Faerie Queen Readalong I: Redcrosse, the Knight of Holiness

I did it, I read all of Book I!  My minimum requirement was two cantos a day, but I managed three a couple of times.  I'm hoping to read ahead, because I'll be gone for two weeks in the middle of this event and I'd like to be able to prep a post ahead of time...but the schedule is already pretty demanding.  The reading is not terribly difficult, but it is slow.  I keep thinking that I've read a large chunk, only to look back and realize that in fact I have read six verses.  So here we go with analysis...

Each book in the Faerie Queene features a knight, and a story, about a particular virtue.  The Redcrosse Knight, to be known as St. George after he accomplishes his feats, is all about Holinesse.  This does not mean that Redcrosse already exemplifies holiness; he doesn't.  Holiness is what he's working towards and struggling with.  His foes symbolize various forms of unholiness, and he falls into their clutches at least as often as he defeats or avoids them.  He is in fact kind of incompetent at the whole 'heroic knight' job, which is the point of the story, since he is Everyman struggling with sin.

Redcrosse and Una

We open with Redcrosse traveling with Una, who is veiled in black.  She rides on a white donkey and leads a baby lamb (which never appears again).  A dwarf accompanies them and probably symbolizes Prudence.  Una is Truth, the daughter of the king and queen of Eden, whose land is being oppressed by a terrible dragon, and they are on their way to free Eden.

Pretty soon, they get lost in a wood and find a cave with a monster in it.  Redcrosse is overconfident of his abilities and rushes in to fight this terrible monster, Error.  She thrives in darkness and has lots of little monster children, who sting.  Redcrosse falters but eventually prevails; she vomits hideous black poison all over him first, mixed with frogs and...books and papers?  Yep, these are theological arguments and tracts, possibly Catholic.  Once she is dead, her children slurp up the gore and then burst, leaving our heroes free to leave the forest by the clear road they are now able to see.

We then meet Archimago (a great mage, or a great image--he is hypocrisy), who desires to separate Una and Redcrosse so as to defeat them both.  He is dressed like a hermit and appears humble, but there are a lot of hints that he has a changeable, unstable nature; there is a lot of moon/water imagery here.  Archimago takes them in, but gives Redcrosse a false dream that Una is faithless to him, so that Redcrosse runs away, leaving Una deserted.  On the road, he meets Sansfoy (faithless, as Redcrosse has been) and a beautiful maiden.  Redcrosse kills Sansfoy in battle, and the maiden introduces herself as Fidessa (she is in fact Duessa, falsehood) and gives a fake biography.  She drops hints that she is not all she appears to be, but Redcrosse is busy looking at her, and he doesn't really listen to what she says--or to the warning delivered by a speaking tree.  Duessa is described in terms comparable to the Whore of Babylon in Revelation, and she's also the Catholic church in some ways.

 Duessa takes Redcrosse to the House of Pride.  There is a very long description of Lucifera's house, counselors (the other six deadly sins, each with matching animal mount), and courtiers.  Sansjoy (joyless--there are three brothers) arrives and the two knights agree to a joust.  Redcrosse wins and is taken back to Pride's house to be nursed--this is where he really falls victim to Pride, since before, he was uncomfortable and resisted the place.  Duessa sneaks out and takes the wounded Sansjoy to Hades, to be cured.  She returns to find Redcrosse gone, having been warned by the prudent dwarf that the dungeons are crammed full of miserable people.  She finds him again resting at a cursed fountain that makes people lazy; he has taken off his armor, a huge mistake, because Redcrosse's armor is that described in Ephesians 6, the armor of God.  Defenceless against sin, Redcrosse succumbs to Duessa's seduction and is then attacked by the giant Orgoglio--pride, presumption, and sin.  Orgoglio throws Redcrosse into a deep dungeon, gives Duessa a beast to ride (again, the one in Revelation), and she becomes his paramour.

Una and the lion
Meanwhile, Una ventures out on her slow little donkey to search for Redcrosse.  A lion attacks her but, seeing her wronged innocence, he becomes her guardian.  They have an adventure with superstition, are tricked by Archimago, and at last run into Sansloy, who kills the lion and takes Una prisoner.  He tries to seduce her, then to rape her, but she is saved by forest satyrs, who are enamored of her virtue and beauty.  Una lives with them--rather like Snow White--and tries to teach them, but until she meets a half-human Sir Satryane, she cannot get away.  Satyrane and Sansloy then battle as Una runs away in fear--and we never do learn the outcome.  Instead, the dwarf finds her and gives her Redcrosse's discarded armor.  She meets Arthur, the excellent knight who is Gloriana's love, who promises to help her.

Una saves Redcrosse in Despair's lair
Arthur battles Orgoglio, as his squire tries and fails to defeat Duessa on her beast.  Arthur must deal with both, and the giant turns out to be a literal gasbag--he deflates upon death.  Arthur must descend deep to find Redcrosse, who is starving and sick.  They strip Duessa of her Babylonian finery, and she turns out to be a filthy monster.  After she runs away, Arthur tells his story and they rest in the well-provisioned castle.

