A knight, identified only by the red cross on his shield, accompanies an unnamed lady (later revealed to be Una) across a plain. A storm arises, forcing them to take shelter in a beautiful forest; unfortunately, the forest turns out to be the “Wandering Wood,” where the monster Errour makes her den. Una realizes this and warns Redcrosse not to venture forth, but the knight proceeds anyway and finds himself locked in battle with Errour. Errour gains the advantage by spewing forth vile misinformation at Redcrosse, but Una encourages him to stand firm in his faith. Doing so, Redcrosse is able to gain the upper hand and strangle Errour. He leaves Errour’s body to her foul offspring, who gorge themselves on the body until they burst.
Redcrosse and Una depart the forest and encounter a hermit, who is actually the sorcerer Archimago in disguise. Archimago offers them shelter, but while they sleep, he plots against them with his dark arts. The sorcerer summons sprites (nature spirits) to do his bidding: one he sends to Morpheus, god of sleep, to procure a lying dream of Una’s unfaithfulness to Redcrosse; another he transforms into a duplicate Una to seduce Redcrosse. Redcrosse resists, however, driving the sprite away.
Despite his success against the false Duessa, Redcrosse loses his faith in her when the lying dream shows Una “sporting” with another knight. He abandons Una and flees into the forest, there encountering the knight Sansfoy (“faithlessness”) and Sansfoy’s lady, Duessa (“duplicity”). The knights joust, with Redcrosse winning and Sansfoy fleeing without his lady. Duessa introduces herself to Redcrosse as Fidessa (fidelity) and obtains Redcrosse’s promise to accompany and defend her. Duessa leads Redcrosse to a bower, where a wounded tree tells Redcrosse that it was once a man but was transformed into this sickly, immobile state by Duessa. Redcrosse does not connect the Duessa of the tree’s story to the Fidessa he is protecting, partially because Duessa distracts him with her charms before he can think the story through.
The scene shifts back to Una, afraid and alone in the forest. A great lion charges her, intent on devouring her, but upon reaching her, it is overcome by her virtue and instead kisses her. The lion becomes her devoted protector, taking the place Redcrosse abandoned. Una and the lion come upon Abessa (absence), who invites them to follow her to her home to stay with herself and her mother. As the lion approaches the house, the mother and daughter cower in fear, but Una is given lodging. That night Kirkrapine (church robber) comes to visit his beloved Abessa, bringing his ill-gotten gains to her; however, the lion discovers Kirkrapine’s presence and kills him.
The next morning, Una departs Abessa’s home. Redcrosse approaches her, although he is really Archimago in disguise. Una believes the deception, but her unfounded joy is short-lived as the brother of Sansfoy, Sansloy, attacks the false Redcrosse and defeats him. Sansloy removes his opponent’s helmet, revealing Archimago’s deception. The knight then lays claim to Una, since she is without a protector. The lion attempts to defend Una, but Sansloy kills it and drags her away.
Duessa brings Redcrosse to the House of Pride, run by Lucifera. Here he meets the seven deadly sins (Pride, Sloth, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath). Another of Sansfoy’s brothers, Sansjoy, recognizes Redcrosse as his brother’s killer and seeks vengeance in a duel with him.
Sansjoy and Redcrosse duel, with Redcrosse ultimately winning. Duessa asks Redcrosse to spare Sansjoy’s life, but Redcrosse is too deep into his own rage and pride to heed her. Duessa creates an obscuring mist to prevent Redcrosse from killing Sansjoy; she then helps Sansjoy escape to the underworld to heal. Redcrosse, warned of the dungeons hidden beneath the House of Pride, departs while Duessa is occupied.
When Sansloy attempts to have his way with Una, she cries out and is heard by nearby fauns and satyrs. The woodland spirits arrive and frighten Sansloy away, then take Una to their home. Beguiled by Una’s beauty, the fauns and satyrs begin paying obeisance to Una; Una immediately decries these actions as false worship, so the sylvan creatures turn their adulation to Una’s donkey. Eventually the half-human, half-satyr knight Satyrane arrives and being also struck by Una’s virtue, pledges to protect her. Satyrane leads Una from the village of the fauns and satyrs in an effort to track Redcrosse. Instead of Redcrosse, the two find Archimago, this time disguised as a pilgrim, who claims that the knight Sansloy has killed Redcrosse. Archimago gives them directions to find Sansloy; Satyrane challenges Sansloy to combat, and while they fight, Una runs away. Archimago follows her.
