While we're not going to say the tone of The Faerie Queene is never humorous, outright silly moments are few and far between. And it's (probably) not because Spenser didn't have a sense of humor, it's that he's writing in a tradition of epic poetry in which heroic action and heroic quests were taken very seriously. Check out this seriousness:
Of all Gods workes, which do this world adorne/ There is no one more faire and excellent,/ Then is mans body both for powre and forme,/ Whiles it is kept in sober gouernment. (II.ix.1)
Wow. We definitely sat up a little straighter after reading that. We have to keep our "sober gouernment" up and running.
Spenser is imparting some major wisdom that he wants to encourage his readers themselves to take very seriously. We see even represented within the poem that characters who joke around constantly or prioritize "fun" over duty tend to get themselves into trouble. The seriousness of tone is related to the poem's elevated tone, by which we mean a tone that gives an impression of dealing with topics and subjects of great importance and distance from day-to-day life.
Spenser doesn't just want us to take his moral lessons seriously; he also wants them to be respected as something extremely important. Indeed, drawing his reader's attention to the meaning of values and virtues that we might just think of vaguely without great detail is kind of the point of the whole poem. Allegory, combined with this serious and elevated style, allows Spenser to investigate and describe in great detail the inner workings of concepts that we otherwise might take for granted.
In the ancient world, which gave us the genre of epic poetry, epic and romance did not go together. In fact, a famous Latin epic, the Aeneid of Virgil, depicts the epic hero rejecting romance and love in order to fulfill his heroic duties; in other words: romance and heroism are like oil and water.
Fast-forward hundreds of years to the Renaissance, when Spenser is writing, and that old division is way over. Romance and epics are all the rage, starting in Italy (famously in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso on which The Faerie Queene is heavily based) and coming to England. If anything, what we see in Spenser is an ideal of epic heroism in which romance is completely central—you can't really be a good knight if you're not fighting for the love of a worthy lady.
So while writing an epic romance is pretty conventional at this point, making that epic romance into an allegorical parable is pretty new. Allegory had been around for a very long time, but had never been embedded into a tale of knights, dragons, and castles as extensively as this. Indeed, romance involving knights and distressed ladies was considered slightly immoral, lowbrow entertainment reading. Thus, Spenser is doing some pretty interesting by taking this supposedly "superficial" genre of literature and using it as vehicle to impart moral and religious truths.
Named after the one character we never actually meet, The Faerie Queene's title evokes the mystery and power associated with the ruler of Faerie Land. Since the character of the Faerie Queene is meant to be a representation of Queen Elizabeth I, naming the entire poem after that character clearly demonstrates Spenser's political agenda to get on the good side of the queen—the poem is dedicated to her as well.
But more than that, it also communicates the poem's two central interests: depicting the imaginative and fantastic world of Faerie and depicting the real challenges and triumphs that come with living under a powerful queen. Although clearly operating within a totally fictional world, the knights and villains we meet in Faerie share a preoccupation with how to live, rightly or wrongly, in a monarchy where the court and queen are at the center.
Ne may this homely verse, of many meanest,
Hope to escape his venemous despite,
More then my former writs, 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 neuer so deserued to endite.
Therfore do you my rimes keep better measure,
And seeke to please, that now is counted wisemens threasure.
The ending of The Faerie Queene can feel like a bit of a letdown, especially since Spenser pretty much describes it as, literally, a let-down. Apparently fed-up with the negative criticism his poem was receiving, Spenser made the final stanzas of his poem not the triumphant victory you might expect, but essentially a defeat in which the vindictive and malicious gossip embodied by the Blatant Beast spreads all over the world and is impossible to prevent.
Nope, not the most uplifting idea.
But the less-than-obviously-heroic tone of the final moments of the poem are already anticipated earlier in Book 6 when Calidore takes a little time off from knighthood to hang with some shepherds and reevaluate his knightly ways. Knighthood as the primary, or only, way of achieving a good life is thus called into question before we reach the ending of the poem, preparing us for the reality that even a heroic knight like Calidore can't prevent all bad things from existing in the world.
We can think of the pessimism of the end of the poem as also preparing us as readers for re-entering our present day world in which knights, distressed damsels, and well-meaning lions just don't exist. As a result, we need to remove ourselves from the fantasy that when bad things happen, there's always a noble knight to save the day. Sobering? Sure. But also a fitting end to a poem that has used its fantastic elements to offer genuine truths about the world we live in.
