The Faerie Queene: Contents and summary of books 1-3

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Britomart (1900), watercolour on paper, dimensions not known, Library of the Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

This is the first of two articles which provide a succinct summary of the plot of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. This contains a selection of the finest paintings of its scenes, and links to each of the articles covering these three books. There’s also a summary of the principal characters, and a selected reading list at the end. A second article covers books 4-6 and the Mutabilitie Cantos, which are fragments of what may have been a seventh book.

The epic’s illustrators

Book 1: Una and the Redcrosse Knight

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), Una and the Red Cross (study) (date not known), oil on panel, 36.8 × 44.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Redcrosse Knight, hero of this book, rides out on his first mission with the lady Una. He has been sent by the Faerie Queene, Gloriana, to kill a dragon. When forced to shelter from a storm, the knight has to kill the monster Error. They encounter the evil wizard Archimago, who creates a false copy of Una and tricks the knight into believing that she is wanton. Redcrosse then rides away without her.

The knight meets the wicked sorceress Duessa, who’s posing as the lady to a Saracen knight, whom Redcrosse kills. When they rest under a pair of trees, those reveal Duessa’s true nature.

1 The Redcrosse Knight and Una

National Galleries of Scotland
William Bell Scott (1811–1890), Una and the Lion (c 1860), oil on canvas, 91.5 x 71.2 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Una searches for the missing knight, and befriends a lion. After scaring off a thief, she meets Archimago who has assumed the appearance of the Redcrosse Knight. But the sorceror is left unconscious by a Saracen knight who kills the lion and abducts Una.

The real Redcrosse Knight arrives at the House of Pride with Duessa. He’s challenged to a duel, in which Duessa promises she’ll help the Saracen challenger.

2 The lion and seven deadly sins

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen (c 1788), oil on canvas, 102.5 × 109 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Duessa brings down a life-saving fog when the Saracen is well-beaten by the Redcrosse Knight. Together with Night, she takes his body to the Underworld to be healed.

The Saracen who has abducted Una tries to seduce her, but is frightened off by satyrs and fauns. She flees another fight, with Archimago in pursuit.

The Redcrosse Knight is weakened when he drinks from a cursed stream, and then faces a giant in combat. At Duessa’s request, the giant takes them both to his castle, where the knight is thrown into the dungeon. Una then meets Prince Arthur, who promises to free the Redcrosse Knight.

3 Duels and capture by a giant

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.

Arthur and his squire kill the giant and free the Redcrosse Knight, who has been starved almost to death. When he has convalesced and Arthur moves on, he goes to the Cave of Despair, where he’s persuaded to kill himself, but Una saves him.

4 Release and the Cave of Despair

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.

Una takes the Redcrosse Knight to the House of Holiness to recover before he tackles the dragon. Once he is morally strong, the knight travels on and finds the monstrous creature besieging the castle of Una’s parents. Over the course of three days, the Redcrosse Knight wounds and finally kills the dragon. Despite one last attempt by Duessa to prevent it, Una and the knight are married, but he then returns to serve the Faerie Queene.

5 The Dragon

Book 2: The Legend of Sir Guyon, or Of Temperance

Sir Guyon, accompanied by the Palmer, has set out on a mission, and is met by Archimago, who tricks him into fighting the Redcrosse Knight who is on his journey home. Guyon then finds a victim of Acrasia, the evil enchantress who is the objective of his mission. His horse and lance are stolen, and he heads to a castle by the sea, where three sisters are constantly bickering.

The knight’s horse was stolen by Braggadocchio, who makes himself a knight and acquires an equally untrustworthy squire. They are tricked by Archimago, but flee when the huntress Belphoebe finds them.

6 Sir Guyon

Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), Sir Guyon with the Palmer Attending, Tempted by Phaedria to Land upon the Enchanted Islands (1849), watercolor and bodycolor, with some gum arabic, over black chalk underdrawing, 53.7 × 75.1 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Sir Guyon and the Palmer tackle Furor and Occasion to save a young squire, before being warned by a page to depart, because his knight is coming and will put them in great danger. When that knight arrives he does indeed fight with Guyon, who quickly forces Pyrrhochles to yield and plead for mercy. The page then goes to seek the help of his knight’s brother, who is lounging in Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss.

Pyrrhochles’ brother Cymochles heads towards Sir Guyon, but separating them is the Lake of Idleness, on which one of Acrasia’s servants is plying a gondola. She ferries Cymochles to an island where he falls asleep, then takes Guyon across, leaving the Palmer behind. Guyon and Cymochles fight, leaving the latter unconscious and bleeding. The servant returns Guyon to the other side of the lake just before Pyrrhochles arrives and, being covered in burning wounds inflicted by Furor, throws himself into the lake, almost drowning. Archimago is passing by and uses magic to ease those wounds.

7 Furor and Phaedria

Sir Guyon walks on alone and meets Mammon with piles of riches. Untempted by golden apples of Discord in the Underworld, the knight falls so deeply unconscious that he appears dead. When the Palmer reaches his body, Pyrrhochles and Cymochles appear and start removing Guyon’s armour, and Pyrrhochles takes his sword. Prince Arthur arrives and the two brothers fight him unsuccessfully, and are killed.

Arthur and Guyon travel together until they reach the House of Temperance, a castle besieged by a thousand fiends. The two knights drive them away, and are admitted to the castle, being shown around its rooms, which have functions like parts of the body. They select books to read from its library.

8 Saved by Prince Arthur

Two books provide Spenser with the opportunity to give fictional accounts of the history of Britain, and the race of Faery.

The following morning, Guyon and the Palmer continue their journey by boat, while Arthur and his squire drive away another attack by the thousand fiends, killing their leader.

