In Images of Life, C.S. Lewis rejects Spenser’s “Letter to Raleigh” as authoritative for interpreting the character of Arthur. Spenser writes, “I labour to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve priuate morall vertues, as Aristotle hath deuised, the which is the purpose of these first twelve books . . . .”[1] Each of Spenser’s virtues is shown by a particular knight: Redcrosse is the knight of holiness, Calidore the knight of courtesy, and so on. Arthur, in Spenser’s schema, is reserved for “magnificence in particular, which vertue for that (according to Aristotle and the rest) it is the perfection of all the rest, and containeth in it them all, therefore in the whole course I mention the deeds of Arthure applyable to that vertue, which I write in that book.”[2] In commenting on these precise passages from the “Letter to Raleigh,” Lewis argues the following:

There is also, however, a level of Christian meaning. Whatever Spenser may say in the Letter to Raleigh, Arthur, as the soul whose gaze is fixed beyond the world, is the knight of Faith. Everything makes this clear, down to the details of his accoutrements. His great weapon, for example, is not his sword but his shield, because in Ephesians the miles christianus is described as ‘above all, taking the shield of faith’ (Eph. vi. 16). In the same way Arthur keeps the shield veiled, uncovering it only “when as monsters huge he would dismay, / Or daunt unequall armies of his foes” — recalling Hebrews xi. 34, where we are reminded that through faith believers have ‘turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Moreover, Arthur is the rescuer par excellence, who saves others when their own efforts have failed. Champions of virtues, the knights of Holiness, Temperance, and Chastity, not to speak of lesser characters, seem irredeemably lost, until they are rescued by him. He is the ‘prince of grace,’ it seems, in a more than chivalric sense.[3]

Lewis continues: “It follows from the foregoing, if it is anywhere near the truth, that the Letter to Raleigh printed with the First Part of the Faerie Queens in 1590 gives a most misleading account of the poem.”[4] “Certainly there is no trait of megaloprepeia (Magnificence) in his character, no slightest indication that he is a big spender.”[5] In considering the juxtaposition of the Letter to Raleigh and what he finds in The Faerie Queene, Lewis levels a significant charge at Spenser:

It is possible to imagine Spenser writing the Letter, I think, if we also imagine someone like Harvey at his elbow — someone trying to make the poem sound far more classical than it really is. Spenser will yield to the suggestion in a sense honestly, because he himself has no full understanding of what he is really doing. For his poetry is born out of deep brooding on his own experience and on the wisdom of the philosophers and poets and iconographers.[6]

This essay is worth quoting at length, because by the end Lewis contends that upon the character of Arthur turns the interpretation of the whole poem. Lewis reads Arthur as a picture of faith, while Spenser has something different in mind. He articulates his purpose being “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in a vertuous and gentle disposition.”[7] By the author’s description, The Faerie Queene is a didactic poem seeking to impress upon the reader numerous images moving the virtues from sermon topics to breathing images, prompting the reader to adopt a virtuous life. In contrast, Lewis concludes his argument writing, “However this may be, the account of the poem given in the Letter to Raleigh is demonstrably untrue, not only as regards its separate individual statements, but also in its whole tenor. For the poem is not an epic. It is rather a pageant of the universe, or of Nature, as Spenser saw it.”[8]

At stake in this disagreement is the very interpretation of The Faerie Queene. Lewis clearly loved The Faerie Queene; his passion for the poetry sings on nearly every page of Images of Life. How can the reader mediate his disagreement with Spenser over the meaning of Arthur? One can begin by acknowledging where Lewis is correct, and then test a thesis. Lewis is correct when he interprets The Faerie Queene as a pageant, but incorrect when he reads Arthur as failing to contain Spenser’s virtues within his magnificence. Lewis writes that “By Pageant is meant a procession of symbolical figures in symbolical costume, often in symbolical surroundings.”[9] Some of the most memorable passages in The Faerie Queene are clearly pageant in this sense: the House of Pride, the House of Alma, the Garden of Adonis, the Temple of Venus, the Temple of Isis, the Graces on Mt. Acidale. In each of these passages, the point is not the action, but the display. In each, Spenser draws on the biblical, pagan, and European literary traditions to bring together a variety of metaphysical concepts and enshrine them in the mind of the reader. And yet, the existence of pageantry in The Faerie Queene is not sufficient to dismiss the author’s stated intention to create a didactic poem about virtue displayed through the person of Arthur, especially when each of the six books is named for and organized around a virtue. Lewis best articulates his view when he writes that “the account of the poem given in the Letter to Raleigh is demonstrably untrue . . . .” Lewis focuses on other aspects of Arthur — his shield, his pattern of intervention — to understand Arthur as a knight of faith rather than a display of Spenserian virtue. The tension in interpretation rises because the Letter to Raleigh so clearly lays out a vision of The Faerie Queene; Lewis disagrees with the author’s stated goal for his own poem. Fortunately, it is possible to harmonize Lewis’s view of The Faerie Queene as pageant and Spenser’s contentions about virtue through the character of Arthur.

Spenser explains, in agreement with Aristotle’s Poetics and Sydney’s Defense of Poesy, that “So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample, than by rule.” He knows that to some “this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which would rather have good discipline deliuered plainly in way of precepts, or sermon, as the vse, then thus clowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall deuises.”[10] It is the province of poetry to teach by image, by example, rather than by clear didactic principle. As such, this essay proposes the following thesis, to be tested by textual examination: Arthur is developed by Spenser as an incarnational pageant of poetry. As a character (even a relatively flat allegorical character) his pageantry is displayed in time rather than space, so to see the pageant displayed, the reader must note the pattern of Arthur’s appearances in each Book, and observe in what way(s) Spenser demonstrates “Magnificence” or all the named virtues of The Faerie Queene through Arthur.

