according to the intro, it was written to explicate the 12 cardinal virtues (plus the overarching 13th virtue of king arthur, who is some kind of polymath of awesome). book 1 is all about HOLINESS!!!!!! except that i saw almost no holiness in it. mostly it was about how fucking stupid the main characters are and how many awful and highly avoidable situations they get themselves into that somebody else has to run in and save them from.
i will also note how delightfully gory this poem is. there are chopped off limbs, terrible wounds, heads cut in half, oceans of blood spurting everywhere. good times.
so anyway, the story starts in the faerie queene's court. spencer never really says where faeryland is or why it's the cool place to be, but whatever. so this random dude shows up, and tells the faerie queene "hey i am totally untrained and inexperienced and want to have awesome adventures so you should give me adventures!" the queene ignores his silly ass. then this lady una shows up, and says that a fearsome dragon has wiped out her kingdom and kidnapped her family and she needs a totally brave and badass knight to rescue them, and oh by the way i have this magic redcrosse armor with me that will protect him. the queene is like uhhh take that guy! and points out the inexperienced dude. una scoffs as he is clearly not a knight, so the faerie queene proceeds to knight him, he puts on the redcrosse armor and looks all dashing, and una decides that's good enough. also we aren't told this guy's name til near the end, and for most of the poem he is just referred to as the redcrosse knight. because if you put on somebody else's armor it immediately becomes your only defining characteristic.
they set out for una's kingdom, but somehow wind up at the cave of some hideous gorgon-type monster named Error or Falseness or something to that effect. the redcrosse knight fights the monster for about 2 seconds before just slicing her belly open so all her intestines spill out. whereupon the monster's kids devour her and drink her blood, which the narrator feels the need to point out as the fate of Error or Falseness or whatever, because what's the point of an allegory if you can't bludgeon your audience over the head with it.
their next stop is the cottage of a hermit, who turns out to secretly be an EVIL WIZARD. while the knight and una are snoozing, the wizard casts a spell that makes the knight think una is boning some random guy. he wakes up, decides "well this girl's a slut so i should probably let her family be eaten by that dragon", and ditches her. also he steals her servant for no reason. the servant is a dwarf, as is pointed out by the narrator every single time he's mentioned. when una wakes up, she is devastated because apparently she fell madly in love with the knight at some point and isn't put off in the least that he stole her servant and some of her stuff, and abandoned her in the middle of nowhere for no reason she is aware of. she sets out in pursuit of him, except she has no idea where he went. so basically her plan is to wander aimlessly with no supplies in the wilderness and get nearly raped about 300 times. but i'll come back to her later.
so the knight is rolling along, not headed anywhere particular. in short order, he comes upon a muslim knight who is with some lady named duessa. duessa basically tells the muslim knight that she'll put out if he kills this random approaching knight and the guy thinks that's a swell idea. so they fight, and the redcrosse knight kills the fuck outta this guy, whereupon duessa runs up and tells him that omg the muslim knight had fiendishly kidnapped me and was down to fuck but my overwhelming virtue prevented it, and thank god that you've come along to rescue me good sir, can i please be your girlfriend now? he says word and off they go, after pillaging the dead knight's corpse for anything worth stealing.
