The knight Calidore is on a quest to find and slay the Blatant Beast (also known as Scandal). On his way, he meets Artegall, with whom he shares tales of their respective exploits. As he continues on his journey, he meets Maleffort, who shaves knights and ladies for his master Crudor. Calidore bests Maleffort and beheads him, then confronts Briana, Crudor’s paramour. Crudor arrives to defend his lady, but both he and Briana are instructed in proper courtesy by Calidore and change their discourteous ways.
Calidore beholds an attractive young man stabbing a knight to death in full sight of the knight’s lady. Calidore challenges the youth’s lack of chivalry, for he had no right to attack his better (a noble knight). The young man, Tristram, explains that he found the knight dragging the lady beside his horse and was enraged at such a display of unchivalrous behavior. The lady supports Tristram’s story, adding that the knight had recently sought to take a more beautiful maiden for himself, then blamed her when he failed. Calidore changes his evaluation of Tristram and makes him a squire, subsequently delivering the lady into his care. Continuing on his way, Calidore finds another victim of the slain knight, a wounded knight, Aladine, and his sorrowful lady, Priscilla. Calidore and Priscilla together carry Aladine to his father Aldus’ castle.
Calidore, Priscilla, and the unconscious Aladine arrive at Aldus’ castle, where Aladine recovers. Priscilla, meanwhile, has been returned to a marriage arrangement she had fled (which led to her mistreatment by the knight).
Calidore renews his hunt for the Blatant Beast and encounters the knight Calepine and his lady Serena. The two knights share their stories, but the Blatant Beast suddenly attacks, bites Serena, and carries her off. When Calidore and Calepine chase the Beast, it drops Serena in flight. Calidore pursues the Beast and Calepine stops to check on his lady. Calepine discovers that Serena is poisoned. He seeks aid, only to be mocked by the discourteous knight Turpine and barred from entering Turpine’s castle. Calepine challenges Turpine to combat, but Turpine avoids honorable combat in favor of attacking Calepine while he is later unarmed. Calepine and his lady are both mortally wounded.
A Savage Man comes upon Calepine and Serena. Through his knowledge of healing herbs he stops Calepine and Serena from bleeding to death. Serena rests while Calepine strolls through the forest, unarmored. Calepine finds a bear about to eat a baby; he prevents the infant’s death by shoving a rock down the bear’s throat. Uncertain what to do with his new charge, Calepine fortunately meets Matilde, a lady whose husband is frustrated at her lack of child-bearing. Calepine offers the baby to Matilde, who gratefully accepts the child.
Serena and the Savage Man go looking for Calepine, Serena riding the knight’s horse and the Savage Man wearing his armor. They encounter Arthur and Timias and share stories. Arthur is infuriated by the tale of Turpine’s discourteous behavior. Timias tells how he was attacked by the hags Despetto, Decetto, and Defetto then bitten by the Blatant Beast. The four spend the night with a kind hermit, but the next morning Serena and Timias are both too weak from the Blatant Beast’s venom to renew their journey. The hermit nurses them while Arthur and the Savage Man continue after Calepine.
At the hermit’s house, Serena and Timias learn that the cure for the Blatant Beast’s poison is virtue, self-control, and forthrightness. Arthur and the Savage Man arrive at Turpine’s castle, where they are attacked. Arthur and Turpine fight, and Arthur nearly kills Turpine but his hand is stayed by his lady Blandina’s cries for mercy. Turpine is forced to never claim the title of knight again, and then Arthur continues his journey with the Savage Man
Ever treacherous, Turpine sends two of his knights to pursue and attack Arthur and the Savage Man. They fight, and the two knights are killed. Arthur returns to Turpine, slays him, and then hangs his body from a tree. Serena and Timias recover from their wounds and head down the road after Arthur and the Savage Man. They encounter a beautiful woman, Mirabella, being assaulted by the creatures Disdain and Scorn. Timias brashly charges into the situation, but is defeated by the creatures. Serena, thinking Timias has died, flees the scene.