As he is making his way through the forest, Duessa accosts Redcrosse. They mend their strained relationship, consummating it in sexual intimacy. Redcrosse is weakened by the encounter, making him easy prey for the giant Orgoglio. Duessa prevents Orgoglio from killing Redcrosse, offering herself as paramour to the giant. Orgoglio imprisons Redcrosse in his dungeon, and then gives Duessa a magnificent beast-steed. Redcrosse’s dwarf assistant escapes Orgoglio’s dungeon to find Una. He explains the situation to Una, who then encounters Prince Arthur. Telling him of her plight, Una gains the protection of Prince Arthur and takes him on as her champion against Orgoglio.
Arthur and Orgoglio do battle, with Arthur wounding Orgoglio by cutting off his left arm. Duessa attempts to help Orgoglio, but Arthur attacks her beast to drive her away. Orgoglio re-enters combat with Arthur, only to be dismembered. Orgoglio falls to the ground, his body releasing a great gust of air as it collapses. Duessa is placed into the care of Arthur’s squire while Ignaro leads the Prince into the castle.
Redcrosse escapes the castle, but is weakened by his sinful behavior. Una takes him back by her side, but seeks to teach Redcrosse a lesson beginning with Duessa’s true form. Una allows Duessa to live on the condition that she will show herself for what she truly is; Duessa agrees, revealing herself to be a loathsome, misshapen creature.
Arthur, accompanying Redcrosse and Una, tells them of his quest for the Faerie Queene. The two knights swear their friendship for one another, exchange gifts, and then go their separate ways. Redcrosse and Una then encounter a frightened knight wearing a noose around his neck. The knight has come from an encounter with the creature Despair. Redcrosse vows to battle Despair. Redcrosse finds his cave, a corpse-littered abattoir in which Despair has just finished killing his latest victim. Despair seeks to convince Redcrosse that his sins are too great to bear, and that he should end his own life now rather than sinning even more. Una prevents Redcrosse from stabbing himself and must take him away to renew his strength and faith.
Una takes Redcrosse to the House of Holiness to heal and regain his strength. Humility leads them to Dame Caelia and her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa. Redcrosse confesses his sins, learns the right way, and regains his strength as he undergoes a series of encounters representing his increase in holiness; the training culminates in a vision of the New Jerusalem. He speaks with Contemplation, who reminds him that he must complete his earthly quest before he can hope to enter heaven.
Redcrosse finally battles the dragon that has been terrorizing Una’s parents. The battle takes three days. On the first, Redcrosse wounds the dragon’s wing, but is himself engulfed in the dragon’s flames until he falls into the Well of Life. On the second day Redcrosse manages to cut off the dragon’s tail, but not before being stung and knocked down under the Tree of Life (which heals him for the next day’s battle). On the third day, the dragon tries to devour Redcrosse whole, but the knight is able to drive his spear through the dragon’s mouth, killing it.
Una’s parents and the castle at large celebrate the dragon’s defeat. Redcrosse is engaged to Una, but must first complete his six-month obligation to the Faerie Queene. Archimago makes an appearance to accuse Redcrosse of having a prior engagement to Duessa. Una reveals Archimago’s identity, resulting in his imprisonment. Redcrosse departs to the Faerie Queen, leaving Una to await his return and their wedding day.
Redcrosse represents Holiness, while Una represents Truth. Specifically, Una represents the truth of Protestantism against that of Roman Catholicism, which Errour represents. When Errour spews forth her lies upon Redcrosse Knight, Catholic tracts and papal injunctions are among the papers that make up her vomit. Redcrosse can only achieve victory over Errour by holding to the true faith, Protestant Christianity. In this way, holiness triumphs over falsehood.
