The Faerie Queene presents an unusual challenge to English readers in many ways. You can describe it as epic, romance, or fantasy. It covers many topics, including Christian, Christian, and Pagan. The story is incomplete and it remains open to conjecture as to how the other narrative will end. The poem is not a single-spaced work of art and demands more attention from the reader. MacCaffrey describes MacCaffrey’s challenge for the reader by describing it as
“The characters (including the heroes) move primarily in horizontal plane. But, Spenser’s readers have their attention drawn repeatedly to the upper, lower, and source of truth. This vertical dimension is ordinarily beyond the horizon of the characters, but visible to us; as always when a distance develops between fiction and reader, the effect is to make us aware of fictiveness itself and to ponder the nature and relevance of fictions”Interpreting the allegory in The Faerie Queene is not simply a task of deciphering a code, but a matter of relating to the Spenserian, Elizabethan and Fairy worlds in order to make sense of and then bring together the carefully structured layers and meanings of the poem.
Spenser’s contemporaneous and his contemporary audience would likely recognize that the book they are reading is an allegorical text. Allegory is a literary device that evolved from the classical method of using metaphors and similes to interpret the world. The Bible featured allegory extensively. The technique was considered one of moral purposes and was continued to be used through the medieval period. Elizabethans would therefore have known the allegorical style that The Faerie Queene uses. Modern readers also know this because their copies are prefaced by Spenser’s famous Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. Spenser clearly intended to not confuse his readers. He used allegory instead as a method to present his views and ideas on Elizabethan society.
The reader is required to read Fairy Land and follow the narrative.
The Redcrosse Knight role in Book 1 is an example of how the allegory demands that readers interpret it. MacCaffrey says, “In Book 1’s epistemological allegoria, Spenser forces both his reader as well as his hero to face the duplicity and seemings.” This “duplicity in seemings” can be mainly represented by the roles of Una or Duessa. Redcrosse is a prefatory quatrain ‘holiness’ and the reader must remember this to fully grasp the significance of his problems. Duessa Abessa and Archimago, according to Spenser are allegorical representations for the Catholic Church. These are specifically designed at deceiving Redcrosse as well as the reader. Redcrosse, in many aspects, is a Christian or more accurately a Protestant everyman. Spenser views his quest for truth, holy glory as a man’s duty. It is the Catholicism forces that hinder him. Spenser isn’t only concerned with Catholicism in the poem. He also views Islam as lacking faith (Sansfoy), joy (Sansjoy), and lawlessness (Sansloy). Spenser’s audience would have had no trouble understanding these names. Anyone who has read such a poem will most likely have some basic Latinate knowledge. Modern English readers may not understand the meaning of these names without additional information. The Faerie Queene’s names are easy to comprehend at an early stage.
Modern readers also have to contend with the constant attacks on any non-Protestant, whether they are Catholics, Muslims, or faithless. Spenser, an Elizabethan figure, wrote with the support of religious and political power bases. His views would have been either supported or rejected quietly. Modern English readers are used to multiculturalism being celebrated and rejected as a norm. Northern Ireland is an example of this. The study of The Faerie Queene’s allegory could be contentious in that it would offend Catholicism in an region where religious differences can cause death.
A poem that condemns Islam for being without faith, law, and joy in a British community with a Muslim community would be equally unacceptable. Spenser is certainly not to be criticized for his inability to see the world with the modern sensibilities and enlightenment, but the reader now has the task of taking Spenser’s goals and giving them a universal meaning. This can lead to an exclusive interpretation. This is dangerous in terms of trying to create an exclusive interpretation (i.e. Fidessa Duessa might be accepted for being false but ignores her being the Whoressa. Or she could be accepted but not accepted as the Catholic Church’s representative. Sansfoy can also represent lawlessness, but she doesn’t need to be Muslim. Although it may result in the poem being incomplete, this would not detract from its beauty.
Spenser’s intent must be fully understood by the reader before such an interpretation can occur. The “vertical axis” MacCaffrey refers to is the key. Redcrosse is not a symbol for a fixed concept. We know that he supports the reader in solving the problems that he faces. This makes him an ordinary person, but clearly he’s not. Although Spenser intended him to be a symbol of holiness, it is important to remember that he isn’t holiness as such, but rather a man who has holiness. Malbecco, Jealousy in Book 3, is one example of such characters. Una as Truth is another example. Redcrosse has the ‘true Christian truth’ when she is with him; when she’s absent, he falls prey to Archimago and Duessa. Redcrosse is an example of holiness and courage. However, he lacks the experience. This portrays a young man who longs for glory, and suggests that he is still not very accomplished. Duessa tricks him into believing he can win. However, he eventually overcomes the temptation to follow Lucifera and the seven Sins. The story is about how each man can steer clear of pride and deceit in order to live a life of truthfulness and holiness. It also shows how the Catholic Church deceived the whole Christian religious community. He was only able to believe in the true religion of Protestantism because he was a man of holiness. Book 1 focuses on the religious allegory. The political allegory begins with the introduction Arthur.
The Redcrosse Knight becomes St. George, and the reader is presented with a new level of the’vertical axis. His role of a Protestant role model is combined alongside his representation of Britain. This device of allegory can also be divided into different types, techniques, and situations. Instead, the priority of the reader should be the distinctions among the topics. Redcrosse’s journey up the mountain by Contemplation is an example of this. But, Redcrosse also signifies a Moses- or Christ-type figure. It is clear that Spenser was open about his intended meanings, as he makes frequent references to them. Spenser’s intentions are not always so clear that the reader needs to balance his priorities.
The task of The Faerie Queene reader is to actively participate, be patient, and find a balance between objectivity or subjectivity. The superficial narrative, while it can be ignored as a hindrance when understanding the poem is made easier by the readiness of the reader to follow the fairy stories – the battles among Knights and Monsters against a background of bleeding forests and mythical beasts. The fairy tale’s narrative is meant to be synced with the allegorical developments. Contemplation’s journey to the mountain is the cerebral ‘calm before’ the allegorically-spiritual (and physical)’storm of the dragon fight. It is easy to get lost in the narrative, and rereading will bring you back to the story. The Faerie Queene should be read with the following in mind: Once you have a grasp of the meanings, the surface narration becomes subservient. Spenser’s ideas are facilitated by the surface story. Paradise Lost’s epic Paradise Lost shows that allegories about the English Civil War are subservient and essential to the story of the ultimate battle between good or evil. The Faerie Queene’s reader must be able to perceive the entire poem without losing sight of allegory.
Greenlaw, Edwin. An Analysis of Spenser’s Use of Historical Allegory in His Writings London: OUP, 1932.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. London’s Routledge & Kegan Paul published a book in 1971.
Isabel G. MacCaffrey’s work examines Spenser’s use of allegory in his writing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
MacQueen, John. Allegory. London: Methuen, 1970.
Parker, M. Pauline. The Allegory Of The Faerie Queene. London: OUP, 1960.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Thomas P. Roche, Jr.’s work was published by Penguin in 1978.