Part of the difficulty lies in understanding Aristotle’s terms in The Ethics and how Spenser uses them. Spenser names “magnificence” as the virtue for Arthur, but Aristotle writes of magnificence as being financial in nature. Magnificence is “what is fitting, then, in relation to the agent, and to the circumstances and the object.” His analysis focuses on wealth to show magnificence between the extremes of “niggardliness” and “vulgarity” in spending. Aristotle states, “For the liberal man also will spend what he ought and as he ought; and it is in these matters that the greatness implied in the name of the magnificent man — his bigness, as it were — is manifested, since liberality is concerned with these matters; and at an equal expense he will produce a more magnificent work of art.”[11] Magnificence is itself a mean, as are all of Aristotle’s virtues, between two extremes. While he illustrates the virtue using wealth, the concept itself seems very close to Spenser’s understanding of courtesy as the right response to all.[12] The magnificent man will spend what is needed to create the effect. Nearby in The Ethics, Aristotle also writes of “magnanimity.” To add to the confusion, the W.D. Ross translation of the Ethics renders megaloprepeia as pride. Magnanimity is the good form of pride, which Aristotle describes in the following passage: “Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man.”[13] Spenser may well have meant to call Arthur a magnanimous man, indicating that he exemplified all the virtues, but instead called his Prince a magnificent man instead. Lewis rightly points that Arthur is not a “big spender.” Nothing in The Faerie Queene points to Arthur being “magnificent” in the Aristotelian sense, but much evidence supports his magnanimity in as much as he exemplified five of the six virtues. While this explanation seems relatively straightforward, critics have offered other views as well.

Douglas Waters writes that “The identification of the magnificence of the “Letter to Raleigh” specifically with magnanimity is now recognized by most scholars — at least in all books but first.”[14] He goes on to explain that Spenser may have viewed magnificence and magnanimity in a Thomist fashion as interchangeable terms, or possibly considered Aristotelian magnanimity to lie within the larger virtue of magnificence.[15] DeMoss writes that “Jusserand sees in Spenser’s statement evidence that the poet’s recollection of Aristotle was vague, and he finally intimates — what Professor Erskine, following him, states — that Spenser probably never had read Aristotle’s Ethics.”[16] By the end of his article, DeMoss suggests that this tension in vocabulary resolves itself through expanding the canon of accepted Aristotelian texts. MacLachlan and Rollinson show the way Aristotle’s virtues of magnanimity (megalopsychia) and magnificence (megaloprepeia) evolve through the Ciceronian and scholastic traditions, leading them to conclude that “Spenser had available to him an extended tradition of the virtues in which magnificence was frequently defined as the doing of great deeds for the sake of glory, and he may have seen magnificence as an expansion of Aristotelian magnanimity.”[17] Such an explanation fits with the wording in the Letter to Raleigh when Spenser cites “Aristotle and all the rest” as his source of magnificence; this reading also creates a more charitable approach to Spenser’s poetic structure.

One can also take Spenser at his word, and trace in Arthur the virtue of Magnificence, and see it as “the perfection of all the rest.” Arthur has no special level of wealth, and does not distinguish himself in The Faerie Queene for spending extreme amounts of gold. Spenser uses magnificence in a less Aristotelian sense to show Arthur as possessing all the virtues. He is not extreme in his virtue (he lapses in his chastity, for example), but he has virtue to the high degree that befits a model of Spenser’s six virtues. He has a “bigness” of virtue, rather than a “bigness” of expense. Spenser uses magnificence to symbolize the fitting together of all the virtues into a manliness that inspires his readers to improve their virtues. Tesky describes Arthur’s magnificence this way: “Arthur’s magnificence is therefore not a static ideal but an energy that gathers into itself the force of all other virtues, directing the whole toward achievement.”[18] As Arthur encounters the various knights of virtue, his actions display the perfected nature of that virtue.

Arthur’s actions in The Faerie Queene become a source of unity. Though scholars debate the complete or incomplete nature of The Faerie Queene, the six books provide a taxonomy of virtue that achieves Spenser’s goal. He takes the virtue premise of his poetry seriously; each frontispiece and proem declare the virtue-theme of the book, and that virtue is the measure by which the hero succeeds or fails. The unity of The Faerie Queene is not a narrative unity; though characters occasionally interact between books, the primary unity is the movement of virtue from private (holiness and temperance) to private-public (chastity and friendship) to public (justice and courtesy). Arthur is the only character to appear and act in each book; thus, he also unifies the poem. The reader encounters him first in Book I, and across two cantos Arthur demonstrates each of Spenser’s virtues. In his actions, Arthur demonstrates the unity of virtue that ought to define the nobleman as he pursues the good life.