they wind up at this totally baller kingdom with a queen who is super beautiful and all blinged out. there's a lot of description about how blinged out she is and how excellent her throne is and whatnot. they're all having a party and they invite duessa and redcrosse knight to join them. also in attendance is the muslim knight's older brother, who spots redcrosse knight with all his brother's pillaged gear and gets a little understandably ticked off. he demands his brother's shield, and for some reason this quickly becomes a big thing and they are pledged to fight a duel to the death over this fuckin shield. during the night, duessa sneaks over to the brother and basically says she'll put out if he kills this dude. so the next day the whole court goes out to watch the fight. there's a long description of the queen's 7 whatevers, the royalty equivalent of cabinet secretaries, and they each exemplify one of the 7 deadly sins and are all hideous awful people riding hideous awful mounts. there is a very long detailed introductory description of them all, and then they are never mentioned again. which is a shame, because they are definitely the most interesting people in town. at any rate, the knights start battling, and after about 2 seconds redcrosse is kicking the muslim knight's ass so duessa secretly casts a magic spell that turns the muslim knight into a shadow or something. everyone else is like "oh hey your opponent has mysteriously vanished, i guess that means you win!" and they all go back to court and throw the knight a party. that night duessa casts another spell, summons the spirit of the night, and says "yo you are evil just like muslims, so you must like this dude, right? you should help him out" so they turn him back into a greviously wounded person and they bring him to hell, where there's this fellow who is the greatest doctor ever and discovered a cure for death, at which point zeus sent him to hell for being a good doctor. which seems fair. i should note here that the theology of this poem is pretty suspect, so you constantly have things happening like a greek god sending people to christian hell. anyway, the doctor tellls them to fuck off, but they eventually talk him into helping, basicallly with the argument of "you're already in hell, do you have anything better to do?" he cures the guy's wounds, and the spirit of night brings them back up.
also during the night, una's erstwhile servant tells the knight that he discovered that ZOMG THIS CASTLE'S PRISON HAS PRISONERS IN IT. this is mind-bogglingly terrible to the knight, for some reason i forget now but it had something to do with the queen's vanity. so he decides to ditch everyone AGAIN, because he's kind of a dick, and peaces out with the servant. i forget exactly what goes on at this point, but una and the muslim knight follow him, the knights fight again and again get interrupted after like 2 seconds when the muslim knight is somehow sucked down into hell, due to some circumstance that now escapes me but i'm fairly sure was stupid. duessa and redcrosse continue their journey to nowhere in particular. at some point they are napping in the woods, when redcrosse knight decides he wants to make a garland for duessa because she's so swell. he starts cutting branches off a tree and the tree tells hiim to fuck off with the branch-cutting. tree then tells a story i have entirely forgotten about how he used to be a regular man and then got turned into a tree by an evil witch. the knight feels this is incredibly sad and tragic, so he decides they should all immediately leave and never think about the tree again, because eff you tree man.
they eventually come to a lake or a river or whatever that is cursed, for reasons that yet again i have forgotten. the curse is if you drink from it, you get totally weak and useless. the knight takes a sip, takes a nap, wakes up all infirmed. at this point a giant shows up. we are given the giant's lineage and life story about how he became an evil giant, but it's stupid so who cares. he pounds the shit out of the knight, who is too weak to do anything but roll around. duessa tells the giant she'll put out if he makes her his queen, which he is suped about. note that this isn't just some unusually large andre the giant type dude, this is a straight up mountain-sized GIANT. i'm not sure what kind of loving they are going to be able to get up to, but i guess that is their business. so the giant takes duessa and the knight back to his castle, completely ignoring the servant who grabs all the knight's gear and bolts.
meanwhile! una has been aimlessly wandering on the theory that she will somehow run into the knight who has a huge headstart on her and they will be joyfully reunited even though he ditched her for reasons she is unaware of. i don't remember the order her shenanigans happen in, so i'll probably get this all wrong. she runs into the third brother of the family of incompetent muslim knights (who by the way all have rhyming names which i forget) and he kidnaps her. he wants to bone but she is all chaste. he's getting himself worked up for a rape when who should appear but the redcrosse knight! hooray she is saved! they battle and redcrosse gets his ass killed in no time flat. the muslim knight pulls his helmet off and it's actually the evil hermit wizard, who had cast an illusion to make him look like redcrosse and
una encounters her servant, sees that he has the redcrosse knight's gear, immediately assumes the knight is now dead, and completely loses her shit with grief. the servant just kind of stands around until she asks him what happened, at which point he FINALLY mentions oh he's not actually dead lol, he just got his silly ass kidnapped by a giant. so they start heading towards the giant's castle, planning to do god knows what, when they run into yet another knight. she asks himi for help but he pretty much has to berate her into explaining what the hell is going on. then they go to the giant's castle, where the knight somehow unlocks the front gate with a magic horn, then starts getting his ass obliterated by the giant. eventually he is knocked down and the rag that he had his shield wrapped in for some reason falls off. the light of heaven shines out of his shield (DUDE WHY DID YOU COVER UP YOUR MAGIC HEAVENSHIELD? WTF!) and pacifies the giant, who stops fighting. so the knight chops the giant's arm off. duessa comes riding out on some 7-headed firebreathing monster that the giant had summoned for her, because i guess giants and hellish monsters are besties. the knight chops one of the monster's heads in half. the giant attacks him again (and is somehow stronger for having lost an arm) so he chops its leg off and then decapitates it for good measure. at this point duessa's monster is like fuck it and dies too for no particular reason.
