The Faerie Queene gives Artegall his quest: he must rescue Eirena from her captor, Grantorto. He sets forth armed with a solid understanding of justice and a magical sword. His tutor in justice, Astraea, gives him the iron man Talus as his squire.
Artegall and Talus encounter a squire standing over the headless body of a lady. The squire tells how he came across a knight named Sanglier, who forced the squire to trade their respective women. When Sanglier’s lady raised an objection to the trade, the knight beheaded her then left with the squire’s woman in tow. Talus hunts down Sanglier and brings him and the lady to Artegall. Rather than explain himself, Sanglier demands trial by combat to decide who is telling the truth about the ladies. The squire balks at the demand, knowing that Sanglier will kill him. Artegall devises an alternate test: he will cut the living lady in two and give half to each man. The squire refuses this choice, demonstrating his true love for the lady. Artegall awards her to the squire and hangs the dead woman’s head around Sanglier for a year as punishment.
Florimell’s dwarf tells Artegall and Talus that their passage to the wedding of Marinell and Florimell is barred at a bridge guarded by a Saracen named Pollente who demands tribute. Artegall challenges Pollente, but the Saracen cheats by opening a trap door beneath Artegall. The two continue their fight in the river below the bridge, where Artegall cuts off Pollente’s head. Artegall and Talus reach Pollente’s castle, where his daughter Munera attempts to distract them by throwing gold from the walls. Talus breaks down the door and the two enter. Inside they find Munera hiding beneath a mound of gold. Talus cuts off her golden hands and silver feet, and then throws her into the river. Talus then melts all her gold and pours it into the river with her.
Artegall and Talus then find a crowd on the beach listening to the speech of a giant. In this speech, the giant encourages everyone to redistribute the resources of the earth, from forests and mountains to monetary wealth. Artegall opposes this idea as a disruption of God’s system of distribution and raises the counter-argument that wing, light, and right or wrong cannot be quantified and redistributed. Talus then throws the giant into the water. The crowd grows angry with Artegall, but Talus scatters them.
Artegall and Talus arrive at the wedding of Marinell and Florimell, only to find Marinell surrounded by foes at the wedding-tournament. Artegall hides his identity by borrowing Braggadocchio’s shield and enters the fray. When Artegall and Marinell prevail at the tournament, Braggadocchio accepts the praise for having aided Marinell. Braggadocchio then goes so far as to proclaim his own, false Florimell the more beautiful of the two. Artegall almost challenges the boastful knight, but then the false Florimell melts. The true Florimell retrieves the girdle the snow-and-wax Florimell had claimed and puts it on.
Guyon arrives and accuses Braggadocchio of riding a horse he stole from Guyon long ago. Artegall judges between them; when Guyon points out a mark in the horse’s mouth, Artegall gives him the horse. Talus shaves Braggadocchio’s head, removes his shield, and breaks his sword in punishment.
Traveling on, Artegall and Talus encounter two couples fighting over a treasure chest. The two men are brothers, Amidas and Bracidas, who each inherited and island from their father. The movement of the ocean eventually pushed the islands together, making Amidas’ island larger. Then Philtra, Bracidas’ betrothed, left him for Amidas. Amidas’ own betrothed, Lucy, was cast off into the sea to float toward Bracidas’ island. As she floated in the ocean, Lucy came upon a chest full of treasure. Artegall is asked to judge between the two couples: he decides that since Amidas has kept the extra land the sea gave him, Bracidas and Lucy may keep the chest the sea gave to them in turn.
Artegall and Talus then encounter a knight who is being dragged to his death by a group of women. Artegall and Talus rescue the knight, who tells them his name is Turpine and relates his story. A powerful woman named Radigund has made it her practice to defeat male warriors, and then make them wear dresses and do women’s work. Artegall, Talus, and Turpine go to Radigund’s castle and battle her horde of female warriors until night falls. Radigund sends her maid to negotiate with the three, and Artegall agrees to one-on-one combat with Radigund. The prize: the loser will serve the victor in any way the victor decides.
