Spenser’s Faerie Queene opens with a four-verse proem which invokes the Muse, in imitation of the opening of the English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, and refers the epic to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, but not by name.
The Patrone of true Holinesse;
Foule Errour doth defeate:
Hypocrisie, him to entrappe,
Doth to his home entreate.
A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloodie fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield.
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield.
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
And on his brest a bloodie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead, as living, ever him ador’d
Upon his shield the like was also scor’d,
For soveraine hope which in his helpe he had.
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word;
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.
A knight [Redcrosse Knight] is riding fully armed across a plain. His shield and armour bear many scars of battle, but none fought by him. Across his chest is emblazoned a red cross, in remembrance of Christ. He is on a mission for his Queen, Gloriana, to tackle a dragon. Beside him, riding a white ass, is a fine lady [Una] wearing a wimple and veil with a black stole as if in mourning, who is leading a white lamb. She comes from a once-powerful royal family, which had lost its extensive kingdom and been forced into exile by the dragon which was now the object of the knight’s quest. Trailing behind them is a dwarf carrying the lady’s baggage.
There’s a storm brewing, so the party heads for a shady grove to shelter. Once the weather has passed, they can’t regain their previous path, and become lost in the wood. Eventually they reach a cave, where the knight dismounts.
The lady warns the knight not to tamper with the cave: she tells him that they’re in Wandering Wood, and within the cave lies the monster Error. The dwarf tells the knight to flee. The knight is undaunted, and peers into the cave, where he sees a chimera which is half serpent and half woman, with a sting at its tail like a scorpion, and a thousand young.
The monster rushes at the knight, who strikes with his sword, wounding it. This angers the monster, which wraps its tail around the knight, crushing him. His lady gives him words of encouragement, which enable the knight to free one hand with which to throttle the monster, and force it to let him go. The monster then vomits poison over the knight, and he strikes again at its body, cleaving its head away. The monster and its brood die immediately.
The knight and his lady remount and ride out of Wandering Wood. Later they come across an old grey hermit clad in black [Archimago]. This hermit tells them of a wicked wight which has been ravaging the area, but the lady points out that the daylight is fading, so the hermit offers to put them up overnight.
After an evening talking to the hermit, the Redcrosse Knight and his lady retire to sleep, leaving the old hermit to his books, which aren’t about God but magic. While his guests are asleep, the hermit casts spells to bring a false dream to the Redcrosse Knight. In this, Venus brings the lady lustfully to his bed. He awakes at this, only to see the lady’s lips poised as if ready for his kiss.
He is shocked by her shamelessness, and she admits to having fallen in love with him. The knight comforts her.
The guilefull great Enchaunter parts
The Redcross Knight from Truth:
Into whose stead faire Falssehood steps
And workes him woefull ruth.
The hermit, angry at the failure of the sprites which he had conjured up in his unsuccessful attempt to seduce the knight in his dreams, devises a new trick. He turns the sprites into the forms of the lady [Una], and another man, and puts them in bed together. Summoning the Redcrosse Knight, the hermit shows him the couple. The knight is ready to kill them, but the hermit restrains him.
Duped by the hermit’s magic, the Redcrosse Knight abandons the lady and rides off at dawn with the dwarf in tow. When the real lady rises later, she discovers him gone, so sets off tearfully in search of him. After her follows the hermit, dressed up in armour to make himself appear identical to the Redcrosse Knight, who is now revealed to be Saint George.
The real Redcrosse Knight then meets a Saracen identifying himself as Sansfoy, accompanied by a woman dressed in scarlet. At the woman’s insistence, they duel, shattering their lances in the first charge, then draw their swords. After inflicting wounds on one another, the Redcrosse Knight cleaves his opponent’s skull. On the Saracen’s sudden death, his lady flees; Saint George gives chase, and when he catches her up he assures her no harm.
Fidessa, as calls herself, explains that she is the daughter of an emperor who had been betrothed to a prince who was killed before their wedding. She has been searching for the body of her fiancé ever since. After meeting Sansfoy, he had tried to take advantage of her, but she had resisted his advances. The Redcrosse Knight reassures her that she is now in safe company.
When Fidessa and the knight stop in the heat of the day to rest in the shade of a pair of trees, he picks a branch which oozes blood. A voice from the tree then tells him to flee, lest he suffers the same evil that happened to him. The voice explains that it was once a man named Fradubio, who, with his lady, was turned into the pair of trees by a cruel witch.
He had been travelling with his lady when they met another knight, whose accompanying lady was the sorceress Duessa. When Fradubio defeated the other knight, Duessa had promised herself to the knight as his prize. First Duessa made Fradubio see his own lady appear ugly, then, after he had ridden off with Duessa, transformed her into a tree. Later, Fradubio had discovered that it was Duessa who was really the old hag, and for that she took him back and turned him into a second tree alongside that of his lady.
It then transpires that Fidessa is Duessa in disguise; she pretends to faint at the Redcrosse Knight’s feet, and he places her body on her horse and they ride off.
Archimago, an evil sorceror who tries to stop all knights in the service of the Faerie Queen.
Duessa, Una’s opposite, personifying falsehood, and the symbol of the Roman Catholic Church.
Errour, a monster with the upper parts of a woman and the long coils of a serpent.
Fradubio, a knight who was turned into a tree by Duessa.
Redcrosse Knight, hero of Book 1, “Holiness”, a knight on his first adventure, Saint George.
Sansfoy, a Saracen knight, the older brother of Sansloy and Sansjoy.
Una, accompanies the Redcrosse Knight, and the symbol of the ‘true’ (Protestant) Church.
Wikipedia on The Faerie Queene, with a partial summary
Wikipedia on Edmund Spenser
Richard Danson Brown (2019) The Art of the Faerie Queene, Manchester UP. ISBN 978 0 7190 8732 5. (Note: this isn’t about visual art, but literary art and poetics.)
AC Hamilton (ed) (2007) Spenser, the Faerie Queene, 2nd edn, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4058 3281 6. (Critical edition.)
Elizabeth Heale (1999) The Faerie Queene, A Reader’s Guide, 2nd edn, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 65468 5.
Douglas Hill (1980) Edmund Spenser, The Illustrated Faerie Queene, Newsweek Books. No ISBN.
Richard A McCabe (ed) (2010) The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 1987 0967 1.