Lewis is not the only Spenserian critic to focus his analysis on the character of Arthur; an expansive corpus of books and articles spanning multiple centuries forms a body of literature examining the nature of Arthur within The Faerie Queene. Daniel Vitkus sees in Arthur Spenser’s frustration with Elizabeth’s unmarried state, contending that when Spenser wrote the Letter to Raleigh he was planning a narrative that would culminate in the “marriage of Arthur-Magnificence and Gloriana-Glory, a union that would also signify a millennial triumph for the Protestant Reformation, led by the church militant.” When Elizabeth did not marry, Spenser had to abandon the complete plot and his (theoretical) hopes for an epic wedding conclusion between Arthur and Gloriana.[19] DeMoss focuses on the interpretation of Arthur’s Aristotelian virtue, while Waters sees in Arthur much less Aristotle and much more a Christian vision of virtue.[20] Held analyzes Arthur in terms of his Christological references, tracing his success or failure as an imitatio Christi.[21] Hodges focuses on the differences between Spenser and Mallory, arguing that “Book 1 of the Faerie Queene directly responds to Malory’s version of the Grail Quest in Le Morte Darthur, rewriting key adventure of Percivale and Galahad, to fashion an answering Protestant knight of holiness.”[22] Teskey focuses on Arthur’s opposition to forces of vice in each book, writing “Arthur’s role in the moral allegory . . . is to combat whatever force offers an insuperable threat to the virtue represented in any one book.”[23] Woodcock examines the practice of turning the Faerie Queene into children’s literature, and the way that different authors across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries make of Spenser “moral instruction” and “models of virtue and good conduct . . .”[24] Arthur in The Faerie Queene is a frequently studied subject, and this tradition of scholarship heightens the value the reader should place on Arthur; multiple generations of literary critics have found Arthur a fruitful subject for analysis. By examining the role Arthur plays in the books of The Faerie Queene, an image of Arthur as a pageant player of Spenserian virtue emerges.


Through the Redcrosse Knight, Book One contrasts the virtue of holiness against the sin of pride. Redcrosse’s pride causes him to abandon Una, embrace evil, and consistently fall when he should stand; his character changes when he spends time in the painful seminary, the House of Holiness. In contrast to Redcrosse’s ingrained pride, Arthur appears as a figure of humility. Spenser introduces Arthur’s first primary moment in Book One thus:

Ay me, how many perils doe enfold

The righteous man, to make him daily fall?

Were not that heavenly grace doth him uphold,

And stedfast truth acquite him of all . . .[25]

Arthur is the heavenly grace that upholds the flawed yet righteous man (Redcrosse) who recalls the stumbling holy men of the Old Testament — Abraham the liar, Lot the bad father, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, and so on. Arthur’s humility enables him to defeat the giant Orgoglio. Rather than stand and take the giant’s blow, Arthur “Did fayre avoide the violence him nere; / It booted nought, to thinke, such thunderbolts to bear.”[26] Dodging this attack causes Orgoglio’s stroke to hit the earth rather than Arthur, causing a “three yards deep”[27] furrow in the ground. Once Orgoglio’s weapon is pinned (stuck in the earth presumably because he struck without reservation, symbolizing pride’s movement without restraint or government by reason), Arthur “with blade all burning bright / He smott off his left arm . . .”[28] Humility, Arthur illustrates, is the central characteristic of holiness.This holiness is no quaint commitment to non-violence; instead, it persists in wounding pride at every chance. In stanza 22, Arthur “smote off quite [Orgoglio’s] right leg by the knee.” The succeeding lines explain Orgoglio’s fall with consistent comparison to the high brought low; he is likened to an “aged tree, / High growing on the top of a rocky cliff,” and a “Castle reared high and round” that is undermined at the foundation. Tree, castle, and Orgoglio all come tumbling down, never more to raise their proud heights.[29] Having slain Orgolio and caused Duessa to flee, Arthur proceeds to liberate Redcrosse from the dungeon of the House of Pride. Redcrosse’s pride has brought him to the low point of despair; Arthur hears him cry, “O who is that, which brings me happy choyce / Of death, that here lye dying euery stound, / Yet live perforce in balefull darknesse bound?”[30] Arthur hears with “pitty deare” and “rent that yron dore, / With furious force and indignation fell.”[31] Holiness discovers pride’s destruction of the natural hope of life, and humility responds with a righteous rage; holiness leads to deliverance from bondage to sin.

Canto VIII introduces Arthur in action; the reader learns that he is humble, brings deliverance, and executes justice (through despoiling Duessa of her “royall robes,” “purple pall,” and “ornaments”). Spenser told Raleigh that his Arthur would be possessed of “Magnificence” in which all other virtues were displayed; such a view is on display from Arthur’s first entrance into the poem. Arthur combines multiple virtues into a puissant force, demonstrating that the good man, the virtuous man, acquires in his virtue the might to make wrongs right. He demonstrates temperance in offering Redcrosse a choice between killing Duessa or merely punishing her; his friendship to Redcrosse is seen in the “pitty deare” with which “that Champion” discovered the conditions of imprisonment (“a deepe descent, as darke as hell, / That breathed euer forth a filthie banefull smell”); justice is shown in Arthur’s smiting the symbol of sinful Pride, and then meting out Duessa’s punishment (also freeing the captive); courtesy is on display in Arthur’s submission to Una.[32] In Canto IX, Arthur’s chastity is revealed. Arthur describes his past history to Una, and explains that when he first felt those “creeping flames” of lust, he sought “by reason to subdew” them. Like many, he suffered assault by Cupid’s arrows: “Their God himself, grieued at my libertie, / Shott many a dart at me with fiers intent, / But I them warded with wary gouernment.”[33] Rather than seeing chastity as itself being a constraint, Arthur presents his virtue as giving him a “libertie” that protects him from irrational action. His chastity is seen in his (mostly) faithful pursuit of Gloriana; having seen the Faerie Queene in a vision, he will settle for nothing less than pursuing the most beautiful and most powerful woman in all Faerie. Arthur’s holiness is primarily expressed through these channels of humility and chastity; it is his holiness that allows his victory over Orgoglio, permitting him to rescue both Una and Redcrosse. Spenser suggests through the character of Arthur that holiness is the warrior’s true strength, rather than martial prowess.