Archimago means “arch-image,” a name that reflects his use of deceitful appearances to work his evil. Having already failed to diminish Redcrosse’s virtue through the false Una (something which seems like the truth, but is not), he has more success with the false image of Una’s unfaithfulness. Redcrosse has a much harder time quelling his doubts about Una’s fidelity, leading to his flight into the forest and his encounter with Sansfoy. Sansfoy means “faithlessness,” and here represents Redcrosse’s own faithlessness to Una (his refusal to believe the best of her) as well as his struggle with her seeming faithlessness to him. Sansfoy is accompanied by the anti-Una, Duessa, whose name means “duplicity.” Where Una is chaste and true, Duessa is lascivious and false. Her claiming the name Fidessa (“fidelity”) is ironic in several ways. First, she is a liar, and hardly faithful; second, she offers herself as a reward for Redcrosse’s lack of fidelity to Una; and third, she is already being unfaithful to Redcrosse in lying to him, whereas the woman she imitates, Una, has been true to her virtue despite Redcrosse’s misgivings.
While Una represents the truth of the Protestant Church, Duessa represents the false theology of the Catholic Church. When Redcrosse embraces Duessa in the forest, he is showing how holiness can fall under the spell of erroneous theology, which looks appealing and true on the outside but is actually nothing but lies.
Una’s encounter with the lion highlights Spenser’s fusion of Christian theology and allegory with classical mythology and paganism’s reverence for nature. The lion at first seeks to kill Una; once it is close enough to apprehend whom and what she really is, it becomes tame and obedient. God’s truth is a higher law than the law of nature, where power and teeth reign supreme. That the lion joins Una as her protector demonstrates the submission of the natural world to spiritual revelation.
The damsel Abessa, or “absence,” represents a lax attitude toward the important details of the church. She could be everything from the minister who is lazy in his Biblical scholarship, to the layperson that is in fact absent from church on Sundays because he deems other things to be a higher importance. Abessa’s absence allows Kirkrapine, the church-thief, to steal from the very house of God. When the lion kills Kirkrapine, the natural law has gone into effect upon someone breaking the spiritual law--morally corrupt choices lead to physical destruction.
Sansloy, or “lawlessness,” is brother to Sansfoy and more able at combat than both Archimago and the lion. The lawless man--the one who sins without regret and rejects the moral law of God--may come out ahead of both the deception and natural law. Spenser allegorizes the immense power of human morality and immorality to resist the law of nature that was able to deal with Kirkrapine. Sansloy is also a sinner, but he sins boldly and without the secretive nature of either Kirkrapine or Archimago.
A porter, Idleness, leads Redcrosse along a broad path to the House of Pride, a direct reference to Matthew 7:13 (“broad is the way that leads to destruction“). Lucifera, mistress of the House of Pride, is the chief of the seven deadly sins, Pride. Her name is a feminization of Lucifer, a name for Satan in Christian theology. Satan is said to have committed the sin of pride when he saw himself as better than his Creator. Similarly, Lucifera as pride is Redcrosse’s gateway into the other sins; if Redcrosse is more prone to any sin than others are, it is his pride in his personal power. Allegorically, we see how an individual’s holiness can become dangerously like pride if it is focused on the self rather than on God.
Another brother of Sansfoy seeks vengeance for his brother’s death. Sansjoy (“joylessness”) challenges Redcrosse, but the once-virtuous knight is now driven by bloodlust and rage. Duessa saves Sansjoy in a foreshadowing mockery of Redcrosse’s own rescue by Una later in the book. In fact, all of the sinful symbols in this Canto are twisted parallels of later virtues, as we see in the House of Holiness of Canto 10.
When Sansloy attempts to rape Una, her cries are heard by local wood spirits, the fauns and satyrs. Their immediate adoration of her again echoes Spenser’s fusion of pagan and Christian ideals, with paganism submitting itself to the truth of Protestant Christianity whenever the two are together. Spenser wants his reader to know that the mythical and natural elements of classical and neo-classical writers and artists are subsumed within the true Christian faith, and that the God whose supernatural revelation founded the church is the same God who has created the natural world and all that is in it.
