Spenser's plan for the Faery Queen was a very great one. He meant to write a poem in twelve books, each book containing the adventures of a knight who was to show forth one virtue. And if these were well received he purposed to write twelve more. Only the first three books were as yet published, but they made him far more famous than the Shepherd's Calendar had done. For never since Chaucer had such poetry been written. In the Faery Queen Spenser has, as he says, changed his "oaten reed" for "trumpets stern," and sings no longer now of shepherds and their loves, but of "knights and ladies gentle deeds" of "fierce wars and faithful loves."
The first three books tell the adventures of the Red Cross Knight St. George, or Holiness; of Sir Guyon, or Temperance; and of the Lady Britomartis, or Chastity. The whole poem is an allegory. Everywhere we are meant to see a hidden meaning. But sometimes the allegory is very confused and hard to follow. So at first, in any case, it is best to enjoy the story and the beautiful poetry, and not trouble about the second meaning. Spenser plunges us at once into the very middle of the story. He begins:
"A gentle Knight was pricking on the plain,
Yclad in mighty arms and silver shield,
Wherein old dints of deep wounds did remain,
The cruel marks of many a bloody field;
Yet arms till that time did he never wield.
His angry steed did chide his foaming bit,
As much disdaining to the curb to yield:
Full jolly knight he seem'd, and fair did sit,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.
But on his breast a bloody cross he bore,
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador'd;
Upon his shield the like was also scor'd."
And by the side of this Knight rode a lovely Lady upon a snow-white ass. Her dress, too, was snow-white, but over it she wore a black cloak, "as one that inly mourned," and it "seemed in her heart some hidden care she had."
So the story begins; but why these two, the grave and gallant Knight and the sad and lovely Lady, are riding forth together we should not know until the middle of the seventh canto, were it not for a letter which Spenser wrote to Raleigh and printed in the beginning of his book. In it he tells us not only who these two are, but also his whole great design. He writes this letter, he says, "knowing how doubtfully all allegories may be construed," and this book of his "being a continued allegory, or dark conceit," he thought it good to explain. Having told how he means to write of twenty-four knights who shall represent twenty-four virtues, he goes on to tell us that the Faery Queen kept her yearly feast twelve days, upon which twelve days the occasions of the first twelve adventures happened, which, being undertaken by twelve knights, are told of in these twelve books.
The first was this. At the beginning of the feast a tall, clownish young man knelt before the Queen of the Fairies asking as a boon that to him might be given the first adventure that might befall. "That being granted he rested him on the floor, unfit through his rusticity for a better place.
"Soon after entered a fair Lady in mourning weeds, riding on a white ass with a Dwarf behind her leading a warlike steed, that bore the arms of a knight, and his spear in the Dwarf's hand.
"She, falling before the Queen of Fairies, complained that her Father and Mother, an ancient King and Queen had been by a huge Dragon many years shut up in a brasen Castle, who thence suffered them not to issue." And therefore she prayed the Fairy Queen to give her a knight who would slay the Dragon.
Then the "clownish person" started up and demanded the adventure. The Queen was astonished, the maid unwilling, yet he begged so hard that the Queen consented. The Lady, however, told him that unless the armor she had brought would serve him he could not succeed. But when he put the armor on "he seemed the goodliest man in all that company, and was well liked of that Lady. And eftsoons taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that strange courser, he went forth with her on that adventure, where beginneth the first book, viz.:
" 'A gentle Knight was pricking on the plain,' etc."
The story goes on to tell how the Knight, who is the Red Cross Knight St. George, and the Lady, who is called Una, rode on followed by the Dwarf. At length in the wide forest they lost their way and came upon the lair of a terrible She-Dragon. "Fly, fly," quoth then the fearful Dwarf, "this is no place for living men."
"But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthful Knight could not for ought be stayed;
But forth unto the darksome hole he went,
And lookéd in: his glistering armour made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half like a serpent horribly displayed,
But th'other half did woman's shape retain,
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain."
There was a fearful fight between the Knight and the Dragon, whose name is Error, but at length the Knight conquered. The terrible beast lay dead "reft of her baleful head," and the Knight, mounting upon his charger, once more rode onwards with his Lady.
"At length they chanced to meet upon the way
An aged sire, in long black weeds yclad,
His feet all bare, his beard all hoary grey,
And by his belt his book he hanging had,
Sober he seemed, and very sagely sad,
And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
Simple in show, and void of malice bad,
And all the way he prayéd, as he went,
And often knocked his breast, as one that did repent."
The Knight and this aged man greeted each other fair and courteously, and as evening was now fallen the godly father bade the travelers come to his Hermitage for the night. This the Knight and Lady gladly did, and soon were peacefully sleeping beneath the humble roof.
But the seeming godly father was a wicked magician. While his guests slept he wove evil spells about them, and calling a wicked dream he bade it sit at the Knight's head and whisper lies to him. This the wicked dream did till that it made the Knight believe his Lady to be bad and false. Then early in the morning the Red Cross Knight rose and, believing his Lady to be unworthy, he rode sadly away, leaving her alone.