Spenser’s second book focuses on the virtue of “temperaunce.” This virtue is the highest representation of Aristotelian virtue; ungrounded in any theological commitments, the nature of temperance lies in avoiding extreme reactions. The enemy of temperance is not pride precisely, but rash action. The temperate knight is he who stays his course, who resists extremes, and maintains moderation in all things. Arthur enters the narrative of Book II in Cantos 8-11, and accompanies Sir Guyon, the knight of temperance. Guyon and his guide, the Palmer, are plagued by the “sonnes of Acrates old,” when “towards them did pace / An armed knight, of bold and bounteous grace.”[34] [35] Arthur is introduced connected with “bounteous grace,” a phrase Spenser uses to mark Arthur as different from all other knights. He is a representation of divine favor, an incarnation of divine beneficence in a troublesome world; simultaneously, he is the knight of perfect virtue who, by the custom of chivalric romance, remains undefeatable so long as his virtue remains unmarred. The Palmer warns Pyrochles and Cymmochles that

yonder comes the prowest knight aliue,

Prince Arthure, flowre of grace and nobilesse,

That hath to Paynim knights wrought gret distresse,

And thousand Saz’zins donne to dye.[36]

As this living picture of “grace and nobilesse,” Arthur has previously slain thousands, recalling the biblical chant about David: “Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands.” Arthur’s virtue, and his temperance, do not necessitate an absence of conflict. Instead, they shape the nature of his conflict. Unlike various examples of knighthood in The Faerie Queene, Arthur rejects the rash attack; instead, he proposes “Words well dispost / Have secret powre, t’appease inflamed rage.”[37] Arthur then turns to the sons of Acrates and offers them a chance to parlay. After a brief conversation, Pyrrhochles attacks Arthur, using Morddure (Arthur’s sword); Morddure swerves, refusing to attack its own master.[38] Pyrrochles violates the laws of chivalric combat by attacking the unarmed Arthur; Spenser personifies Morddure, making him more faithful to ordered combat than Pyrrhochles. Instead of describing Arthur dodging the blow, the sword is called “faithful steele” unable to participate in such rash treachery. Arthur responds, declaring

False traitor miscreant, thou broken hast

The law of armes, to strike foe vndefide.

But thou they treasons fruit, I hope, shalt taste

Right sowre, and feele the law, the which thou hast defied.[39]

Their battle commences, but in the dialogue before the battle Spenser creates the moral tension: this battle is between the rash pagan knight who attacks without reason, and the noble knight who offers parlay and discourse before fighting a lawful contest. Through this interaction, Arthur demonstrates the virtue of temperance applied to knighthood; concord is preferred, but the temperate knight will fight for virtue, law, and order. When reason is violated, the noble knight becomes a good man going to war. Arthur fights both Pyrrochles and Cymochles with his “heben spear” and, eventually, the battle concludes in a wrestling conflict. When the battle is complete, Arthur and Guyon stand triumphant. Arthur again shows his temperance; rather than giving in to battle rage, or taking just punishment on the single surviving “Paynim,” he offers an avenue towards grace:

. . . if thou wilt renounce thy miscreance,

And my trew liegeman yield thy self for ay,

Life will I graunt thee for thy valiaunce,

And all thy wronges will wipe out of my souenaunce.[40]

Arthur’s offer of forgiveness mimics the extent of divine grace, where “as far as east is from the west” so far are sins that are forgiven, forgotten. Temperance includes an offer of restoring the conquered “paynim” to a position in society. Of course, Pyrochles refuses. “Wroth was the Prince, and sory yet withal, / That he so wilfully refused grace.”[41] After Pyrrhochles’ final refusal, Arthur beheads his enemy.

Arthur and Guyon go on to have many adventures in the vein of temperance: they fight for the House of Alma, creating a minor pause in the ongoing assault of sensual forces on the symbolic mind and body, and Arthur and Guyon learn about their various heritages. The battle with Cymbochles and Pyrochles highlights the extent of Arthur’s temperance, and connects it with the offer of divine grace at the heart of Christianity. Arthur is certainly a knight of faith, in that he represents the triumph of grace in a world of sin. In that sense, Lewis correctly focuses on Arthur’s shield as an emblem of his faith. Arthur goes beyond this faith to show the presence of virtue within his actions, and his magnificence encompassing the totality of Spenserian virtue shows the incompleteness of Lewis’s analysis. Arthur demonstrates a manly and godly temperance that is willing to combat evil yet extends grace until the moment of death, going beyond the Christian knighthood Lewis envisions to encompass an Aristotelian virtue as well.


Spenser calls chastity “the fayrest virtue, far above the rest” because it “is shrined in my Soueraigne’s brest.”[42] Such a virtue begins shifting the focus of virtue from purely private virtues concentrated on the inner person into a virtue that must be held personally yet has great import for the public square. Chastity proves tricky for Arthur; it is the only virtue he does not fully exemplify. He remains physically faithful to his pursuit of Gloriana, but he is distracted by Florimell, and wishes she were the Faerie Queene. This mental and emotional lapse does not lead to a physical failure of chastity, but it does show Arthur’s humanity. In an Aristotelian sense, it also shows Arthur as moderately virtuous, rather than being inhumanly virtuous.

