The Faerie Queene 5: The Dragon

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The knight with that old Dragon fights (1895-97), print, 'Spenser's Faerie Queene', ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In the fourth episode, the Redcrosse Knight, still weak from his incarceration by Orgoglio, went to the Cave of Despair, where he almost ended up taking his own life, had Una not struck the knife from his hand. She then escorted him out of that cave, and helped him recover his strength, courage and honour.

Canto 10

Her faithfull knight faire Una brings
To house of Holinesse;
Where he is taught repentaunce, and
The way to hevenly blesse.

Una takes the Redcrosse Knight to an old house to recuperate; its aged mistress is Dame Celia, a godly and virtuous woman, who has three daughters Fidelia (Faith), Speranza (Hope) and Charissa (Charity). The pair are greeted by Humilitá, the family’s porter, who takes them to the steward of the household Zele [Zeal] and the lady’s squire, Reverence.

Soon afterwards they meet Celia who introduces two of her daughters. Fidelia, wearing white, bears a golden cup in which there’s a serpent coiled in wine mixed with water. In her other hand she carries a book of secret lore, sealed with blood. Speranza, in blue, holds a silver support for her to lean on as she gazes constantly to heaven. Celia’s third daughter, Charissa, is married, and has recently given birth to a son.

Benjamin West (1738–1820), Fidelia and Speranza (Faith and Hope) (1776), oil on canvas, 136.5 × 108.3 cm, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA. Image by Wmpearl, via Wikimedia Commons.
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), The Red Cross Knight (study) (c 1793), oil on canvas, 43.2 x 53.3 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), The Red Cross Knight (1793), oil on canvas, 213.5 x 273 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.
Walter Crane (1845–1915), Her faithfull knight faire Una brings (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Celia agrees to let Una and the knight stay to rebuild his strength before he tackles the dragon. After a good night’s rest, Fidelia is the first to attend to the knight, instructing him of the discipline of holiness and of God’s grace. She tells him of her great powers, and causes Redcrosse to fill with remorse for his past sins, for which Speranza comforts him. Celia explains to Una that the knight’s sins must be cleansed, and to assist she brings physicians named Patience, Amendment, Penance with his whip Remorse, and finally Repentance. After those, he is taken to Una, who is full of joy at his recovery, so together they visit Charissa, who sits on an ivory chair surrounded by children, her breasts bared ready to feed the youngest.

A multitude of babes about her hong,
Playing their sportes, that joyd her to behold;
Whom still she fed, whiles they were weake and young,
But thrust them forth still, as they wexed old;
And on her head she wore a tyre of gold,
Adornd with gemmes and owches windrous fayre,
Whose passing price vneath was to be told;
And by her syde there sate a gentle payre
Of turtle doves, she sitting in an yvory chayre.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), A multitude of babes about her hong (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

From Charissa, the Redcrosse Knight learns of God’s love, before he’s handed over to the care of Mercy, an old matron. She takes him along a narrow path to a hospice founded by Charissa, where seven devout men tend the poor and the sick. After resting there, the knight ascends a steep slope to a chapel, where he meets an ancient man named Contemplation, who takes the knight up a steeper climb to a mountain summit.

From that peak, Redcrosse can see a distant city formed of pearl and precious gems, which he is told is the City of God, the new Jerusalem, peopled by those whose sins have been redeemed by the Son of God. Contemplation tells the knight that this heavenly city surpasses the beauty of Cleopolis, the earthly city of the Faery Queen. He then reveals to the knight that he is descended from the Saxon kings of England, and was stolen as an infant by an elf, who took him to Faeryland, as he is to become Saint George of England.

With that, the knight parts from Contemplation and returns to Una and Celia. He quickly regains his strength, allowing Una and the Redcrosse Knight to depart from Celia’s house and resume their quest.

Canto 11

The knight with that old Dragon fights
Two days incessantly:
The third him overthrowes, and gayns
Most glorious victory.

Una and the Redcrosse Knight at last arrive in her native land, where her parents are besieged in their castle by the fearsome dragon. As they approach the castle with its lofty tower made of brass, they hear the earth-shaking roar of the dragon. As they get closer, they see that its body is as big as a hill. The dragon catches sight of the knight’s armour shimmering in the light and charges towards him. Una makes for safety as the dragon spreads its vast wings. Covered with clanking brass armourplate, it draws closer, so that the knight can see its triple rows of iron teeth and smell the sulphurous smoke emerging from its nostrils.