the knight heads further into the castle and runs into the giant's dad, who is a) blind, b) not a giant, and c) possibly mentally challenged, as he answers all of the knight's increasingly frustrated questions with the same useless answer. eventually the knight just steals his key ring and runs off, eventually finding the redcrosse knight in the dungeon. dude's been locked down there for either three days or three months, it's unclear which, but probably months because he's all wasted away and begs for death. instead the knight brings him upstairs where una is like YAY YOU'RE ALIVE BTW YOU ARE MY ONE TRUE LOVE. at una's urging, they decide not to kill duessa, instead they strip her naked and toss her into the wilderness so she can get rapemurdered, because that is the christian thing to do. when they strip her, her magic beauty spell fizzles and she is revealed to be all old and gross, which the narrator points out is the true state of all bad people. they throw her out of the castle, and she goes to live in some cave and mutter to herself.
they all spend a month chilling in the castle until redcrosse is all healed up, at which point the other knight is ready to leave, and una asks him "btw who are you, random dude who saved my ass and lived with me for a month?" he launches into his entire goddamn life story even though she just asked his name, and concludes by announcing YO I'M PRINCE ARTHUR LOLS!!!!!!!! i wonder what was going on in his kingdom while he spent a month slumming out in castle nowhere with these idiots. also, since when was arthur ever a prince? wasn't he just some peasant until he pulled the sword from the stone? whatever, if spencer can't keep track of whether or not zeus is a christian god, i guess it's reasonable for him to forget who arthur is too, even though the whole poem is actually supposed to be about him (eventually?).
so prince arthur tells them he is in love with the faerie queene because he had a dream about her, but has never met her. and that is why he is wandering in the wilderness. they tell him hey you should probably just go to faeryland and hit on her already, so he leaves. una and her knight start heading for una's kingdom FINALLY, but run into this knight who is fleeing all pell mell. redcrosse grabs him, and won't let him go until he tells them what's up. he says some douchebag in a cave tricked his friend into committing suicide and he's running away from.. uhh.. that guy in the cave being too convincing? and yelling loudly? so the redcrosse knight DRAGS this dude back to the cave where his friend just killed himself so they can find the convincing guy, who i think was named Despair. Despair is chilling in his cave with the dead friend's corpse. he talks about how life sucks and heaven rules, so you should kill yourself already. the poor dude they dragged back there then kills himself, and redcrosse knight is about to do the same, when una tells him hey don't kill yourself, so he doesn't. this guy needs some serious assertiveness training. he tells Despair that he's a jerk and they leave. Despair tries to hang himself but it doesn't work. we are informed that he will have to live in that cave failing at killing himself until the end of the world. no wonder the dude's named Despair.