Soon, as he rode along, he met a Saracen whose name was Sansfoy, or without faith, "full large of limb and every joint he was, and cared not for God or man a point."
"He had a fair companion of his way,
A goodly Lady clad in scarlet red,
Purfled with gold and pearl of rich assay,
And like a Persian mitre on her head
She wore, with crowns and riches garnishéd,
The which her lavish lovers to her gave;
Her wanton palfrey all was overspread
With tinsell trappings, woven like a wave,
Whose bridle rang with golden bells and bosses brave."
The Red Cross Knight fought and conquered Sansfoy. Then he rode onward with the dead giant's companion, the lady Duessa, whom he believed to be good because he was "too simple and too true" to know her wicked.
Meanwhile Una, forsaken and woeful, wandered far and wide seeking her lost Knight. But nowhere could she hear tidings of him. At length one day, weary of her quest, she got off her ass and lay down to rest in the thick wood, where "her angel's face made a sunshine in the shady place."
Then out of the thickest of the wood a ramping lion rushed suddenly.
"It fortuned out of the thickest wood
A ramping Lion rushed suddenly,
Hunting full greedy after savage blood.
Soon as the royal virgin he did spy,
With gaping mouth at her ran greedily
To have at once devoured her tender corse."
But as he came near the sleeping Lady the Lion's rage suddenly melted. Instead of killing Una, he licked her weary feet and white hands with fawning tongue. From being her enemy he became her guardian. And so for many a day the Lion stayed with Una, guarding her from all harm. But in her wanderings she at length met with Sansloy, the brother of Sansfoy, who killed the Lion and carried Una off into the darksome wood.
But here in her direst need Una found new friends in a troupe of fauns and satyrs who were playing in the forest.
"Whom when the raging Saracen espied,
A rude, misshapen, monstrous rabblement,
Whose like he never saw, he durst not bide,
But got his ready steed, and fast away gan ride."
Then the fauns and satyrs gathered round the Lady, wondering at her beauty, pitying her "fair blubbered face."
But Una shook with fear. These terrible shapes, half goat, half human, struck her dumb with horror: "Ne word to speak, ne joint to move she had."
"The savage nation feel her secret smart
And read her sorrow in her count'nance sad;
Their frowning foreheads with rough horns yclad,
And rustic horror all aside do lay,
And gently grinning shew a semblance glad
To comfort her, and fear to put away."
They kneel upon the ground, they kiss her feet, and at last, sure that they mean her no harm, Una rises and goes with them.
Rejoicing, singing songs, honoring her as their Queen, waving branches, scattering flowers beneath her feet, they lead her to their chief Sylvanus. He, too, receives her kindly, and in the wood she lives with these wild creatures until there she finds a new knight named Satyrane, with whom she once more sets forth to seek the Red Cross Knight.
Meanwhile Duessa had led the Red Cross Knight to the house of Pride.
"A stately Palace built of squaréd brick,
Which cunningly was without mortar laid,
Whose walls were high, but nothing strong, nor thick,
And golden foil all over them displayed,
That purest sky with brightness they dismayed.
High lifted up were many lofty towers
And goodly galleries far overlaid,
Full of fair windows, and delightful bowers,
And on the top a dial told the timely hours.
It was a goodly heap for to behold,
And spake the praises of the workman's wit,
But full great pity, that so fair a mould
Did on so weak foundation ever sit;
For on a sandy hill, that still did flit,
And fall away, it mounted was full high,
And every breath of heaven shakéd it;
And all the hinder parts, that few could spy,
Were ruinous and old, but painted cunningly."
Here the Knight met Sansjoy, the third of the Saracen brothers, and another fearful fight took place.
"The Saracen was stout, and wondrous strong,
And heapéd blows like iron hammers great:
For after blood and vengeance he did long.
The Knight was fierce, and full of youthly heat,
And doubled strokes like dreaded thunder's threat,
For all for praise and honour he did fight.
Both striken strike, and beaten both do beat
That from their shields forth flyeth fiery light,
And helmets hewen deep, show marks of either's might."
At last a charmed cloud hid the Saracen from the Knight's sight. So the fight ended, and the Knight, sorely wounded, was "laid in sumptuous bed, where many skilful leeches him abide."
But as he lay there weak and ill the Dwarf came to warn him, for he had spied
"Where, in a dungeon deep, huge numbers lay
Of caitiff wretched thralls, that wailéd night and day,
Whose case when as the careful Dwarf had told,
And made ensample of their mournful sight
Unto his master, he no longer would
There dwell in peril of like painful plight,
But early rose, and ere that dawning light
Discovered had the world to heaven wide,
He by a privy postern took his flight,
That of no envious eyes he might be spied,
For doubtless death ensued, if any him descried."
When the false Duessa discovered that the Red Cross Knight had
fled, she followed him and found him resting beside a fountain.