While Faerie Land might sound like somewhere out of your favorite childhood picture book, Spenser's allegorical twist on a classic imaginary world makes the land of Faerie much more mysterious and elusive than your average fantasy story. Unlike the worlds of say, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, which have intricate, complex, and deeply embedded invented histories, territories, and communities, Faerie Land is a much hazier, less fleshed-out imaginary space. Part of the reason for this is Spenser's allegorical method, which can make all the places in Faerie seem to be either secondary to allegorical action or extensions of a character's allegorical function. For example, the cave of Mammon is an extension of his role as the embodiment of greed, and seems to only really be a place as long as he is active. In other words, the setting can sometimes feel incidental to the action itself.
What's also tricky about getting a handle on Faerie Land is the difficulty in imagining it as an actual geographical and physical place. We never hear about where different landmarks or castles are in relation to one another and between every book, the geography of Faerie seems to drastically alter such that no knight ever seems to come across the same castle, ocean, or island as another knight in a different book.
Faerie at once seems massive, since there are an endless number of castles, kings, and giants but also feels almost claustrophobically small, since within each book, characters seems to run into one other with amazing consistency. The only place that is constant in Faerie Land is the court of the Faerie Queene, a place we only hear about and never visit, so it still remains shrouded in mystery.
While Faerie's haziness may be frustrating to us who are used to encountering detailed fantastic worlds, Spenser is up to something a little bit different in constructing his imaginary world. Instead of entirely creating an alternate universe with laws, political groups, and creatures unique to it, Spenser wants to create an imaginary space that can stand in for a large number of other places.
Sometimes he needs it to be both a representation of Britain and somewhere near it (since Arthur, we learn, is from Britain), sometimes all of Europe, sometimes somewhere totally unrealistic like the Classical underworld. If Faerie had too many of its own very specific traits, Spenser wouldn't be able to fluidly evoke this multitude of places.
You might be skeptical that a poem about knights in shining armor and damsels in distress could really be that tricky, but Spenser's The Faerie Queene is up to a whole lot more than just some good old story-telling. Spenser intentionally wrote The Faerie Queene in archaic, out-of-date language, meaning that reading Spenser was strange even for someone from his own period.
Combine that with the fact that every canto is divided into sonnet forms of his own invention—and sonnets are not a poetic form typically associated with narrative story-telling—and you've got an amazingly daring and beautiful poem, but one that is 100% challenging. If you're familiar with other chivalric romances or long mythological stories, you won't be surprised to also learn that Spenser packs his narrative with lots and lots (and lots) of characters, many of whom are hard to keep straight and some of whom Spenser even randomly renames or gives multiple names to (gee thanks, Spenser!).
And for the final touch of challenge, The Faerie Queene is also written allegorically (check out Images, Symbols, and Allegory for more) so it can be unclear whether we're supposed to understand things as actually happening, representing something entirely different that's happening, or a little bit of both. This amazing poem is absolutely worth the effort, but just don't crack it open expecting your next beach read—crack it open expecting to have your mind cracked open.
Archaic, which is just a fancy word for "old-fashioned," is the number one stylistic quality of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Love it, hate it, or find it perplexing, Spenser was clearly up to something when he went seriously out of his way—and out of his own linguistic comfort zone—to write in a style that he thought sounded like the ye olde middle ages. (Spenser's archaic style is why it's a great idea to have an edition of The Faerie Queene with lots of footnotes.)
While there's no one answer for why Spenser would write this way—it's not like the Medieval chivalric romances he was imitating wrote in any style other than what was most current for them—it's clearly connected to Spenser's interest in constructing a pre-history of Britain and in transporting his reader's to another, older and remote world.
To put it in perspective, Spenser was writing stuff like:
Euen the famous Britomart it was,/ Whom straunge aduenture did from Britaine fet,/ To seeke her louer (loue farre sought alas,)/ Whose image she had seene in Venus looking glas. (III.i.8)
At roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing stuff like:
No question about it: Spenser was writing in a ye olde-timey way by Shakespeare's standards.
Unsatisfied with just constructing the alternate, imaginary world of Faerie Land, Spenser wanted the unfamiliarity of the poem to be reflected in the very language itself, a constant reminder to the reader that no, you're not in Kansas anymore.
