Study Guide

The Faerie Queene Book 1, Canto 1

By Edmund Spenser

Book 1, Canto 1

  • We meet a young and gentle knight riding through a plain. He's wearing armor that has clearly seen action, but he must have just acquired the armor since he himself is inexperienced.
  • He seems like a good-humored kind of guy, definitely ready for some fighting.
  • On the breastplate of his armor, and on his shield, a bloody cross is painted, out of respect and adoration for Jesus and his crucifixion. (Hint: this also tells us this guy is probably the Mr. Redcrosse Knight named in the title.)
  • Redcrosse is a very faithful and loyal knight, devoted to Jesus Christ, but he also seems a bit sad.
  • We learn that he's about to begin an exciting adventure given to him by Queen Gloriana, the queen of Faerie land, but also a reference to Elizabeth I.
  • He really, really wants to impress the queen and keeps hoping something exciting will happen so that he can prove his worth.
  • The quest he's been sent on is to slay a fearsome dragon.
  • Riding next to him, on a white donkey, is a lovely lady, also very white but whose face is hidden under a black veil. She looks deeply sad, and by her side walks a milk-white lamb.
  • The lady is just as virtuous as the lamb, and she's from a formerly great and powerful royal family.
  • But, sadly, that family has been ruined by the terror of one scary dragon, and it's to help her and her family out that Redcrosse has taken up this quest.
  • Pulling up the rear is a dwarf, who's going kind of slowly, which makes sense since the poor guy is in charge of carrying all her stuff.
  • As they walk, it gets very cloudy and suddenly breaks into a terrible storm.
  • The rain falls so severely that they all realize they need to find cover.
  • As luck would have it, a nice shady grove happens to be nearby. They think it might be a good place to rest since it's very, very dark and full of windy paths leading into the forest (hint: this does not actually sound like a good place to rest).
  • In they go, and happily they can hear some birds chirping, who must also be hiding from the storm. The birds certainly are happy about how many wonderful trees there are here: Pine; Cedar; Elm; Poplar; Oak, Laurel, Fir, Willow, Birch, Myrrh, Beech, Ash, Olive, Plantane, Holme, Maple (so, pretty much every tree ever).
  • They wander around this tree-filled area until the storm passes, but, surprise-surprise, they've gotten lost; there are just so many different ways to go, they begin to doubt themselves and become completely confused.
  • Finally, they just choose the one that looks most used and figure that's a good sign.
  • Soon, they get to a cave in the thickest part of the forest and Redcrosse dismounts to investigate.
  • The lady warns him to be careful, reminding them that they have no idea where they are and that danger can lurk anywhere, sometimes emerging without any prior notice. Good warning.
  • Redcrosse says it would be cowardly not to investigate, and besides, he's a good person, and good people prevail even through darkness.
  • Not really, says the lady. In fact, she actually now knows where they are (terrible timing!) and it's such a bad place she would rather have Redcrosse be a bit cowardly than face it.
  • But it's too late! She goes on to explain that they have arrived in "Errours den" and that Errour is a horrible monster. The dwarf recommends they leave immediately. We agree.
  • But Redcrosse doesn't listen and in he goes into the cave and sees the monster: half-serpent, half-woman.
  • Her tail is huge, and full of knots and stingers, and takes up most of the cave. She has thousands of little monster babies, also weirdly shaped, who were feeding off her but after seeing Redcrosse, jump into her mouth.
  • Weird.
  • Errour is not happy to see Redcrosse, and rushes toward him but is momentarily put off by the shine of his armor, since she hates light.
  • Redcrosse takes advantage of this and attacks her, forcing her not to leave, and strikes her shoulder.
  • She's momentarily dazed by the blow, but then becomes even angrier, rushes on top of Redcrosse and wraps him up with her tail.
  • The lady, seeing that things are not going well, urges Redcrosse to strangle the monster before the monster strangles him.
  • Redcrosse manages to free one of his arms and grabs the monster by the throat, which loosens her hold on him, but also causes her to vomit out disgusting poison, that not only smells horrible but is also filled with books, papers, frogs, and toads.
  • This vomit is just like when the Nile River in Egypt inundates, and out of its slush a bunch of weird creatures are born.
  • Brain bite! The Nile is the major river in Egypt and every year it inundates, or overflows, onto its banks providing much-needed irrigation for the soil. While there is certainly diverse wildlife near the Nile, there aren't any strange monsters.
  • The smell of the poisonous vomit is so bad that Redcrosse loses his strength. Seeing this, the monster then unleashes all her little offspring on him. They're annoying, but don't really seem able to hurt him.
  • Redcrosse feels just like a shepherd, who, when the sun sets, gets attacked by gnats. They don't hurt, but they sure are annoying and hard to get rid of.
