Spenser—The "Faery Queen"
S PENSER'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
And by the side of this Knight rode a lovely Lady upon a
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
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.:
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
Here the Knight met Sansjoy, the third of the Saracen brothers, and another fearful fight took place.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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