Edmund Spenser began writing in 1579, and was deemed “the greatest nondramatic poet of the Elizabethan era” soon after he had published two of his most sophisticated works, The She pheardes Calender and The Faerie Queene.1 Spenser wrote in a time of religious turbulence, and his work often reflected the religious polemic and theological themes of the rime. Spenser’s epic verse, and second written work, The Faerie Queene, embodied the theme of spiritual “warfare” that had become increasingly popular in his time; the poem is allegorical, presenting the reader with a Christian knight who is faced with physical, as well as spiritual demons and must defeat them using spiritual weapons, such as faith. The knight’s first battle, in which he is faced with the dragon Errour and is nearly killed, demonstrates that the knight, or Redcrosse, must realize the importance of faith before he can begin to discern between falsity and truth, which will then lead him to victory in spiritual warfare. Once Redcrosse embraces faith, he is then able to more deftly maneuver about his enemies through the use of spiritual, not physical weapons.
The argument is often made that Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is an allegory meant to show Spenser’s belief in the errors of Catholicism and truth of Protestantism. However, the poem begins with a theme shared by both Protestants and Catholics, an idea of Christian warfare procured from the Apostle Paul’s use of military imagery in his Epistle to the Ephesians.2 As Erasmus explained in his Handbook of the Militant Christian, “spiritual living” requires “continual warfare” against “our vices, our armored enemies” and against the devil, world, and flesh, enemies that “attack us unceasingly” with “endless deceptions” and “secret contrivances. 3 While drawing upon this common heritage of Christian warfare, Spenser provides a Protestant emphasis, giving particular value to faith as the critical part of Christian armor.
The Faerie Queene is split amongst twelve books, each containing several cantos. Redcrosse appears in Book One, Canto One, riding a horse with a fair maiden behind him. In the Epistle Dedicatory to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser explains that “the knight of the Redcrosse, in whome I express Holyness” begins his journey after pleading with the Faerie Queene for “a boone,” which was “that hee might have the achievement of any adventure.” 4 Redcrosse is granted his desire when Una, the fair maiden who emerges with Redcrosse in Book One, appears before the queen to ask her help in rescuing Una’s parents from a dragon.
Redcrosse accepts the journey, and is thereto thrown into a web of spiritual battle. When Redcrosse begins his adventure, he is “Y clad in mightie armes and silver shield,! Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine/The cruelle markes of many a bloudy fielde;/Yet armes till that time did he neur weild.” 5 Spenser later describes, “But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,/The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,/For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,/And dead as living ever him ador’d:/ Upon his shield the like was also scored.”6 Redcrosse wears the armor of a Christian warrior, which is described vividly by the Apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians.
Paul wrote Ephesians for the city of Ephesus, which “boasted a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana.”7 According to the Committee on Bible Translation, Paul did not write of any specific heresy to be found in Ephesus; instead, he “wrote to help his readers better understand the dimensions of God’s eternal purpose and grace.”8 Ephesians concerns the ideas of spiritual armor and the light that signifies grace, of which Paul urged the city of Ephesus to partake. Paul writes,
Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you
may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to
To stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,
and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.9
Erasmus wrote in his Complaint of Peace, “The cross you carry is the emblem of one who lived, not by fighting, but by suffering, who saved men instead of destroying them.”10 In both Ephesians and The Faerie Queene, warfare is spiritual; no physical weapons may be used, since they would not be enough when in combat with sin and temptation. Spenser allegorizes Redcrosse’s armor, making the shield, badge and sword all represent the knight’s spiritual weapons.
Redcrosse, donned in his Christian armor, rides along with the maid Una until a storm drives them into a wooded area. The knight rides until “A shadie grove not far away they spide/That promist ayde the tempest to withstand:/whose lofttie trees yclad with sommers pride,IDid spred so broad, that heavens light did hide,/Not perceable with power of any starre.”11 The woods are dark, and Redcrosse and Una stray from the path they had been traveling. They become confused and “wander to and fro in ways unknowne,/Furthest from end then, when they neerst weene,/That makes them doubt, their wits be not their own.”12 Soon they come upon a path “that beaten seemed almost bare.”13 Spenser is alluding to the path of temptation, which is mentioned in the book of Ephesians and serves as a common theme throughout the Bible. The author of Proverbs writes, “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrongs and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways.”14
When Redcrosse begins to traverse this path, Una warns him of the danger ahead. She speaks, “Yea but.. .the peril of this place/I better wot then you, though now too late/To wish you back returne with foul disgrace/Yet wisedome warnes, whilest foot is in the gate,/To stay the stepe, ere forced to retrate./This is the wandring wood, this Errours den,/A monster vile, whom God and man does hate.”15 Una demands that the knight be well aware of the danger ahead, explaining that the dragon may be a more difficult foe than the knight believes. The maid urges Redcrosse to ease himself into battle, declaring, “Oft fire is without smoke,/And peril1 without show: therefore your stroke/Sir Knight with-hold, till further trial made.”16 Redcrosse, however, dismisses her warnings and, “full of fire and greedy hardiment” nearly flies into battle, heartily wielding his sword and intent on fighting a physical battle.
