Book I, Canto I
THE FIRST BOOKE
THE LEGENDE OF THE
KNIGHT OF THE RED CROSSE,
Spenser’s intention with The Faerie Queene was to instruct readers, through allegory, in 24 different Virtues, 12 “private” and 12 “public”. The complete list, of course, was never written. Still, we can get a good picture of the sort of Virtuous Knight Spenser intended to create through the existing books: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesey. He wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh:
The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceiued shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction…
Spenser understood that his fellow humans would much rather read an entertaining story than a sermon. His letter to Raleigh elaborates on great poets of the past who were able to instruct their readers morally through fiction. Spenser had grand plans for a 24-part allegory of the complete Virtues that a perfect knight (or Elizabethan gentleman) ought to possess. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing for the aspiring Virtuous Knight, after all, the 6 Virtues that remain are hard enough to achieve.
We meet a Knight on horseback. His armor is “mightie”, dented and scarred, yet we read that he has never before wielded arms. He appears jolly, fair, brave, and solemn. His breast and shield bear a Red Cross in memory of Christ’s suffering. He is going on a quest, given to him by the FAERIE QUEENE HERSELF, Gloriana. Since it is his life’s goal to please her, he is on his way to slay a dragon. Next to the knight rides a Lady on a white donkey, all veiled in black, with her pet lamb following. We learn that her family had ruled their land, which stretched from the East unto Western shores, until the dragon came. She implored help from the FQ’s court and got this knight to accept her adventure. Behind them rides a Dwarf, seeming lazy or maybe just tired from carrying the Lady’s posessions (which included a hairdryer and at least 12 pairs of shoes. Just kidding!).
It begins to rain on these fair adventurers, so they seek shelter in a forest. As any modern fantasy reader can surmise, they promptly get lost in the forest. They assume a logical assumption and decide to follow the path that is most worn, hoping it will lead them out of the woods. Instead it leads them to a suspicious cave. The Lady warns the Knight to be careful, he responds that he does not want to shy away from shadows. She says that she knows where they are (why did she not speak up beforehand? Spenser leaves us guessing)…ERROR’S DEN. “Fly fly” quoth then the fearefull Dwarfe. But it’s too late!
The Knight peeks into the cave and sees a horrible monster, half woman and half serpent. The light reflecting off his armor (beautiful detail) startles the monster. She is surrounded by baby monsters that crawl into her mouth at the sight of the light. The Knight begins to fight this Error monster but she wraps him in her coils. He is trapped, but hearing the Lady encourage him, he grabs the monster’s throat. The monster throws up on him, spewing out her babies, which begin to attack him. Finally, more afraid of shame than the danger he’s in, the Knight beheads the mom monster. The sad babies come to crawl in her mouth, but she’s dead, so they drink her blood until they all explode.
The Lady congratulated the Knight, and they continue riding in search of new adventures. Eventually they come upon a holy man, clad in back, praying and beating his breast. He claims to know nothing of adventures (due to his religious isolation) but tells them about a wicked knight who has been harassing his country. The Knight offers him a reward to show them where the wicked knight is. But it is getting late, and the Lady wishes to stop and rest, so the old man invites the adventurers to his house for the night. They arrive at his lonely hermitage, eat, and talk until late. Once his guests have fallen asleep, the old man is revealed as Archimago, the sorcerer.
He summons some sprites to do his bidding. One he sends to the Underworld. The other he forms with his magic into the likeness of the Lady. The sprite sent to the Underworld passes through locked gates and dogs to the god of sleep, Morpheus. Morpheus snoozes among poppies to the soothing sounds of water and wind. He has difficulty waking the god but finally succeeds. Morpheus grants his boon and creates a false dream for Archimago. The sprite carries the dream back “on litle wings”.
When he returns, the sorcerer has made a false Una (the Lady, who is named here for the first time). He instructs the phastasm on what to do and sends the dream into the Knight’s brain. He dreams of the Lady and lustful things. When he awakes, relieved it was a dream and that the woman he is risking his life for isn’t really a whore, what appears to be Una kisses him and begins to act like a whore. He is angry because he thought she was chaste and he doesn’t want to fight for an impure lady. The Una phantasm cries and manipulates him into feeling sorry for her. He is still suspicious and questions if such a woman is worth protecting. She does not succeed in seducing him. He falls back asleep and the dream continues to disturb him.