This is the second 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 books. There’s also a summary of the principal characters, and a selected reading list at the end. The first article covers books 1-3.
Book 4: The Legend of Cambel and Telamond, or Of Friendship
After Britomart has rescued Amoret from the tortures of the evil Busirane, the two ride off together. But it’s not until they stay at a castle the following night that Amoret learns that her companion is a woman. When they ride on the next day, they come across two knights, Blandamour and Paridell, with their ladies, who turn out to be the deceptive Duessa and the ugly old crone Ate.
The kights fight for Amoret’s company, leaving one of them angry because he manages to lose both Amoret and Duessa. Britomart rides on in silence, until they are reunited with Scudamour and Britomart’s squire, her old nurse Glauce. After another brief fight, Duessa and Ate hurl abuse at Amoret and Scudamour.
Blandamour, Paridell, Duessa and Ate meet a false double of Florimell (who in reality is a captive of Proteus under the sea) with Sir Ferraugh. Blandamour and Paridell fight for the false Florimell, wounding one another, but are stopped when another knight arrives and announces a tournament to be held by Satyrane for the real Florimell’s golden sash. They settle their quarrels and head for the tournament.
On their way, they meet Cambell and Triamond, two famous knights who had formed a deep friendship, after fighting one another in a deadly duel, and each had married the other’s sister.
The knights converge on Satyrane’s tournament, where the host is the victor of the first day. On the second, Cambell and Triamond together get the better of Satyrane, but on the third two strangers fight their way through the field. They are Artegall and Britomart, and it’s she who successfully unseats Artegall, Cambell, Triamond and Blandamour to become the overall champion.
The knights’ ladies then compete for Florimell’s golden sash. Amoret seems the most likely winner, but when the false Florimell tries the sash on, it falls from her waist. The sash does fit Amoret, until the false Florimell snatches it away and demands that she’s awarded the prize. The others fall to arguing, as Britomart and Amoret quietly ride off, leaving Scudamour (who’s unaware that Britomart is a woman) thinking that Amoret has been stolen from him.
Later Scudamour and Glauce spend a sleepless night at what turns out to be a busy smithy, in the morning bumping into Artegall. When Britomart appears, Scudamour challenges her, but once again her enchanted lance quickly puts them on the ground. Eventually Artegall knocks Britomart’s helmet away, and her true identity is revealed. Artegall and Britomart fall in love immediately, and she recognises him as the knight who was revealed to her by Merlin’s mirror. They agree to marry, but only when Artegall has completed an urgent quest.
Britomart and Scudamour then go off in search of Amoret.
Amoret is abducted by a monster and sealed in its cave, to be deflowered and devoured later. When it returns she bolts past it into the forest. There, Timias and Belphoebe rush to her aid. The monster is forced back, and the huntress’s arrow kills it as it’s about to retreat into its cave. Belphoebe taunts Timias before she runs off, throwing him into despair. He takes refuge in a hut, where he’s later discovered by Prince Arthur, his knight, who doesn’t recognise him. Eventually the huntress finds Timias, they’re reunited in love, and live happily together in the forest.
Arthur finds Amoret, and they stay the night with the venomous Sclaunder, who spends the time cursing them. The following day, Arthur kills a giant riding a dromedary, then goes on a mission to free the lover of a young squire from a castle, allowing two couples to marry at last. From there, Arthur and Amoret find a fierce battle in which four knights are fighting with Scudamour and Britomart, and restore peace.
Scudamour tells Prince Arthur how he first fell in love with Amoret in the Temple of Venus.
Marinell meanwhile discovers Florimell being held captive in Proteus’s dungeon under the sea. When his mother pleads the case before Neptune, Proteus is ordered to release her. She and Marinell fall in love and resolve to marry.
Book 5: The Legend of Artegall, or Of Justice
Sir Artegall is on a quest to recover the lands of the lady Irena, which had been taken by the evil Grantorto. His squire is his servant Talus, who is made of iron and wields a fearsome iron flail. They meet a squire with the headless corpse of a knight’s damsel. Artegall confronts the knight with the judgement of Solomon to expose his guilt, and sentences him to carry the severed head of his lady as punishment.
Artegall meet Florimell’s servant, who tells them of the couple’s imminent wedding. The knight then has to cross a bridge guarded by a Saracen who demands his usual exorbitant toll. Artegall kills the Saracen, and Talus razes his castle to the ground. They next meet an arrogant giant who claims that the world is full of inequalities, but is unable to substantiate that. Talus throws the giant down a cliff.
At the wedding of Florimell and Marinell, Sir Guyon recognises his stolen horse during the celebratory tournament. The thief also unveils the false Florimell, who vanishes into thin air when beside the real woman. For this the horse-thief is stripped of all knightly trappings and banished from knightly company.
Artegall and Talus meet two brothers fighting over a chest of treasure, and settle their dispute. He’s then surrounded by Amazons, so makes his way to their city. Artegall is challenged to single combat with Radigund, their queen. First thing the following morning, Artegall overcomes the Amazon but is unable to kill her. She takes advantage of this and forces him to concede to become her slave, doing women’s work while wearing women’s clothing.