Arthur meets another knight, Enias, and together the two spy Disdain and Scorn dragging Timias and Mirabella on their backs. Arthur and Enias attack the two creatures and nearly defeat them, but learn from Mirabella that riding with the creatures is her punishment for haughtily rejecting love and enjoying the pain of her suitors’ unrequited love. She accepts that she must continue her penance and asks the knights to leave the creatures alive.
Serena, meanwhile is captured by a group of savages, who strip her and plan to eat her. Calepine arrives to rescue her, although at first he does not recognize her as Serena without her clothes on.
The knight Calidore continues his quest to find the Blatant Beast. He encounters a group of shepherds and the beautiful Pastorella, so decides to stay with them for a time. Calidore forgets his quest for a while, being too busy enjoying Pastorella’s presence and vying for her attention with his rival Coridon. He meets Pastorella’s foster father, Meliboe, and the poet-musician Colin Clout.
As Colin Clout creates entire worlds out of his music and words, Calidore stumbles into the performance and destroys the performance. Calidore’s rivalry with Coridon is resolved when a tiger attacks Pastorella: Coridon flees while Calidore springs into action to defend her. Later, Calidore goes hunting. While he is away, a band of brigands attacks the gathering and takes everyone hostage.
The brigands plan to sell their captives into slavery, but Pastorella’s beauty enchants their leader. The captives and brigands fight; Meliboe dies and Coridon escapes. Meanwhile Calidore finds the ruins of the shepherd’s camp. Coridon arrives and tells Calidore that everyone has been killed but himself. Calidore hunts down the brigands and slaughters them. He is overjoyed to find that Calidore’s report was exaggerated and that Pastorella in particular is alive.
Calidore and Pastorella reach the castle of Bellamour and Claribell. Bellamour and Claribell turn out to be Pastorella’s biological parents. Calidore finally catches up with the Blatant Beast. He defeats it, binding its mouth. Although Calidore has won the day, it is hinted that the Blatant Beast cannot be permanently put down and may one day work its evil again.
As with Artegall and Justice in Book 5, Calidore first meets relatively minor challenges to his virtue, Courtesy, in the form of Crudor and Briana. Crudor and Briana have reversed the code of chivalry, with Crudor setting the terms of the quest that Briana should have determined. They also violate hospitality in their treatment of knights and ladies who seek succor from them. Unlike many such encounters, the villains in this situation mend their ways and become practitioners of true Courtesy.
Calidore’s code of Courtesy is challenged by the apparent violation of the “natural law” in that a man of lesser station has dared to attack his better. Although it is Tristram’s behavior that stays Calidore’s avenging hand, the fact that he has a noble lineage is what actually makes him courteous enough to escape Calidore’s enforcement of the virtue. Spenser here reinforces the political and social hierarchy, which his own time inherited from Medieval England, yet later he will undermine it with further “wild” characters that are not of noble lineage like Tristram.
Calidore displays another aspect of Courtesy in his efforts to prevent any tarnishing of Priscilla’s reputation. In fact, Calidore is able to lie in order to uphold a lady’s good name. Calepine is a similarly courteous figure, but his courtesy is expressed more through action (sometimes impetuous) rather than words. The Blatant Beast, or Slander, has a poisonous bite, symbolizing the ongoing effects of slander on people of otherwise unspotted reputation. Calepine’s rash courtesy leads to his near-death at the hands of the discourteous Turpine, whereas Calidore seeks the root of the problem—the Blatant Beast—to put an end to the slander at its source.
The Savage Man provides a counter-argument to Tristram’s noble lineage as a source of courteous behavior. The Savage Man possesses no noble blood, but is able to behave courteously nonetheless. He saves Serena and Calepine from death, but is completely uneducated in courtly terms. Tristram was offered as an example of birth—unrelated to upbringing—as the deciding factor in courteous behavior; Spenser’s Savage Man puts that theory to the test by honoring Courtesy without the benefit of noble lineage, but with the advantage of nurturing, wise parents. Calepine, who favors the “courteous upbringing” argument, is set in opposition to the courtesy of Calidore, who insists on noble birth.
