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Greater Classical Epics and Medieval Romance Adheres to Christianity

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  1. Related research
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Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was written mainly to fulfil an allegorical purpose and to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” However, the moralistic tone is softened by the fact that the whole complex allegory is masquerading as a medieval romance, with the added bonus of many features borrowed from the great classical epics. The very beginning of Spenser’s letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, quoted above, immediately links his poem directly to Milton’s Paradise Lost whose intention is to “justify the ways of God to men” and indirectly with Virgil’s Aeneid, which was likely commissioned by the Emperor Augustus and has a similar didactic message.

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This text most closely resembles the Aeneid of all the classical epics, because both are designed to teach the reader and illustrate how to be a good person. Each knight in The Faerie Queene embodies a Christian virtue: Redcrosse represents holiness, and Guyon, temperance. The idea that the central character should sacrifice his own personal happiness for the greater good is common to both Spenser’s poem and to Virgil’s work.

Just as Aeneas has to leave Dido and continue his quest to find a site to found Rome, so Redcrosse must “unto his Faerie Queen back return… and Una left to mourn” (I.XII) because his task is also incomplete. It is explicitly said that Medina is the perfect match for Guyon, but again he must “take leave of that Virgin pure” (II.III) in order to continue his mission to destroy the Bower of Bliss. Here Spenser borrows heavily from the Aeneid because his purpose is very similar to Virgil’s: both writers want to illustrate how a moral, faithful and selfless man acts as an example to others. However, it cannot be overlooked that Spenser’s whole poem is full of Christian overtones, so his intention in having his characters put aside personal happiness in order to fulfil a task is also to re-emphasise that these men are the personification of one of the great Christian virtues.

It should be noted that in fact, many of the traits that characterise medieval romance are similar to, if not directly copied from, the great epics. The idea of a journey, found in all the classical epics except, perhaps, the Iliad, is paralleled by the idea of a knight’s quest in medieval romance. Odysseus has to travel home from Troy after the war is over, Aeneas has to leave the ashes of Troy to found Rome, Satan journeys from Pandaemonium to Eden, Sir Gawain has to seek out the Green Knight, Redcrosse has to find and fight the dragon that is holding Una’s parents captive and then continue and find the Faerie Queen and Guyon has to find the Bower of Bliss.

Odysseus’s great wanderings across the seas are recreated by Guyon in The Faerie Queene as he travels towards the Bower of Bliss in canto XII. Guyon has to steer his boat between a “dark and dreadful” (II.XII) whirlpool and a “perilous rock,” (II.XII) both of which have claimed the lives of many brave men. These hazards clearly allude toOdysseus’s struggle to get past Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey.

However, while Odysseus escapes partly by using his wits but partly by being willing to sacrifice some of his men, Guyon survives on faith and strength. The “many mermaids who haunt, making false melodies” (II.XII) are Homer’s sirens by another name, and Acrasia, who turns men into beasts when she tires of them is clearly modelled on Circe and her penchant for pigs.

The Palmer helps Guyon to keep his faith in the face of danger, “counselling him to fear nothing,” (II.XII) and consequently he can pass through unscathed. There is also a sense that each of Spenser’s knights is on an internal quest; they have to journey until they become the epitome of holiness or temperance. Both knights fail occasionally but by the end of their stories, after visits to the House of Pride, House of Holiness and Alma’s Castle, they achieve their emotional as well as physical goals.

Other characteristics of epic can be found in medieval romances, for example duels and battles are integral parts of both genres. Just as Gawain must take the stroke of the axe that the Green Knight gives him, so Redcrosse must fight the dragon, having defeated Sansloy, Sansjoy and Sanfoy and Guyon must fight Pyrcohles and Cymochles. It is particularly important that Guyon uses violence only when necessary because he is the knight of temperance, which naturally means that he must be moderate, and especially near the beginning of his story he needs the Palmer to keep him moderate and “tempering his passion with advisement slow.” This is not to say that Guyon is not brave and will not fight when necessary, but he must be guided by necessity and not by his own emotions.

In this way his character could be said to be modelled on Aeneas; both men have to be governed by moderation, known as temperance for Guyon and moderatum for Aeneas. Although they are presented as fairly similar, the difference again lies with Spenser’s allegorical purpose, which shapes everything he writes. Aeneas has to temper his own emotions by remembering his ultimate goal, his fatum, whereas Guyon, as the central character in a fundamentally Christian scenario, has the Palmer to guide him.

Furor appears as a character trait in the Aeneid, something to be fought and conquered, while in The Faerie Queene Furor is personified, a physical specimen for Guyon to overcome. Again, the Palmer prevents Guyon from rashly slaying Furor, showing that by following the commandments and living a Christian life one can  and should  overcome all sinful emotions.