Artegall defeats Radigund in combat, but when he removes her helmet he is amazed at her beauty. Radigund seizes the moment to turn the tables on Artegall, stunning him. Then Turpine is hanged while Talus escapes the female warriors. Artegall is forced to do women’s work while wearing a dress, but Radigund has become infatuated with him and seeks to seduce him. She enlists the aid of her maid, but the maid instead offers to help Artegall escape if he will give himself to her. Artegall plays along with the maid’s temptation, but does not give in to her desires.
Talus locates Britomart and explains what has befallen Artegall. Enraged, Britomart sets off immediately for Radigund’s castle. On the way, they meet an old man, Dolon, who secretly believes Britomart killed his son Guizor because he recognizes her companion, Talus. In reality, Artegall killed Guizor, who was working for Pollente the Saracen. Dolon offers shelter and rest to Britomart, but sets a trap for her in his house. Britomart avoids the trap by staying awake all night. Dolon flees the justice Talus threatens to mete out upon him, but his remaining sons are killed attempting to stop Britomart and Talus from leaving.
Britomart and Talus stop at the Temple of Isis on their way to rescue Artegall. Britomart is allowed to enter, but Talus is denied entry. Britomart sleeps at the foot of Isis’ statue and has a strange dream: a crocodile attacks her, wins her love, and conceives a lion with her. The next morning an acolyte of the temple interprets the dream to mean that Britomart and Artegall will marry and raise a great king.
Britomart departs the Temple of Isis and, accompanied by Talus, arrives at Radigund’s castle. Radigund offers Britomart the same terms as she offered Artegall: single combat, with the victor dictating terms of service to the vanquished. Britomart refuses these terms, choosing instead to follow the path of chivalry. Britomart and Radigund fight, with Britomart the victor. Unlike Artegall, Britomart does not hesitate to kill Radigund. Meanwhile, Talus enters the castle, killing several of Radigund’s warriors on the way. Britomart rescues Artegall, but is appalled at the sight of him in women’s clothing. She forces the remaining female warriors to swear allegiance to Artegall, the leaves. Artegall and Talus continue on their way.
Artegall and Talus come across a woman being pursued by two knights; these knights are themselves being pursued by a third knight. The lady runs to Artegall, and one of the two pursuers turns to face his own pursuer. The third knight reveals himself to be Arthur, who has been trying to rescue the lady Samient. Samient is maid to Mercilla, queen of a kingdom under siege by the evil Souldan and his wife Adicia. Samient had been sent to make peace with Adicia, but the lady first dismissed her, then changed her mind and sent the two knights to reclaim her. Arthur saw the knights in pursuit and decided to intervene. Arthur and Artegall agree to deal with the situation together.
Artegall puts on the armor of one of the dead knights and rides back to Adicia’s castle, pretending to have captured Samient. The two are admitted to Adicia’s castle, and then Arthur arrives and openly demands Samient’s release. Enraged, Souldan attempts to run over Arthur in his chariot. They battle, and Souldan is mangled when his chariot turns over on him. Arthur then hangs Souldan’s armor on a tree for Adicia to see. Upon seeing her husband’s armor, Adicia flies into a rage and attempts to kill Samient. Artegall protects Samient, but is forced to fend off dozens of enemy warriors. Adicia flees into the forest, where she eventually lives out her life as more feral animal than human.
Arthur, Artegall, Talus, and Samient travel in the direction of Mercilla’s castle while Samient relates the story of Malengin, a madman who robs and kills travelers who come this way. Arthur and Artegall use Samient to lure Malengin out into the open. Malengin flees when he sees talus, but Talus is able to catch up and slay him.
They continue on to Mercilla’s court, where Arthur and Artegall see the trial of Duessa. Duessa is sentenced to death for her several crimes. Arthur pities Duessa, but Artegall sternly wishes for swift justice. Mercilla herself hesitates to execute Duessa for the time being.
