“Ay me, how many perils doe enfold
The righteous man, to make him daily fall?
Were not, that heauenly grace doth him vphold,
And stedfast truth acquite him out of all.
Her loue is firme, her care continuall,
So oft as he through his owne foolish pride,
Or weaknesse is to sinfull bands made thrall:
Else should this Redcrosse knight in bands haue dyde,
For whose deliuerance she this Prince doth thither guide.”
The story of Book I features the Redcrosse Knight as he adventures with Una to save her royal parents from a dragon terrorizing their kingdom. Along the way, the Redcrosse Knight faces against three brother knights (Sans Foy, Sans Ioy, and Sans Loy), monsters of all shapes and sizes, giants, and sorcerers and witches that can change their shape. One day on their quest, they meet a monk named Archimago who invites them to stay and rest at his home. When they go to sleep, Archimago summons demons and spirits to take on illusionary shapes in order to beguile his guests. Archimago fools the Redcrosse Knight into believing that Una has been unfaithful to him and slept with many men. In distress from this false belief, the Redcrosse Knight abandons Una. Along the way, he fights one of the Sans Knights in a duel and after defeating him, he wins a new female companion, Duessa, who is an evil monstrous witch disguised as a beautiful woman. She takes him to the Castle of Pride controlled by Lucifera and eventually betrays the Redcrosse Knight when a giant comes along who defeats him in battle. Meanwhile, Una begins her own quest to find her lost knight, fearing the worst, until she finds King Arthur who assists her in saving the Knight from the giant’s castle. She finds the Redcrosse Knight, in a defeated and broken state, locked up in the dungeon. Una tries to restore him to health by bringing him to the House of Faith where the denizens help him gain the spiritual strength to face the dragon. There he learns it is his destiny to become the patron saint of England, Saint George. Then he goes off to fight the dragon in the lands of Eden and after a long fight where he is almost defeated multiple times, the Redcrosse Knight (Saint George) recovers by drinking from the Well of Life and the Tree of Life, and eventually defeats the dragon. The King thanks him for freeing them from the dragon and promises him Una’s hand in marriage. However, this is almost spoiled when Duessa sends a letter claiming that the Redcrosse Knight married and slept with her, but they see through this lie and the truth prevails and they live happily ever after.
In his letter to Walter Raleigh, Spenser describes his purpose for the book.
“The general end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceiued shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read.”
The book is supposed to provide us with an ideal for how gentleman are supposed to act. It is supposed to teach us how to be virtuous. He claims in the letter that King Arthur is the symbol of Aristotle’s twelve virtues. However, as suggested this is no mere copy of pagan philosophy, but in true Renaissance spirit it combines certain values of the Ancient World with Christianity.
On one level, this work has all the characteristics of an epic fantasy. You can enjoy it as a medieval adventure story with magic, monsters, and dragons. On another level, the work is a retelling of the Saint George legend recast as a Christian allegory in which the Redcrosse Knight must overcome his foolish pride by putting aside his trust in his own strength and abilities and replacing it with trust in faith and God’s mercy. Only then can a person overcome their errors and sins that seek to ensnare their immortal soul. In this case, only when the Redcrosse knight puts his faith in God can he defeat the dragon terrorizing the land of Eden. He fails multiple times to subdue the dragon, but God’s mercy allows him to discover the Well of Life and the Tree of Life right at the verge of being defeated by the dragon and each time he comes back restored fresh and new as if he never sustained an injury. The symbolism here suggests that faith in God and God’s mercy gives us everlasting life, despite the way life’s errors and sins attempt to destroy us. Through God he is able to defeat the dragon (our errors and sins) and free the land of Eden (a symbol of eternal life and peace). The point being that only God can bring us an eternal life full of peace and harmony.
Beyond this broad perspective of the symbolism of first book, there are many smaller images. From the perspective of Protestant Elizabethan England, Archimago is a symbol for Catholicism, all appearance and illusions, but no real substance of faith. He first appears to our hero as a holy man, but secretly is a magician who uses the dark arts to manipulate people with magical illusions. More broadly, Archimago and Duessa symbolize succumbing to error and illusion in one’s life. Duessa describes herself as the daughter of deceit and shame. Appearances are not always what they seem. Often we delude ourselves and think the world is one way, but it turns out to be very different.
The first monster the Redcrosse Knight encounters is the half-serpent half-woman beast living inside Error’s Den. Una, who symbolizes faith in her unwillingness to give up on the Redcrosse Knight even after he abandons her, warns him to beware the den and to run away from it. The Knight won’t heed her warning about the danger of entering Error’s Den and attempts to confront the monster. His lack of caution about entering the den is his error related to his pride in his own strength. His mistake is to believe his own martial prowess and earthly abilities can overcome the many errors life throws at us. The monster itself, which is half serpent and half woman, is an allusion to Genesis 3, an amalgam of the serpent and Eve in Christianity who are the source of man’s first error and thus is the monster that lives inside Error’s Den. The poem tells us that the creature hates light, symbolizing the way our errors like to remain unseen and unexposed. During the battle, the creature wraps the knight in her coils. The stanza during this scene ends, “God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine” suggesting that we often fail to escape when we are wrapped up in our own errors. Once we make an error in judgement it is difficult for us to see it and see the truth. Later, in the battle the monster sends forth its children who drink “their dying mothers blood.” This image contrasts with the typical image of motherhood, giving us the sense that error’s children gain sustenance in death (not in life). It also suggests symbolically that our smaller errors in life (that may seem minor when looked at on their own) feed upon and are a product of our bigger errors.