You read that right, this is a section under Allegory that is also about allegory. That's because Allegory is itself such a crucial and defining tool for Spenser and his poem. Allegory, similar to personification, is the practice of imagining characters and places as direct embodiments of a virtue, value, idea, concept, etc. For this reason, a lot of the important Images, Allegories and Symbols in The Faerie Queene you'll find in the section on Characters, because so many of the symbolic qualities of the poem are articulated through its super-allegorical characters. So hint: check out the section on Characters for a wealth of info.
So, while all literature involves endowing characters with larger thematic oomph, or crafting spaces that suggest more than just the space itself, allegory takes this to a whole new level, and is often, though not always, really obvious about it. So while Hamlet, for example, might be said to embody inaction or self-doubt, those are qualities we see him manifest as part of a larger collection of character traits as opposed to totally and completely defining his character.
In Spenser, by contrast, the majority of characters are what they embody and, often what they are called. So Error, is, pretty much, just the concept of Error—this monster doesn't develop, take on new traits, or become particularly nuanced at any point.
However, just to make things a little more interesting, Spenser doesn't always make what his characters embody as clear as "Error." His major characters in particular tend to be more complex and multifaceted than the minor ones, so that while we know Britomart is a figure deeply associated with both chastity and Britain, she does more in the poem than just be chaste—she figures out what chastity means, makes mistakes, and sometimes has adventures that don't clearly relate to her status as chastity at all.
So while The Faerie Queene is absolutely an allegory, it's a complicated allegory. Indeed, some people have read the poem as—get ready for it—an allegory of allegory itself. That "ka-pow" sound you just heard was your mind being blown, Shmoopers.
The Faerie Queene is a poem that is thinking through the very nature of allegorical meaning, literary meaning, and the power of representation. Chew on that.
Chivalry, which comes from the French word for "horse," is essentially a code that emerged in the Medieval world that governed the behavior of knights toward not only other knights, but women, rulers, and everyday folks.
And while chivalry was certainly a concept with some currency in the real Medieval world, chivalry most flourished in the imagination of poets and writers who used it as a template to envision a quasi-historical, quasi-invented medieval world where knights wandered from kingdom to kingdom helping those in need, destroying those who did wrong, and falling madly, and unwaveringly, in love with deserving ladies.
Chivalry is an ideal that continues to inspire fiction and non-fiction today, from the perpetual popularity of Disney princes and princesses to contemporary romantic comedies. To call it unrealistic is a massive, massive understatement.
So while Spenser certainly isn't in a minority for finding this concept creatively generative, it's worth examining why he turned to this particular code since it had essentially died out by his own time, the Renaissance. Knights had been replaced with courtiers, who more frequently dueled with their wit and political savvy than they did with actual swords. We certainly see evidence in the poem that Spenser was partly trying to critique the courtly world that had largely replaced the chivalric one, and Spenser may be engaged in a bit of nostalgia for a code of behavior that had now vanished… if it ever actually existed.
Spenser is also quite directly exploring the courtly realities of his own time through this out-of-date theme. We can also see a connection between the old values of chivalry and the new values of the court. In particular, the courteous, but respectful, courtship of women remained at the center of both behavioral codes, and was a particularly delicate issue since England was at this time ruled by a woman, Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Lizzy organized her court around the principle that her trusted and loyal advisors behaved towards her as if they were courting her, and got super-furious if she discovered that any of them had other affections. Whoa. Simmer down, Elizabeth.
We can also see Spenser critiquing chivalric ideals, since so many of the knights we come across in the poem don't exhibit chivalric codes of conduct at all: they injure the helpless, act selfishly, and are obsessed with power. Clearly, the idea of chivalry isn't enough to ensure that people behave morally to one another. What's needed? Christian morality, another crucial code of behavioral conduct we see explored and represented throughout the poem.
An important part of the narrative structure of The Faerie Queene is the prominence of characters that find themselves doubled, mirrored, or copied. Weird, we know, but also kind of interesting. Of course, on the largest level, pairing is also something that guides the structure of the text, since almost every knight is paired with a lady, some paired with a guide, and we encounter many sibling groups etc.
But, it's worth thinking a little more closely about moments of very explicit copying, such as the creation of the false Una by Archimago in Book 1 and the creation of the false Florimell by the witch in Book 3. The false Florimell in particular becomes a pretty major character, attaching herself to various knights and completely confusing everyone. So, what's the deal with this double trouble?