Their boat reaches the sea, and sails on past dangers and temptations to lure them from their mission. After they land, Guyon and the Palmer finally reach Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss, a place of lascivious pleasure. They throw a magic net over Acrasia and her lover, and destroy the bower and the gardens around it. They finally return to their boat with their captives, their mission accomplished.

9 Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss

Book 3: The Legend of Britomartis, or Chastity

On his return journey, Sir Guyon challenges an unknown knight, whose lance hurls him to the ground: she is Britomart, whose lance is enchanted, who joins them as they ride into dense forest. She parts company to pursue someone chasing fair Florimell, and reaches Castle Joyous, where the Redcrosse Knight is defending himself against six attackers. She defeats the six with her lance, and is welcomed into the castle, where its wanton lady assumes that she’s a man and tries to seduce her.

Britomart and the Redcrosse Knight ride away in the morning, as she tells him about her life, and how she had fallen in love with the image of Sir Artegall seen in a crystal globe made by Merlin. When they tracked the wizard down he explained that Britomart’s love for Artegall would bring a line of renowned monarchs, up to the virgin queen Gloriana. Thus she was now on her quest for Sir Artegall.

10 Britomartis

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Britomart (1900), watercolour on paper, dimensions not known, Library of the Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The Redcrosse Knight leaves Britomart to ride on alone to the coast. There she is threatened with death by another knight, so she impales him with her lance, and leaves him for dead. His mother is a Nereid who sweeps his body away for the sea god Tryphon to heal.

Arthur and Guyon have been pursuing Florimell; when her pursuer gives up the chase, Arthur’s squire Timias continues pursuit, while Arthur chases the maiden. Timias is ambushed by the forester who was pursuing Florimell and his two brothers. Although the squire kills all three, he loses a lot of blood himself and falls unconscious, for Belphoebe to rescue and heal him. Timias falls secretly in love with her.

Belphoebe and Amoret are sisters, the result of their virgin mother being impregnated by the sun when she was asleep. Belphoebe was raised as a huntress by the goddess Diana, and Amoret as a paragon of beauty by Venus.

11 Belphoebe, Amoret, Florimell

Florimell takes refuge with an old witch; when she leaves in the morning, the witch sends a monster to capture her, but the maiden jumps into a small boat and finds safety at sea. The monster eats her horse, and a passing knight binds it using the magic sash which Florimell had been wearing. That knight is attacked by a giant woman, but she abandons him and a captive squire whom she had been abducting, as another knight approaches.

The witch creates a false Florimell to satisfy her son’s desires for the real one, but she is then lost to a knight.

Florimell’s boat is drifting out to sea when the fisherman in it suddenly awakes and tries to seduce her. Proteus rescues her and takes her down to his home in the depths of the sea. As she refuses his advances, he puts her in his dungeon in the hope that she’ll change her mind.

Several knights ride out from the Faerie Queene’s court in search of Florimell, but she is presumed to have been eaten by the monster.

Three knights try to gain entry to a castle owned by a miser, but are refused; in a hailstorm they take shelter in a shed, where they’re joined by Britomart. At first the three (who don’t know that she’s a woman) refuse her entry, but she uses her magic lance to unseat one of them so they join forces to enter the castle together. At dinner that night they’re given an account of the Trojan War which links the Trojan Brutus with the founding of London.

12 Florimell lost at sea

Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret exhibited 1833 by William Etty 1787-1849
William Etty (1787–1849), Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret (1833), oil on canvas, 90.8 x 66 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In the morning, Britomart rides out with one of the three, Sir Satyrane, while another seduces and elopes with the miserly castle’s owner, only to abandon her to a troop of satyrs; her husband is turned into Jealousy itself.

Britomart and Satyrane meet a giant, who leaves them the grieving Sir Scudamore. His lady Amoret is being tortured by the evil magician Busirane in his dungeon, so Britomart goes to that castle to rescue her. She is trapped inside a room at dusk, when an elaborate masque takes place in front of her, in honour of false love. The following night she breaks out and finds Busirane, whose dagger cuts her breast. Amoret pleads for the magician’s life, as without him the spells binding her can’t be broken.

With Britomart’s sword at his throat, Busirane releases and restores Amoret, and the two leave the castle. When they return to its gate, though, Sir Scudamore is nowhere to be seen.

13 Rescuing Amoret

Principal Characters

Acrasia, an evil enchantress who lures men to her wandering island, the Bower of Bliss. Sir Guyon has been sent to put an end to her wickedness.

Amoret, or Amoretta, twin sister of Belphoebe, raised by Psyche as a paragon of grace and beauty, with only one true love.

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

Sir Artegall, a gallant and chivalrous knight, descended from the kings of Cornwall, stolen away by an elf when he was an infant. Britomart falls in love with his image.

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

Belphoebe, twin sister of Amoret, who prefers hunting to being at court. Raised by Diana as a huntress, she is adept with her spear, and bow and arrows.

Britomart, or Britomartis, heroine of Book 3, “Chastity”, of faithfulness in true love. A woman knight and virgin, taken to represent the Fairy Queene herself, she has fallen in love with the image of the knight Artegall, and is in quest of him.

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

Florimell, another virgin in search of her true love, but passive and defenceless. She represents perfect beauty.

Sir Guyon, hero of Book 2, “Temperance”, a knight at the Faery Queen’s court, who is sent to stop the wrongs of Acrasia.

The Palmer, an elderly man dressed in black, who is leading Sir Guyon in his quest to put a stop to the evil of Acrasia.

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

Sir Satyrane, a good knight, who helped Una in the past.

Sir Scudamore, a good knight, whose lady is Amoret. He is plunged into grief when she is adbucted and tortured by Busirane.

Timias, Prince Arthur’s squire, a young man who falls in love with Belphoebe.

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.