Redcrosse is not yet well, but he rushes into the next adventure anyway.  He enters a cave to meet Despair, who uses rhetorical tricks to convince Redcrosse that suicide is really the only way to live.  Una has to recall him to reality.  Despair, unhappy at his loss, tries to kill himself, but that's a daily occurrence for him; he can't die.  Una takes Redcrosse straight to the House of Holinesse, run by Dame Caelia and her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa.  There, Redcrosse really learns what he needs in a sequence that has him repenting and learning the gospel.  Finally, Mercy takes him up a hill, where Contemplation shows him heaven, but tells him all the other things he has to do first.
Redcrosse and Una meet Charissa

Finally, Una takes Redcrosse--now strong and healthy--to fight the dragon.  There are three days of battle.  On the first day, the dragon whaps Redcrosse right into a well.  This seems like defeat, but it is the Well of Life--Redcrosse is now baptized and healed, and rises to fight again.  He does better, but the dragon still beats him.  He then spends the night under the Tree of Life, which exudes a healing and strengthening balm.  Only then can Redcrosse kill the dragon.  In this victory, Una finally unveils to reveal her true beauty, and the King plans to betroth the couple.  Archimago and Duessa have one final try--Duessa writes a letter accusing Redcrosse of breach of promise, and his whole story must be confessed before the happy conclusion can be reached.  Even then, the now-St. George must leave to finish six more years of service before he can return to marry and rule.

Redcrosse asleep under the Tree of Life

Well!  That's a lot of story, and I left quite a bit out.  I really like the allegorical bits describing houses and characters who personify ideas, like the fancy but weak House of Pride and the House of Holiness with its lovely description of Charity.  (I wound up in an argument with my mom and daughter about this--in Spenser, Hope wears blue and Charity wears yellow, which seems right and proper to me.  Those two, who have just read Dante, insist that Hope wears green and Charity wears red.  Well, fine.)

Neat literary moments I noticed:
  1. Spenser uses the name Tanaquill as an epithet for Gloriana/the Fairy Queen.  DWJ's narrator of the Spellcoats is named Tanaqui (and there's an entire etymology to go with it).  
  2. The first thing that happens to Una and Redcrosse is that they get lost in a wood, much as Dante's persona does at the beginning of the Divine Comedy.  Both are lost in the difficulties of earthly life and sin. 
  3. The monster serpent Error throws her coils around Redcrosse in just the same way as the witch does with Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair.  (Any similarities to Lewis stories are guaranteed to be on purpose; Lewis loved the Faerie Queene and I think he used a lot of the same kinds of ideas in the Narnia books.  Both are full of pageantry and a similar kind of feeling--a joyful throwing in of every Christian, mythological, or legendary character in a glorious hodgepodge of color.)
  4. Archimago sends a sprite to the house of Morpheus, which is reached through the dual Gates of Sleep.  Homer tells us that false dreams come through the Gate of Ivory, and true ones through the Gate of Horn.  Spenser changes the horn to silver, and I wonder if that is in tune with all the other watery, moony kinds of images he's using in that passage.  The sprite actually uses the Gate of Ivory, since Redcrosse has a false dream about Una's unfaithfulness.
  5. Sir Arthur gives Redcrosse a diamond box containing a liquor that will heal all injuries--the prototype of Lucy's diamond flask with healing cordial in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Next, it's on to Book II--Sir Guyon and Temperance.  Here we go!


  1. Wonderful review of Book One. So thorough and specific! I feel a little pressured with the reading schedule, to have better comprehension, as you have here. It would be better to have more time to read it slower and study longer. I wish a had a resource to guide me, so that I may have a deeper understanding and get more out of it. Are you using anything, or did you figure out all of the allegories, etc., yourself?

  2. Hi Ruth--I'm using a 5-volume edition that has a good amount of accompanying footnotes and introductory essays. You can see them on my GR account. It's a big help to me! I did splurge a little on them.

  3. Hmmm, I should try my library! I think I borrowed that edition from my library many years ago. Thanks.

  4. This is amazing, well done!

    I'm like Ruth at the minute - don't think I'm going to be able to keep up the pace either (which I feel bad about because I suggested it!). I'm thinking, at least for now, of going for a book a month, or perhaps when I'm more settled into it I'll go for a book a fortnight. For now, my Book I review won't be ready until the end of the month - sorely lacking in time!

    Once again well done! I am in awe! :)

  5. What an excellent post, Jean! I'm in awe.

    I'm behind, just finishing Canto I but I've been doing taxes, so I haven't really tested the pace yet. It sounds like people are finding it a little too fast, so I'm game to slow it down if that's the consensus. It is certainly reminding me of Le Morte d'Arthur, but it also reminds me of something else that I can't quite put my finger on. Great observations. I noticed the Dante allusion but didn't think of the C.S. Lewis ones. Very neat!

  6. Well, I'm starting to think I'm the only one doing this pace, and I'd be all for slowing it down. Two or more cantos a day is HARD.

  7. Wow! That is a dense experience reading it in prose. I can't imagine reading it as poetry. But, I'll cheer you and the others on! Looking forward to more of your experience.

  8. Thank you so much for this post Jean!! I have been trying to find a good analysis for this reading, because I have been assigned this book for a college class and I was having such a hard time until I found this blog. Thank you, again, for such a good analysis of this story!!!


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