historians that Britain was founded by Trojan refugees who fled the destruction of their city. Though this theory was already archaic by Spenser’s time, he is interested throughout The Faerie Queene in myths and folklore surrounding his nation and its origins. 

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Book III: Canto X
Explanation and Analysis—Paris and Helen:

Spenser satirizes the Trojan War in Book III of The Faerie Queene. Britomart and a small band of knights have sought refuge in the home of the paranoid Malbecco, and one of the guests, Paridell, has begun to court and seduce Malbecco’s wife Hellenore. Utilizing the satirical techniques of “mock-epic,” which employs the lofty language of epic poetry to discuss minor and petty themes, Spenser writes: 

No fort so fensible, no wals so strong, 
But that continuall battery will riue, 
Or daily siege through dispuruayance long, 
And lacke of reskewes will to parley driue;
And Peace, that vnto parley eare will giue, 
Will shortly yeeld it selfe, and will be made 
The vassall of the victors will byliue: 
That stratageme had oftentimes assayd 
This crafty Paramoure, and now it plaine displayd.

Here, Spenser lampoons the language of epic poetry, and more specifically of The Illiad, Homer’s epic portrayal of the Trojan War. Spenser uses a series of metaphors drawn from war in order to portray the affair of Hellenore and Paridell, whose names mimic those of Helen and Paris, chief players in the Siege of Troy. Their names immediately signal to the reader that these characters will conduct an affair regardless of the cost, in much the same way that Paris’s abduction of Helen directly led to the destruction of Troy by the Greek army. 

Spenser’s satire cuts two ways. First, the gulf between the grand rhetoric he uses here and the petty affair conducted by Hellenore and Paridell highlights their status as “minor” figures in comparison to their famed namesakes. However, Spenser’s parody also underscores the fact that the mythological Helen and Paris conducted a tawdry affair that ruined the lives of many. This is Spenser’s most notable instance of “mock epic” in The Faerie Queene.

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Book III: Canto XII
Explanation and Analysis—Hermaphroditus :

At the conclusion of Book III, Britomart rescues Amoretta from the clutches of the evil Busirane, and the young woman is reunited with her beloved, Scudamore. Here, Spenser alludes to the classical figure of Hemaphrodite (or more commonly, Hermaphroditus) in order to reflect upon the nature of romantic relationships. Describing the scene of Amoretta and Scudamore’s reunion, the narrator states: 

Had ye them seene, ye would haue surely thought, 
That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite, 
Which that rich Romane of white marble wrought, 
And in his costly Bath causd to bee site: 
So seemd those two, as growne together quite, 
That Britomart halfe enuying their blesse, 
Was much empassiond in her gentle sprite, 
And to herselfe oft wisht like happinesse, 
In vaine she wisht, that fate n’ould let her yet possesse.

The narrator claims that Amoretta and Scudamore were so close to each other that they could barely be distinguished, stating that “ye would haue surely thought, / That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite.” Here, Spenser alludes to a figure in Greek Myth. In Ovid’s account, Hermaphroditus was born a remarkably beautiful youth who attracted the attention of a naiad, who prayed to the gods to be permanently united with the young man. In answer to her prayers, the two figures were permanently fused into one with both male and female sexual characteristics. 

In this stanza, Spenser meditates upon romantic love between men and women, suggesting that a close couple might be thought of as one figure combining both sexes. Observing the blissful scene, Britomart is split between her feelings of happiness for Amoretta and Scudamore and her own jealousy, as she has made little progress towards her beloved Arthegall. 

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