Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is divided into six books, and each book explores a different virtue: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. While there are recurring characters who appear in multiple books, the main character is different for each book and is always a knight who represents the book’s central virtue. For example, the protagonist of Book I is the Redcross Knight, who embodies the book’s theme of holiness. His name comes from the red Christian cross emblem on his shield, which has magic power to protect him. Later in the book, it’s revealed that the Redcross Knight is in fact a version of St. George, an English saint famous for slaying a dragon, further confirming the character’s holiness.
The obstacles that the Redcross Knight faces on his way to slay the dragon are all full of holy symbolism. For example, he encounters a monster named Error, which is a half-serpent with a knotted-up tail and which prefers to live in the darkness. The monster’s name makes the symbolism clear: Error represents errors, with its knotty tail and preference for darkness showing how errors thrive on confusion and ignorance. But while Error is a fearsome monster, the Redcross Knight manages to slay it by chopping off its head, providing a visual representation of how holiness is able to overcome errors. Though the allegory with Error may seem simple, The Faerie Queene is dense with these kinds of symbols and often contains shocking imagery, such as when Error’s children eat its corpse until they gorge themselves and explode. Echoing the Bible, stories from Greek and Roman mythology, and the work of previous writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser structures The Fairie Queene so that each section has a clear moral. While it’s never a surprise when virtue triumphs over evil, Spenser portrays this conflict in creative ways, using surprising imagery and poetic language to bring everyday moral problems to life for readers.
Virtue, Allegory, and Symbolism ThemeTracker
Virtue, Allegory, and Symbolism Quotes in The Faerie Queene
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y clad in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruel markes of many a bloudy fielde;
But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose weete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador’d:
Upon his shield the like was also scor’d
Young knight, what ever that does armes professe,
And through long labours huntest after fame,
Beware of fraud, beware of ficklenesse,
In choice, and change of thy deare loved Dame
His carriage was full comely and upright,
His countenance demure and temperate,
But yet so sterne and terrible in sight,
That cheard his friends, and did his foes amate:
He was an Elfin borne of noble state
Him als accopanyd upon the way
A comely Palmer, clad in blacke attire,
Of ripest years, and haries all hoarie gray
And round the wreath, this word was writ,
Burnt I do burne. Right well beseemed it,
To be the shield of some redoubted knight
There the good Guyon he found slumbring fast
In senseless dream; which sight at first him sore aghast.
Beside his head there sate a faire young man,
Of woundrous beautie, and of freshest years.
Said Guyon, See the mind of beastly man,
That hath so soone forgot the excellence
Of his creation, when he life began,
That now he chooseth, with vile difference
To be a beast, and lack intelligence
It falls me here to write of Chastity
That fairest virtue, farre above the rest;
For which what needs me fetch from Faery
Forreine ensamples, it to have exprest?
Sith it is shrined in my Soveraines brest
Now when the Beast, which by her wicked art
Late forth she sent, she backe returning spyde,
Tyde with her broken girdle, it a part
Of her rich spoyles, whom he had earst destroyd,
She weend, and woundrous gladnesse to her hart applyde.
But Britomart uprearing her from ground,
Said, Gentle Dame, reward enough I weene
For many labours more, then I have found,
This, that in safety now I have you seen,
And meane of your deliverance have beene
Of lovers sad calamities of old,
Full many piteous stories doe remaine,
But none more piteous ever was ytold,
Then that of Amorets hart-binding chaine,
And this of Florimels unworthie paine
Though now their acts be no where to be found
As that renowned Poet them compyled,
With warlike numbers and Heroicke sound,
Dan Chaucer well of English undefiled,
On Fames eternall beadroll worthie to be fyled.
Then all with one consent did yield the prize
To Triamond and Cambell as the best.
But Triamond to Cambell it relest.
And Cambell it to Triamond transferd;
Each labouring t’advance the others gest,
And make his praise before his owne preferd:
Then was that golden belt by doome of all
Graunted to her, as to the fairest Dame.
Which being brought, about her middle small
They thought to gird, as best it her became;
But by no meanes they could it thereto frame.
And such was he, of whome I have to tell,
The Champion of true Justice Artegall.
Whom (as ye lately mote remember well)
An hard adventure, which did then befall,
Into redoubted perill forth did call.
For eqaull right in equall things doth stand,
For what the mighty Sea hath once possest,
And plucked quite from all possessors hand,
Whether by rage of waves, that never rest,
Or else by wracke, that wretches hath distrest,
He may dispose by his imperial might.
Where being layd, the wrothfull Britonesse
Stayd not, till she came to her selfe againe,
But in revenge both of her loves distresse,
And her late vile reproach, though vaunted vaine,
And also of her wound, which sore did paine,
She with one stroke both head and helmet cleft.
But ere he could reform it thoroughly,
He through occasion called was away,
To Faerie Court, that of necessity
His course of Justice he was forst to stay,
And Talus to revoke from the right way
But mongst them all was none more courteous Knight,
Then Calidore, beloved over all,
in whom it seemes that gentlenesse of spright
And manners mylde were planted naturall
No wound, which warlike hand of enemy
Inflicts with dint of sword, so sore doth light,
As doth the poysnous sting, which infamy
Infixeth in the name of noble wight:
For by no art, nor any leaches might
It ever can recured be againe;
And after all, for greater infamie,
He by the heeles him hung upon a tree,
And baffuld so, that all which passed by,
The picture of his punishment might see,
And by the like ensample warned bee
So there that night Sir Calidore did dwell,
And long while after, whilest him list remaine,
Dayly beholding the faire Pastorell,
And feeding on the bayt of his owne bane.
During which time he did her entertaine
With all kind courtesies, he could invent;
And every day, her companiee to gaine
Ne may this homely verse, of many meanest,
Hope to escape his venomous despite,
More than my former writes, all were they clearest
From blamefull blot, and free from all that wite,
With which some wicked tongues did it backebite,
and bring into a mighty Peres displeasure,
That never so deserved to endite.
Therefore do you my rimes keep better measure,
And seeke to please, that now is counted wisemens threasure.