Study Guide

Arthur in The Faerie Queene

By Edmund Spenser

Arthur

If we could pick one character as The Faerie Queene's all around hero, we'd have to go with Arthur. Not only does this guy make a guest appearance in every book, but he also embodies almost all the knightly virtues that Spenser is interested in exploring. In fact, in Spenser's introductory letter to The Faerie Queene he singles out Arthur as his numero uno knight, saying "I chose the historye of king Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person" (Hamilton, 715).

So yeah, Arthur's kind of a big deal. But as you probably know, Arthur already comes with some baggage. Unlike all the other major figures Spenser creates, Arthur has a long, long tradition of his own in legends of English history that date all way back to the Middle Ages: Arthur would have been famous to English readers way before Spenser's poem. So while Arthur is definitely a major figure of The Faerie Queene, he's also something of an anomaly: he's not associated with any single book or virtue, he has an extremely abstract love for the Faerie Queene that we never actually see enacted, and he weaves almost randomly in and out of narratives, being heroic and then moving on.

For this reason, even though Arthur is a central figure, he's not necessarily the most well-developed. We rarely see Arthur just doing his own thing, and we almost always learn about him through his interactions with other characters.

But these interactions are very important, and demonstrate Arthur's function in the poem as both a fighter and a peace-maker. That's right, Arthur is both an awesome, powerful knight and a judicious, thoughtful leader and arbitrator. It's the latter role that most readers, today and in Spenser's time, would have been most familiar with. Since he's traditionally depicted as king, governing wisely his knights of the round table, it's more unusual for Arthur to be depicted as so directly involved in the nitty-gritty actions.

So Spenser cleverly depicts Arthur pre-kingship and thus gives us a pretty great depiction of Arthur the action hero. But just because Spenser's Arthur spends some serious time on the battlefield, doesn't mean he doesn't also have the leadership qualities for which he is most famous. He's got those too. Throughout The Faerie Queene we see Arthur intervening in conflicts not simply to offer his brawn, but also to offer peaceful negotiation. It usually doesn't go so well, but hey: he tries.

In this sense, Arthur's character represents a rare combination of being both a fighter and a leader, showing that the ability to physically defend oneself and to intellectually control oneself are united, not oppositional, qualities.