Edmund Spenser opens, prefaces, and introduces The Faerie Queen with a letter addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh. In this letter, Spenser outlines his intention behind writing the epic poem, “Which For That It Giveth Great Light to The Reader.” Spenser writes, “The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” To accomplish this goal, The Faerie Queen features “the historye of King Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time.” Spenser thus explains why The Faerie Queen alludes to the Arthurian legends; the hearkening to the past is no small accident. The author hopes to engender in the reader a sense of lofty ambition, hope, and courage that the Arthurian legend represents. In so doing, Spenser also creates the central tone, theme, and motif of The Faerie Queen. The Faerie Queen also alludes to ancient Greek philosophy and literature, Spenser states in the opening letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. Spenser draws a connection between King Arthur and the Aristotelian virtues, creating a portrait of the ideal man. He writes, “I labour to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised, the which is the purpose of these first twelve books.” Spenser achieves his goal of fashioning a “gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” through tone, characterization, and symbolism. In so doing, Spenser presents his ideal social norms.
In the letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser writes about “the deedes of Arthure applyable to that vertue which I write of in that booke.” Arthur’s deeds, his acts, and his reactions to life are what reveal the King to be the emblem of all that is good, noble, and in vertuous and gentle discipline,” For this reason, Spenser uses Arthur to instruct his readers how to become the ideal human being. However, it is not only Arthur that exhibits the virtues of a human being. Different knights embody different virtues, or idealized characteristics. The characters in The Faerie Queen are highly symbolic. They are archetypes. “The first of the Knight of the Redcrosse, in whome I expresse holynes: The seconde of Sir Guyon, in whome I sette forth temperaunce. The third of Britomartis, a lady knight, in whome I picture chastity.” The Faerie Queen represents glory, and her position of power is to bestow upon the Knights the tools of their salvation and their personal power.
The first book of The Faerie Queen brings up the topic of Christianity, and how it is important for the ultimate virtue. The Redcrosse knight approaches the Faerie Queen and asks for an adventure. It just so happens that a lady walks into the room “riding on a white asse, with a dwarfe behind her leading a warlike steed, that bore the armes of a knight, and his speare in the dwarfes hand.” This lady’s parents have been locked up in a castle by a dragon and she wants them to be rescued. The knight accepts the challenge, but the woman tells the knight he shall only go wearing “the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul, vi. Ephes.” By this, Spenser suggests that Christianity leads one to a virtuous victory.
Holiness is the particular virtue that the Redcrosse Knight embodies. The cross is a symbol of Christianity; it is impossible to be holy without being Christian. Because the cross appears on the Knight’s shield, Spenser also suggests that Christianity protects one from death. The trials and tribulations that the Redcrosse Knight encounters — such as the monster Error and the dragon — are all tests of his faith and spiritual fortitude. Because Spenser writes The Faerie Queen in part to glorify Queen Elizabeth’s official conversion of the state religion to the Protestant faith during the Reformation, the evildoers and enemies of the Redcross Knight symbolize not Satan but Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism was an emblem of all that was wrong in the social and political order, and Spenser’s allegory shows that it is personal piety and a fiery spirit, which the knight exemplifies, that is genuine holiness. The Redcross Knight symbolizes the new social order of Protestant faith. Furthermore, the Redcross Knight represents “a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” because he is dedicated to his Christian faith. Because the Knight pursues faith independently of the clergy, he represents the genuine Protestant connection between an individual believer and God. If Spenser’s work to be framed not according to the Aristotelian twelve virtues but to the Christian trio of Faith, Hope, and Chastity, then the Redcrosse Knight would be the emblem of Faith. He therefore reappears throughout The Faerie Queen, because he is a “noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.”
As one of the core Christian virtues, Chastity becomes important in Book Three of The Faerie Queen. Chastity is a gendered virtue, one that is more important for a woman to embody than a man. A woman is burdened with the double standard of remaining chaste, to emulate the core Christian icon of the Virgin Mary. Britomart is the icon of chastity. She pines away for Arthegall, and refuses to be with any other Knight. Britomart therefore becomes the character that Spenser uses to promote the ideal Christian female. The fact that Britomart is a the effort that it takes for a soul to be and remain chaste. Chastity is more than just sexual abstinence; it is the strength of spirit that causes one to remain true to one’s self and one’s dedication to the virtues. This is why, in Spenser’s letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, he notes, “a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” because it is not only a “gentleman” who exemplifies the ideal human.
The Faerie Queen as Gloriana is the ultimate protagonist and matriarch of her own epic. Whereas the Knights in the story represent specific virtues, they are all subordinate to the great Queen. The Faerie Queen symbolizes Queen Elizabeth, who Spenser praises not least because of her disavowal of the stranglehold of the Catholic Church. Therefore, the Faerie Queen herself presents the method by which a politician can be a “noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” Representing all worldly and spiritual glories, the Faerie Queen sends off Knights to fulfill their highest duty, which is to perfect their virtues in the name of God. The Faerie Queen is a leader and a coach to those who benefit from her support.
In the opening letter to The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser admits he is being somewhat instructive or didactic in his poem. “to some, I know, this methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus clowdily enwrapped in allegoricall devises.” The theme of desire, of Arthur for the Faerie Queen, plays an important role in Spenser’s instructive allegory. It is not only King Arthur who is idealized in The Faerie Queen, of course. The title character deserves all the glory. “In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery Land.” However, it is truly Arthur who exemplifies all the Aristotelian virtues, all twelve of them, according to Spenser. “In the person of Prince Arthure I sette forth magnificence in particular, which vertue, for that (according to Aristotle and the rest) it is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all.” Magnificence in the personage of Arthur represents the ideal human being.
Jusserand, J.J. Spenser’s “Twelve Private Morall Vertues as Aristotle Hath Devised” Modern Philology. Vol. 3 No. 3. 1906.
Nestrick, William V. “The Virtuous and Gentle Discipline of Gentlemen and Poets.” ELH. Vol. 29, No. 4, 1962.
Neuse, Richard. “Book VI as Conclusion to The Faerie Queen.” ELH. Vol. 35, No. 3. P. 329-353.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. 1589. Retrieved online: http://www.bartleby.com/39/14.html