The Savage Man joins the party of travelers particularly to care for Serena. Spenser again emphasizes his ability to act courteously despite his lack of noble blood. The argument may be more than philosophical: Spenser himself came from a family of little heritage, yet aspired to the court of Queen Elizabeth.
Timias, too, is a victim of the Blatant Beast’s venom, so he and Serena are forced to rest at the hermit’s home. The hermit gives them the secret to overcome the Beast’s poison: only temperance, personal virtue, and honesty can overcome the effects of Scandal. Although Spenser here returns to his more purely allegorical writing, there is a parallel between Timias and Sir Walter Raleigh: Elizabeth (Belphoebe) forgave Raleigh’s apparent unfaithfulness to her, but the sting of scandal still affected him afterwards.
One of the finer points of Courtesy comes to the fore as Timias is punished for attempting to aid a lady in distress. Why is he punished? Because he failed to ask the lady if she wanted or needed his help before rushing into the situation. Courtesy demands one be respectful of a lady’s wishes, even to the point of waiting to rescue her from an apparently dangerous situation.
Mirabella explains why Timias cannot save her: she deserves her punishment. The lady must also be courteous; in this case, she must eventually choose some suitor to become her husband. Mirabella instead chose to toy with her admirers, proving discourteous in the extreme.
Calepine, too, has learned lessons since he first appeared. Bravery has replaced his earlier brashness, as demonstrated in his ability to fend off several cannibals where he once had difficulty with a single foe. He is given the chance to restore the honor he lost at failing to defend Serena against the Blatant Beast, and he succeeds heroically.
Spenser’s epic takes a turn toward the pastoral here, with shepherds, shepherdesses, and a poet to complete the picture. He depicts a sort of utopian community dedicated to simple, rustic living and devoted to creativity in the arts. That they are unfamiliar with the Blatant Beast is telling; that Colin Clout is Spenser’s analog for himself is even more significant. Spenser has written himself into his epic as the character who can create worlds with his words—the very thing Spenser is doing as he writes The Faerie Queene. The pastoral, almost pagan setting may be another of Spenser’s pleas to the reader to recognize Courtesy wherever it is found, not just in the courts of the nobility.
Calidore stumbles into and destroys the world Colin Clout was creating. Spenser may have seen the courtliness of the ranked nobility as impinging upon his own creativity (he was unhappy about the pension he was awarded for his first presentation of The Faerie Queene). The virtue of the courteous knight is also depicted, however: Calidore is the only one capable of defending the shepherds from the tiger. The class system is again upheld, with the knights/ nobles fulfilling their duties to the “common” and creative people by protecting them from external dangers.
Pastorella’s simple, natural beauty wins the heart (or at least the amazed adoration) of the brigand chief, showing how nature hold attractions even for the worst of men. It is also her beauty that buys time for Calidore to arrive and rescue her.
The revelation that Pastorella is of noble lineage returns the reader to the earlier discourse on nature or nurture as the source of Courtesy. Until now, Pastorella could be seen as a child of pagan upbringing, whose allure for the knight of Courtesy is pure and untainted by baser desires on either part. Now Spenser falls back to the noble-lineage argument to show how Pastorella, like Tristram, is intrinsically capable of courteous behavior regardless of her environment. The argument is left unresolved, although slightly in favor of noble lineage as the determinant of Courtesy.
Calidore’s quest is the only one that does not end with the destruction of his enemy. Spenser seems to be saying that Scandal (the Blatant Beast) can only be hindered, never destroyed. So long as people can speak to spread lies, there will always be a poison-tongued Beast waiting to work its wickedness. Only Courtesy stands between us and Scandal’s venom.