Still in his twenties and fresh from the success of the publication of his The Shepheard’s Calendar, Edmund Spenser began writing what was to become his most famous work, The Faerie Queene. The work was to consist of a series of twelve books woven around the life of the legendary young Prince Arthur as imagined by Spenser. It is thought that he intended to write a second series of twelve books centred on the life of Arthur as king. Unfortunately, Spenser only lived to finish part of The Faerie Queene; but what he did complete still stands as one of the most significant accomplishments in all of English literature.
Spenser modelled himself in many ways on ancient authors like Homer and Livy, but he also wanted to create a new type of work which was not a narrative poem like The Iliad or The Aeneid. He wanted his epic poem to act as a kind of founding myth for England in which his readers could identify with their heroes. Unusual for the times, The Faerie Queene contained many female protagonists, often as powerful as their male counterparts. Although he included many action sequences to attract and maintain the interest of his readers, Spenser’s stated objective was to provide readers with models of behaviour that reflected his religious and chivalric values.
Edmund Spenser published the first three books in and the second three books in . Because of the unusual length of the work, the Modern Language Edition of the The Faerie Queene has divided the work into three volumes: Volume 1 contains Books One and Two; Volume 2 contains Books Three and Four; Volume 3 contains Books Five and Six as well as several cantos and related materials gathered in what we call Book Seven. Each of the six books is divided into twelve cantos (songs), and each canto consists of approximately fifty stanzas. Spenser devised a nine-line stanza especially for this work.
Each book has its own allegorical theme, loosely drawn from Aristotle, and has its own cast of characters; the characters are also allegorical in nature. Each of the six books has its own champion, a knight associated with a particular virtue who is on a quest to exemplify this virtue. Prince Arthur makes an appearance around the middle of each book in order to effect some kind of rescue or redemption; Gloriana, on the other hand, while frequently addressed and referred to, does not make an appearance anywhere in the narrative. The expression used for the title of the Modern Language Edition, Models of Virtue, reflects the intention that Spenser had for his work.
The imagery in the work is dreamlike and is presented on a vast scale. The landscape is often empty, eerie, foreboding and twisted, as in a surrealist painting. There is an inherent quietness about almost every scene. The characters often appear alone in this surreal setting, heightening the sense of drama between opposing spiritual forces.
The Modern Language Edition of The Faerie Queene will appeal to readers who have difficulties with early modern English but who still want to gain a strong grasp of the contents, especially on first reading. Readers will note that the Modern Language Edition uses alternative names for many of the characters in the poem with the intention of making them more meaningful as well as more adaptable to the modern versification. When a major new character appears whose name has been altered in this way, the headnotes give both the revised name and the name that Spenser assigned to him, her or it; minor characters are not annotated in this way.
Chastity is the theme of Book Three, and its principal character is Dame Britomart. We find her in the course of her quest in the opening canto, disguised as a male knight in full armour, having to overcome the hostilities of a series of men; she must then withstand the amatory advances of a lady. Britomart is on a quest to find a knight called Artegall, whom she has never met but whom she saw in her father's magic mirror as a young girl; Britomart and her nurse visit the maker of the magic mirror, Merlin, from whom they learn the special destiny that the future holds for her and Artegall.
Britomart defeats a number of different opponents in the course of her quest, giving rise to the emergence of various other chaste female characters, including Florimell, Belphoebe and her twin-sister Amoret, as well as the goddesses Venus and Diana. Britomart and the other chaste women encounter a variety of unchaste female characters as well, both savoury and unsavoury. In a story-within-the story, Florimell is on a quest to find her own lover, Marinell.
Book Three ends with Britomart’s exploration of the empty palace of Cupid from which she rescues Amoret, whose heart has been ripped out of her breast by Cupid’s minions.
The ending of Book Three in the edition is slightly different from that given in the edition. Both endings are given in this website and in the modern language edition.
The theme of Book Four is Friendship, embodied by the knights Cambell and Triamond. Cambell is a powerful fighter who becomes entangled in a tournament battle with an opponent; an unexpected intervention by his opponent’s sister, turns them into friends. This same opponent later comes to Cambell’s rescue.
Strong bonds of friendship also develop between female characters such as Britomart and Amoret. Britomart devotes herself to rescuing Amoret after Amoret is abducted once again.
Despite the many romantic adventures and successful outcomes described in Book Four, Spenser suggests that friendship is a virtue of a higher order than romantic love. However, friendship between the genders—other than between brothers and sisters—is problematic; only Prince Arthur appears able to restrain his romantic impulses.
Spenser was an admitted admirer of the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and names him in Canto 2.32 as one of his major influences. Spenser uses two of Chaucer’s characters, Cambell and Canacee, borrowing them from The Squire’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales and placing them in his own Book Four. The brass horse that appears in The Squire’s Tale no doubt also inspired Spenser when he devised the robot-like character of Talus in Book Five. The Squire’s Tale as printed in as well as our modern language version based on this somewhat amended Middle English text may be accessed in the resources below. It is quite likely that Spenser owned a copy of the printed book and was familiar with at least one of William Caxton’s exquisite printings made in the fifteenth century.
The Faerie Queene as published in is the main source text for this web page. You may link to the contents of Volume Two of the text below:
You may purchase an ebook (epub or mobi) of Volume Two of the version in the original wording at a nominal cost of US $1.99 by clicking on the following button:
Child, Francis J. (ed.), The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, .
Church, Ralph (ed.), The Faerie Queene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, .
Grosart, Alexander Balloch (ed.), The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser, London: The Spenser Society, .
Morris, Richard (ed.), Complete Works of Edmund Spenser, London: Macmillan and Company, .
Smith, James Cruickshank (ed.), Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, .
Todd, John Henry (ed.), The Works of Edmund Spenser, London: George Routledge and Sons, .
Upton, John (ed.), Spenser’s Faerie Queene, London: J. and R. Tonson, .
Freeman, Rosemary, The Faerie Queene: A Companion for Readers, London: Chatto & Windus, .
Hamilton, A.C. (ed.), Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, New York: Longman, .
Heale, Elizabeth, The Faerie Queene: A Reader's Guide, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .
Stephens, Dorothy (ed.), Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, Books Three and Four, Indianapolis: Hackett, .