In Canto 1, Arthur encounters Britomart, the heroine of chastity and primary focus of Book III, Britomart unhorses Arthur’s travelling companion Guyon in their initial confrontation. Unbeknownst to Arthur, Britomart has a magical spear that grants her victory in combat.[43] Britomart, like Arthur, has received a vision of love that compels her to search for the object of her love. She adventures “to seeke her louer (loue far sought alas,) / Whose image shee had seene in Venus looking glas.”[44]  Her faithfulness to seek Arthegall creates a foil relationship with Arthur, highlighting her faithfulness against his wavering. Her victory foreshadows Arthur’s fluctuating commitment to chastity, thus following the general rule of virtue determining victory in knightly combat. For a time, Guyon, the Palmer, Arthur, Squire Timias, and Britomart travel together, until they witness Florimell being chased by a “foster.” It is in this moment that Arthur diminishes in his chastity; his quest is seeking Gloriana, not a random beautiful woman who crosses his path. He and Guyon begin following Florimell, not to rescue her from her enemies but “in hope to win thereby / Most goodly meede, the fairest Dame alive.”[45] Guyon eventually goes a different way, leaving Arthur in sole chase. His pursuit of Florimell causes terror to Florimell: “that Damozell / Was afledd afore, affraid of him, as feend of hell.”[46] Florimell mistakes Arthur for the foster who had originally been pursuing her, and Spenser compares Arthur’s pursuit of Florimell to that of a hawk chasing a dove: she is

Like as a fearful Doue, which through the raine,

Of the wide ayre her way does cut amaine,

Hauing farre off espyde a Tassell gent,

Which after her his nimble winges doth straine,

Doubleth her hast for fear bee for-hent,

And with her pinions cleaues the liquid firmament.[47]

While Arthur’s virtue makes him a grace to those in trouble, his lapse in chastity changes him into a possible danger to Florimell. “With no lesse hast, and eke with no lesse dread, / That fearefull Ladie fledd from” Arthur.[48] Fortunately for Florimell, Arthur loses sight of her in the night. He spends a restless night pining for her: “Oft did he wish, that Lady faire mote bee / His faery Queene, for whom he did complain: / Or that his Faery Queene were such as shee.”[49] Here Arthur shows himself faithless in love, and in his failure to exemplify the virtue of chastity his might becomes a terror to the maid he pursues.

Pursuing Florimell across miles and days constitutes Arthur’s action in Book III. In Book III, Arthur is one of several negative images illustrating the consequences of a failure of chastity. Rather than a positive exemplar, he reveals that even the most virtuous man struggles with fidelity over time. Spenser does not chastise Arthur for this failure, perhaps indicating an awareness of struggles with chastity in Elizabeth’s court. While the Queen was famously chaste, even the most magnanimous courtier, exemplifying every other virtue, might find himself wrecked on the rocks of lust.


Book four introduces a different kind of love, one that Spenser calls the “roote” of all virtue, and that “brings forth the glorious flowres of fame.” Friendship binds together, men, women, and members of both sexes in non-conjugal love.[50] Arthur appears in his customary location, canto eight, and he returns to his typical exemplary state of virtue. He arrives on the scene to find two women (Amorett and Aemilia) just escaped from the cave of Lust, and Amorett in need of medical aid.

Eftsoones that precious liquour forth he drew,

Which he in store about him kept alway,

And with few drops thereof did softly dew

Her wounds, that vnto strength restor’d her soone anew.[51]

Arthur acts in a spirit of friendship, seeking the good of Amorett without thought of how she can help him in return. His next action scene involves fighting Corflambo, a pagan enemy Arthur’s squire Timias cannot defeat. Just as Corflambo is about to behead Timias, Arthur intervenes: “thrusting boldy twixt [Timias] and the blow, / The burden of the deadly brunt did bear vpon his shield . . .”[52] Arthur demonstrates friendship’s inclination towards helping and defending others.

In Canto IX, Arthur rides into an ongoing battle, and brings together various virtues, including justice and temperance, to highlight the way friendship seeks peace through reconciliation. While “a farre,” Arthur beholds “with odds of so unquell match opprest” a battle going on between two knights and Britomart (with Sir Scudamour mostly watching). His initial response is a realization of injustice in the “inward grudge wild his heroicke brest.” Two against one is clearly unfair — something is happening that ought not be so. “Eftsoones him self he to their aide addrest, / And thrusting fierce into the thickest preace, diuided them . . .” Through his own motion and body, Arthur forces a temporary halt to the fight. He then displays the same approach previously seen in Book II; he attempts to mediate the fight through eloquent words: “With gentle words perswading them to friendly peace.”[53] The trajectory of friendship is towards peace, and it includes an element of justice. Arthur upholds the truth that “A friend loves at all times” alongside the principle that “no man has greater love, than he that lays down his life for his friend.” By riding into the heart of the battle to halt the unjust fight, Arthur proves the strength of friendship.

Through Arthur, Spenser displays a friendship unfounded on personal affinity with another person; Arthur’s friendship is an outward tendency towards helping and rescuing. It is not a matter of liking the other person, nor is it a matter of commonalities. Those elements of friendship Spenser displays in the primary figures of Book Four: Campbell, Telemond, and their fair ladies. In Arthur lies a picture of Aristotle’s friendship forged in virtue. His friendship combines a sense of courtesy (the high caring for the low, seen in Arthur providing healing for Amorett) and justice (stopping an unjust fight) leading to mutual flourishing.