Duessa is finally executed. Then two brothers arrive at Mercilla’s court seeking help. The cruel Geryoneo gained the favor of their mother, Belge, then began offering her children to a man-eating monster. These two brothers are Belge’s oldest sons. Arthur offers his aid, freeing Artegall to continue on his quest to rescue Eirena.
Arthur meets Belge, who directs him to the castle Geryoneo has usurped. When he arrives at the castle, Arthur is told that Geryoneo is away, leaving a deputy in charge. Arthur kills the deputy and three knights who attack him. Geryoneo, hiding in the castle, sees Arthur’s skill and flees. Arthur then retakes the castle for Belge and her remaining sons.
Geryoneo returns to retake his castle. He is described as a giant having three bodies and multiple arms. Geryoneo and Arthur battle, and Arthur is victorious. Arthur then confronts the horrible idol through which Geryoneo had been throwing Belge’s sons to the hideous monster below. The monster, a beast with the body of a dog, face of a woman, tail of a dragon, wings of an eagle, and claws of a lion, emerges to attack Arthur. Arthur has a difficult time but eventually slays the monster. Then he rides off.
Artegall and Talus, meanwhile, meet the knight Sergis. Sergis bears the news that Eirena will be killed in ten days if no champion is found to defend her. They head toward Grantorto’s castle, only to encounter a knight fighting of several men while a lady screams in the distance. Arthur and Talus join the knight and drive off his enemies. The knight introduces himself as Burbon; he has been fending off an attempt to capture his lady Flordelis by Grantorto’s men. He confesses to having given up his shield, which has drawn unwanted attention and hostility to him because it used to belong to Redcrosse. Artegall scolds Burbon for giving up his honor (in the form of the shield). They finish off the rest of Grantorto’s men and rescue Flordelis, only to have the lady complain to Burbon for failing to defend her better. Artegall then scolds Flordelis for her ingratitude, and Burbon and his lady ride away. Artegall, Sergis, and Talus continue toward Grantorto’s castle.
Artegall, Talus, and Sergis arrive in Eirena’s kingdom, now under the sway of Grantorto. Artegall and Grantorto fight, with Artegall triumphant. Eirena is restored to her throne and immediately begins setting things right in her kingdom. Artegall is summoned back to the court of the Faerie Queene. On his way there, he is confronted by Envy and Detraction, two hags who unleash the Blatant Beast on him. Talus drives all three enemies away, staid only from killing them by Artegall’s intervention. The two then head to the court of the Faerie Queene.
Artegall, the knight of Justice, faces his first test in the form of two men contesting over one woman. He solves the problem by borrowing a tactic of Solomon’s, the threat to cut a baby in half for two alleged mothers, and it works. Unlike Artegall, who must learn the way to apply justice to worldly situation, the Man of Iron is dispassionate justice, lacking both pity and the creativity to solve quandaries such as the one presented here. He acts as a foil to Artegall, meting out justice where Artegall wavers, but also needing to be held in check as he unrelentingly slaughters the unjust without pity.
Pollente represents the crime of extortion, and is justly executed for the crime (per the law of Spenser’s day). Munera demonstrates how guilt transfers from the sinner to those who benefit from the sin, and she is similarly subject to Talus’ absolute justice. The giant is more complicated, representing a political theory similar to a full democracy, but going against the “law of God” as those in Spenser’s day understood it. That the giant is beaten first by a logical argument demonstrates Artegall’s growing sense of the application of justice.
Artegall fall into a kind of judge/executioner relationship here. Again, Artegall is forced to use his wits to dispense justice; clearly true justice is not a matter of black and white distinctions (such as Talus would use), but of understanding complex situations and the people who create them. Nevertheless, Talus is the instrument of punishment and Braggadocchio finally gets his comeuppance.