Later, when the Redcrosse Knight encounters the giant who defeats him, the poem describes the giant’s origins. The giant is the product of an illicit love affair between Aeolus the wind and Mother Earth. These are both figures from Greek Mythology, but the story has deeper allegorical dimensions. Aeolus impregnating the earth allegorically represents how empty ideas (i. e. hot air) can give birth to evils (as represented by the giant) on the earth. The giant himself is a reflection of the Redcrosse Knight’s own error and sin, the pride he places in his own ability. We are told that the giant is arrogant about his own strength, which leads him to scorn all other challengers. It also symbolize that due to his strength he scorns other virtues as represented by chivalry and the Christian faith. This pride in one’s own strength and ability to overcome all obstacles is the Redcrosse Knight’s error. In other words, in terms of the allegory, the Redcrosse Knight is overcome by the strength of his own error. The giant representing his error of pride in his own strength defeats the Knight and locks him up in his castle. This scene in particular seems to be an influence on John Bunyan’s the Pilgrim’s Progress in which the giant Despair locks up the Pilgrim in Doubting Castle.
After the giant defeats the Redcrosse Knight, Duessa abandons him to become the lover and Queen of the giant. The giant gives her another serpent monster upon which she rides.
“Such one it was, as that renowmed Snake
Which great Alcides in Stremona slew,
Long fostred in the filth of Lerna lake,
Whose many heads out budding euer new,
Did breed him endlesse labour to subdew:
But this same Monster much more vgly was;
For seuen great heads out of his body grew,
An yron brest, and backe of scaly bras,
And all embrewed in bloud, his eyes did shine as glas.”
This passage is an allusion to Heracles labor when he defeats the Hydra, while the seven heads of the serpent is an allusion to the Book of Revelations. Spenser combines Greek Mythology with the Bible. This combination both speaks to Spenser’s creativity and directly relates to his artistic purpose of combining Christian virtues with Ancient Pagan virtues. In this case, he is crossing the evil of the pagan world with the evils of the Christian one. The poem goes on to tell us that “vnderneath his filthy feet did tread/The sacred things, and holy geasts foretaught.” As a serpent monster, the beast is in the same patrimony as the serpent in Eden and the serpent in Error’s Den, and thus represents human error treading on holy things as mere dirt and worthless objects. It is also no coincidence that the dragon that the Redcrosse must defeat in the end is both a symbol of the Devil and is a type of serpent as well.
Although there is much more than can be said about the deeper symbolism of the work and Spenser’s meaning, it would be a mistake to focus on the work’s meaning and lose sight of Spenser’s artistry. The poetry of this work is simply beautiful. Spenser is a master of alliteration and uses it copiously and successfully throughout the poem. He also does a great job with his rhyme scheme and lush imagery. Likewise, when we do encounter obvious symbolism it easy to get caught up in interpreting the symbols for meaning, but forget about appreciating it artistically.
For example, in the scene when the Redcrosse Knight enters the Castle of Pride with Duessa he witnesses a procession of six counselors who serve Lucifera. Each of these counselors is symbolic for one of the seven deadly sins. The point isn’t to understand the meaning, which is obvious and straightforward, but rather to appreciate the way Spenser as a poet writes about these familiar symbols.
“And greedy Auarice by him did ride,
Vpon a Camell loaden all with gold;
Two iron coffers hong on either side,
with precious mettall full, as they might hold,
And in his lap an heape of coine he told;
For of his wicked pelfe his God he made,
And vnton hell him selfe for money sold;
Accursed vsurie was all his trade,
And right and wrong ylike in equall vallaunce waide.
His life was nigh vnton deaths doore yplast,
And thred-bare cote, and cobled shoes he ware,
Ne scares good morsel all his life did tast,
But both from backe and belly still did spare,
To fill his bags, and richesse to compare;
Yet chylde ne kinsman liuing had he none
To leaue them to; but thorough daily care
To get, and nightly feare to lose his owne,
He led a wretched life vnto him selfe vnknowne.”
Spenser uses images of greed to depict Avarice and use tropes associated with the miser figure. Each of the counselors rides on an appropriate animal: Avarice rides upon a camel, Envy on a wolf, Gluttony on a swine, etc. I doubt many readers will read this and learn anything new about Avarice or the other sins, but rather the purpose seems to enjoy the creative way Spenser depicts these familiar ideas.
Links to Other Perspectives and Thoughts in The Faerie Queene Read-Along (will update as others post):