Spenser’s portrayal of justice through Artegall and Talus is one of the most fascinating parts of The Faerie Queene. Artegell

in iustice was vpbrought

Euen from the cradle of his infancie,

And all the depth of rightfull doome was taught

By faire Astraea . . .[54]

and he applies his education in the world with the help of Talus. Artegell’s knowledge of justice develops in great detail; from Astraea he was “taught to weigh both right and wrong / In equall balance due recompence, / And equitie to measure out along,” according to his conscience.[55] The result of this training was to make him a terror to those he encountered: “even wilde beasts did fear his awfull sight.”[56] Justice, in Spenser’s treatment, is a quality all people claim to want, but few enjoy. As he journeys, Artegall adopts a persona called the “Salvage Man,” a role which he eventually sheds as he is tamed (partially) by Britomart. Though his persona becomes more civilized, his sense of justice remains absolute. Artegell merits a moment’s consideration in a study of Arthur because Spenser connects the two figures through word-play. A.C. Hamilton explains, “In Merlin’s chronicle, he is revealed to be the son of Gorlois, and therefore Arthur’s half-brother . . . . The preferred spelling of the name, ‘Arthegall’ in Bk. III and the first part of Bk. IV suggests that he is ‘Arth-egall’ i.e. ‘equal or peer to Arthur.’ The second half of his name suggests Fr. egal, ‘fair’, ‘just’, as he is ‘best skild in righteous lore’ and ‘iudge of equity.’”[57] Arthur, in Spenser’s naming of Arthegall, is the standard by which his half-brother is measured.

Arthur enters Book Five in canto eight, and joins Arthegall for a series of adventures. When they meet, they joust each other. They are even in strength, no matter which kind of fighting they attempt.

So both anon

Together met, and strongly either strooke

And broke their speares; yet neither has forgon

His horses backe, yet to and fro long shooke,

And tottered like two towres, which through a tempest quooke.[58]

After tying in battle, they both “ventailes reare, each other to behold.”[59] An instant friendship, formed through admiration of skill in combat and beauty of face, begins. Together, Athegall and Arthur bring justice to those who suffer injustice in their travels.

Their first joint venture involved combatting the pagan Souldan. As they journey to the Souldan, Spenser describes Arthur as

. . . the brave Prince for honour and for right,

Gainst tortious power and lawlesse regiment,

In the behalfe of wronged weak did fight:

More in his cause truth he trusted than in might.[60]

In this statement, Spenser describes Arthur as fulfilling the knightly ideal of power under just control. The purpose of the knight having more power than the average person is not for seeking his own gain; such motives mark unjust, unchivalrous knights. Knightly power is found in fighting on behalf of the weak. Justice, as exemplified by Arthur, is virtuous strength wielded on behalf of those who are oppressed by the powerful. Both Arthegall and Arthur uphold this understanding of justice, but these lines quoted above describe Arthur. Spenser brings the Prince of Grace into the story not to lessen Arthegall’s role as a just knight, but because Arthur exemplifies the perfection of all the virtues. Justice is shown through Arthur, just as the other virtues appear. Justice then sends Arthur as her representative to liberate Belge (by historical allegory, Belgium) from the tyranny of Gerioneo (V, xi, 1, 5-8). After freeing Belge from the triple-bodied giant, Arthur articulates his purpose:

Deare Lady, deedes ought not be scand

By th’authors manhood, nor the doers might,

But by their trueth and by the causes right:

The same is it, which fought for you this day.

What other meed then need me to requight,

but that which yeeldeth vertues meed alway?

That is the vertue selfe, which her reward doth pay.[61]

Arthur needs no reward; as a virtuous knight, he fights in just cases, and doing so is its own reward.

Spenser shows his readers a world where injustices and monstrosities abound; in such a world, there are also warriors of great might who bring about justice. Great strength allows the knight to combat the injustice that can never be eradicated. Arthegall is that knight of justice, but Spenser articulates the purpose of knightly strength with lines about and spoken by Arthur. The Prince consistently illustrates the virtues of the various books of The Faerie Queene, and in doing so supports Spenser’s goal; by tracing Arthur, the reader gains a stronger image of each virtue.


Courtesy as a virtue does not appear in Aristotle’s taxonomy, nor does it strike the modern ear as a virtue. Spenser elevates it far above the contemporary discussion of manners, and displays it as the preeminent public virtue. Spenser presents courtesy as the crowning gift of the Graces:

These three on men all gracious gifts bestow,

Which decke the body or adorn the mynde,

To make the lovely or well fauored show,

As comely carriage, entertainement kynde,

Sweete semblaunt, friendly offices that bynde,

And all the complements of courtesie:

They teach us, how to each degree and kynde

We should our selves to low, to hie;

To friends, to foes, which skill men call Ciuility.[62]

From the Graces come all that makes life worth living, those things that comprise culture. Crowning the components of the good life is a knowledge of how one ought to relate to all people in their varying degrees. The high must relate to the low with proper care; with rank and privileges come responsibilities. The low must relate to the high with concern for respect and obedience; with the freedom from high responsibility comes a duty of deference. Within each remains the essential human dignity creating a sense of equality throughout the hierarchy. Courtesy embraces a common human dignity, while noting that that universality is expressed particularly in the various ranks of society.