Not knowing that the water was
enchanted, he drank of it, and at
once all his manly strength ebbed away, and he became faint and
feeble. Then, when he was too weak to hold a sword or spear, he
saw a fearful
"With sturdy steps came stalking in his sight,
An hideous Giant horrible and high,
That with his tallness seemed to threat the sky,
The ground eke groanéd under him for dread;
His living like saw never living eye,
Nor durst behold; his stature did exceed
The height of three the tallest sons of mortal seed."
Towards the Knight, so weak that he could scarcely hold his sword, this Giant came stalking. Weak as he was, the Knight made ready to fight. But
"The Giant strake so mainly merciless,
That could have overthrown a stony tower;
And were not heavenly grace that did him bless,
He had been powdered all as thin as flour."
As the Giant struck at him, the Knight leapt aside and the blow fell harmless. But so mighty was it that the wind of it threw him to the ground, where he lay senseless. And ere he woke out of his swoon the Giant took him up, and
"Him to his castle brought with hasty force
And in a dungeon deep him threw without remorse."
Duessa then became the Giant's lady. "He gave her gold and purple pall to wear," and set a triple crown upon her head. For steed he gave her a fearsome dragon with fiery eyes and seven heads, so that all who saw her went in dread and awe.
The Dwarf, seeing his master thus overthrown and made prisoner, gathered his armor and set forth to tell his evil tidings and find help. He had not gone far before he met the Lady Una. To her he told his sad news, and she with grief in her heart turned with him to find the dark dungeon in which her Knight lay. On her way she met another knight. This was Prince Arthur. And he, learning of her sorrow, went with her promising aid. Guided by the Dwarf they reached the castle of the Giant, and here a fearful fight took place in which Prince Arthur conquered Duessa's Dragon and killed the Giant. Then he entered the castle.
"Where living creature none he did espy.
Then gan he loudly through the house to call;
But no man cared to answer to his cry;
There reigned a solemn silence over all,
Nor voice was heard, nor wight was seen in bower or hall.
At last, with creeping crooked pace forth came
An old, old man with beard as white as snow;
That on a staff his feeble steps did frame,
And guide his weary gate both to and fro,
For his eyesight him failéd long ago;
And on his arm a bunch of keys he bore,
The which unuséd rust did overgrow;
Those were the keys of every inner door,
But he could not them use, but kept them still in store."
And what was strange and terrible about this old man was that his head was twisted upon his shoulders, so that although he walked towards the knight his face looked backward.
Seeing his gray hairs and venerable look Prince Arthur asked him gently where all the folk of the castle were.
"I cannot tell," answered the old man. And to every question he replied, "I cannot tell," until the knight, impatient of delay, seized the keys from his arm. Door after door the Prince Arthur opened, seeing many strange, sad sights. But nowhere could he find the captive Knight.
"At last he came unto an iron door,
That fast was locked, but key found not at all,
Amongst that bunch to open it withal."
But there was a little grating in the door through which Prince Arthur called. A hollow, dreary, murmuring voice replied. It was the voice of the Red Cross Knight, which, when the champion heard, "with furious force and indignation fell" he rent that iron door and entered in.
Once more the Red Cross Knight was free and reunited to his Lady, while the false Duessa was unmasked and shown to be a bad old witch, who fled away "to the wasteful wilderness apace."
But the Red Cross Knight was still so weak and feeble that Despair almost persuaded him to kill himself. Seeing this, Una led him to the house of Holiness, where he stayed until once more he was strong and well. Here he learned that he was St. George. "Thou," he is told,
"Shalt be a saint, and thine own nation's friend
And patron. Thou St. George shalt calléd be,
St. George of merry England, the sign of victory."
Once more strong of arm, full of new courage, the Knight set forth with Una, and soon they reached her home, where the dreadful Dragon raged.
Here the most fierce fight of all takes place. Three days it is renewed, and on the third day the Dragon is conquered.
"So down he fell, and forth his life did breathe
That vanished into smoke and clouds swift;
So down he fell, that th' earth him underneath
Did groan, as feeble so great load to lift;
So down he fell, as an huge rocky clift
Whose false foundation waves have washed away,
With dreadful poise is from the mainland rift
And rolling down, great Neptune doth dismay,
So down he fell, and like an heapéd mountain lay."
Thus all ends happily. The aged King and Queen are rescued from the brazen tower in which the Dragon had imprisoned them, and Una and the Knight are married.
That is the story of the first book of the Faery Queen. In it Spenser has made great use of the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The Red Cross of his Knight, "the dear remembrance of his dying Lord," was in those days the flag of England, and is still the Red Cross of our Union Jack. And besides the allegory the poem has something of history in it. The great people of Spenser's day play their parts there. Thus Duessa, sad to say, is meant to be the fair, unhappy Queen of Scots, the wicked magician is the Pope, and so on. But we need scarcely trouble about all that. I repeat that meantime it is enough for you to enjoy the story and the poetry.