The Palmer also counsels Phaon, the young man whom Furor is tormenting, because he gave in to Furor and killed his love. Phaon’s love story is a typical medieval romance concerned with young love that crosses social boundaries. The fact that he worships his lady and places her on a metaphorical pedestal is very typical of medieval romances. Phaon’s desire for revenge and his “heaping crime on crime, and grief on grief,” (II.IV) when he slays his love and his friend goes against the Biblical teaching to turn the other cheek and is therefore condemned by the Palmer and by Guyon. The none-to-subtle implications are that Phaon deserved to be captured by Furor because he succumbed to jealous rage, but that he also deserved to be rescued, after a period of penance, because he is repentant of his crimes.

Harry Berger notes in his article “Archimago: Between Text and Countertext” that “the spiritual dangers connected with loss of faith get dramatized predominantly as sexual dangers” (p.22). This is true of Redcrosse’s fall in the house of pride caused by the false Duessa, something that halts his quest and weakens him physically and spiritually. He needs rescuing by Arthur, who represents the grace of God, and he needs Una, who represents truth and the one true church, to show him the way. Without Una his faith has no direction and he is powerless, she is not a sexual temptation because of her part in the allegory.

The idea that women are dangerous and likely to upset the hero’s quest is once again one that is found in epic, most notably in the Aeneid. All women in the Aeneid, except the rather dull Lavinia, are possessed by furor and go mad with alarming frequency when their attempts to prevent Aeneas’s progress fail. The same is true of Bertilak’s lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: she tries to persuade him to go against the chivalric code and his own dedication to the Virgin Mary by seducing him, but, as with Spenser’s knights, his faith and virtue eventually carry him through.

This is not to say that Spenser’s characters do not make mistakes; on the contrary both Redcrosse and Guyon get into trouble and need rescuing by Arthur. This allows Spenser to re-emphasise the importance of faith; more importantly, it fits into his purpose of creating a virtuous gentleman. If his characters did not make mistakes then there would be no lessons learned and nothing for his readers to learn from.

The same is true of Gawain; although the Green Knight forgives him, and indeed praises him, for his transgression in keeping the lady’s girdle hidden, he himself is guilt-ridden. This says something important about the value of conscience, and would fit very well into Spenser’s schema should have chosen to re-tell that story. Here the traditions of epic have been twisted to suit Spenser, epic heroes are generally presented as infallible. Any mistakes that they make happen mainly through the fault of others or when they are in a weakened state. Spenser thus cannot present a fully formed virtuous knight because of his intention to instruct.

Spenser’s debt to classical epics shows clearly throughout his poem, but is perhaps best illustrated in linguistic terms by the opening of the poem. He begins his poem by invoking his “Muse,” in the same way as Milton’s “heavn’ly muse,” despite both poets’s obvious adherence to Christian, rather than classical, mythology. This is an epic device used by Virgil (“tell me, O Muse”) and Homer (“sing, goddess” and “Sing in me, Muse”) as well, and it immediately links Spenser with these classical greats, hopefully putting his work on the same level of importance.

It implies that Spenser’s story is not just his own invention but also one told through him by a divine power. Although he invokes the Muse it is clear that, as with Milton, Spenser suggests that this is God’s story to tell. The influence of the classical epics can be seen in other works that are ostensibly medieval romances: e.g., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins by referring back to the siege of Troy.

Linguistic similarities too are visible between The Faerie Queene and the classical epics. Spenser employs both simple similes such as “shone like silver upon the trembling wave,” as well much more complex ones; for example Braggadocio hiding in a bush is described thus: … as a fearful fowl, that long in secret cave for dread of soaring hawks herself hath hid, not caring how, her silly life to save, she her gay painted plumes disordered; seeing herself at last from danger rid, peeps forth, and soon renews her native pride; she gins her feathers foul disfigured proudly to prune. (II.IV)

Characters newly introduced to the reader are often given their father’s name as well their own, for example Phaon “sprung from famous Coradin.” These patronymns are used constantly in classical epic, and are used here to lend Spenser’s poem some gravitas. Canto X of book II is a long “chronicle of Briton Kings,” showing Spenser’s use of cataloguing, another epic device.

The other linguistic characteristic of epic that has yet to be examined in Spenser’s poem is the implementation of prolepses, analypses and stories within with stories. Spenser uses a prolepsis in canto V, when Redcrosse is told that in the future he “Saint George will called be… a sign of victory” (I.X).This is very close to Virgil’s use of the same tool. Aeneas is told that he will found Rome which will then grow into the Roman empire.