una figures the redcrosse knight was so easily convinced to kill himself because he doesn't know who god is, so she takes him to see her friend who conveniently lives right nearby. her friend has two good and virtuous daughters, and a third who is an evil skank of an unwed mother. one of the good daughters teaches sunday school, and una asks her to teach the knight about god. the knight, as has been established, immediately is convinced of anything anyone tells him, so this isn't too hard. then they take him to some hermit up on a mountain, whose mountain is apparently so tall that from the top you can SEE HEAVEN. the knight sees heaven, and wants to immediately go live there. which is quite reasonable. the following conversation occurs:
hermit: no you can't go to heaven yet, you have to kill the dragon first and save una's kingdom. but when you do, don't let it go to your head, because fighting is bad.
knight: if fighting is bad, why should i fight the dragon?
hermit: because you are secretly BRITISH. you see, faeries stole you from your BRITISH parents and then left you in a ditch where you were found by some hobos or something. but you are totally BRITISH and named GEORGE. so go kill the dragon
knight: okay whatever. then i can go to heaven?
hermit: no, then you have to serve the faerie queen, because faeries are holy.
knight: but they stole me from my parents and left me in a ditch.
hermit: god loves faeries.
knight: fine, so when can i go to heaven?
hermit: did i mention you are BRITISH?
una is satisfied with the knight's education in god-lovin', and they head off. i assume some other shit happened, but it musta sucked because i've forgotten it all. eventually they get to una's kingdom, which turns out to be called eden. subtle, poem. the dragon attacks the redcrosse knight, mainly by roaring at him. the knight mightily thwacks the dragon with his sword a few times. this has no effect because dragon scales are tougher than swords. it picks the knight up in its claws and flies super high. the knight is still thwacking it this whole time, and the dragon gets sick of that and decides to land and gently set him back on the ground. because despite being totally mighty, it sucks at winning fights. the knight stabs it in the (scaleless) wing, so it can't fly anymore. also this hurts like fuck. the dragon remembers that it can breathe fire, and fries the knight, who gets burnt to fuck inside his armor. he falls down dead. BUT LUCKILY his charred corpse lands in a magic stream that revives and heals him. because the dragon sucks at winning fights. he gets back up and fights the dragon some more, and chops its tail off. the dragon forgets it can breathe fire again, even though that is clearly an effective tactic against this guy and his heat-conducting suit of armor. because the dragon sucks at winning fights. eventually it just bashes the knight around enough that he falls down dead again. BUT LUCKILY his corpse lands under a magic tree that drips magic sap on his head. because the dragon sucks at winning fights. when he gets up from death yet again, the dragon gets pissed and decides to just swallow the fucker. so it charges at him, he stabs it through the face, and it falls down dead. the narrator says this is because the redcrosse knight is awesome and mighty, but he fucking DIED TWICE during this fight, so i'm going to go ahead and say he only "won" because god has low standards for heroics and holiness.
una's parents and pretty much the whole kingdom come running out of their castle where they have been hiding this whole time, and everyone stands around looking at the dragon's corpse awhile. then the king tells the redcrosse knight that, for killing the dragon, his reward is to marry una and be the next king of eden. the knight says that's cool but first he has to go serve the faerie queene for six years. but he'll totally marry una before he leaves. but right before they can get married and legally bone, a messenger appears with a letter from duessa. remember duessa, she's the one una convinced them not to kill? much like every superhero ever, the decision not to kill their enemy bites them on the ass when the enemy predictably comes back to be villainous again. in her latest and most dasterdly plot, duessa has written a letter saying that the redcrosse knight is already married to her but ran off. the knight says this is not true. una says not only is this not true, but the messenger is probably that evil wizard in disguise. so the king has the messenger locked in his dungeon forever based on this zero evidence of wrongdoing (i'm pretty sure it was just some random guy duessa asked to deliver her letter), the knight and una get married, and everyone parties in a dignified and restrained fashion. then the knight rides off to faeryland, and the narrator says he's gonna take a nap.
so anyway, the moral of the story is supposedly that holiness rules, but i'm pretty sure the only moral i got from it is that god decides to root for certain people despite their total incompetence and lack of any redeeming qualities, and that their lives will come out great despite all their best efforts to fuck it up. also, that if you are ugly, someone will justifiably murder you.