Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is a 16th century classic work filled with valuable lessons worth heeding by modern readers despite being centuries apart. Through a colorful use of fiction, Spenser weaves a marvelous tale that teaches the human soul, like no history book could. Readers learn with their hearts and imaginations as they journey with the Redcrosse Knight and his fair lady, Una. One overarching theme that is intricately developed throughout Book One is the Christian’s pursuit of holiness as a difficult journey that requires grace fueled fighting. Pursuing holiness requires fighting sin. Sanctification is conveyed as a treacherous battlefield filled with ruthless enemies. The journey requires a godly desire to fight sin through the means of grace granted by God.
In this epic poem, the Redcrosse Knight represents every Christian, and more specifically, a Christian warrior or soldier (I.i.1-2). The focus of Book One is holiness, and this noble Knight of Faerie Land is on a quest that resembles a Christian’s quest for holiness. He is commissioned by his queen to rescue the fair lady Una’s parent’s from the clutches of an evil dragon. As the Redcrosse Knight sets out on this journey with Una, who represents the true Church, or even truth itself, he is met with powerful, destructive, and deceptive adversaries who are vying for his very life. Early on in the tale, Redcrosse and Una travel down a treacherous path that resembles that of temptation and approach a cave filled with blackness and a beast (I.i.10). After ignoring wise warnings from his companion and helper, Redcrosse plunges into the darkness only to meet his first enemy, a mutant serpent named Errours (I.i.12-13).
Soon after the fight begins, Redcrosse finds himself entangled in the deadly grip of the serpent. Though ignoring Una’s first plea to avoid the cave altogether, Redcrosse heeds her battle cry of encouragement: “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” (I.i.19). Without fierce fighting, Errours would put Redcrosse to death. However, through this grace of encouragement from Una, Redcrosse defeated the serpent.
By showing the role of faith in killing sin, the point is clearly made that when Christians ignore the warnings of the true Church or when they depart truth, they will fall into the clutches of error and sin. And overcoming error requires fighting with truth as the primary weapon. Spenser develops the necessity for sin-killing effort in the Christian life through Redcrosse’s encounter with Errours.
This theme is carried on as the couple falls into the deceptive hands of Archimago, a man who appeared godly, but who in reality drugged Redcrosse and Una, deceiving them with dreams (I.i.47), which ultimately leads Redcrosse to leave Una (I.ii.7). One thing that Spenser demonstrates is that through Redcrosse’s continual victories and failures, one thing is certain; the onslaught from his enemies does not cease. Christians cannot expect anything less and, according to Spenser, must continue to fight for holiness. The entire journey is a battleground. It is worth noting that the more deceptive enemies attack the heart of Redcrosse’s strength, namely, his union with Una. This implies that Christians who are at odds with or separated from the true church of Christ will succumb more easily to temptation and sin.
Redcrosse and Una are now separated, but the foes do not cease. Redcrosse is in a constant battle with Duessa, though he does not initially recognize it. And though Redcrosse is capable of defeating smaller enemies, such as the Sarazin knight who lacked faith, without Una’s aid, he lacked the grace necessary to even recognize Duessa’s deceit.
In Duessa’s company, Redcrosse temporarily puts his guard down and stops fighting, both physically and spiritually. Being lured into the House of Pride by its false grandeur, Redcrosse is presented with subtle, but deadly enemies each named for the seven deadly sins (I.iv.18-36). These enemies, along with Sansjoy and Orgoglio, are vividly described as vicious and vile adversaries that cannot only take Redcrosse captive, but kill him.
There is great danger in toying with sin, and without the aid of the church, the Christian can easily fall prey to serpents, evil knights, giants, dragons, and much worse in the quest for holiness. In the end, Spenser brings this theme home with Redcrosse overcoming the giant through the aid of Arthur, the Christ figure, and his ultimate defeat of the dragon, which is a scene in which Philippians 2:12-13 is personified.
All of the fighting and might of a Christian is entirely dependent upon God’s grace. We see this in Redcrosse’s final battle with the vicious dragon. Despite how hard he fought against the dragon, without falling into the Well of Life, he would never have been able to overcome. And who was working in and behind this battle? Spenser seems to believe it is God himself who grants victory: “eternal God that chaunce did guide” (I.xi.45).
Spenser’s theme of fighting sin and temptation as a necessity for pursuing holiness, is fully developed as it is clear that the only way for Redcrosse to ultimately overcome sin and death is by the grace of God. As Redcrosse fights, the grace of God is working in him. The more Redcrosse fights and the more dependent he is on his relationship with Una, the more he overcomes sin and is aware of its presence and vileness.
An example of this kind of fighting in other places in literature can be seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There are many elements of The Faerie Queene found in The Lord of the Rings, including the importance of unity and companionship in the fight against sin and evil. The primary foe Sauron and similar foes like Gollum stand in the way of Sam and Frodo’s quest to return the ring in order to destroy it. Without their perseverance and determination in their fight against evil, they would have succumbed to the hard-pressed pursuit of Sauron.
Overcoming evil and sin requires active sin-fighting faith and reliance on the grace of God in the means he has left us. Spenser conveys this dramatically and vividly in the Redcrosse knight’s journey to rescue Una’s parents from the dragon. We would do well to learn from him and fight sin by the power of God’s grace with the same ferociousness.