  • Redcrosse is now really angry, and afraid not so much of dying but of the shame of not winning, so he vows to win and rushes at her with god-like strength... and cuts off her head.
  • Her children freak out when she dies and run over and start drinking her blood, "making her death their life" (I.i.25).
  • Redcrosse is pretty grossed out by this and watches as each little monster, after drinking up his mother, actually bursts apart and dies.
  • Redcrosse thinks they deserve their death and is happy that these gross little enemies killed themselves without any help from him.
  • The lady sees Redcrosse's victory and congratulates him, saying that he has shown himself to be worthy of armor and that he has won a great victory—she hopes many other great victories are in his future.
  • They then find their way out of the forest by sticking to one path and following it to the end, and continue on their journey looking for adventures.
  • After a long time, they come across an old man with bare feet, a long grey beard, and a book hanging from his belt.
  • He seems extremely sad, perhaps repenting for something he's done.
  • Redcrosse greets him and asks if he knows any super cool adventures in the area that he could begin.
  • The old man, pretty reasonably, asks Redcrosse why in the world an old hermit (who doesn't know anything about the world but just sits and repents) would know something like that.
  • However, he can tell them all about an evil man who has done terrible things to the country they're in. Redcrosse responds that he would love to hear about someone like that, since that's the kind of person who knights just live to kill.
  • The old man responds that this evil person lives in a far away wilderness that no living soul goes to.
  • The lady interjects and reminds Redcrosse that he's pretty worn out from his last adventure and that he might want to rest that night before embarking on another fight.
  • The old man chimes in and agrees with the lady, and Redcrosse is convinced. They all spend the night with the old man.
  • The old man lives in a hermitage (a secluded holy place), far away from anyone else, with an adjoining chapel where he frequently prays.
  • Even though the old man's house isn't the most happening spot, they all enjoy resting and hearing the stories the old man tells.
  • Night falls and they all sleep very heavily… maybe too heavily. The old man turns out to be a magician and casts spells on them to give them nightmares. Bummer.
  • He casts spells that call up the wife of the god of the dead, other terrible magicians, and evil spirits from the underworld, one of whom he sends off to carry a message, another to stay with him and help with his evil mischief.
  • The messenger spirit heads straight for Morpheus, god of sleep, who lives deep in the earth.
  • Even though the gates to Morpheus's house are locked, the spirit easily goes in and finds Morpheus. But he's fast asleep, lulled by soft noises from his cave, completely oblivious to the spirit's presence.
  • The spirit tries everything to wake him up, finally mentioning the dreaded name of Hecate, a fearful witch, which at once rouses the sleeping Morpheus.
  • The spirit explains that he has been sent by a magician named Archimago (the old man) and that Archimago wants Morpheus to give Redcrosse, the lady, and the dwarf false dreams.
  • Morpheus agrees and finds a strange dream to give the spirit. The spirit then takes the dream back with him to Archimago.
  • Meanwhile, Archimago has been busy. He's turned the second spirit into a woman who looks exactly like the lady, who we only now find out is named Una.
  • When the spirit returns with the dream, Archimago sends it to Redcrosse and teaches the second spirit to imitate Una perfectly.
  • Redcrosse ends up being cursed with sexually charged dreams of Una, which, once he wakes up, seems to be true since someone who looks like Una (the second spirit in disguise) is lying seductively next to him.
  • At this, he gets very upset, since Redcrosse thought she was a pure and shy virgin… sadly, this was a typical expectation men had of women in Spenser's time.
  • He decides to test her, since she's behaving so out-of-character. She pleads with him, explaining that he can't blame her for loving him, since God has made her do it. And if she can't be with him, she'd rather die.
  • Surely, she says, he must understand that she has trusted herself to him and worries about him.
  • Redcrosse, for some reason, doesn't seem to quite get it, and asks her again why she's bothering him.
  • She bluntly explains (again) that she loves him and it's been keeping her awake all night long.
  • Redcrosse, who has never heard a lie before, is becoming a bit more convinced.
  • He apologizes that he's causes her pain and responds, somewhat noncommittally, that her love is very important to him and reminds her that he's promised to never leave her.
  • The spirit, defeated by Redcrosse's conciliatory response, leaves him alone for the time being.
  • Redcrosse, still uneasy about Una's behavior, finally falls again into a trouble, and sexualized, sleep. But soon his dreams leave him in peace, realizing they aren't working their evil magic.