Archimago has escaped from his imprisonment in Book 1, intent on revenge upon Redcrosse for his defeat. To this end, when Archimago meets the knight Guyon and his squire, Palmer, he tells them that a wicked knight has just recently attacked a virgin, intent on despoiling her. He describes the knight as bearing a red cross on his shield and offers to lead them to him. On their way, the three men meet the alleged virgin, who is really Duessa in disguise. She confirms Archimago’s story, inflaming Guyon to righteous anger, but when they finally encounter Redcrosse, Guyon balks at attacking a knight bearing the cross of Christ on his shield. The two knights discuss matters and become friends.
Continuing on their journey, Guyon and Palmer meet Amavia, a woman who stabs herself in the chest as they approach. Rushing to her aid, the knight and his squire discover the woman holding a newborn baby and lying next to the body of a dead man. Amavia tells them her tale, how her husband Mordant was seduced by Acrasia, an enchantress. Acrasia lures men to her Bower of Bliss with the promise of sex, and then magically turns them into beasts. Mordant was able to free himself of the enchantment, but Acrasia exacted revenge upon him by poisoning him. Although Guyon attempts to save Amavia, she dies in his arms.
Guyon attempts to wash the baby clean of his mother’s blood, but the blood will not come off. Guyon and Palmer continue their journey, eventually coming upon the castle of the three beautiful sisters Elissa, Medina, and Perissa. Medina, the middle sister, welcomes them. Soon they come upon two knights, Huddibras and Sansloy (from Book 1), battling each other. Guyon tries to break up their conflict, only to have both knights turn on him. Only Medina’s intervention prevents the conflict from becoming a bloodbath. At a feast that night, Guyon explains his quest: to find and destroy Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss in the name of the Faerie Queen. Guyon and Palmer stay the night and arise to leave the next morning after entrusting the baby to Medina’s care.
The peasant Braggadocchio, having stolen Guyon’s horse, meets Trompart and convinces him to become his servant. They are overheard by Archimago, who convinces them to seek out and battle Guyon and Redcrosse, promising to give Braggadocchio the sword of King Arthur before flying away. Braggadocchio and Trompart meet Belphoebe, a beautiful huntress. Braggadocchio attempts to build himself up in her eyes by exaggerating his own accomplishments, and then asks Belphoebe why she is hunting rather than attending court. Belphoebe scorns courtly life in favor of the wilderness and runs away when Braggadocchio makes his desire for her known.
Guyon and Palmer meet Furor and his mother Occasion. Furor is in the process of assaulting a man while Occasion looks on, but Guyon intervenes. Furor turns his wrath toward Guyon, who is counseled by Palmer to first subdue Occasion if he hopes to defeat Furor. Guyon binds the mother and the son, then the man Atin arrive to tell Guyon to leave the area. Atin warns that Pyrochles, his master, will attack Guyon for his treatment of Occasion.
Atin departs, but his warning has come too late; Pyrochles arrives and attacks Guyon. Guyon is victorious, but spares Pyrochles’ life. Instead, Guyon unbinds Occasion and Furor; Furor attacks Pyrochles, defeating him.
Atin, meanwhile, believe Pyrochles to be dead; he seeks out Pyrochles’ brother, Cymochles, who lives in the Bower of Bliss with Acrasia. Cymochles, angry at his brother’s alleged death, arises from his luxury to revenge himself upon Guyon.
Cymochles finds the beautiful Phaedria waiting in a boat. She agrees to take him across the lake, but when she begins speaking, Cymochles falls asleep. She leaves the sleeping Cymochles on an island in the lake, and then returns to shore. There she meets Guyon and Palmer, also seeking passage to the island; Phaedria agrees to take only Guyon to the island. When Guyon arrives on the island, Cymochles is awake and falls upon him in battle. Phaedria halts the battle and takes Guyon back to shore, leaving Cymochles on the island. Atin arrives on the shore and cries out to Cymochles, who remains on the island and refuses to fight. Atin then sees a knight jump into the water and realizes that it is Pyrochles, very much alive. Atin calls upon Archimago for aid in healing the wounded Pyrochles.
Guyon is back on shore, but Palmer is no longer available to guide him. He presses on, encountering the filthy Mamon, who brings the knight to his subterranean lair. Mamon attempts to sway Guyon with his wealth and eventually offers Guyon his daughter Philotime in marriage, but Guyon rejects the offer, citing a previous betrothal. Mamon then offers Guyon the golden apples of Proserpina, but again Guyon resists. Mamon finally brings Guyon back to the surface, where the fresh air causes him to swoon.
