The Magic of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene

Walter Crane's Britomart, 1900

Britomart, a female knight, the personification and champion of Chastity. She is young and beautiful, and falls in love with Artegal upon first seeing his face in her father's magic mirror. Although there is no interaction between them, she falls in love with him, and travels, dressed as a knight and accompanied by her nurse, Glauce, in order to find Artegal again. Britomart carries an enchanted spear that allows her to defeat every knight she encounters, until she loses to a knight who turns out to be her beloved Artegal. Britomart is one of the most important knights in the story. She searches the world, including a pilgrimage to the shrine of Isis, and a visit with Merlin the magician. She rescues Artegal, and several other knights, from the evil slave-mistress Radigund. 

 G.F. Watts photograph of his painting Britomart and Her Nurse (RA 1878)

In Watts's painting (surviving photograph) Britomart’s nurse describes to her the signs of the future she sees in the magic mirror: the figures of the Red Cross Knight: Sir Guyon,the Knight of Temperance, the hero of Book Two. He is the leader of the Knights of Maidenhead and carries the image of Gloriana on his shield. According to the Golden Legend, St. George's name shares etymology with Guyon, whose name means "the holy wrestler." This is one of the numerous paintings that featured mirrors either as literal reflections or as auguries: a frequent device in Victorian poetry as well as art. 

 The Red Cross Knight overcoming the dragon by G.F. Watts, 1853

Edmund Spenser's long allegorical poem The Faerie Queen was completed in the 1590s. The illustration here is taken from Canto XI, which tells the story of the Red Cross Knight. He kills a dragon which has long terrorized a country for some years, with its king and queen walled up in their castle for four years in fear. He stands upon the carcass of the dragon. Una, the only daughter of the monarch, and the personification of truth throughout the poem, has been liberated by the Red Cross Knight and holds him by the hand. Around them the people stand rejoicing. A mother restrains one of her children from getting too close to the jaws of the dead dragon. Behind them come “maidens sounding their sweet timbrels” and the aged king and queen.

G.F Watts Una and the Red Cross Knight, 1869

 G.F. Watts's symbolist painting depicting Una and her chivalric companion. The scene is from the very opening of The Faerie Queene. Watts himself favored it because of its heavy content of moral allegory.

One of the greatest allegorical episodes in The Faerie Queene is Redcross’ fight with the Errour. Spenser uses allegory throughout the cantos of his book to make larger statements on the church of his time period and especially on the road to redemption.

Redcross represents the knight of Holiness throughout the story yet it is easy to discern that he is not perfect and has not been tested before his journey with Una. Spenser makes it clear from the beginning that Redcross had “Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield” ( This is Spenser’s way of telling the reader that Redcross has yet to be tested in battle and also in belief. However, he shortly receives his first test upon entering and exploring the woods with Una and her dwarfe. The three of them come across a cave in the woods. Both Una and the Dwarfe advise Redcross to use caution and even tells him that this is Errours den “A monster vile, whom God and mad does hate/therefore I read beware. Fly Fly/ this is no place for living men” ( Yet this untested knight full of the ideas of grandeur and battle went in anyways to inquire as to the contents. The Holy knight discovers Errour in this den. She is half woman, half serpent and “full of vile disdaine” (  Spenser points out that Errour hates light and “Ay wont in desert darkness to remaine” ( Redcross literally causes the light to enter the cave as it bounces off his armor but he also is figuratively is the light. Representing the Knight of Holiness, his light is also his faith and Errour has no interest in the light he has to offer and only wants to remain in her darkness or lack of faith. he also wants to be a pure as he can.  Una, steps in to guide him in his battle. She tells him “Add faith unto your force, and be not faint/ Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee” ( Una, representing a unified church, saves Redcross from impending doom with her advice. when Redcross strangles Errour she spews vomit full of books and papers with “loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke” ( Even when Errour’s offspring spewed out, they were unable to harm Redcross. He was easily able to brush them off of him and “oft doth mar their murmurings” ( Having thrown off her offspring so easily, he is renewed in strength and able to “raft her hateful head without remorse” ( 

John Melhuish Strudwick's Acrasia, 1888

Acrasia, seductress of knights. Guyon destroys her Bower of Bliss at the end of Book II. Similar characters in other epics: Circe (Homer's Odyssey), Alcina (Ariosto), Armida (Tasso). Also the fairy woman from Keats' poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci".

A knight in black armour lies asleep, his head resting in the lap of a dark-haired woman; roses are strewn over him, and a silver goblet has fallen from his hand; girls with musical instruments are partly seen behind the foliage. Note the delicate painting of the draperies and leaves, and the elaboration of detail throughout the picture.

Acrasia is the magical enchantress in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the sixteenth century poet’s masterpiece (Book II). The poem, published with the help of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1570, was a symbolic glorification of Queen Elizabeth I, England, and the English language. Spenser was a popular inspiration for nineteenth century painters and the chivalric quest of the knights in The Faerie Queene provided many Pre-Raphaelite painters with subjects.  Book II is an allegory which illustrates the virtue of temperance, in which the valiant fairy knight Sir Guyon sets out on a quest to destroy the Bower of Bliss, a garden of tempting earthly delights.

This mesmerising work is a vision of Acrasia kneeling with her victim in the garden of the Bower of Bliss. Like the sorceress Circe who turned Ulysses’s men into swine and whom Strudwick had painted two years before, Acrasia seduced men and transformed them into beasts. The defeated knight, who has succumbed to Acrasia’s charms and sipped her fatal potion, lies listlessly in her arms, at her mercy. His armour is scattered with rose blossoms, his shield rests futilely in the branches, and his sword lays idle upon the ground. Beyond the bower, a lake glistens in a golden sunset.

From amongst the branches of the apple trees, Acrasia’s handmaidens sing a haunting melody along to the melodious chords of their lutes and harps. Music became the most important metaphor of the Aesthetic Movement, echoing the direct way in which the design and color of paintings struck the viewer’s emotions and senses. Like Whistler, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Strudwick alludes to music in his paintings throughout his career.

Please feel free to leave any comments,


Maggie Peters said…
I really enjoyed this. I've always loved The Faerie Queen and the paintings you used are beautiful. Lovely post!
Robert Parry said…
Great post, and some super paintings! Thank you.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Maggie, yes, The Faerie Queene is full of beauty and rich with symbolism. Thanks for stopping by.

Hi Robert, thanks for commenting. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. You can't go wrong with Mr. Watts!
Angela Bell said…
Loved this and must say did not know this story very well,thanks!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Angela, Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to comment. I've always loved The Faerie Queene. I'm so glad you loved it, too!