Spenser is very interested in the power of appearances and images, and is particularly concerned about how we are able to make judgment calls based on what we see. The doubles of these women (who are always themselves very innocent and chaste) are extremely forward and flirtatious. They act out this problem of how we make judgment calls and force characters who come across them to make a decision. Spenser doesn't seem particularly optimistic about our ability to identity the real thing since both the false Una and the false Florimell deceive pretty much everyone.
We can also think about the creation of these doubles as a moment where Spenser is thinking about his own work as poet, a task that in the Renaissance was understood to be guided by a process of imitation—basing your work of art on the work of art of another or something in the natural world. Imitation, for Renaissance artists, was the highest form of flattery.
There was a certain amount of anxiety expressed at the time about this practice of imitation and people worried that it was just a glorified version of deception. Spenser seems to be thinking that through here, and differentiating these false copies from his own art. Both the false Una and the false Florimell are produced out of a malicious desire to deceive, different from Spenser's desire to educate with The Faerie Queene. But it might not be as simple as that—what do you think?
Home of the bewitching and alluring witch Acrasia, the Bower of Bliss is one of the most memorable and strange places in the whole of The Faerie Queene. Coming at the end of Book 2, The Book of Temperance, the Bower of Bliss represents the ultimate challenge to our hero of temperance, Guyon, by embodying everything temperance is not. What happens in the Bower of Bliss stays in the Bower of Bliss.
The Bower is full or erotic, gustatory (taste-related), and visual temptations that invite excess rather than moderation, consumption rather than abstinence. In its seeming natural beauty—but just seeming, never real—the bower evokes ideas of the Earthly paradise of Eden, however this too is part of its temptation, since it's a false and perverse version of Eden. Just like Vegas is a false and perverse version of Venice, Paris, New York, and Luxor.
However, what makes the Bower of Bliss such a fascinating moment poetically is the beauty of Spenser's writing here and its ability to lure the reader into its delights along with Guyon. Critics have often wondered why Spenser so beautifully described a place that we are meant to understand as false, and there's no easy answer.
One issue that is clearly at play in the Bower is the problem of appearances and artifice, since the Bower does indeed seem too beautiful, but beautiful in an artificial way. However, how exactly we should distinguish between natural beauty and artificial beauty is never explained, and Guyon's violent destruction of the place suggests that spending too much time contemplating the mysteries of the Bower of Bliss might be part of the problem itself.
The House of Busirane, like Busirane himself, is super duper creepy. You don't want this guy to be your interior decorator, that's for sure. Lining his walls with tapestries of famous raped women, the house of Busirane has one of the most extended ekphrasis (just a fancy word for a lengthy and detailed description of an object or work of art) in the whole Faerie Queene.
Considering how unpleasant these tapestries are, it's worth asking why Spenser chooses to linger on them so long. Part of the answer is that his protagonist, Britomart, lingers on them long, becoming so weirdly entranced by their images that she almost forgets to get going and save Amoret. Busirane's house is filled with disturbing images but the worst has to be the horrible theatrical performance Britomart watches next that features the poor Amoret being horribly tortured. Busirane's house is yet another place where Spenser explores his problematic relationship to images and both expresses their power while not presenting that power as particularly positive.
Isis is a pagan god originally from ancient Egyptian mythology, so the presence of her temple in the middle of a Christian, English poem might seem odd. What might seem even more odd is that the Temple of Isis appears to be a kind of stand-in for a Church and it is a place that does not embody the threat of heathen belief, but rather offers solace and spiritual clarity to Britomart.
In this sense, we can understand the Temple of Isis as a representation of the origins of Christianity, the practice of spiritual truths before Christianity existed. Isis was a goddess associated with both marriage and childbirth, so she's an appropriate vehicle for Britomart's vision of her own future marriage and line of descendants.
Remaining within the tradition of narrating epic poetry, Spenser writes The Faerie Queene with a (mostly) grand and elevated third person omniscient narrator who is clearly meant to evoke the author himself.
When adventures, great deeds, and solemn vows are being described, the authority and distance of a third person narrator can effectively communicate the solemnity of this subject matter. Since The Faerie Queene is also interested in providing the reader with moral lessons and advice, a third person narrator is a particularly effective way to make absolutely sure the reader is getting the point.
The narrator tends to interject himself in the opening few stanzas of every canto usually to offer a little moral recap of the canto previously and a little preview of the canto to come. In these recaps, the narrator is pretty explicit about the moral message he wants the reader to learn, sometimes even coming across a bit heavy-handed.
