Study Guide

The Faerie Queene Themes

By Edmund Spenser

  • Love

    If there's one thing that unites this otherwise massive, unwieldy poem it's love. Whether good or bad, female or male, knight or monster… chances are that love, romance, or sexual desire plays an important role in every character's actions and identity. Of course, distinguishing between those three categories is an important part of why love is so central to The Faerie Queene.

    Spenser really wants us to think about how we distinguish between true, life-long love and infatuation and inconsequential little crushes. Almost every happily ended storyline in the poem ends with an engagement. In the world of The Faerie Queen, all you need is love.

    Questions About Love

    1. Only a handful of characters in The Faerie Queene are not actually motivated by love at some point. Identify a few of these characters and think about why they might not be involved with this important concept.
    2. Can you think of any connections between the concept of love and being a knight? Why might the two go together? Are there ways in which they seem incompatible?
    3. Are love and happiness synonymous in The Faerie Queene? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Spenser's The Faerie Queene isn't actually about real love at all. We never see characters form complex emotional relationships—they just see each other and decide to be in love.

    You want to stay away from love in The Faerie Queene—it's a one way ticket to abandonment, sorrow, and death.

  • Religion

    Spenser's The Faerie Queene was written at a time when religious affiliation was seriously important. England had recently broken from the Catholic Church and formed its own Protestant Church. So religion in The Faerie Queene is often not just an exploration of good living and ethical decision-making (although there's tons o' that, too), but specifically defends Protestant principles over Catholic ones.

    This is why there is so much talk of true religious faith—Protestantism was perceived to be under threat. Religion informs almost every aspect of The Faerie Queene, from the motivations of the main characters to the representation of villains… many villains embody some stereotype of other religions.

    Whoa. We totally thought The Faerie Queene was just a delicious fairy tale/Greek Myth smoothie.

    Questions About Religion

    1. If Spenser is clearly involved in exploring Protestant, Christian faith, why are there so many references to Greek and Roman Mythology? What might these references be doing for Spenser and why would he include them in his poem?
    2. Often, Spenser's references to religion aren't overt. While Redcrosse is clearly tied to religion through his name and his role in the book of holiness, how might we see other main figures in the Faerie Queene as embodying religious values, issues, or ideals?
    3. Why are there so few overt depictions of Christianity in the poem? Why are there no priests, church services, or anything else? Does this call into question Spenser's actual investment in religion? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The entanglement of religion and politics depicted in the poem (and that existed in Spenser's historical reality outside the poem) makes its engagement with "true" religion very suspect; it's more about politics in the end.

    How can Spenser be genuinely interested in religion and faith when he writes a poem with so much violence? Violence is a sin, right?

  • Politics

    The Faerie Queene is basically House of Cards, plus monsters. Well, sort of. Although we spend most of our time in the poem following the deeds of knights and ladies without political responsibility, politics is always lurking in The Faerie Queene. Many of the knights we meet, like Britomart and Arthur, are destined to be involved in the political world later in their lives.

    Others are responsible for defending the political power of various monarchs, like the Faerie Queene or Mercilla, and are part of a political structure even if they may not always seem to realize that. This is a poem where the political—sometimes good, sometimes problematic, but always unavoidable—plays a major role.

    Questions About Politics

    1. How many different forms of government do we encounter in the poem (monarchies, tyrannies, democracies, etc.)? Why do we encounter the forms that we do?
    2. What seems to be the relationship between women and political power in the poem?
    3. Are romance and politics connected in this poem? If so, how? If not, why?

    Chew on This

    The Faerie Queene is set an imaginary place with imaginary rulers and queens—there's no way it can be actually referring to politics in the real world.

    Because The Faerie Queene depicts outdated social and governmental structures, it's really thinking about a political world of the past, not about a political world in Spenser's present.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Spenser famously wrote that his intention with The Faerie Queene was "to fashion a gentleman." (Hamilton, 714). An important part of a gentleman's educational process (according to Spenser) is developing a strong, Christian moral compass. And morality and ethics totally shapes almost every single moment in this poem.

    Whether through encounters with characters who very explicitly embody moral virtues (such as Prudence) or more complicated characters who find themselves in challenging moral quandaries (like, ahem, Redcrosse with Duessa), Spenser wanted to illustrate moral dilemmas to serve as a learning experience for both his characters and his readers. Basically, Spenser was a 16th-century Dear Prudence.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Because The Faerie Queene is an allegory, characters and moral actions can seem very black-and-white. Do you think this is fair? Why or why not?
    2. What is the relationship between violence and morality in the poem? Are the two irreconcilable? Or does Spenser see a place for violence in a moral world?
    3. If you could summarize Spenser's idea of a moral life, how would you? Does the poem make it easy to do this? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Since Spenser uses allegory to depict moral and ethical problems, it's hard to translate those problems into the real world outside the poem… making Spenser's poem hard to apply to actual moral conundrums.