While Calidore expresses this broad view of courtesy through his pastoral narrative, moving relatively seamlessly from noble knight to peasant shepherd and back again, Arthur plays a more specific role in the Legend of Courtesy. Serena informs Arthur of Turpine, a disgraceful knight, and the “foule discourt’sies and vnknightly parts / Which Turpine had vnto her lately shewed . . .”[63] Turpine made a regular habit of shaming knights and abusing ladies; Serena and Timias both suffered from his injustices. After learning of this “unknightly” knight, Arthur “sore mouved, there auoud, that soone as he returned backe againe, he would avenge th’abuses of that proud and shamefull knight, of whom she did complaine.”[64] Arthur’s response brings together courtesy and justice; as a knight, he has a duty to enforce proper knightly conduct. As a just man, he must prevent the continuing spread of injustice that this unjust knight has wrought.

In canto six, Arthur fights Turpine after being attacked by Turpine’s household. He corners Turpine in the room where “his love was sitting all lone.”[65] Turpine hides “behind his lady,” Blandina, as she begs for his life: “bowd vpon her knee, intreating [Arthur] for grace.”[66] [67] Arthur responds to this plea melding temperance, justice, and courtesy in his response:

‘Yet since thy life vnto this ladie fayre,

I giuen haue, liue in reproach and scorn;

Ne euer armes, ne euer knighthood dare

Hence to profess: for shame is to adorne

With so braue badges one so basely borne;

But onely breath sith that I did forgiue.’

So hauing from his crauen bodie torne

Those goodly armes, he then away did giue

And onely suffred him this wretched life to liue.[68]

Arthur spares Turpine’s life, because a lady asked him to do so. His mercy is mixed with justice; since Turpine has abused his position as a knight and wrought injustice through his strength, Arthur removes his arms, his rank, and his right to wear armor. The punishment is not a physical one, but a social punishment (thus befitting the nature of courtesy as a public virtue) enforcing chivalric custom. Turpine will live, stripped of his position and doomed to shame. Here Arthur demonstrates the right use of rank; as a fellow knight, he has the responsibility to address the wrongs done by a knight.

Blandina illustrates another side of courtesy: it can be used falsely to create a sort of craven politeness. Arthur “there all that night did rest” at Turpine and Blandina’s castle, where he was “entertayned” by Blandina (VI, vi, 41). Her courtesy is distinguished from right courtesy:

Yet were her words and looks but false and fyned,

To some his end to make more easy way,

Or to allure such fondlings, whom she trayned

Into her trap their owne decay.[69]

Blandina and Turpine are both false in their courtesy; they resemble the Pharisees who were called “whitewashed tombs” containing only death and corruption.

Though Arthur shows Turpine grace, the discourteous knight rejects the opportunity to live in a different vein. After Turpine convinces two other errant knights to attack Arthur, the Prince returns and this time the opportunity for grace is gone. After defeating Turpine in combat,

for greater infamie

He by the heels him hung vpon a tree,

And baffled so, that all which passed by,

The picture of his punishment might see,

And by the like ensample warned bee,

Howeuer they through treason doe trespass.[70]

Turpine’s second level of discourteous action escalates his betrayal; he lies to two otherwise noble knights, resulting in one of their deaths, and defames Arthur. Both of these are violations of courtesy. Arthur does not directly kill him, instead drawing on the traditional shame involved in dying on a tree and displaying the criminal to public shame for public education about the nature of the crime.

In the Proem, Spenser connects courtesy to the virtues of Queen Elizabeth herself, and her court.

Then pardon me, most dreaded Soueraigne,

That from your selfe I doe this vertue bringe,

And to your selfe doe it returne againe:

So from the Ocean all riuers spring,

And tribute back repay as to their King.

Right so from you all goodly vertues well

Into the rest, which round about you ring,

Faire Lords and Ladies, which about you dwell

And doe adorne your Court, where courtesies excell.[71]

Courtesy, in Spenser’s thought, is directly connected to the court. In Book Six, the primary figure dealing with courtesy is Calidore, and his courtesy is expressed amongst the pastoral arc and not primarily in noble settings. Arthur fills that need for a noble expression of courtesy. Arthur combines courtesy, justice, and temperance to punish an erring noble, while Calidore shows the noble exercising courtesy as one of the “high” amongst the “low.” Together, they give a complete picture of courtesy as the right respect due from all to all, which is expressed contextually based on situation and rank.


The nature of The Faerie Queene is complex. Spenser makes use of narrative, yet this is not entirely a narrative poem. It is structured as an epic, yet it is not completely an epic. It combines elements of the romantic, the spectacle, the pastoral, and the allegorical, yet it is not uniquely in any of these genres. At its heart, it is a series of images displayed in poetic form causing the reader to grasp a stronger understanding of six different virtues and their application. Lewis may well have named the best way to consider The Faerie Queene when he described it as a “pageant.” If so, this sense of pageantry also solves the disagreement over Arthur. Throughout Images of Life, Lewis provides strong analysis of the pageants that take place throughout The Faerie Queene. He explores the Garden of Adonis, the Temple of Venus, and so on. He argues that Arthur cannot be a didactic figure, because he does not fit all the virtues, and because Spenser gives Arthur the unique virtue of “Magnificence.” This disagreement dissolves if Arthur is read as a pageant of human virtue displayed over time. Time is perhaps the weakest element in Spenser’s thought. He pays no attention to the passage of time, listing events that could last for month, seasons, or years (Timias’ somewhat mad spell after Belphoebe’s shunning, for one example) without time cues, and he has characters interact with each other without awareness of how much time has passed. And yet, there is a sequential nature to The Faerie Queene, and Arthur’s entrances in each book form a chronological unity emphasizing his actions at different points in the overarching narrative. In effect, Arthur’s actions function as a visual display of what Spenser hopes to reveal. How do you teach virtue? And particularly the virtue of a civilized, educated nobleman of the Elizabethan era? Virtue is taught through action, over time. This is precisely what Arthur does; through his actions he takes abstract virtues — holiness, temperance, friendship, justice, courtesy — and shows them positively in concrete action. Chastity follows the same pattern, but in a negative way; Arthur’s failure both humanizes him and shows the dangers of a failure of chastity even in mind and heart, if not in body. Arthur becomes the teachable moment in each book, demonstrating the virtue at hand. In a sense, Lewis is right: Athur is not an Aristotelian magnificent man. He is, however, a didactic exemplar of Spenserian virtue. And he becomes so through the exact pattern that Lewis identifies: through the display of pageantry, Spenser explores human action to instruct in the possibilities of human virtue. In this way, the reader can reconcile Spenser’s Letter to Raleigh and its expression of authorial intent with the insight of a reader as sharp-witted as Lewis; Lewis’s spatial pageantry analysis applied through time helps to unify these two understandings of The Faerie Queene, and allows the reader to comprehend both what is present in The Faerie Queene and what its author intended to convey.

