Guyon, Arthur, and Arthur’s squire Timias encounter a knight whom they do not recognize. The knight jousts with Guyon, knocking him from his horse. Guyon and the knight reconcile despite Guyon’s wounded pride. Unbeknownst to any of the three travelers, the unknown knight is Britomart, a woman on her own quest.
A beautiful woman runs by the group, followed by a man apparently intent on raping her. Arthur and Guyon follow the woman, while Timias gives chase to the woman’s attacker. Britomart, unmoved by fleeting beauty, continues on her way. She finds adventure in the form of six knights attacking a lone defender. Taking the cause of the weaker party, Britomart defeats three of the aggressors while the single knight defeats one and the last two surrender. The lone knight is revealed to be Redcrosse. The two defeated knights take Britomart and Redcrosse to Castle Joyous. There they meet the mistress of the castle, Malecasta, whose practice is to sleep with any knight who seeks shelter. Redcrosse rejects her proposition, claiming a previous betrothal (to Una from Book 1). Malecasta’s minions accost Redcrosse, but their mistress’s attention turns to Britomart, whom she still believes to be a man. Malecasta secretly goes to Britomart’s bed, but is horrified to learn her mistake and faints. The six knights from the previous battle arrive to defend Malecasta, and one of them wounds Britomart with an arrow. Redcrosse arrives to aid Britomart, and the two escape Castle Joyous together.
As they travel, Britomart reveals her story to Redcrosse. She has fallen in love with the knight Artegall, although she insults him to Redcrosse that she might hear his reputation defended by another knight. Britomart had been struck by Cupid’s arrow when seeing Artegall’s image in a magic mirror. Her nurse, Glauce, attempted to cure her lovesickness through magic and potions, but failed.
Britomart continues her personal history, describing how Glauce’s last attempt to help lead Britomart to Merlin, whose magic mirror brought this upon Britomart in the first place. Merlin advises Britomart to give in to her love, citing her destiny to produce a line of noble rulers. Thus advised, Britomart set out on her quest. Once her story is finished, Redcrosse and Britomart part as friends.
As Britomart muses over her sorry state, the knight Marinell arrives and they do battle. Britomart wounds him, but his mother appears to take him away to heal.
In the meantime, we learn that the woman Arthur and Guyon pursued is Florimell, Marinell’s beloved. She is still being pursued by the lustful ruffian, who is in turn being pursued by Timias. When they stop to rest, Arthur muses over his own unfulfilled love and resigns himself to a lonely night in the forest.
The next morning, Arthur learns that Florimell is searching for her beloved Marinell, whom she thinks is dead. Arthur sets out to find her. Timias, meanwhile, has caught up with Florimell’s attacker only to be ambushed by him and his two brothers. Timias bests the three men, but receives a dangerous wound to the thigh. He faints from blood loss. Belphoebe the huntress arrives and heals him. Timias falls in love with her, but is left to mourn that fate has caused him to become impassioned by the virginal (and therefore unavailable) beauty.
Belphoebe’s background is described. She is the daughter of Chrysogonee, a faerie maid, who bore her and her twin sister, Amoretta. Chrysogonee was sleeping when she gave birth, and nymphs owing allegiance to Diana found the newborn babies. Diana kept Belphoebe while Venus took charge of Amoretta. Belphoebe was raised to be a huntress; Amoretta, to be a mother to the souls of the Garden of Adonis.
Florimell, still fleeing her would-be rapist, finds refuge at a witch’s cottage. The witch’s son lusts for her, but Florimell is able to fend him off until she can sneak away. Angered that her son remains impassioned by an unrequited love, the witch sends a beast to hunt down and kill Florimell. Florimell escapes, but the horse she was riding does not. When the horse’s remains are found, they are mistaken for Florimell’s. Meanwhile, the giantess Arganta attempts to capture the Squire of Dames, but the knight Palladine drives her away.
Back at the witch’s house, the witch creates an imitation Florimell out of snow and wax to sate her lovesick son’s lust. The knight Braggadocchio and his squire Trompart steal the false Florimell, and then lose her to another knight. The real Florimell continues her flight by crossing the water, only to be accosted by a lustful sailor. The sea god Proteus rescues her, only to seek her for himself. Florimell resists him. Elsewhere, Satyrane and the Squire of Dames meet Paridell, himself in pursuit of Florimell.
