Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene delights in its use of symbolism to reveal the moral struggle of his characters and the journey toward enlightenment they must seek to fulfill their destinies. Theme and character are two important tools in which Spenser delivers his message of spiritual enlightenment and religious beliefs. Spenser uses the motifs of light and darkness through setting and character to symbolize the spiritual journey undertaken by the poem's main character, the Redcrosse Knight. In all forms of literature, setting is extremely important in recreating a universe in which characters are able to enact their physical or spiritual journeys. Symbolically they can define character, time, or the obstacles that both inhibit and challenge characters to complete their journeys. In the Faerie Queene, Spenser creates a universe that challenges and serves Redcrosse Knight's spiritual journey toward enlightenment. Settings that symbolize spiritual enlightenment or degradation form the dual aspects of fairyland, the dreamlike universe that composes the world stage in which many of the poem's adventures take place.
Dark settings often symbolize places in which evil exists. Errours' Den, the dark cave the heroes first encounter on their adventures, provides a place in which the monstrous half-serpent can dwell. Una is the first to recognize this, when she warns the knight that "the peril of this place/I better wot then you..." (Canto 1, 109-10). Spenser sets up the duality between good and evil that exists in fairyland by revealing the contradictions between the Redcrosse Knight and the setting. In Stanza 14, the cave is described as a "darksome hole" (120), but once the knight enters the cave, his "glistring armor" creates enough light for him to see through the darkness. The contradiction between dark and light is apparent in this passage, thus setting up the symbolic paradigm that is woven throughout the poem. By assigning moral attributes to the monsters' dwelling, Spenser is able to reveal the tension that exists within fairyland between good and evil.
This tension forms the landscape on which they must be resolved. Since the knight's quest is a spiritual one, it is significant that he do battle against the forces of evil in order to fulfill his spiritual destiny. Errours' den, thus, is an opportunistic setting for which the knight and Spenser to set the stage for that spiritual journey. Another example of setting symbolizing darkness or evil occurs when the Redcrosse Knight is taken hostage by the giant Orgoglio in his dungeon. Spenser ascribes the same attributes of evil to the dungeon as he does with Errours' Den in Canto 8, Stanzas 38-40. Here, the dungeon is a place of "balefull darknesse" (338), a "deepe descent, as darke as hell" (350), and "darknesse fowle" (152). While the evil monstrosity guarding this dungeon, Orgoglio the giant, dwells outside the dungeon, a far greater evil exists within: despair.
The Redcrosse Knight's imprisonment in the dungeon occasions a visit to the House of Holiness, in which he must undergo physical and spiritual cleansing before he can continue on his journey. Again, the knight's experience in the dungeon pushes him forward on his journey toward spiritual enlightenment. While both...