Thankfully (and I really cannot stress enough my gratitude for the what I am about to point out), we only have to read all of Book I and Cantos 1, 5-6, and 9-12 of Book III. Seriously, I am so grateful for that fact, I can’t even…there are no words…really.
Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is without a doubt an epic poem. It is a long narrative poem dealing with the heroic deeds of several different people, with each book more or less dealing with a specific virtue in relation to a specific knight. This makes the work an allegory as it communicates the message by means of symbolic figures, actions, or symbolic representation – in the most general sense an allegory is an extended metaphor. It was written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I, and therefore found political favor with the Queen and became a success.
It is the first work written in what is now known as Spenserian stanza: each stanza is nine lines long with the first eight being in iambic pentameter and the last being in iambic hexameter (the rhyme scheme of all nine lines is ababbcbcc). I have to say that this formatting really helped me when reading it. Sure, a lot of the language was simply beyond me and I gained a great deal of my understanding of it through context, but the Spenserian stanzas worked better for me than I felt the poem would have if it wasn’t broken up at all (Milton, I am looking in your direction).
As I already mentioned, each of the six books is a celebration of a different virtue through a corresponding character. Now, the poem is unfinished (that’s right, it was actually supposed to be longer), so the following list does not contain all of the virtues Spenser had wished to cover:
Book I: Holiness
Book II: Temperance
Book III: Chastity
Book IV: Friendship
Book V: Justice
Book VI: Courtesy
In a letter Spenser wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh, it is suggested that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, while the Faerie Queen herself represents Glory. Also, the unfinished seventh book may have been meant for the virtue of constancy.
The poem celebrates and memorializes the Tudor dynasty, of which Queen Elizabeth I was a part, and suggests that the Tudor lineage can be traced back to King Arthur. Also, many prominent Elizabethans were at least partially represented throughout the poem, the most notable of which is Queen Elizabeth I herself as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. However, the poem also manages to criticize the Tudors as well. In the sixth book Spenser attempts to deal with the issue of the political policy towards Ireland, and in Book I, scholars and critics believe he modeled the character of Lucifera after Queen Elizabeth I. The name alone should tell you that this is not an entirely favorable representation, but Lucifera in The Faerie Queene is a queen who has the Court of Pride that masks a dungeon full of prisoners. The Faerie Queene is overall representative of Elizabethan England, but even with the odd critique, it is mostly a favorable one.
For the purposes of the exam, we are only being asked to deal with Book I and parts of Book III. Book I tells the story of the Redcrosse Knight (for the virtue of Holiness) who ends up learning of his English ancestry (so convenient) and slays the dragon that has laid waste to Eden. He eventually marries Una, who is the representation of the “true church” (get it? The “true church” eventually marries “holiness,” which is found out to have English lineage…). She defeats Duessa, who is supposed to represent the “false church” or Catholicism and/or Mary, Queen of Scots. There is even an ensuing trial that ends in Duessa’s beheading.
Book III tells the story of Britomart (for the virtue of Chastity), a female knight who is able to defeat every other knight she encounters due to an enchanted spear she carries with her. She goes on her quest because she has fallen in love with Artegal, the champion of Justice. He is the only knight who defeats Britomart, and after seeing her beauty after removing her helmet, he falls in love with her….like you do.
Of course, characters from the Arthurian legends make their appearance, such as Arthur himself and Merlin the magician.
Clearly, Spenser would have had to have a very firm grasp not only of English history, but also of Arthurian legend. And he could not have made a better politically than to link his current Queen with the legendary King Arthur.
The Tudors adopted the prophecy, put forth by medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the Britons will be restored to power by Arthur. Through Owen Tudor, the Tudors had Welsh blood which they believed made them descendants of Arthur and therefore rightful rulers of Briton. So really, for Spenser to not pick Arthur and use Arthurian legends as sources would have been like passing up the free gift with purchase…I mean who does that?
Now I will take this moment to sing the praises of Amazon.com. On September 1st I ordered The Major Works of William Wordsworth (Oxford) along with another book and still had not received it by September 10th even though the tracking information said it had been delivered. I contacted Amazon through their website and they are resending me both books at no charge, no questions asked, with overnight shipping. Now THAT is service. Of course, that means I now have to read Wordsworth…but even before that, I have to get through Milton.