Satyrane, the Squire of Dames, and Paridell arrive at Malbecco’s castle, but Malbecco refuses them entry. Britomart arrives and she and Paridell battle, but Satyrane ends the conflict and reconciles them. The four plot together to burn Malbecco’s castle to the ground, but Malbecco is intimidated by this threat and allows them to enter. Paridell makes amorous overtures with the lady of the castle, Hellenore, at dinner, while he and Britomart relate their respective lineages.
Paridell convinces Hellenore to run away with him. Hellenore steals some of Malbecco’s money and sets the rest aflame. As they are escaping, Hellenore cries out for help, forcing Malbecco to choose between saving his wife or his money. He cannot decide at first, but eventually pursues Paridell and his wife. En route, he meets Braggadocchio and Trompart, whom he requests to chase Hellenore with him. The three find Paridell alone; he has abandoned Hellenore in the forest. Braggadocchio nearly battles Paridell, but slyly manages to avoid it. Trompart advises Malbecco to protect his remaining money by burying it safely in the ground, only to return later to steal it for himself. Malbecco resumes his pursuit of Hellenore, ultimately finding her cavorting with satyrs in the forest. That night, he begs Hellenore to come back to him, but she refuses. Driven mad with jealousy, Malbecco runs away through the dark night until his body wastes away. Only his superhumanly jealous spirit remains to wander the earth.
Leaving Malbecco’s castle, Britomart and Satyrane encounter the giant Ollyphant (brother to Arganta), chasing a young man. Britomart and Satyrane pursue, the giant, but are separated in the forest. Britomart finds a knight Sir Scudamore bemoaning his inability to rescue his beloved Amoretta from an evil wizard. Britomart agrees to help him. As they approach the castle, they discover that a flaming porch protects it; Britomart charges through it unharmed, but Scudamore is forced back. Britomart observes that the interior of the castle is decorated with tapestries depicting the conquests of Cupid.
Britomart lurks in the chamber of Cupid watching a procession pass by. Cupid, followed by Fancy, Desire, Hope, and Doubt pass by. Amoretta follows them while carrying her own beating heart on a silver tray. The next night, Britomart sees the procession again, but this time she follows it to the wizard Busyrane’s chamber. She sees Busyrane chanting spells and writing with Amoretta’s blood. Britomart attacks him, driving him down and nearly killing him, but Amoretta prevents her from striking the killing blow. Amoretta explains that she needs Busyrane to reverse his enchantments before he dies. Busyrane does so, but escapes with his life. Britomart brings Amoretta to Scudamore; the two join in an embrace so loving that they appear to merge into a single being. Britomart remembers her own love for Artegall and renews her desire to be with him.
Britomart represents the virtue Chastity throughout The Faerie Queene, but her chastity consists of much more than merely refraining from sexual impulses. Her character will be developed more later in the book, but at the beginning the reader learns at least this: she is the equal of any other knight (save perhaps Arthur) in the epic. She unseats Guyon, putting his temperance to the test, but they reconcile. She is very careful never to reveal herself to be a woman, which would further humiliate Guyon. Chastity proves a stronger virtue than Temperance.
Florimell is quite literally fleeting beauty, as she spends much of the Book fleeing her pursuers. Arthur and Guyon are susceptible to the urge to chase the flighty girl, but Britomart is immune to her ephemeral charms. She then finds Redcrosse, outnumbered and under attack, and rescues him. Her superior battle-prowess suggests that Holiness needs Chastity to keep it healthy. Malecasta, whose name means “unchaste,” is Britomart’s opposite: Britomart seeks adventure as she quests for her one and only beloved, while Malecasta rests in luxury, seeking to impose her own lusts upon any knight who accepts her hospitality. When Malecasta faints at learning Britomart’s gender, her six knights—representing the six stages of lechery—attack her, but Redcrosse aids her. Thus, Holiness helps Chastity to avoid lecherousness.
