Answer: An allegory is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. It is a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely throughout the history of art, and in all forms of artwork. A reason for this is that allegory has an immense power of illustrating complex ideas and concepts in a digestible, concrete way. In allegory a message is communicated by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation. It may also be defined as a story with a hidden moral lesson. Its purpose is to convey some moral and religious truth in a delightful way. The readers are instructed and delighted at one and the same time. In the ‘Fairie Queene’ there is a fusion of three kinds of allegories.
The good characters of the book stand for the various virtues, while the bad characters symbolize the corresponding vices. The Red Cross Knight represents Holiness and Lady Una stands for Truth, Goodness and Wisdom. Her parents symbolize the Human race and the Dragon who has imprisoned them stands for Evil. The mission of Holiness (Red Cross Knight) is to help Truth (Lady Una) to fight Evil (Dragon) and thus regain its rightful place in the human heart.
In the course of its mission, Holiness has to meet many adventures and fight many evils. First of all, it has to encounter a terrible monster which is Error. As long as Holiness is helped by Truth, it can defeat any of the forces of Evil. Archimago, the symbol of Hypocrisy succeeds in separating Holiness (Red Cross Knight) from Truth (Lady Una). The Red Cross Knight takes Duessa representing Falsehood to be his lady love and Lady Una wanders forlorn in search of her champion. Holiness, when separated from Truth, becomes too weak to resist Falsehood. Thus the Red Cross Knight is now guided by Duessa (Falsehood) and is like a puppet in her hands.
This moral and spiritual allegory mingles with the religious allegory of the book. The different characters also stand for various religious events and dignitaries of age. The reformation was the most important religious movement of the time and in this epic Spenser has represented it allegorically. He is all for the Reformed Church of England which is the only true church for him and against Papacy and Catholic Church. The Red Cross Knight, for example, represents the Manhood of England or the Reformed Church fighting against the corruption.
The parents of Una symbolize Humanity and the foul Dragon who has captured them, stands for Pope of Rome. Archimago represents the cunningness and hypocrisy of Papacy.
With these two allegories there mingles a third one–a political and personal allegory. Spenser wrote his epic especially for the glory of Queen Elizabeth and his courtiers. In Spenser’s epic, she is Gloriana the Fairie Queene who sets various adventures to her knights symbolizing the courtiers of the Queen of England. There are countless other personal and historical references.
A number of objections have been raised against Spenser’s use of allegory. The device is essentially a technique of vision, but Spenser’s use of it, instead of imparting clarity, confuses the story and perplexes the readers. All is confused and obscure, nothing is clear and comprehensible. Too many digressions, add further to the confusion of the readers. They may impart variety to the epic but they make the action loose rambling and discursive, and the story incoherent and meaningless. So the didactic purpose of the book is not achieved.
As a matter of fact, Spenser is not a poet turned reformer. He is more interested in his art than in the teaching of morality. He used allegory merely because it was the fashion of the day and a work without it was considered mean and low. It is not for the allegory that we go to him but for the wonderful sensuous pictures of beauty that abound in his epic.