The same device is used by Milton; as Adam worries about his fall and having to leave Eden the archangel Michael tells him his “future” and about the lives of his descendents right up until the time of Jesus. This is used by Spenser perhaps to reiterate what a good Christian Redcrosse is, but also to give “truth” to the myth of Saint George and the dragon. Arthur tells the story of how he was brought up an orphan and taught by Merlin, showing both use of analypsis and of a separate story within the poem. Phaon’s mini-romance in canto IV is another example both of a character recounting past occurrences and of a new story that ties into the whole story of Redcrosse and Una.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not a traditional medieval romance, because while it has a Christian message, it also has more traditional features, some of which are paralleled by Spenser. The fact that both poems are basically Arthurian legends puts them firmly in the sphere of romances, however, they both use Arthur and other knights to explore Christian behaviour. Gawain is a knight of the Virgin Mary, the only knight fit to carry to the pentangle as his symbol, famous (in England) for his chastity. Similarly, Redcrosse has the red cross device on his shield, and Guyon has a picture of Gloriana on the back his shield much the same as Gawain’s portrait of the Virgin Mary.

Arthur’s shield is different because it has both a literal and a metaphorical purpose: as a normal knight his shield is his defence and it’s shininess can literally dazzle his enemies, Arthur, as an allegorical Christ-like figure and representation of God’s grace, dazzles his enemies with God’s truth. In a similar way, Redcrosse’s armour has a mundane purpose in that it protects his body from harm, but it too has an added allegorical purpose. Redcrosse’s armour is full of “old dints of deep wounds,” it is battered and covered with dents, representing the soul and the marks of sin that are left. This is what is missing from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although Gawain’s armaments are symbolic of his virtues there is less sense that his paraphernalia has a deeper religious meaning.

The importance of the number three is a common theme in medieval romance, and is apparent in both Spenser’s work and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The lady tries to seduce Gawain three times, and then offers him three gifts. It is on the third test that he fails by accepting her girdle because he believes it will save his life. However, within the traditions of medieval romance, separate from Christian morality briefly, he actually does very little wrong because he is living by his own chivalric code. By refusing the lady’s gift he would offend her, and by revealing it to his host in accordance with their agreement he would betray her trust, which he cannot do. In the same way, Guyon treats ladies with the courtesy that befits a knight.

Despite Phaedria’s “dalliance he despised and follies did forsake,” he does not disobey her explicit commands or “rudely reject the lady’s attempts to please” because to do would be unchivalrous. Guyon’s temptation by Mammon also uses the number three. Mammon offers his riches three times; twice Guyon “would receive nothing offered,” but the third time he is overcome and descends into Mammon’s cave. This temptation is unambiguously modelled on the Biblical story of Jesus’s temptation by the Devil. Both men are wandering in the wilderness alone; both are offered great things three times.

The difference of course is that Jesus refused to be tempted while Guyon, a fallible human, fails. Spenser uses this episode to show the reader all the sins associated with money; Guyon meets Hate, Treason, Spite, Jealousy, Shame, Fear, Horror, Force, Fraud and Horror, driving Spenser’s message home forcefully.


In conclusion, Spenser takes whatever he wants from the traditions of classical epic and medieval romance in order to make his allegorical point and to fulfil his purpose in offering the reader a lesson in how to be a good Christian gentleman. He mixes Christian teachings with classical mythology and symbolism and traits from medieval romance. He does not transform the characteristics of epic and romance greatly because they need to be obviously noticeable as from those genres in order to put his poem on the same level. He does however alter them to fit in with his over-arching and moralistic intention where necessary. This is perhaps why he identifies more with Aeneas and his moderation rather than the bloodlust of Odysseus and Achilles.

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Angela Carter once remarked that “Spenser should be read on a as many levels as you can comfortably cope with at once” (93), and because this poem has so many layers of meaning and purpose the allusions and borrowed parts from classical epic and medieval romance help to ground the reader in the importance of Spenser’s morals and attempts to teach the reader how to live a good life.


  1. Anderson, J (ed): Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Everyman, London, 2004.
  2. Berger, Harry: Archimago: Between Text and Countertext, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 43, pp. 19-64 search /pia.cgi
  3. Carter, Angela: quoted in Gamble, Sarah: The Fiction of Angela Carter: A reader’s guide to essential criticism.
  4. Herron, Thomas: The Spanish Armada, Ireland, and Spenser’s Faerie Queene, The University of St Thomas Press, 2002.
  5. Homer: The Odyssey, Penguin Classics, London, 2003.The Iliad, Penguin Classics, London, 2003.
  6. Milton, John: Paradise Lost, Penguin Classics, London, 1989.
  7. Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene and other poems of Spenser, Nimmo’s Standard Library, Edinburgh, 1897.
  8. Virgil: The Aeneid, trans. John Dryden, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 1997.

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