The Faerie Queene 4: Release and the Cave of Despair

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Cave of Despair (1772), oil on canvas, 61 x 76.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In the third episode, at Duessa’s suggestion, the monster Orgoglio took the Redcrosse Knight alive and threw him into the dungeon of his castle. The knight’s attendant dwarf told Una of this, so they headed off to try to rescue him. As they are tracing the way to the castle, they come across the young Prince Arthur, who promises to free the Redcrosse Knight for Una. Arthur bears a shield whose light blinds people and can turn them to stone.

Canto 8

Faire virgin, to redeeme her deare,
Brings Arthure to the fight:
Who slayes the Gyaunt, wounds the beast,
and strips Duessa quight.

When they reach Orgoglio’s castle, Arthur leaves Una outside in safety as he enters its grounds. His squire blows his magic horn to open the gates, to be greeted by the monster, with Duessa and her menacing seven-headed beast. Orgoglio swings his oak-tree club and buries it three yards [3 metres] deep in the ground with the force of its impact, but Arthur springs aside, then cuts off the monster’s left arm with his sword.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Faire virgin, to redeem her deare (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur’s squire tries to block Duessa from bringing her beast into the fray, but is stopped by one of her poisonous potions, and falls under the beast’s claws. Arthur cleaves one of its heads in two, forcing the beast to withdraw. Orgoglio, now recovered from the loss of his arm, swings his club at Arthur, who takes the mighty blow on his magic shield, tearing its cover away.

As Arthur reels from that blow, the shield does its work, blinding Orgoglio and stunning Duessa’s beast. This allows the prince to chop off one of the monster’s legs, then behead him. With that, Orgoglio’s body shrivels up like an empty bladder. Arthur’s squire holds Duessa captive, and Una rushes in to thank the prince.

Arthur then enters the castle in quest of the Redcrosse Knight. Its keeper is a blind old man whose head is twisted round on his neck, who denies any knowledge of the knight. Arthur takes his rusty keys and starts searching. There are rooms full of treasure, others running with gore, until finally he reaches the dungeon and the Redcrosse Knight, who has been starved almost to the point of death.

The prince carries the knight back out to Una, and asks whether the evil Duessa should die. Una says that her deceipts should be removed, then she should be released. When Duessa is stripped, all there is left is an ugly old hag, with the filthy tail of a fox and misshapen feet, so Duessa flees to hide.

Canto 9

His loves and lignage Arthure tells:
the knights knitt friendly hands:
Sir Trevisan flies from Despeyre,
Whom Redcross knight withstands.

The Redcrosse Knight convalesces until he is strong enough to travel again. Prince Arthur reveals precious little of his past to Una, talking of being raised by an old but highly skilled knight, and tutored by the wizard Merlin. His current mission is the result of a vision of the fairest maiden, with whom he has fallen in love, the Queen of Faries. He is therefore in quest of her now.

Although Redcrosse is still weak, the time comes for Arthur to leave them. The two knights seal lifelong loyalty to one another with gifts before Arthur departs. Redcrosse receives a diamond box containing a few drops of a potion to heal all wounds.

The Redcrosse Knight and Una resume their journey slowly, and haven’t travelled far when a knight rides furiously towards them. He has no helmet, and around his neck is rope noose. His name is Trevisan, and he tells them that he had been riding with a colleague Terwin when they met a man called Despair. With his doom-laden talk, Despair had driven the two knights to suicide, Terwin to kill himself with a knife given by Despair. Trevisan was about to hang himself when he mustered the courage to flee from Despair.

The Redcrosse Knight follows Trevisan’s directions to the Cave of Despair, amidst dead trees at the foot of a cliff. On the trees swing the bodies of many who have hung themselves, and at their foot are others who flung themselves from the clifftop above. Inside, by the skeletal figure of Despair is the body of Terwin, the knife still in his breast. Redcrosse accuses Despair of his murder, but Despair argues the case for suicide and invites the knight to let death put an end to his suffering too. Little by little, Despair persuades the knight to end his life, and gives him a dagger with which to kill himself.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), His loves and lignage Arthur tells (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.
The Cave of Despair c.1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Cave of Despair (c 1835), oil on mahogany, 50.8 x 81.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Una has silently entered the cave, and strikes the knife from the Redcrosse Knight’s trembling hand, appealing to his courage and honour. She then escorts him out of the cave, leaving Despair to once again unsuccessfully attempt to take his own life.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Cave of Despair (1772), oil on canvas, 61 x 76.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Note about Turner’s Cave of Despair:

This curious and almost unreadable painting is one of at least two made by JMW Turner of scenes from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the other being in Turner’s Liber Studiorum, published in 1811. Long thought to show the Underworld, or an allegory of time, it was first proposed as showing the Cave of Despair by John Gage. In 1829, Turner apparently wanted to buy Benjamin West’s painting also shown above, but didn’t. Gage reads this painting as showing Una revealing Duessa as an old hag in the right foreground. The Redcrosse Knight is apparently in the centre, and above is the form of an owl. Perhaps these are easier to see in the original than in this image of it.

Principal Characters

Prince Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, bearer of a magic shield which blinds his enemies and turns them to stone, and future king.

Despair, a hermit who lives in a cave, with the sole mission of persuading others to end their lives in suicide.

Duessa, Una’s opposite, personifying falsehood, and the symbol of the Roman Catholic Church.

Orgoglio, a giant about twenty feet (over six metres) tall, the son of Mother Earth.

Redcrosse Knight, hero of Book 1, “Holiness”, a knight on his first adventure, Saint George.

Terwin, a knight, colleague of Trevisan, who commits suicide when driven to by Despair.

Trevisan, a knight, colleague of Terwin, who almost hangs himself as a result of Despair, but flees from him at the last moment.

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.