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.
The theme of Book One is Holiness, which Redcross, the principal character of Book One, is on a quest to pursue. Redcross represents the spirit of England and its patron saint, St. George. Redcross’s dented armour and shield have large red crosses painted on them. He is beset by evil spirits in many different guises along the way; he is also supported by guardian spirits that try to help him realize his quest.
Over the twelve cantos in Book One, Redcross proceeds through a complex labyrinth of challenges, both within and outside of himself, which persistence helps him to overcome; these challenges include pride, lust, despair and deceit.
Book One culminates in Redcross’s battle with an enormous dragon, which he defeats on the third day of the battle. The defeat of the dragon is the cause of much joy and celebration in the land which the dragon has kept enslaved until then.
The theme of Book Two is Moderation and harmony or, as Spenser calls it, Temperance. On his quest to redress certain wrongs, the principal character, Sir Guyon, learns to deal with the corrosion and illusion of well-being brought by extreme luxury, wealth and pleasure. He learns the value of hard work and the cost of taking rash decisions.
Book Two ends with Sir Guyon travelling to the Wandering Islands and the outwardly beautiful home of an evil enchantress, which Sir Guyon feels compelled to destroy and which results in the rescue of many young men whom she had seduced and taken prisoner.
Prince Arthur makes an extended appearance in Book Two, permitting Spenser to create a mythical genealogy of Arthur going back to ancient Troy. Such a genealogy would have been of interest to the Tudor royal family, who prided themselves on their Welsh roots and considered Arthur as one of their ancestors.
The Faerie Queene as published in is the main source text for this web page. You may link to the contents of Volume One of the text below:
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