The knight prepares his lance and charges, but the dragon strikes with its tail, knocking him and his charger to the ground. Redcrosse remounts quickly and charges, striking the brass scales a mighty blow which only annoys the dragon further, which responds by taking to the air and snatching horse and rider in its talons. The knight fights free, forcing the dragon to drop him and his mount, and allows him to charge again and stab the dragon at the base of its left wing.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The knight with that old Dragon fights (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The dragon feels the pain of Redcrosse’s lance and roars mightily as black blood pours from the wound. Flames shoot from its mouth, its tail curls round and drags the horse to the ground. The knight lands heavy blows with his sword which are sufficient to stun the dragon. As it tries to withdraw, its wounded wing malfunctions, so it sears the knight with flames before knocking him over again with its tail.

The Redcrosse Knight falls helplessly into the Well of Life, where he spends the night in prayer, and arises rejuvenated just before dawn the following day. When the dragon comes to attack him, the knight cleaves through the armourplate on its head with a heavy blow from his sword. The dragon lashes its tail out with the pain of the wound to its skull, and drives its barbs clean through the knight’s shield and armour into the flesh of his shoulder. Ignoring the pain from this wound, Redcrosse slahes his blade through the tail and severs it from its body.

Amid more bellowing, fire and smoke, the dragon grasps the knight’s shield in its talons and drives him to the ground. Redcrosse strikes back with his sword, hacking off one of the dragon’s two front paws, which allows him to retrieve his shield and get back onto his feet. At that, the dragon belches fire at the knight, blowing him back against the Tree of Life, with a rich crop of rosy apples. Nearby is another heavily-laden fruit tree bearing the knowledge of good and evil. The knight falls into the stream formed by balm pouring from the Tree of Life, where he spends a second night being healed of his wounds.

The Redcrosse Knight rises before dawn on the third day of his combat with the dragon, healed and refreshed by the balm. After a moment’s hesitation, the dragon starts his attack, its mouth wide open to eat the knight whole. Redcrosse thrusts his sword up into that cavity and drives his blade deep. As he draws his sword back, the dragon’s blood gushes out. Its body collapses like a falling mountain, and it dies.

Canto 12

Fayre Una to the Redcrosse Knight
betrouthed is with joy:
Though false Duessa it to barre,
Her false sleightes doe imploy.

With the dragon dead, a fanfare blows from the castle, and Una’s parents and their court emerge to pay homage to the Redcrosse Knight. They take the couple back into the castle and prepare a feast of celebration. As they dine, the king invites the knight to remain, but Redcrosse explains that he has to return to serve the Faery Queen. The king then rewards him with betrothal to his daughter, and makes him heir to his kingdom.

As Una and the knight are bowing in gratitude, a messenger arrives warning that Redcrosse is already pledged to another, and can’t be so betrothed, according to a letter signed “Fidessa”. The court falls silent as the king asks the knight to explain.

The Redcrosse Knight explains that this woman calling herself Fidessa is in fact the sorceress Duessa, which Una confirms. The king calls his guards to arrest the messenger, who turns out to be none other than the evil magician Archimago, so is chained in the dungeon. The king wants no further delay in his daughter’s marriage, and declares that their wedding shall take place immediately, a service which he conducts forthwith.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Fayre Una to the Redcrosse Knight (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

There is then even greater celebration throughout their kingdom, allowing the couple time together in perfect bliss. At the end of that honeymoon, though, the Redcrosse Knight rides back to serve his Faery Queen, leaving Una to await his return.

That completes the story of Una and the Redcrosse Knight (alias Saint George), and is the end of the first book of The Faerie Queene.

Principal Characters

Archimago, an evil sorceror who tries to stop all knights in the service of the Faerie Queen.

Dame Celia, a pious and godly woman, who keeps an old house devoted to the service of God, and has three daughters, Fidelia (Faith), Speranza (Hope) and Charissa (Charity).

Charissa (Charity), the only married daughter of Celia.

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

Fidelia (Faith), oldest daughter of Celia.

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.

Speranza (Hope), a daughter of Celia.

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.