I first really read this poem in graduate school with a teacher so superb he made Spenser, Milton, Donne, Herbert, and Marvell exciting. They are still among my favorite poets.Faerie Queene
is Spenser's richly imaginative 16th-century epic poem depicting the education/spiritual growth of the Redcrosse Knight. In Spenser's epic being able to distinguish between good and evil, true and false becomes imperative, but difficult in a landscape that is deceptive and illusory.
Spenser's landscapes metamorphose to slowly reveal the truths behind the illusive exteriors. For example, shortly after defeating the monster Errour, Redcrosse meets an "Aged Sire" whose show of devotion the knight finds completely convincing. His cottage, where Redcrosse and his companions take shelter for the night, similarly appears to be a humble, innocent dwelling:
A little lowly hermitage it was,
Downe in a dale, hard by a forest side...
There was a holy Chappell edifyde,
Wherein the Hermite dewly wont to say
His holy things each morne and eventyde. (I.i.34)
But this is a landscape strewn with traps and snares. A sinister note begins to sound in the resumed description of the hermit who "could file his tongue as smooth as glass" (I.i.35) and scatters a frequent "Ave-Mary" in his speech. The night, ominously "creepeth on them fast" and when the travelers are "drownd in deadly sleeps" (I.i.36), the hermit's true nature emerges. The hermit, revealed to us as the evil Magician, Archimago (Hypocrisy), uses his dark skills to fashion a false dream for Redcrosse wherein Una appears to wantonly seduce him. When Redcrosse rejects Una, Archimago creates another vision, and Redcrosse flees.
And so, Redcrosse's education continues within the intricate world Spenser imagines.