Talus seeks Britomart’s help. When they are travelling to the city of the Amazons, a bitter old knight tries to get revenge by killing Britomart, but she and Talus defeat his attack in the night. They travel on to try to rescue Artegall.
Britomart has a dream interpreted at a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, which predicts that she and Artegall will produce the line of British monarchs. She then proceeds with Talus to the city of the Amazons, where she fights their queen, Artegall’s captor. Although wounded in her shoulder, Britomart manages to behead Radigund, and releases the many knights she has been holding as slaves, including Artegall, who is able to resume his quest.
He meets a lady fleeing from attacking Saracens, who are being pursued by Prince Arthur. Initially mistaking one another for enemies, they stop and make up. The lady is seeking help for her mistress, who is being oppressed by an evil idolater. Arthur and Artegall together deceive the oppressor, who ends up being shredded by the blades on the wheels of his own chariot.
They then ride to the mistress, with Talus putting an end to an artful deceiver on the way. When they arrive at the court, they help the lady Mercilla in dispensing justice in her court. The case that they assist her with is that of Duessa, whom they find guilty. She is then sentenced to death.
Arthur is then asked to help a widowed mother whose lands have been taken from her by a tyrannical giant. The prince first captures one of the castles, which enrages the giant. When Arthur kills him too, the widow offers him her lands, but he declines, and removes the giant’s sacrificial altar and its guardian monster.
Meanwhile, Artegall and Talus travel on in their quest. They disperse a mob attacking a lone knight and his lady before reaching the coast and sailing to Irena’s country, their objective. Their landing is opposed, but they cut their way through the armed horde which greets them, sending a herald to challenge the despotic giant Grantorto.
Artegall kills Grantorto in combat, and stays in Irena’s land to help restore law and order before he’s recalled to Gloriana’s court. On his way back, he has to pass Envy and Detraction, who accompany a monster which has a thousand poisonous tongues, the Blatant Beast.
Book 6: The Legend of Sir Calidore, or Of Courtesy
As Sir Artegall is riding back to the Faerie Queene’s court, his mission accomplished, he meets Sir Calidore, who’s in quest of the Blatant Beast. Calidore finds a squire bound to a tree, the victim of a lady who collects the hair of passing knights and ladies, to give to her knight. Calidore defeats that knight, and forces him to beg for mercy.
Calidore then comes across a young hunter who is son and heir of the late king of Cornwall, whom he appoints as his squire. However, as he has to undertake his current quest alone, they go their separate ways. The knight then comes across a badly wounded knight, and carries him to a nearby castle. The next day, Calidore sets out to return the wounded knight’s lady to her father before resuming his mission.
On his way back, he sees the Blatant Beast snatch up another knight’s lady, Serena, in its jaws, wounding her badly before it drops her and flees in fright. Calidore gives chase. The knight, Calepine, tends to Serena’s wounds, taking her on his horse to a castle where Sir Turpine refuses to admit them or provide any assistance. As Calepine takes his lady away, Turpine attacks and wounds him badly in the shoulder.
The wounded couple Calepine and Serena are aided by a woodsman, who stops their bleeding and cares for them in the forest. When Calepine is wandering in the wood he kills a bear with an infant in its mouth. He hands the infant to the wife of the local lord, a childless couple, so fulfilling a prophecy. However, Calepine is now lost, and leaves Serena to work with the woodsman to head out of the forest.
They meet Prince Arthur, who has just been reunited with his squire Timias, who had also encountered the Blatant Beast and been wounded by it. Timias had then been ambushed, and it was by good fortune that Arthur had arrived and saved his life. Serena tells Arthur of the behaviour of Turpine. Arthur seeks assistance to manage her and Timias’s wounds from the Blatant Beast, which remain painful and slow to heal. He finds them a former knight, now an old hermit, who provides them the understanding required for healing to take place.
Arthur and the woodsman go on to Turpine’s castle to teach him a lesson. The prince is about to take Turpine’s life when his lady puts herself between them and pleads for his life. Arthur tells Turpine to go without arms and to reform his conduct, but both the knight and his lady harbour bitter resentment.
The next day, Turpine tries to get his revenge on Arthur by tricking two young knights into attacking him. One dies immediately on Arthur’s lance, the other learns the truth about Turpine and returns the deceit by bringing Turpine to the prince. Turpine is punished by being stripped and strung up from a tree by his heels.
Timias meets an arrogant and cruel lady who is serving her punishment at the hands of a giant and a cruel fool. Timias tries to free her from the giant, but ends up being dragged along at the end of a rope and being whipped on. The surviving young knight and Arthur put an end to that and free the squire, but have to leave the giant and fool alone so that the cruel lady can serve out her sentence.