As Redcrosse approaches Errour’s cave, he is encased by darkness. However, Spenser writes that “his glistring armor made/A litle glooming light, much like shade,/By which he saw the ugly monster plaine.”17 When Redcrosse’s light infiltrates the cave, Errour starts and begins to hide, “for light she hated as the deadly bale.”18 The armor that Redcrosse bears frightens Errour; she does not want to be seen by men, so she attempts to find the darkness once again in order to hide herself. Spenser explains in the same stanza that Errour desires a place where no one is able to see her. Her penchant against light relates directly to Biblical metaphor, with light representing goodness and virtue, and the darkness representing temptation and wickedness. Paul, who also penned the book of Romans, writes, “The night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”19 With the aid of the light from his Christian armor, Redcrosse scatters the darkness of Errour’s cave and reveals the vile creature, exposing the sin which resides within.
Once Errour is
uncovered, battle between the knight and the dragon ensues. Redcrosse immediately
descends upon Errour, attempting to use his physical strength to vanquish
the dragon. As Spenser writes, “the valiant Elfe. . .he lefpt/As Lyon fierce
upon the flying pray.”20 However, Errour
soon gains advantage over Redcrosse, wrapping her thick coils around his
body. Redcrosse has engaged himself in battle with “greedy hardiment,”
believing he is able to defeat the dragon alone; yet Paul writes in Ephesians,
“In your anger do not sin,” and later emphasizes the virtue of patience
and reliance on God.21 Seeing that Redcrosse
cannot escape from Errour, Una calls out, “‘Now now Sir knight, shew what
ye bee/Add faith unto your force, and be not faint:/Strangle her, else
she sure will strangle thee.”22 In this
sense, Errour is the darkness, the evils of temptation, which is only vanquished
by the use of faith.
Once Redcrosse uses faith as his spiritual weapon, he is then able to free himself of Errour’s grip. Without faith, Redcrosse had remained “in great perplexitie,” or an entangled state,23 enwrapped in the coils of Errour with no means of escape. Paul writes in the second chapter of Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast.”24 Redcrosse had previously begun his battle believing in the strength of physical prowess; yet, his physical might proves to be no match for Errour. Ephesians warns, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”25 These spiritual evils must be fought with intangible weapons. Therefore, it is not until Redcrosse reverts to the strength of faith that he is able to conquer the dark dragon.
Once Errour releases Redcrosse from her coils, the knight beheads her, and “a streame of cole black bloud forth gushed from her corse. “26 The knight’s sword relates to the sword of the spirit, which, as relayed by Ephesians, “is the word of God.”27 All of Redcrosse’s physical weapons are such: allegorical inferences referring to Christian armor of the faithful. After Redcrosse has slain Errour, Una approaches the knight and congratulates him on his victory, declaring, “Faire knight, borne under happy starre/Who see your vanquisht foes before you lye;/Well worthy be you of that Armorie.”28 Redcrosse has now, as Una demanded, added faith as a spiritual weapon, and now is worthy of the Christian armor that he wears.
Redcrosse and Una then leave Errour’s den, winding down the well-worn path, which was “beaten most plaine,” just as Christians saw the path of sin.29 Soon the couple meets a man, Archimago, on their pathway; the stranger appears godly, and invites Redcrosse and Una back to his home, where he prays and “often knockt his breast, as one that did repent.”30 However, upon finishing dinner, Archimago drugs Redcrosse and Una, causing them to fall into a deep sleep. When night falls, the man “to his study goes, and there amiddes/His magick bookes and artes of sundry kinds/He seeks out mighty charmes, to trouble sleepy mindes.”31 Two sprites then appear, conjured by Archimago, one of which is sent to obtain a “fit false dream” from Morpheus, the god of sleep. Archimago then
made a lady of that other Spright
And framed a liquid ayre of her tender partes
So lively, and so like in all mens sight.
