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 Five is Justice, and is embodied by Sir Artegall. Readers of Book Three will recall that Artegall is also the object of Britomart’s quest. Spenser considers Justice to be the most representative virtue that God has bestowed on humanity.
Artegall is discovered by the goddess Astrea while he is still an infant. She trains him in the ways of justice. When he is ready, she returns to heaven, leaving him with the divine sword of justice as well as a robot-like assistant called Talus. The Faerie Queene appoints him to go on a quest for justice.
Book Five is filled with delightful but improbable adventures ending in the pronouncement of justice by Artegall and its execution by Talus. Artegall is not always successful in his pursuits and is often overpowered by opponents. On the other hand, Artegall is not beneath using subterfuge to attain his objectives. By the end of the book, he completes the quest assigned to him by the Faerie Queene.
The theme of Book Six is Courtesy, embodied by Sir Calidore. His specific task is to hunt down the monster called the Blatant Beast, personifying Slander. To the reader’s surprise, Calidore is uncertain how to carry out his quest and often doubts his own ability to deal with situations that arise.
The reader is presented with a host of discourteous knights who do not merit their status, while certain men of humble status (including a particular wild man) are shown to be the epitome of nobility.
At one point, Calidore considers the desirability of a pastoral existence, attracted by a certain shepherdess, ready to abandon his assigned quest. He even has a run-in with Spenser’s alter ego, Colin Clout, until they agree to become friends. The book ends with Calidore hunting down and capturing the Blatant Beast, although he is unable to quell it permanently.
The unifying theme of Cantos 6, 7 and 8 in Book Seven is the notion of Constant Change as embodied by an offspring of the Titans, the goddess Mutability. Mutability challenges the primacy of Jove and all the gods in heaven, insisting that Jove has usurped her position there. Jove agrees to a trial of her case, the trial to take place on Arlo Hill in Ireland (a favourite resting place of the moon goddess in the past, according to the poet), with Nature as the judge. Mutability describes how all things change with the passage of time, but, in the end, Nature insists that change must come from within rather than from without and that Mutability's suit has no merit. Spenser looks forward to the end of time, when change will no longer take place, and when we will all rest in eternity with our Creator.
In a letter of dedication published in the edition of the work to his friend and supporter, Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser describes his approach to the structure and content of the The Faerie Queene. The letter also contains an outline of the prequel, as it were, containing the events preceding Book One.
Spenser’s letter is followed by a series of commendatory verses by other authors as well as a series of sonnets written by Spenser to certain notable people of the time. We are left to speculate what influence such poems might have had.
The Faerie Queene as published in is the main source text for this web page. You may link to the contents of Volume Three of the text below. Book Seven includes the related cantos, known as the Mutability Cantos, discovered after Spenser’s death and first published in . Book Seven also includes Spenser’s letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, a number of commendatory poems by other authors, a series of sonnets by Spenser dedicated to notable persons in and a sonnet dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, the Duchess of Pembroke, first published in .
You may purchase an ebook (epub or mobi) of Volume Three in the original wording at a nominal cost of US $1.99 by clicking on the following button:
Spenser was a self-confessed admirer of Geoffrey Chaucer. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the brass horse in The Squire’s Tale, part of The Canterbury Tales, might have motivated Spenser to create his robotic Talus creature for Book Five. The Squire’s Tale was published in printed book form in . You may link to the contents of this source text by clicking here.
You may link to the contents of our Modern Language Version of The Squire’s Tale by clicking here.
Spenser refers to Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Parliament of Fowls, in Book Seven (7.7.9) as his model for the characterization of Dame Nature. The Squire’s Tale and The Parliament of Fowls are thematically linked by the talking bird characters that they both contain. The Parliament of Fowls was published in book form in . You may link to the contents of this source text by clicking here.
You may link to the contents of our Modern Language Version of The Parliament of Fowls by clicking here.
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