Cantos 2 and 3
Britomart reveals the name of her beloved: Artegall, meaning “Arthur’s equal.” He is a parallel to the nearly perfect Arthur, but must develop into the knight of Justice in Book 5. These two Cantos reveal Chastity to be more than sexual asceticism, as Britomart is indeed in love and seeks union with a member of the opposite sex. Spenser’s female knight is inherently immune to the charms of temptresses throughout the epic, as Chastity resists the lure of inappropriate sexual relations.
This Canto focuses on unrequited love and the role of Fortune in the lives of human beings. Britomart begins the section lamenting that her beloved is a man whom she has never actually met, while Arthur ends the Canto alone, bemoaning his unrequited love for Gloriana.
Timias takes the spotlight as his pursuit of Florimell’s would-be rapist leads him to Belphoebe, yet another virginal warrior figure. Timias’ instant love for her is tempered by his understanding that she is too high for him to attain. The social positions of the real world are again imposed on Spenser’s Faerie land.
Belphoebe’s background story illustrates the two primary roles of women: the virgin (Belphoebe) and the mother (Amoretta). These are two aspects of womanhood that Britomart will reconcile in her quest.
Florimell’s narrow escape from the witch’s lustful son and the beast demonstrates the fragile state of female beauty when pitted against the power of lust. A complementary problem occurs when Argenta the giantess, representing unbridled female lust, attempts to take the Squire of Dames. Apparently, both men and women are capable of abusing their God-given desires for one another, and it is only by fleeing the temptation that most people are able to avoid sin.
The false Florimell made of snow and wax (both images of impermanence) becomes a central figure in the epic. Her existence reminds us that Florimell’s allure is not evil, merely a function of the fickleness of male desire, while her nature as a false beauty illustrates the emptiness of merely surface beauty. She also becomes a Duessa-like anti-lady, as we see from the kind of knights who choose to take her for their own. Similarly, the real Florimell’s attraction for the sea god Proteus teaches that her beauty is a part of the natural world and not a vice in and of itself. It is the reaction others have to such beauty that determines the virtue or vice involved.
Cantos 9 and 10
Paridell is yet another knight given to immoral behavior, this time adultery. He woos Hellenore at dinner, a violation of both hospitality and Christian morality. Malbecco, however, proves inhospitable at the beginning, as he refused refuge to the knights and only gave in to their request when he was in danger of losing his castle. Malbecco means “evil goat,” referring to the horns said to grow upon the head of the cuckolded husband. His inability to act when faced with the dilemma of losing his wealth or losing his wife demonstrates his moral impropriety: to Malbecco, both material possessions and human relationships are the same importance.
Hellenore does not escape without some judgment on her actions, however. She is abandoned shortly after her departure with Paridell and found by satyrs, the spirits of the forest. She gives herself over to base carnality while Malbecco looks on in a jealous rage. She is not destroyed for her sin, but the natural consequences of her behavior—becoming more beast than human—are detailed. Malbecco goes in a seemingly opposite direction: where Hellenore gives in to her flesh, Malbecco leaves his body behind when he becomes a ghost fueled only by jealousy.
Scudamore, “shield of love,” is introduced here as a distraught knight lamenting the loss of his beloved to the wizard Busyrane. Scudamore and Amoretta’s relationship will intertwine with Britomart’s quest for some time, influencing her even as she models feminine virtue to Amoretta. The fiery defense of the castle acts as a test of virtue: Britomart can pass through it unharmed due to her purity of purpose, while Scudamore, influenced as he is in part by a baser desire to consummate his marriage to Amoretta, is repulsed. This impurity in Scudamore’s character will come back to haunt him later in the form of a baseless jealousy over Amoretta’s chastity.
Britomart is the first knight to end a Book of the epic without fulfilling her ultimate quest. She has not found Artegall, but she does manage to free Amoretta from Busyrane’s bondage. Amoretta needs Busyrane to reverse his spells in order to undo the abuse (emotional and physical, but all magical) he has caused her and restore her to the person she was when he first captured her. The scene in which Scudamore and Amoretta embrace and fuse into a single individual serves to accentuate Britomart’s incompleteness, while also drawing our attention to her ability to balance the feminine and masculine in her role as woman-warrior.