That weaker sence it could have ravisht quight
The maker self for all his wondrous witt
Was night beguiled with so goodly sight:
Her all in white he clad, and over it
Cast a blacke stole, most like to seeme for Una fit.32
Once Archimago has fashioned a sprite in the image of Una, he lays the false dream upon Redcrosse and sends the clone to the knight’s bed. Redcrosse did then “dreame of loves and lustful play/That night his manly hart did melt away,/Bathed in wonton blis and wicked joy:/That seemed him his Lady by him lay.”33 While Redcrosse is engaged in a lustful dream, the false Una slips into his bed, and he awakes. The knight is taken aback, shocked by the maiden’s appearance by his bedside, since she is, as he states, virtuous and “most like that virgin true.”34 Redcrosse is at once both confused and enraged by her bawdy behavior, yet he does not rush to battle as he did in Errour’s den. Instead, “hasty heat tempring with sufferance wise,/He stayde his hand, and gan himselfe advise/To prove his sense, and tempt her faigned truth.”35 The false Una attempts to explain her behavior by claiming unrequited love for the knight, but Redcrosse does not readily believe her lies. Spenser writes, “Her doubtfull words made that redoubted knight/Suspect her truth.”36 When the cloned sprite finds that she cannot tempt the knight, she leaves, and Redcrosse once again sleeps, accosted by false dreams until the second sprite, “when he saw his labor all was in vaine/. . . he back returned again.”37
In this second battle, Redcrosse shows far more physical restraint in his actions. No longer is he relying solely on the physical nature of battle; he has realized the importance of faith as a spiritual weapon, and is now able to discern more readily between truth and falsity. Paul writes in his letter to Ephesus, “All of us lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath,”38 and later he commanded that the Ephesians “get rid of all bitterness. ..along with every form of malice.”39 Redcrosse possessed the opportunity to concede to temptation or to strike at evil, but he resisted the wrath, “stayde his hand,” and instead utilized the virtue of constraint and discernment that comes with faith.
As Spenser wrote to Raleigh, “the generall end thereof of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person vertous and gentle discipline.”40 Redcrosse engages in his spiritual journey with little to protect him, for he is powerless without faith. Erasmus wrote that “Great as David was, because he was a warrior and polluted with blood, he was not allowed to build the home of God.”41 However, the virtue Redcrosse learns during battle with Errour prepares him for further spiritual battles, against Archimago and other more menacing foe, whose deceit may not be as readily apparent as Errour’s.
Redcrosse, through his success in “tak[ing] up the shield of faith,” has progressed in his spiritual battle, realizing the necessity of faith in all matters concerning the temptation and sin of the flesh. His battle with Errour serves as a starting point in his spiritual warfare; the use of Christian armor and faith allows him to discern between falsity and truth, while resisting temptation, proving his allegiance to the word of God and his own spirituality.
1. M.H. Abrams, Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.W Norton and Co., 1993), 501.
2. There is currently a dispute concerning the authorship of Ephesians.
Some believe a
follower of Paul wrote the text.
3. Desiderus Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers, 1962).
4. Edmund Spenser, “A Letter of the Authors,” in The Norton Anthology
of English Literature, ed. M.H. Abrams. 6th ed. (New York: WW. Norton and
Co, 1993), 5 16-5 19.
5. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I. i. 2-6.
6. Ibid., I. i. 10-14.
7. lBS (International Bible Society), The Holy Bible. (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 1329.
8. Ibid., 1329.
9. Ephesians 6:13-17.
10. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly and Other Writings,
ed. Robert M. Adams.
(New York: W. W Norton and Co., 1989), 104.
11. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 55-60.
12. Ibid., I. i. 86-88.
13. Ibid., I. i. 93.
14. Proverbs 2:12-15.
15. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 109-114.
16.Ibid., I. i. 103-105.
17. Ibid., I. i. 121-123.
18. Ibid., I. i. 142.
19. Romans 13:12.
20. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 145-146.
21. Ephesians 4:26.
22. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 164-166.
23. Ibid., I. i. 167.
24. Ephesians 2:8-9.
25. Ibid., 6:12.
26. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 216.
27. Ephesians 6:17.
28. The Faerie Queene, I. i. 237-239.
29. Ibid., I. i. 246.
30.Ibid., I. i. 261.
31. Ibid., I. i. 322-324.
32. Ibid., I. i. 398-405.
33. Ibid., I. i. 418-421.
34. Ibid., I. i. 441.
35. Ibid., I. i. 445-447.
36. Ibid., I. i. 473-474.
37. Ibid., I. i. 494-495.
38. Ephesians 2:3.
39. Ephesians 4:3 1.
40. Spenser, Norton Anthology of English Literature, 516.
41. Erasmus, 96.