The Faerie Queene is broken into six books (with surviving fragments of a seventh book). Although the books share a narrator and some other recurring characters, for the most part, each book tells a self-contained story with different protagonists representing various virtues and with different antagonists that represent the heroes’ opposites.
In Book I, the Redcross Knight, who represents holiness and who serves the Faerie Queene, travels with his lady Una and her dwarf. He has an enchanted shield that protects him with a red Christian cross on it. His ultimate goal is to find and slay the dragon that has been terrorizing Una’s parents at their castle in Eden, but he has many adventures and faces many challenges before then. At one point, they encounter the fierce half-woman half-serpent monster Error, whom Redcross manages to slay. Later, the evil wizard Archimago disguises himself as a friendly old man and uses his illusion magic to make Redcross believe Una has been unfaithful, causing him to continue his journey without her. While separated from Una, Redcross is further led astray by the tricky sorceress Duessa in disguise as a fair maiden. A trio of Saracens named Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy also cause trouble, fighting with Redcross and trying to kidnap Una while she’s alone. Luckily, Prince Arthur comes to the rescue—he is the same Arthur who will eventually become the legendary King Arthur, and he protects Una and forms a friendship with Redcross. At the darkest part of the journey, Redcross encounters the monster Despair, but Una saves him at the last moment. After recovering for a while at a holy house, Redcross is finally strong enough to go slay the dragon, which he does after a fierce three-day battle. Redcross and Una can finally be married, although Redcross has to leave soon in order to fulfill his duties to the Faerie Queene.
Book II switches over to Sir Guyon, who represents temperance and who, like the Redcross Knight, also goes on adventures in service of the Faerie Court. After being defeated in the previous book, Archimago tries to convince Guyon to attack the Redcross Knight, but he’s unsuccessful. Guyon then happens to run into Amavia, a woman who is dying. She tells him how her knight was killed by the evil pleasure-seeking witch Acrasia. On his way to Acrasia, Guyon ends up on an island devoted to idle pleasure, but his own temperate personality helps him escape it. Similarly, his temperance helps him in combat against hot-headed knights like the fiery Pyrochles. At last, Sir Guyon makes it to Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss, which is filled with men who have fallen under her spells. Guyon resists temptation and destroys the bower, freeing the men it once held.
Book III focuses on Britomart, who represents chastity and who is unusual because she’s the only major knight in the book who is a woman. She originally comes from Britain, but after seeing a vision of her eventual husband Arthegall (shown to her by the famous wizard Merlin), she becomes obsessed. She trains in knightly ways so that she can set out in search of Arthegall, taking along her nurse Glauce to act as her squire. Britomart meets and gravely wounds a knight named Marinell, who has been warned to avoid women but who will go on to marry the fair maiden Florimell (who is renowned for her chastity and wears a gold belt) in a later book. Britomart also meets Scudamore, who is looking to free his lady Amoretta from the evil wizard Busirane. Britomart tracks Busirane down and allows him to live on the condition that he free Amoretta at once.
Book IIII focuses partly on Cambell and Triamond, who embody the virtue of friendship. When Cambell holds a tournament to find a man worthy of marrying his sister Canacee, the three brothers Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond enter. Cambell slays Priamond and Diamond, and their souls get transferred to Triamond, who manages to hold his own against Canacee in marriage. Having earned Cambell’s respect, Triamond and Cambell become great friends, with Cambell even marrying Triamond’s sister Cambina. Meanwhile, many characters from the previous book continue their adventures. Without knowing each other’s identities at first, Britomart and Arthegall meet and fight in a tournament, with Britomart being victorious. When they take off their helmets, however, Arthegall falls in love with Britomart and Britomart recognizes Arthegall as the man from her vision. Later, Amoretta is captured by a “savage” carle and Scudamore tries to save her. Arthur and his squire, Timias, help Amoretta escape the evil man, and eventually she is reunited with her beloved Scudamore.
Despite Britomart and Arthegall declaring their love for each other in Book IIII, Book V sees Arthegall traveling on his own (with his iron companion Talus) and representing the virtue of justice. Though Arthegall is a powerful man who subdues and punishes anyone unjust who stands in his way, he ends up defeated and captured by the Amazon queen Radigund, who humbles him and locks him up in a dungeon. Talus manages to inform Britomart of this situation, and she comes to rescue Arthegall, beheading Radigund in the process. Freed from captivity, Arthegall returns to his original goal of freeing an innocent woman named Eirena from an evil tyrant called Grantorto. He beheads Grantorto, and Eirena is restored to her rightful place on the throne.
Book VI follows Sir Calidore who, at the request of the Faerie Queene, is pursuing a monster called the Blatant Beast and who represents courtesy. Though Calidore is a good knight, he considers leaving it all behind when he witnesses the pastoral lives of some shepherds and particularly when he meets the beautiful shepherd’s daughter Pastorella. Calidore lives peacefully with the shepherds for a while until suddenly some brigands attack and ransack the village. Many shepherds are killed or captured, and Calidore leads a daring rescue to get Pastorella back. After saving her, however, Calidore decides that he must continue his quest to subdue the Blatant Beast, which continues to threaten the reputations of noble knights and ladies. Calidore finds the beast, muzzles it, and forces it to follow him like a tamed animal. Eventually, however, the Blatant Beast breaks free, and it continues to roam the world.
Only two cantos from the middle of Book VII survive. Mutabilitie (also called Change) is descended from titans and argues that she should rule heaven instead of Jupiter, but her challenge is unsuccessful. The seventh book, like The Faerie Queene in general, doesn’t have a definitive ending because Spenser died before completing his planned 12 books.