Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene

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The Faerie Queene Summary

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Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is a sixteenth-century English epic poem. Spenser originally intended the poem to be a series of twelve books, each devoted to one of twelve moral virtues as exemplified by the characters of twelve knights. In an introduction addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser explains that the Faerie Queene, Gloriana, represents both Queen Elizabeth and the abstract idea of Glory. King Arthur, whom Spenser portrays as the epitome of all twelve virtues, experiences a vision of Gloriana and finds her in “Faeryland,” where she is hosting her twelve-day feast. Each day, a different emblematic knight undertakes a quest, with Arthur often joining the escapades.

Book 1 begins not at the Queene’s feast, but with the in-progress adventure of the Redcrosse Knight, who represents “Holiness.” When Lady Una requests a warrior to free her parents’ kingdom from a rampaging dragon, Gloriana dispatches Redcrosse on the mission. Traveling with Una, Redcrosse defeats Error, a troublesome monster they meet. Soon thereafter, the magician Archimago bewitches Redcrosse into believing Una is unchaste, and he leaves her.

While Una continues to travel with a protective lion escort, Redcrosse falls under the spell of the witch Duessa and lands in the giant Orgoglio’s dungeon. When Una learns of his plight, she recruits Arthur to kill Orgoglio and rescue Redcrosse. On the road again with Una, Redcrosse succumbs to “Despair.” Una guides him to the House of Holiness, where he recovers his spirit, discovering his true identity is St. George. They finally arrive in Una’s kingdom; Redcrosse slays the dragon, and he and Una become engaged.

The virtue of “Temperance” and its patron knight, Sir Guyon, prevail in Book 2. Guyon and his companion, Palmer, come upon Amavia, nearly dead from an act of suicide. With her last breaths, she tells them the witch Acrasia seduced and killed her lover. Vowing to avenge these deaths and destroy the “Bower of Bliss” where Acrasia bewitches unwitting knights, Guyon and Palmer ride off with Amavia’s baby. They arrive at the castle of Medina, a woman of pleasingly balanced temperament, and they entrust the infant to her care.

After scuffles with the brothers Pyrochles and Cymochles and an escape from the temptress Phaedria, Guyon visits the Cave of Mammon. Although tantalized by this chamber of pleasures, Guyon resists its allure, emerging exhausted. Just as Pyrochles and Cymochles set upon him again, Arthur appears, delivering Guyon from the combative brothers. Together, they visit Alma’s Castle of Temperance. Guyon and Palmer sail to Acrasia’s island bower, where they defy numerous sensual enticements designed to trap men. They overpower Acrasia, destroy her evil paradise, and liberate those held captive.

Book 3 emphasizes “Chastity,” as embodied principally by the female knight Britomart. Guyon, Arthur, and Timias, Arthur’s squire, encounter Britomart, and they witness a forester pursuing the maiden Florimell. While the men follow Florimell, Britomart visits the Castle Joyeous and meets with Redcrosse. She confides she is in search of the knight Artegall, with whom she fell in love after seeing his image in a magic mirror. A consultation with Merlin reveals Britomart is destined to marry Artegall and found the line of British monarchs.

Meanwhile, after the forester wounds him, Timias receives aid from the huntress Belphoebe, with whom he falls in love. The story of her birth – and that of her twin sister Amoret – unfolds. Florimell runs afoul of a witch, a lecherous fisherman, and Proteus, the sea-god, who locks her in an underwater cavern when she rebuffs his advances. Following an encounter with Malbecco, whose faithless wife fled to live with wanton satyrs, Britomart meets Sir Scudamore. She joins his quest to rescue his bride Amoret from the clutches of Busirane and then single-handedly frees Amoret from the lustful magician’s castle.

Book 4 upholds the virtue of “Friendship.” Britomart and Amoret search for Scudamore. Believing Britomart, in knight’s dress, to be a man, Amoret is relieved to discover her error and recalculate her growing affection for Britomart as friendship. When a tournament is announced to compete for Florimell’s recovered girdle, it attracts many knights, including Britomart, Scudamore, and two friends, Cambell and Triamond. The account of Cambell and Triamond’s friendship borrows from Chaucer’s unfinished “Squire’s Tale.”

In her knight’s disguise, Britomart triumphs at the tournament. Another incognito knight joins forces with Scudamore to challenge Britomart; during the contest, their helmets slip off. Britomart recognizes her opponent as Artegall; they pledge their love and agree to marry.

Amoret is missing, so Britomart and Scudamore set out to find her. Having been abducted by Hairy Carl and imprisoned in his cave, Amoret escapes with another captive, Aemylia. The two eventually secure the protection of Arthur, who also rescues Aemylia’s lover from a monster. Amoret and Scudamore then reunite. Meanwhile, Neptune orders Proteus to release Florimell so she can marry her beloved, Marinell.

The adventures of Artegall, the knight of “Justice,” unfold in Book 5. Apprenticed as a boy to Astraea, goddess of justice, Artegall is now tasked with delivering Irena’s kingdom from the tyranny of Grantorto. Accompanied by Talus, Astraea’s “iron man” page, Artegall embarks on his quest, meting out justice at opportune moments along the way. After attending Florimell and Marinell’s wedding, Artegall and Talus battle Radigund, a powerful female warrior who enslaves men to do domestic chores. Radigund defeats Artegall, as he’s enthralled by her beauty, and she puts him to work.

Talus tells Britomart of Artegall’s misfortune, and she sets forth to rescue him. At nightfall, she shelters in the church of Isis and dreams of her future regal offspring. Fortified by this vision, Britomart kills Radigund and frees Artegall, who continues on his quest. He visits the court of Mercilla with Arthur, where they witness the execution of Duessa. Then Artegall vanquishes Grantorto, completing his mission.

Book 6 celebrates the virtue of “Courtesy.” While pursuing the Blatant Beast, Sir Calidore meets and becomes enamored with Pastorella, who is soon abducted by a band of brigands. After recovering Pastorella, Calidore delivers her to Sir Bellamoure and his wife for safekeeping while he continues his chase. Bellamoure discovers that Pastorella is his long-lost daughter, and Calidore captures the beast.

The first three books of The Faerie Queene appeared in 1590 and the next three, in 1596. There is no record of the remaining six books except a fragment of Book 7. As a religious and political allegory, Spenser’s poem metaphorically alludes to numerous Elizabethan personalities and events, including Mary Queen of Scotts (“Duessa”) and rebellions in Ireland (“Irena’s Kingdom”). Spenser created his own stanza, Spenserian stanza, for this poem.