    Spenser's Faerie Queene is able to directly and clearly address moral issues, since it doesn't worry about characters' personalities or psychological states.

  • Coming of Age

    Even though the The Faerie Queene doesn't offer us a narrative of one single character's development in the way most coming-of-age stories do (like in Harry Potter), every main knight we meet is developing, learning, and growing in very important ways. In fact, we could say that the main characters in The Faerie Queene are learning how to be the virtues they embody as opposed to embodying those virtues automatically from the get-go.

    That's why Redcrosse falters from Holiness at first by taking up with Duessa and Guyon falters from temperance when he leaves behind the Palmer. So clearly Spenser thinks that youth is a state in which we learn and grow. We bet Spenser would have loved Stand By Me.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What kinds of lessons do the knights in the poem generally have to learn? What kinds of things happen to them when they don't make the right choice?
    2. Do male and female characters seem to equally be depicted as learning and developing? Why or why not?
    3. What about villainous characters? Do they seem to grow and develop or do they seem to remain generally the same?
    4. Could you pick one character from The Faerie Queene who seems to change the most? Who, why, and how?

    Chew on This

    Coming-of-age is a process that involves deep emotional and psychological developments that Spenser's allegorical mode doesn't depict at all, making this poem a pretty boring story about growing up.

    Too many random things happen to characters in the poem to make it a plausible depiction of coming-of-age. Characters just don't seem to have enough control over their world.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Justice is the explicit theme of Book V of the The Faerie Queene, but it's a topic that is significant throughout the poem. Judgment in particular is constantly used (and abused!) when characters face challenging, confusing, and potentially dangerous situations.

    In fact, there is no virtue embodied by the other characters—Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, or Courtesy—that doesn't require a sense of justice and good judgment in order to be carried out well. Since we also know that appearances can be deceiving in The Faerie Queene, judgment is also an essential tool to differentiate between the good and the bad, and the true and the false.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How can we reconcile justice and violence in the poem, especially in Book V? How does Spenser seem to reconcile them? Does it seem plausible?
    2. What's the relationship between judgment and love in the poem? Does love require judgment, or is does it also seem to transcend it at times?
    3. Do any of the villains we meet in the poem seem to have a sense of justice or judgment? Or are these qualities that are completely contrary to being a bad guy?

    Chew on This

    Justice is hard to totally understand in The Faerie Queene since so many bad things seem to happen to characters that don't deserve bad things at all.

    It's hard to be clear on the representation of justice in the land of Faerie since there doesn't seem to be anything resembling a judicial system. Can there really be justice without that institution?

  • Appearances

    Appearances are tricky in The Faerie Queene. There are a bunch of artificial objects (and even artificial people, like the False Florimell) floating around. This shows us that becoming overly attached to what you see, instead of what you know or believe, can often lead down a path that is no kind of good.

    But just to keep us on our toes, Spenser throws in some instances where appearances aren't deceiving. The magic mirror of Merlin, for example, that shows Britomart the face of her destined love, Arthegall. Appearances are tricky in this book… because they aren't always tricky.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Other than the episode of the mirror of Merlin, can you think of other examples of moments that connect romance and appearances? Are these moments generally good or generally bad?
    2. Do appearances seem to be a problem more associated with women, with men, or are they equally between both?
    3. Make a list of all the places in the poem where appearances seem to be a particularly important issue. What do these places have in common, if anything?

    Chew on This

    In Spenser, you pretty much are what you look like. Appearances are only deceptive if you don't know how to judge them properly.

    Appearances are such a changing and unstable aspect of The Faerie Queene that there's really no way to offer a unified account of them in the poem as a whole.

  • Loyalty

    We can think of loyalty as the glue that keeps this unwieldy and sometimes disjointed poem together. Loyalty is what brings all of our protagonist knights together (eventually) and what allows them to work together and help each other out.

    Loyalty is a particularly important concept in the universe of The Faerie Queene because it doesn't only govern relationships between lovers, or between knights who already know each other. It also governs the bond formed between knights who have just met and don't know each other at all. We can usually immediately figure out if a knight is a "good guy" because he immediately assumes a knightly loyalty toward all well-intentioned knights.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Is loyalty only a quality associated with good knights or do bad knights also seem to have loyalty? Give examples to support your answer.
    2. What, if anything, is the difference between friendship and loyalty? What about love and loyalty?
    3. Do we see loyalty articulated differently depending on the context (for example, in fighting, romance, and politics)? Or, does loyalty seem to be a universal language that transcends particular situations?

    Chew on This

    Because knights seem to so easily vow loyalty to one another (even if they barely know one another), loyalty doesn't actually seem like such a special thing. It's been reduced to something almost routine.

    If loyalty is the glue that keeps the knights in the poem together, it's not doing a very good job! Knights still find themselves abandoned, helpless, imprisoned, and excluded despite this whole system of loyalty.