Artegall attempts to apply justice to two very different cases. The case between the brothers is essentially a property rights dispute, which he judges in a manner appropriate to the common law of Spenser’s England. The second case involves the so-called “law of nature” in Radigund’s reversal of gender roles. Rather than assert any superior moral code, however, Artegall ventures into single combat with Radigund; he thus makes the dispute personal and loses his standing as the agent of impersonal Justice.
Artegall’s wrong-headed approach to bringing Radigund to justice misfires when Radigund’s beauty overwhelms him. A separate quality, passion, has interfered with his application of Justice, and so he falls. Nonetheless, Artegall maintains his chastity even as he is humiliated by Radigund and tempted by her maid.
Britomart is called upon to rescue Artegall, connecting the private virtue of Chastity to the public virtue of Justice. Just as Artegall’s own personal chastity keeps him morally upright while in captivity, so does Chastity incarnate—Britomart—make her way toward him to free him from the consequences of his misplaced sympathy for Radigund. Although not described in lustful terms, it is clear that Artegall’s response to Radigund’s beauty was a challenge to his faithfulness to Britomart; thus it is appropriate that Britomart should be the one to set things right.
The incident in the Temple of Isis foreshadows the complementary role Britomart will play in Artegall’s life. Just as Isis mitigated Osiris’ harsh judgments, so will Britomart temper Artegall’s brand of justice with her own mercy. However, Britomart at present is nearly as relentless as Talus in her mission. She refuses Radigund’s terms of combat (avoiding Artegall’s misstep) and insists on following the chivalric code instead. When she defeats Radigund, she kills her without pity, as she is unaffected by Radigund’s beauty. On the other hand, she acts as an agent of mercy when she stops Talus from killing every warrior in Radigund’s castle.
Arthur and Artegall join forces to bring justice to Souldan and Acidia. Artegall again resorts to cleverness (even downright deception) in his pursuit of Justice, while Arthur—the more perfected knight of Justice—can challenge Souldan openly. However, Justice is not merely the provenance of mortals: Souldan’s attempt to use an unfair advantage, his chariot, proves to be his undoing; thus a higher law of Justice is demonstrated to be at work. Artegall, having infiltrated the castle, is able to ensure Justice by protecting Samient (thus tempering Justice with Mercy) and thereby driving Adicia away to become a feral creature. Again, it is not Artegall who declares Adicia feral; a higher law is at work, delivering unto the criminals just punishment for their crimes.
Mercilla’s court is the epitome of order and lawfulness. Duessa the duplicitous is finally being tried for her crimes, showing the reader that this is indeed a place of justice. Arthur’s pity for Duessa serves to emphasize Artegall’s refusal to let his feelings get in the way of justice, thus proving that Artegall has become a more sober knight of Justice.
Arthur becomes embroiled in yet another property dispute, this one with even more serious issues at stake with the sacrifice of Belge’s children. While Arthur takes up the cause of justice, Artegall returns to his original quest, the rescue of Eirena.
Burbon here represents the man who has cast away his holiness (Redcrosse’s shield) because it has become inconvenient to hold onto it. In keeping with the theological disputes of Spenser’s day, Burbon also represents Henry IV, who rejected his Protestant upbringing and converted to Catholicism to end the bloody conflicts with French Catholics. Spenser clearly comes down in favor of Protestant values, even when holding them leads to widespread death and destruction. Artegall, a good representative of (Protestant) piety, is disgusted by Burbon’s cowardice.
Artegall at last dispenses the Justice he was set forth to deliver: Grantorto is defeated and Eirena is restored to her throne. Again favoring political rather than moral allegory, Spenser’s Artegall represents Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s agent in charge of quashing the Irish rebellion. He drives out Grantorto, the symbol of Catholicism, while Talus—the system of justice and not a person—slaughters Grantorto’s men (Irish Catholics). That Artegall meets obstacles en route to the court of the Faerie Queene is a parallel to Lord Grey’s own scandal (the name of the Blatant Beast) surrounding his return to Elizabeth’s court in England.