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Book 1 of Spenser's The Faerie Queene: Concepts and Themes

Terms and Concepts

Relevant Historical Events and Figures 

Allegory

Book I of The Faerie Queene is highly allegorical. An "allegory" involves the simultaneous telling of two or more stories, with objects, actions, and characters in a narrative equated with meanings outside the literal narrative.

A Simple Allegory
One day, a character named Faith goes for a walk in a forest called Doubt. Faith becomes lost in the forest, but she meets a man named Despair. Despair tells Faith that he can help her out of the forest. Despair leads Faith to a river called Suicide and tells her to jump in. But just as Faith is about to jump into the river, a handsome fellow named Hope comes along and grabs Faith. Hope rescues Faith and leads her away from Despair and out of Doubt.

Get it?

We have a literal story here, with characters, a setting, and a simple plot, but we also have an allegorical story that says something about losing faith because of doubt and despair but regaining faith through hope.

Allegory and The Faerie Queene

Like this simple allegory, Book 1 of The Faerie Queene is allegorical but far more complex. In fact, Spenser tells his literal story along with three different allegorical levels, as outlined below. (The allegorical levels have been variously defined, but the definitions below may be most helpful for discussions of the poem.)

Literal Level

a story of romance and adventure

(1) Moral/Christian Allegory

abstract moral truths (with Truth, Faith, Error, etc.)

(2) Historical Allegory

religious history of 16th century England (with the Pope, etc.)

(3) Biblical Allegory

Biblical history of humanity (with Christ, Satan, etc.)


The allegorical levels are not presented consistently throughout the poem. In places, Spenser focuses on only one of the allegorical levels; in other places, he tries to incorporate all three allegorical levels. At times, you may notice that, in order to convey meaning at an allegorical level, Spenser includes details that seem odd at the literal level. (Why, for example, would a monster vomits books?)

The Main Characters and the Allegorical Meaning
The characters, creatures, and action in Book I of The Faerie Queene have allegorical significance. The table below should help you keep track of the significance of three important characters on two allegorical levels.

Levels

Characters

Literal

Red Cross Knight

Una

Archimago

Moral/Christian

Holiness, a good person

Truth

Hypocrisy

Historical

England

One true faith

Pope


As you are reading Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, keep the allegorical levels in mind and see if you can find and explain passages that are especially important in terms of their allegorical significance.

This page was last updated on June 06, 2013. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2009.