It's important that the reader has access to the thoughts, motives, and feelings of all the characters all the time so that we avoid being misled or deceived along with the characters in the poem and have access to enough information to make a judgment call ourselves. No pressure, of course. Having bad judgment in Faerie just means that, oh, you might be tortured, killed, or have your heart cut out by a lovesick demon.
Called on by the Faerie Queene to assist Una and her parents with their dragon problem, Redcrosse begins his quest with great anticipation for its heroic potential. Although the dragon's threat is present from the beginning, Redcrosse is a little bit too eager to face an enemy ASAP and prove his worth, which leads him into the cave of the monster, Error (which, as you maybe have guessed, was an error).
The fight with Error represents Redcrosse's first test of his knighthood and it anticipates the climactic encounter with the Dragon at the end of the book. However, since Redcrosse exists in an allegorical universe, we understand all the monsters and villains he faces as representations of monsters and villains that exist inside himself. In this way, while the Dragon is the Big Baddie of Book 1, Redcrosse's truest enemy is himself… which he constantly faces, fights, and must master and overcome.
Believing that Una has made some shocking sexual moves on him during the night at Archimago's, Redcrosse leaves her behind and finds himself increasingly frustrated and isolated from his true past and true quest. He gets mixed up with the dishonest Duessa, who leads him astray from his quest to both a house of sin with Lucifera (scandal!) and, eventually, prison. This whole knight thing doesn't seem to be all it's cracked up to be…
Since the true enemy to Redcrosse in Book I is Redcrosse himself, it's in the literally nightmarish pit of Despair that Redcrosse hits his lowest point and almost commits suicide. All too easily convinced by the discouraging and hopeless words of the monster Despair, Redcrosse prepares to kill himself, stopping only because Una rushes in to intervene. Since Redcrosse is the knight of holiness, and thus supposed to be in touch with Christian moral belief, committing suicide is a big no-no—it represents a complete rejection of God and his capacity for forgiveness.
The final battle with Dragon demonstrates both Redcrosse's honed fighting skills and his newly gained spiritual insight. A monster like the dragon (and like all the climactic villains in The Faerie Queene), requires more than just brawn to be overcome. Vanquishing these kinds of monsters require wisdom and moral insight as well. Cementing his right to be a hero and knight, Redcrosse kills the dragon after two near-death incidents and claims the prize of Una, although their marriage must wait until he fulfills all his duties as knight.
Redcrosse is a new knight and he's ready to show the world what he's made of. Help this beautiful maiden slay a dragon that's tormenting her parents? He's the man for the job! Una and Redcrosse head out, Una rather somber and sad but Redcrosse itching to prove his knightly potential.
After a near-death experience at the hands of the monster Error and a (mistaken) belief that his companion Una is less than honorable, Redcrosse starts to appreciate that this whole awesome-knight thing can be pretty rough going. And since he has now unwisely ditched Una for the company of the deceitful Duessa, Redcrosse definitely still has more to learn about the ways of the world.
Poor Redcrosse. Instead of exhibiting his knightly-skillz to handily defeat the giant Orgoglio like he was supposed to, Redcrosse was double-crossed by Duessa, defeated by the giant, and thrown into a terrible prison. Luckily Arthur came along to save him, but Redcrosse is so shaken up that he wanders into the cave of Despair and almost kills himself. Something has got to change for this guy.
After receiving spiritual instruction and physical renewal at the House of Holiness, Redcrosse is ready to face the dragon and be victorious. It's no easy feat. He almost dies twice, but this time he doesn't only trust in his own strength, but knows he has to rely on the aid of others: Una and the intervention of God. Recognizing both his abilities and his limitations? Now that's truly heroic.
Even though the Dragon is defeated and Redcrosse and Una are engaged, things end a bit uneasily for Redcrosse. He's first accused of having another fiancée by the wicked Archimago, and, once he proves his innocence, he's compelled to go out again on unknown quests to fulfill his duty to the Faerie Queene. The life of a knight really isn't easy.
Redcrosse and Una head out on adventures pretty optimistically, but things immediately start going wrong when monsters attack and characters they meet betray them.
First thrown in prison and then almost convinced to commit suicide, Redcrosse finds himself in a time of serious spiritual crisis that only Una and her wisdom are able to cure.
Renewed and refreshed, Redcrosse defeats the dragon and wins the lady, although not without a few bumps and Redcrosse's tearful departure out on (you got it) another mission. Nothing comes easy in this knight's story.