Palmer finds Guyon, unconscious but protected by an angel. The angel returns Guyon to Palmer’s care, but Archimago, Pyrochles, and Cymochles arrive and begin looting Guyon’s unconscious body. Palmer objects, but the three villains do not listen. Fortunately, Prince Arthur arrives, killing Pyrochles and Cymochles. Guyon finally awakens and befriends Arthur.
Arthur, Guyon, and Palmer continue on their journey together and encounter a castle under siege by several violent men. The knights drive off the attackers then are allowed entrance to the castle by its mistress, Alma. She leads Guyon, Arthur, and Palmer to a tower to meet Phantastes, Judgment, and Eumnestes. In Eumnestes’ library, both Guyon and Arthur become interested in the various books available.
Arthur reads a history of Britain’s kings, which ends with Uther Pendragon. Guyon finds a history of the Faerie in which he becomes engrossed. When both men are finished reading, they are invited to dine with Alma.
The next morning, Alma’s castle is once again attacked by a band of violent men, led by Maleger. Arthur drives the men off, but when he turns his attention to Maleger, the man rides off. Maleger’s two hags, Impotence and Impatience, take hold of Arthur, but his squire rescues him. Arthur manages to kill Maleger and throw his body into a lake.
Guyon and Palmer take a ferry across the lake to Acrasia’s island. Along the way, they must brave blinding fog, the Gulf of Greediness, and various water monsters. Always the expert guide, Palmer leads them safely through these dangers. On the island, the two are beset by wild beasts, which Palmer drives off with his magic staff. Guyon and Palmer find the Bower of Bliss and force their way in past the guard, Genius. They meet Excess, who offers Guyon wine she has made, but Guyon refuses and destroys her cup. The men discover two naked women playing in a fountain, and Palmer must remind Guyon to stay focused on his quest. Finally, they find Acrasia with her lover, Verdant; Guyon and Palmer catch them in a net then chain Acrasia. With Acrasia helpless, Guyon destroys the Bower of Bliss. Guyon and Palmer make their way back to the ferry, and they are again attacked by wild beasts. This time, however, Guyon knows that the beasts are actually enchanted men, so he has Palmer change them back to their true forms.
The name of Guyon’s guide, Palmer, refers to the faithful Christian believers who would make the pilgrimage to the holy land; upon their return, they would wear a small palm leaf (symbolizing Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem during Passion Week) to commemorate their experience. Palmer proves to be a trustworthy guide, always on the right path and ever ready to nudge Guyon in the right direction.
Amavia means “suffer,” and the woman does indeed suffer at her husband’s seduction by Acrasia (“incontinence”). The sorceress who turns men into beasts is not an unfamiliar motif (for example, see Circe from The Odyssey), but Spenser makes it clear that it is Acrasia’s sexual favors that allow her to turn men savage. Untamed lust makes men less than human and causes suffering to the good women who love them. The injury is further compounded when the child is left and orphan after both his parents die.
Despite Guyon’s efforts, Amavia dies in his arms, leaving the baby an orphan. His mother’s blood will not wash off, symbolizing the stain of sin that has tainted the child despite the fact that it was his father (through adultery) and his mother (through suicide) who willfully committed the sins. It may also represent the original sin of every human being, the sinful state into which everyone enters this world and must struggle throughout life.
Sansloy means “lawlessness,” a theological term referring to a refusal to follow the law of God; Huddibras is “foolhardiness.” Both are enemies of the temperance that Guyon represents, and he must remain both wise and obedient if he is to overcome the enticements set in his path.
Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss is, of course, a realm of fleshly temptations; thus, it is the duty of Guyon (Temperance) to overcome these temptations and remain self-controlled in the end.
Braggadocchio is literally a “braggart.” Spenser represents this vice with a peasant pretending to be a knight, demonstrating the moral and social implications of claiming to be above one’s station. Throughout the Book and later, Braggadocchio will build himself up with his words, yet avoid confrontation every chance he gets. The unholy alliance of Braggadocchio, Trompart (“trickster”) and Archimago emphasizes the focus on false appearances that boastfulness requires. Archimago is the master of misleading images and Trompart uses words to deceive; each complements Braggadocchio’s need to seem to be more than he really is.
