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The Faerie Queene

Edmund Spenser

Book I, Cantos ix & x

Book I, Cantos vi, vii & viii

Book I, Cantos xi & xii

As Arthur, Redcrosse, and Una rest after their victory at Orgoglio's castle, the lady asks Arthur to tell them about his name and lineage. This is a sore spot for Arthur; he says that he does not know who his parents were. He grew up in Wales (in Great Britain) and was tutored by the magician Merlin. Una then asks what brought him to Faerie Land, and this is an even more painful memory. It was the love of a maid, who had briefly appeared to him and called herself the Queen of Fairies, which led him to search for her in Faerie Land for the past nine months. Redcrosse and Una give their sympathy, but now they must continue on their quest; after exchanging gifts, they leave Arthur. They continue toward Una's home, but she is worried that Redcrosse is now too weak from his imprisonment to defeat the dragon keeping her parents captive.

Suddenly, they see a knight running toward them in fright; his name is Sir Trevisan, and he claims to be fleeing a terrible man named Despair. This Despair had already caused one of Trevisan's friends, Terwin, to kill himself. Redcrosse is eager to challenge Despair, and Trevisan reluctantly leads them back to the cave where Despair, a gloomy old man, sits. There they see Terwin's body, and Redcrosse eagerly desires to exact revenge upon Despair. But the old man remains calm and wearily asks Redcrosse what problem he has with death. Death, he says, simply brings an end to a life of sin and, thus, cannot come too soon. He even knows of Redcrosse's sins and weaknesses and almost persuades the knight to take his own life. However, Una steps in and stops him and pulls him out of the cave of Despair.

Seeing her knight's weakness, Una now knows for certain that he needs help, and so, she leads him to the House of Holiness. There, Caelia reigns with her three daughters, Fidelia, Sperenza, and Charissa, and many other virtuous people live with them. Caelia greets Una and, hearing of Redcrosse's condition, commands her daughters to aid his recovery. First, Fidelia instructs him in discipline and the gospel; then, Sperenza comforts him, so that his sins do not again lead to despair. Next, hard Patience and bitter Penance make him suffer for the crimes he has committed, to purge himself. Finally, Charissa comes to Redcrosse, and "Gan him instruct, in every good behest [behavior] / Of love, and righteousnesse, and well to donne (I.x.33)."

After instructing him, she takes him to a hospital where seven charitable men tend to his physical ailments. Now fully recovered in body and spirit, Redcrosse receives one more grace--he is taken up to a high hill by Contemplation, a wise old hermit. There, he can see the new Jerusalem (God's city) and Cleopolis (the city of the Faerie Queene). Contemplation tells Redcrosse his history and future: He is not a faerie but born from a mortal king--he was stolen by a faerie and brought to Faerie Land. He is destined to become a great saint of England, and his true name is George. Much amazed by this news, Redcrosse returns down the hill to the House of Holiness. There, Una is eager to make for her castle, and so they soon depart.

Commentary

Spenser glorifies Queen Elizabeth by connecting her with the line of King Arthur in Canto ix. Arthur claims to have been born in western Wales, which connects him with the house of Tudor, Elizabeth's family. The history is vague enough that it cannot be disproved; there is just enough information that a connection can be guessed at. And so, in Spenser's mind, Elizabeth has the same secular power and religious authority that Arthur held. Of course, Arthur remains partly a Christ figure, as well. In the exchange of gifts, he gives Redcrosse a "few drops of liquor pure, / Of wondrous worth and vertue excellent, / That any wound could heal incontinent (I.ix.19)." This liquid probably represents the Eucharist, which for Protestants is the symbol of Christ giving his body and blood to the Apostles at the Last Supper. Redcrosse, for his part, gives Arthur "his Saveours testament" (I.ix.19)--that is, the New Testament, which tells of Christ's life on Earth. This foreshadows Redcrosse's eventual role as a Christ figure and, in fact, a more important one than Arthur.

First, though, he must deal with despair. We saw earlier that the lion could not conquer despair in the form of Sansjoy; here in its purest form, it almost defeats Redcrosse, except that he has the truth, Una, and the truth of God's mercy is greater than despair. This is one of the lessons that Redcrosse learns in the House of Holiness, which is an exact counterpart to the House of Pride from Canto iv.

Instead of Lucifera, there is Caelia ("Heavenly"); instead of a parade of vices, there is a multitude of virtues. The three daughters are Faith, Hope, and Charity--the three greatest virtues, according to St. Paul--and each one instructs Redcrosse in her own specialty. The seven physicians who tend to his body are the counterparts to the seven bodily vices of the House of Pride; however, they do not all correspond to a specific vice. Rather, they follow a pattern taken in Christ's words in the Gospel of Matthew: "For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me (Mt.25.35-36)." Thus, one of the seven provides food, another provides clothing, another visits the sick, etc. Spenser's emphasis here is that holiness is not simply a reaction to evil; it has its own positive source in Christ. This makes it greater than evil and gives Redcrosse the strength to ride into battle again.

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The Faerie Queene is a religious allegory.

by touhidsm, May 09, 2014

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Answer: There is no matter of doubt that Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queene, is replete with allegorical significance. Edmund Spenser stands among the greatest writers of the Elizabethan period whose valuable contributions fashioned a new tradition in English literature. Nowadays he is hailed to be one of the chief initiators of the Renaissance movement in English literature. Spenser's rich and ... Read more

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