Places: The Faerie Queene

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: books 1-3, 1590; books 4-6, 1596

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: Arthurian Age

Places DiscussedFaery Land

Faery Faerie Queene, TheLand. Mythical country that serves as a setting for the romantic adventures of idealized knights, whose charge is to perfect themselves in their calling and rescue or protect innocent victims from their enemies. An array of forests, caves, and dungeons gives each knight (a different hero in each of the poem’s six books) an opportunity to exhibit his skill and inspire gratitude and love in the person–usually a fair maiden–whom the dragon or monster of the moment is afflicting.

In a sense, Faery Land is also England, but not one visibly recognizable. While Spenser makes many references to English place names, as well as many more pertaining to other parts of the world, he makes no attempt to relate any part of his landscape in any realistic way to actual English sites. One effect of these allusions is to remind readers of England’s historical culture and values.

Spenser’s prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh explains the “Faerie Queene” as signifying the woman who reigned in England through most of Spenser’s life: Queen Elizabeth I. The Prince Arthur of the poem is not precisely the legendary King Arthur but an Arthur who, if Spenser had succeeded in bringing his poem to a conclusion (for he projected twelve, and possibly even twenty-four books), would have sought out Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, then wooed and married her. This union would have underscored the desirability of a marriage for Elizabeth which would presumably stabilize the royal succession and thus foster the integrity of the real English kingdom.

In its basic structure, however, the poem is a complex allegory with a stated purpose: “To fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” In the largest sense, then, its Faerie Land is the human soul. Spenser believed strongly that it was the writer’s goal to paint virtue in an attractive, active, even heroic manner capable of inspiring readers to perfect themselves morally and thus qualify as “gentle” or “noble” persons, whatever their social class. Faery Land might be called the landscape of the soul, and the movement from place to place symbolizes the soul’s labors throughout life. Each book of the poem celebrates a particular virtue. The Red Cross Knight of book 1 seeks to perfect himself in holiness, Sir Guyon of book 2 represents temperance, and so on.

Typically in the course of each book, its hero comes to places that help or challenge him (or her, for Britomart of book 3 is a female knight devoted to chastity) in the quest for moral perfection. Thus the Red Cross Knight is challenged by the House of Pride, Guyon by the Cave of Mammon. Eventually the knight reaches a countering place that fosters virtue: the Red Cross Knight, the House of Holiness; Guyon, the Bower of Bliss (a good place because the Bliss depicted is natural and moderate). Spenser’s descriptions of these places are often graphic. For example, Sir Scudamour of book 4 spends a night at the house of a blacksmith named Care, who along with six assistants wields “huge great hammers that did never rest,” hammers which “like bells in greatness orderly succeed.” The combination of this crew working all night and a pack of howling dogs permits the knight no sleep, but the purpose of the episode is not to represent the blacksmith’s trade but to convey the anxiety of Sir Scudamour at this point in the narrative. What is most “real” for Spenser throughout is not the material, sensible world but the life of the human spirit.

Sources for Further StudyAlpers, Paul J. The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene.” Princeton: N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Attempts to describe the language of The Faerie Queene and discusses the nature of Spenser’s poetry.Anderson, Judith, Donald Cheney, and David Richardson, eds. Spenser’s Life and the Subject of Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Offers selected essays concerning Spenser’s biography and career as a poet and civil servant.Freeman, Rosemary. “The Faerie Queene”: A Companion for Readers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Displays a keen appreciation of Spenser’s poetry and the peculiarity of his epic. Part one discusses the poem’s origin, structure, and allegory; part two makes a book-by-book thematic analysis.Graham, Hough. A Preface to “The Faerie Queene.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. A seminal work of Spenser criticism. Relates The Faerie Queene to the tradition of the romantic epic. Provides a book-by-book commentary and considers the poem as a whole.Hume, Anthea. Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Argues that Spenser espoused the militant Protestantism associated with the Leicester Circle and held views that require classification of him as a Puritan.King, Andrew. The “Faerie Queene” and the Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory. Oxford, England: Oxford, 2000. A study that emphasizes the importance of regionalism on Middle English writers, especially Spenser. Also explores the thematic role of exiled youth and his counterpart, the outcast virgin.King, John N. Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Approaches book 1 of The Faerie Queene as a Protestant saint’s life and argues that Spenser was influenced by a distinctly Protestant poetics and tradition.Mallette, Richard. Spenser and the Discourses of Reformation England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Examines Spenser’s complex adaptation and parody of religious controversies on preaching, chastity, marriage, apocalypse, providence, and free will.Parker, M. Pauline. The Allegory of “The Faerie Queene.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. More accessible than other studies of the poem’s allegory. Approaches the poem thematically, identifying five major themes that cross the boundaries of individual books.Read, David. Temperate Conquests: Spenser and the Spanish New World. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000. Representative of recent work on Spenser and European colonialism. Focuses on Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland and books 2 and 5 of The Faerie Queene.Sale, Roger. Reading Spenser: An Introduction to “The Faerie Queene.” New York: Random House, 1968. Speculates that Spenser’s transformation from a medieval to a modern poet prevented him from finishing his epic. Also argues that the poem is intentionally “undramatic.”Van Es, Bart. Spenser’s Forms of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Describes Spenser’s preoccupation with time and memory while probing his handling of historical chronicles and other antiquarian materials.
Categories: Places