The Last Flower of Chivalry
By Joseph Dotson
The ideals of chivalry may seem alien to us, but in Spenser, we see their universal power.
Among classic authors, one name that seems often to be forgotten is Edmund Spenser. He lived from about 1553 to 1599, and was an English poet and served the English nobility. He wrote many poems and books, such as The Shepheardes Calender, but his most famous work is the The Faerie Queene. Though Spenser died before he could complete it, this English epic was on course to be equal with the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy. His work has inspired everyone that has uncovered it—in fact, he was C.S. Lewis’s favorite author. His work can be intimidating (he used words that were archaic even during the sixteenth century), but it is extremely rewarding to read.
In the Elizabethan era when Spenser lived, many were beginning to deride knighthood and chivalry. Just six years after Spenser’s death, Miguel de Cervantes would publish Don Quixote de La Mancha, which openly mocked knighthood. Undaunted, Spenser undertook writing The Faerie Queene, which was to be a twelve-book epic poem using those knightly ideals to symbolize Christ and the Church, the love of a man for a woman, and the temptations every Christian faces as a part of life. It was formatted to examine twelve virtues, with each of its twelve books devoted to a different virtue. The first six treated Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy; sadly, Spenser only published six of the books before his death.
The first book of The Faerie Queene is entitled “Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves,” and it by itself is a masterpiece. Written in an easily flowing iambic pentameter, the epic follows the Red Cross Knight and the Lady Una, who represents the Truth that we all should love. Una has sought out a champion to defeat a terrible dragon, which is attacking her father’s kingdom. Along the way, the knight must fight monsters, overcome sorcerers, escape giants, and repulse the attacks of demons. Not only is it an incredible story, its morals ring true even today. Unlike many of the superhero stories of today’s culture, the Red Cross Knight fails often, and significantly, throughout the story. He struggles with lust, doubt, pride, and suicidal thoughts, sometimes until it seems that he will be overcome by these things. He is often deceived into distrusting those who love him and giving himself to those who harm him most. But Una never gives up on her champion, and the painful redemption he goes through is an inspiration for all of us never to give up on what we have been called to do.
There is another conflict with today’s hero idealism: during many key points of the story, the Red Cross Knight requires help from others. Often, he tries to overcome evil and make his way on his own, only to fail. And when he tries to redeem himself from these actions, he is only haunted by the memory of them and driven to depression and despair. It is through the love of his friends and mentors that he ultimately rises to the challenge of the dragon.
“Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves” is a story like few others. It is fantastic, yet true to life; magical, yet encouraging. Its warnings against pride, self-sufficiency, and despair should convict everyone who reads it. The pain, the love, the anger, and the despair which echo through the pages tell us that man is truly no different now than we were four hundred years ago—and the redemption that was offered to them is offered to us. It does not come from within us; it comes from an outside source, such as King Arthur (representing Jesus in Spenser), who in the story’s pivotal moment rescues the weakened Red Cross Knight and defeats the monsters which have captured him, from which he is powerless to escape on his own. Throughout Spenser’s work, we see his immense understanding of life and his unwillingness to shy away from what he knows his readers needed to hear then, and what we should still listen to today.
Far more could be said about The Faerie Queene, analyzing its various allegorical points. I hope that future generations will continue to be inspired by Spenser’s work. Though most high school students will probably never hear the name of Edmund Spenser, much less read his work, it is a clear view into the Christian view of life that rewards all who choose to read it.
Joseph Dotson is a homeschool student from Kingsport, TN, and a member of Bridewell Heights Presbyterian Church. He enjoys reading and writing, cross-country running, and discussing philosophy and theology. He is considering entering trade work, possibly as an electrician or machinist.
If you enjoyed this piece, check our some of our author profiles, from Plutarch to Dorothy Sayers. Or take a look at another top-scoring student’s essay for the Journal, discussing fairy tales and the moral foundations of society.