The encounter with Belphoebe introduces us to another strong female character, this time a virginal huntress in the vein of mythical Artemis (and also a stand-in for Queen Elizabeth, herself a powerful and virginal personage). When the trio of deceivers succeeds only in evoking Belphoebe’s scorn, the reader learns how the virtuous woman cannot be moved by bragging words.
Furor is another counterpoint to Guyon’s Temperance. Furor’s mother, Occasion, shows how unbridled rage awaits only the opportunity to make itself known. The Palmer’s advice to stop Occasion in order to defeat Furor indicates the necessity of controlling one’s rage by preventing an outlet from ever presenting itself in the first place.
Atin is "strife" (his female counterpart, Ate, will appear in Book 4). He serves Pyrochles, which means “fiery temper.” This canto focuses on controlling one’s temper, but Atin’s warning is either in vain or not intended to be helpful: Pyrochles arrives too soon for Guyon to depart if he wanted to.
Guyon’s victory of the “fiery temper” of Pyrochles is expected; what is surprising is his release of Furor and Occasion. Furor’s attack on Pyrochles demonstrates how unchecked anger defeats itself in the end.
Cymochles, or “ware” (or “beware”) symbolizes the threat of retribution. It is interesting to note that Cymochles is described as at leisure among beautiful women in the Bower of Bliss—apparently, the threat of revenge lies in wait until the opportunity presents itself to arouse it. Upon hearing of his brother Pyrochles’ alleged death, Cymochles becomes enraged and swears to avenge his brother upon Guyon.
In an odd turn of events, Cymochles’ vengeful rage is cut short by the words of Phaedria (“frivolous”). Like Braggadocchio earlier, Cymochles’ threats of violence to Guyon are more words than action. He remains on the island even after the battle is ended, ignoring Atin’s scolding, showing how short-lived and ultimately futile threats of vengeance made in anger can be.
In his haste to battle Cymochles, Guyon has been separated from his faithful guide Palmer. Guyon has behaved intemperately and lost his way. His encounter with Mammon clearly represents the temptations of worldly wealth, which is also associated with the Underworld in Mammon’s underground House of Riches and the Garden of Proserpine (the bride of Hades). Guyon’s swoon upon returning to fresh air teaches the reader how oppressive the world of earthly possessions is to anyone seeking to live in self-control.
The arrival of Pyrochles, Cymochles, and Archimago allows Spenser to show how anger and revenge take any opportunity they can find, regardless of honor, and give Arthur a chance to demonstrate his own great virtue. Where Guyon could not defeat “fiery temper” and “vengeance,” Arthur succeeds in killing them both.
The Book takes a turn toward the meditative with the library at Alma’s castle. The three men they encounter are Phantastes (“melancholy imagination”), Judgment (“wise discernment”), and Eumnestes (“good memory”)—three qualities of the contemplative life, which leads to personal virtue.
This canto is given over entirely to two separate lineages: the chronicle of Britain’s kings leading up to Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) and the history of the Faerie (representing the lineage of Queen Elizabeth, the Faerie Queene). Here Spenser builds background to a union between his real-life queen and the nation of Britain, perhaps in the person of some particular, real-world man.
Malegar’s hags, Impotence and Impatience, are temporarily able to restrain Arthur, but the intervention of his squire Timias sets him free. Although tempted toward intemperance, Arthur overcomes the test without falling into the sin and is victorious.
The three-day ferry ride to Acrasia’s island is easily associated with the three-day interval between the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Similarly, the journey over water can represent baptism or “crossing the Jordan” into the Promised Land—only here the Bower of Bliss is a false Promised Land which Guyon must destroy.
Guyon’s temperance is further tested when he stops to watch the naked women play in the fountain. Palmer—the more experienced Christian of the two—pulls Guyon away and helps him to stay on his path. That he is tempted, however, reminds the reader of Guyon’s half-Fay nature and the mixture of natural and spiritual that takes place within his being. The Bower of Bliss is none too different from any faerie ring or woodland revel, but Guyon must not give in to his Faerie (or pagan) nature. Guyon holds on to his spiritual (or Christian) side and destroys the Bower in the end.
The final scene wherein Palmer turns the beasts back into men serves to accentuate Guyon’s choice—he is a man, not a creature of the forest, and his actions have led to the restoration of these men’s humanity as well.