Citation Information

Joshua P. Herring, “The Virtuous Arthur,” An Unexpected Journal: King Arthur Legendarium 6, no. 2. (Summer 2023), 78-110.


[1] Edmund Spenser, “Letter to Raleigh,” in The Faerie Queen, A.C. Hamilton et al eds. (London: Routledge, 2013), 715. Hereafter abbreviated as FQ.

[2] Ibid., 716.

[3] Lewis, C.S. Spenser’s Images of Life, Alistair Fowler ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 134-135. Hereafter Images.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Ibid., 138.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] FQ, “Letter to Raleigh,” 714.

[8] Images, 140.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] FQ, Letter to Raleigh, 716.

[11] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, 2, 1122a-b. GBWW v. 8 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992),  369.

[12] Spenser defines Courtesy in Book VI, x, 23.

[13] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, 3, 1123b. GBWW. Vol. 8 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 370.

[14] D. Douglas Waters. “Prince Arthur as Christian Magnanimity in Book One of The Faerie Queene” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 Vol. 9.1 (Winter, 1969): 53.

[15] Waters, Ibid., fn. 1

[16] William Fenn DeMoss. “Spenser’s Twelve Moral Virtues ‘According to Aristotle’ II” in Modern Philology vol. 16.5 (Sept. 1918): 265.

[17] Hugh MacLachlan and Phillip B. Rollinson. “Magnanimity, magnificence” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, A.C. Hamilton Gen. Ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992):448.

[18] Gordon Tesky. “Arthur in ‘The Faerie Queene’” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, A.C. Hamilton Gen. Ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992): 70.

[19] Daniel Vitkus, “The Unfulfilled Form of “The Faerie Queene”: Spenser’s Frustrated Fore-Conceit” in Renaissance and Reformation  vol. 35.2 (Spring, 2012): 84.

[20] DeMoss and Waters, cited above.

[21] Joshua R. Held. “Arthur and the Failed Pursuit of “Imitatio Christi”: Christological Allusion in Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” in Arthuriana vol. 26.3 (Fall, 2016): 41-66.

[22] Kenneth Hodges. “Making Arthur Protestant: Translating Malory’s Grail Quest into Spenser’s Book of Holiness” in The Review of English Studies, vol. 62. 254 (April, 2011): 194

[23] Teskey, in The Spenser Encyclopedia, 71.

[24] Matthew Woodcock. “The Place of Arthur in Children’s Versions of “The Faerie Queene” in Arthuriana, vol. 13. 2 (Summer, 2003): 23.

[25] FQ, 103 (I.viii, 1).

[26] Ibid., 104 (I.viii, 7).

[27] FQ (I. viii, 8).

[28] FQ, (I. viii, 10).

[29] FQ, (I,viii, 22-23).

[30] FQ, (I,viii, 38).

[31] FQ (I, viii, 39).

[32] FQ (I, viii, 39).

[33] FQ (I, ix, 9-10).

[34] FQ, (II, viii, 10).

[35] FQ (II, viii, 17).

[36] FQ (II, viii, 18).

[37] FQ (II, viii, 26).

[38] FQ (II, viii, 30).

[39] FQ (II, viii, 31).

[40] FQ (II, viii, 51).

[41] FQ (II, viii, 52).

[42] FQ (III, Proem, 1).

[43] FQ (III, i, 7).

[44] FQ (III, i, 8).

[45] FQ (III, i, 18).

[46] FQ (III, iv, 47).

[47] FQ (III, iv, 49)

[48] FQ (III, iv, 50).

[49] FQ (III, iv, 54).

[50] FQ (IV, Proem).

[51] FQ (IV, viii, 20).

[52] FQ (IV, viii, 42).

[53] FQ, (IV, ix, 32).

[54] FQ (V, i, 5).

[55] FQ (V, i, 7).

[56] FQ, (V, i, 8).

[57] A.C. Hamilton in FQ, 510, fn. stanza 3.

[58] FQ (V, viii, 9).

[59] FQ (V, viii, 12).

[60] FQ (V, viii, 30).

[61] FQ (V, xi, 17).

[62] FQ (VI, x, 23).

[63] FQ (VI, v, 33).

[64] FQ (VI, v, 34).

[65] FQ (VI, vi, 30).

[66] A.C. Hamilton, in FQ, 642, Fn. to Stanza 31.

[67] FQ (VI, vi, 31).

[68] FQ (VI, vi, 36).

[69] FQ (VI, vi, 42).

[70] FQ (VI, vii, 27).

[71]  FQ, (VI, Proem, 7).