Meanwhile Serena has reached a grassy plain where she falls asleep. When she wakes she’s being prepared for sacrifice by cannibals, who remove all her jewellery and clothing. As they’re about to kill her at last light, Calepine hears her cries and kills the cannibals to save her life, and reunite with her.
Sir Calidore has continued to pursue the Blatant Beast relentlessly. He pauses with some hospitable shepherds, and falls in love with Pastorella there. Her father explains that she was a foundling, and extols the virtues of the bucolic life.
Sir Calidore has a vision of Pastorella with the three Graces and the handmaidens of Venus. One day, he’s hunting alone when the shepherds are attacked by ruthless brigands, who take Pastorella and her step-father away. The leader of the brigands takes a fancy to her, and won’t sell her into slavery with their other captives. The brigands fight over this, and she is left wounded among a pile of bodies.
Calidore discovers what has happened, and finds the brigands’ caves, where he kills the remainder who haven’t fled, and rescues Pastorella. He takes her to the local lord’s castle, where they hear the story that the lord and his wife had been forced to abandon their love-child years ago. They identify Pastorella as that infant, from a distinctive birthmark. She is thus reunited with her natural parents.
Calidore tracks the Blatant Beast down to a monastery, where it’s engaged in destruction and desecration. He manages to catch and muzzle it, and attaches a chain to subdue it completely. With the beast in tow like a pet dog he leads it through the Land of Faerie. Later it escapes and once again roams free, pouring forth its poison into the world.
Two Cantos of Mutabilitie: Of Mutability
Mutability is descended from Titans, and acts as a goddess on earth, bringing constant change and breaking of laws. She then turns to bring change to the gods. She first demands that Diana gives up her throne; when she refuses, Mutability makes the moon stand still. Mercury reports this to Jove, who sends the messenger back to investigate. Jove holds an indecisive meeting of the gods, but Mutability marches in and refuses to accept that he and the gods should be rulers, as she considers that she’s greater than any of them.
Mutability takes her case to trial before the goddess Nature on Arlo Hill, where Diana used to bathe before she was caught naked there by Faunus. Mutability pleads that everything is in a state of ceaseless change, from the hours to the seasons and years. Even the gods are constantly changing. Nature’s verdict is that all things change, but change doesn’t rule all things. Thus Mutability has to be content to be ruled by Nature and Jove, as the leader of the gods.
The poet agrees with that verdict, but looks forward to time eventually consuming everything, and all will rest unchanging in eternity.
Amoret, or Amoretta, twin sister of Belphoebe, raised by Psyche as a paragon of grace and beauty, with only one true love. She’s abducted and tortured by Busirane.
Sir Artegall, a mighty and good knight, with a deep sense of justice, who is betrothed to Britomart, but cannot marry her until he has completed his quest for Irena. Taken to represent Lord Grey of Wilton, whom Queen Elizabeth sent to crush rebellion in Ireland, and the wisdom of fair justice.
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.
The Blatant Beast, the object of Calidore’s quest. It has a thousand tongues and appears dragon-like. At the end of Sir Artegall’s quest in Book 5, he met the Beast, but passed by it with calm resolution
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.
Calepine, a courteous knight, whose lady is Serena.
Sir Calidore, the most courteous and mild-mannered knight at the court of the Faerie Queene, he is despatched to deal with the Blatant Beast, but told that he must do so alone.
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. Presumed eaten or killed by a witch’s monster, but in reality saved and a captive of Proteus in the depths of the sea.
Grantorto, an evil tyrant who has wrested all Irena’s lands from her, and is now the subject of Artegall’s quest.
Irena, a lady who went to the Faerie Queene’s court to seek aid to recover her lands from Grantorto.
Marinell, a knight, son of a Nereid, who has been warned to keep away from women, as a maiden will bring him great injury and grief. He is marrying Florimell.
Mercilla, a wise and graceful ruler who is challenged by the oppression of the Souldan. She sends her servant Samient to negotiate a peaceful settlement with him. Represent Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Pastorella, a young shepherdess, who is much wooed by shepherds, including the unsuccessful Coridon. Calidore falls in love with her. Originally a foundling who was brought up by an adoptive father.
Radigund, Queen of the Amazons, whose love was refused by a knight, causing her to wreak vengeance on all knights. She captures them, forces them to wear women’s clothes, and puts them to work performing women’s tasks such as spinning, as her slaves.
Sir Satyrane, a good knight, who helped Una in the past.
Sir Scudamour, a good knight, whose lady is Amoret. He is plunged into grief when she is adbucted and tortured by Busirane.
Serena, Calepine’s lady, who is carried off and badly wounded by the Blatant Beast.
Talus, the servant of Artegall, made of iron, who cannot stand any form of wickedness, and carries a heavy iron flail with which he enforces justice. Represents the letter of the law.
Timias, Prince Arthur’s squire, a young man who falls in love with Belphoebe.
Sir Turpine, the most discourteous knight imaginable, he refuses to provide hospitality to other knights even when they’re in distress, and hurls abuse at them. Lives in a grand castle with his sickly lady.
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.