Spenser explains that while historians follow the chronological order, poets are free to play with time and start in the middle of things (that’s the famous in medias res, the rule dating back to the ancient poetics that the epic poem should start, like Iliad, towards the end of the Trojan War, and not start right from the beignning). So in his twelfth book (the one he never managed to write) he would describe the big feast the Faerie Queene threw for twelve days and how on each of these days another supplicant would come and ask for help from one of her knights. Well, if the party was going to be described in Book XII, it means that there are eleven books left and Spenser supposedly planned twelve adventures with twelve knights. So something here doesn’t quite add up. Maybe that is why Spenser didn’t manage to finish his poem. I can kind of see him, trying to calculate how much is 12 – 1. OK, now I’m just being mean. Back to the text.
So Spenser explains that on the first day of the feast a young peasant came, asking the Fairie Queene for any adventure. Then he sat down on the floor, as he was too lowly born to deserve a better seat. As an answer to his prayer, a beautiful lady entered the hall, riding a white ass, with a dwarf accompanying her leading a horse carrying a knight’s armour and a spear. The lady asks the Queen for help in freeing her parents, who were imprisoned by a dragon. The young man springs up and offers his help. This has a strong whiff of Don Quixote’s fantasies, in my opinion, but perhaps it’s just because I know these late chivalric romances only via Don Quixote. The lady helps the young man with the armour, saying that he has no chance of winning without it, because, as Spenser explains, this is the armour described by St. Paul in the Letter to Ephesians. I guess it must have been a favourite passage among many Bible readers of this day, as Lady Jane Grey also alluded to it. The story with the people asking the Faerie Queene for help in their various distresses and her knights helping them is repeated on the second and third day. Presumably it was also going to be repeated on the following days, but Spenser doesn’t describe them, since at this stage his poem contained only three books and his idea of what was going to happen later may have been rather vague.