My Christmas Gift to You — An Illustrated Summary of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene Part 1 — First Installment

Edmund Spenser planned a series of twelve great poetic books. He created a new form of poetic stanza with a complicated rhyme and rhythm scheme, which became known as the Spenserian stanza, just for this work. Each book was dedicated to a different aspect of Christian character or virtue. This is the first,  the Faerie Queen, Part One. It was written in the late 1500s and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. This story is an allegory. Like the parables the Lord Jesus Christ told in His days on earth, it tells of earthly things to make a point about spiritual things. The fairy queen, Glorianna, is a good and pure ruler who represents the glory of God, for whom Queen Elizabeth I is the inspiration.

The Red Cross Knight is a young man untried in battle but equipped with wonderful armor and a shield bearing the emblem of the cross. He represents Holiness, or the process by which a young Christian matures in God’s service by “putting on the whole armor of God.”  Una is the fair maid who represents Truth. The dragon that holds her parents captive, of course, represents the power of evil. The magic performed in this play is presented as evil. There is violence because we are in a spiritual battle against sin and wickedness. The palace of pride is presented as rich and beautiful on the outside but filthy and falling apart underneath. Wicked people sometimes deceive Christians and believers sometimes fall in with the wrong people.

They come to harm themselves, and cause harm to others whom they are supposed to be protecting. Archimago means “great magician.” Duessa, whose name means “two-faced,” pretends to be Fidessa, which means “faithful.” Sans Foy, Sans Loy, and Sans Joy, evil knights who are brothers, have names meaning “Without Faith,” “Without Law” and “Without Joy.” Spencer did not explain how the Red Cross Knight got sent on his quest in the Faerie Queene Book One. It begins In Media Res, in the middle of things, like many great epic works. He intended to explain to background for the quest of the Red Cross Knight in a later book, which he never finished, but he did explain it in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh.

The court of Glorianna, queen of Faerieland, is the site of an annual feast where anyone may come and beg a favor of the queen. People in trouble could find knights begging for a quest to prove their worthiness, both of them petitioning the queen at this festival of the twelve days. The Red Cross knight received his quest on the first day of the festival.The queen’s palace is radiant in its beauty. The walls are decorated with white and gold hangings and rich ornaments. Tables with long white cloths and platters filled with food are set up in front of Glorianna’s throne in the center, for it is a great feast. Music fills the air. Rich and poor feast together. The queen enters with her ladies in waiting and chief advisors and takes her seat. Glorianna the Faerie Queen welcomes everyone to her annual Feast of Twelve Days.

It is her wish that none should be sad or want for anything. During this time the queen can refuse no request. A ragged young man enters the court. He has come from far away and is clumsy and simple but not afraid to approach the queen. Queen Glorianna realizes that he is good and virtuous, and that he shows courage and strength. He asks that if any adventure presents itself during the feast that she would give it to him to perform. Glorianna promises to grant the young man’s favor. She urges him to stay in the meantime and share the feast, to eat, drink and rest himself. The young man replies that he is not worthy to sit in the beauty of the court of the great queen.

Soon a lovely princess slowly enters the court, veiled and weeping, leading a lamb (symbolizing her purity and innocence), accompanied by her dwarf servant (who represents human reason) and a donkey (representing the church) carrying knight’s armor, shield and sword (This is the armor described in Ephesians 6). She is dressed in mourning black over a radiant white gown. Queen Glorianna notices the young woman and calls to her to come near. She explains that this is a time of happiness and joy, and asks why she wears a dress of sorrow. The young woman says her name is Una. She asks for a champion to slay a dragon that has taken over her country and imprisoned her father and mother. She shows the fine armor, shield seasoned in battle, decorated with a blood-red cross, and great sword she has brought for her knight.

The young man runs and falls at Una’s feet. He reminds the great queen of her promise and claims the adventure as his own. Una scornfully asks the queen if this is her greatest champion. Queen Glorianna warns the young man that this is no adventure, but a fight to the death. She observes that he is young and has never seen battle. The young man asks if the glorious queen of fairyland will go back on her word. Glorianna admits that she cannot do that. She orders the sweet maiden to accept her champion. Una begs the great queen to give her a real champion. She tells the queen that the journey  back to her country is long and hard, filled with dangers and troubles. Glorianna chides her, asking if she should break a promise made during the Feast of Twelve Days. She says that the young man shows modesty, strength and courage and tells her not to judge too quickly. She tells Una to rest, eat and drink. The dwarf and donkey depart with the young man to get him dressed in the armor.

“See, now,” says Queen Glorianna when he returns, “how wondrously fair your knight looks, dressed in the splendid armor you brought.” Una looks in amazement and admits that he is a true knight, and that God has sent him in her need. Glorianna commands him to kneel, takes his sword, and names him knight of the Red Cross. She commands him to serve his lady faithfully and perform the task he has promised to do, as God gives him strength. The knight replies to the great queen that he will. He urges Una to go with him at once and not to tarry, since her need is so great.

The Lady Una, her knight, and her faithful dwarf cross a meadow beside a dark forest. They see a storm coming. The knight urges his lady to make haste and take shelter in the wood. Una suggests that they wait there until the storm passes. The knight is impatient to go on and argues that no one knows how long it will last. He points out a path into the woods that seems to go just the way they were heading. After a time they notice that the path twists and turns more than they had thought. Una thinks that they are lost. Then the knight sees that the path grows wider, and that many feet have come that way. (Matthew 7:13,14 — “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Una cries out that she knows where they are now. It is the wood of Error. It is true that many people have gone down that path, but in a cave nearby lives a terrible monster who devours men. She says they mus flee. Error appears at the entrance of the cave, snarling and hissing, a hideous half-woman, half serpent with a scorpion tail. The knight exclaims that he is not afraid of Error. He vows to destroy her. In the battle with Error she casts her nets about him (symbolizing the power of what we see and read to drag us away from godly thoughts and actions) and seems likely to defeat him.Narrator: The knight fought bravely, but Error seemed likely to defeat him. Una cried out to him to have courage, and to let the Lord give him strength!

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