Satyrane is the balanced blend of the human and the mythical, as he is half-human and half-satyr. He, too, is a knight and so may stand among the other virtuous warriors of The Faerie Queene. He may represent the pre-Christian champion, who follows God through his understanding of the natural world rather than by the supernatural revelation given through Jesus Christ.
Redcrosse continues his descent into sin. Although he has escaped the dungeons of the House of Pride, he gives in to the temptation of Duessa and engages in a carnal relationship with her. This act weakens him for the giant Orgoglio (Italian for “pride”). Redcrosse has succumbed to his own pride and is now at its mercy. Duessa’s prize of a bestial mount casts her in parallel to the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17, who rode atop a seven-headed monster. (The Whore of Babylon was often interpreted as the Roman Catholic Church by Protestants of Spenser’s day, which saw the seven heads as representative of the seven hills of Rome.)
Redcrosse and Una are together in the same Canto for the first time since he abandoned her in Canto 1. Her happenstance meeting with Prince Arthur introduces this pivotal character to the epic. Prince Arthur is, of course, the young King Arthur, mythical past and destined future ruler of Britain. Arthur steps in to fulfill the role left vacant by Redcrosse, but he does it as part of his larger quest to find the Faerie Queene.
Prince Arthur triumphs where Redcrosse failed, for he is not prideful. Arthur’s attack on Duessa’s mount may be a reference to his virtuous assault on the foundations of Roman Catholicism, or perhaps even a political cry for a leader to champion Protestantism over Catholicism in Spenser’s own day. Arthur is victorious over Orgoglio and wins Redcrosse’s freedom.
Redcrosse begins his rehabilitation by facing the truth. He must look upon Duessa’s true form that he may never forget the true nature of deceit (particularly the theological deceit of Roman Catholicism).
Prince Arthur’s tale of his own quest for the Faerie Queene foreshadows his own involvement in the epic (had it been completed). Once he leaves their company, Redcrosse and Una immediately encounter a victim of Despair. The victim, another knight, displays the depths of his self-loathing in the noose he wears around his neck. Redcrosse challenges Despair, but he is easily persuaded that his recent sins have blackened his soul beyond redemption. Despair focuses Redcrosse only on his own failures, with no mention of the grace of God. Una again comes to the rescue, as the truth saves him from suicide and leads him to the House of Holiness to recuperate.
The House of Holiness is the virtuous counterpart to the House of Pride. It is accessed by a narrow path (cf. Matthew 7:13); the porter is Humility, and the mistress of the House is Dame Caelia, which means “heavenly.” Whereas the House of Pride was the abode of the seven deadly sins, the House of Holiness shelter’s Dame Caelia’s daughters, whose names mean “Faith,” “hope,” and “charity” (the three highest virtues as recorded in 1 Corinthians 13). Redcrosse must be retrained through several allegorical situations, creating an allegory-with-an-allegory in this Canto. That this training ends with a vision of the New Jerusalem indicates that Redcrosse has succeeded and his healed, for he has seen a vision of the New Heavens and New Earth as recreated by God at the end of days--a vision available only to those who persevere in their faith.
The climax of Book 1 occurs with the battle between Redcrosse and the dragon. The dragon, of course, is an image of Satan from Revelation, and its siege of Una’s parent’s castle is a general statement of the state of Christianity in a Satanically-controlled world, and a specific criticism of the Catholic Church’s stranglehold over the political and historical ancestors of Protestantism (both in the Holy Land and in England herself). The three days of the battle correspond to the three days between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, while the particular events of those three days represent specific church ordinances: Redcrosse’s recovery by falling into the Well of Life represents Baptism, while the healing given by the Tree of Life parallels communion (or the Eucharist).
The defeat of the dragon frees Una’s parents and their subjects to celebrate, and frees Una and Redcrosse to be betrothed. Redcrosse has one higher calling, however, in his duty to the Faerie Queene. Una has no difficulty with the wait, for she sees Gloriana (Queen Elizabeth) as the great sovereign without equal; beside her, all other claims fall to last place.