The poem is written in an elaborate 9-line verse form, called the Spenserian stanza and invented by Spenser especially for the poem. It opens in the tradition of the epic poetry, with an invocation. The poet introduces himself, in a way, saying that he now is going to replace his oaten reed with a trumpet, or switch from the pastoral mode (the one he pursued in The Shepheardes Calender) to the epic. He invokes the help of an unnamed Muse, Venus, Cupid and Mars, as well as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, of whom Elizabeth is the prototype.
Canto 1 begins, as all Cantos, with a short four-line verse summarizing its contents. The first image we have is that of the Redcrosse Knight, riding his horse through a plain. His armour is full of dents but actually he himself has never wielded arms (because he has just been given this armour, as we know from Spenser’s letter). Nevertheless, he rides his horse well. He is followed by a lady riding a white ass, covered with a white veil and black cloak, and leading a white lamb on a leash. The Lady is of ancient royal line, but lost her kingdom to an invader and the Knight is going to help her to win it back. They are followed by a dwarf, who is lagging behind, perhaps because he is lazy or perhaps because is weary of carrying her luggage. So these supposedly wonderful characters riding on horseback are followed by a physically handicapped person, on foot and carrying a heavy bag, and the narrator expects him to keep up with them? I hope they are not riding very fast, if not on the dwarf’s account, than at least on the lamb’s. But now karma seems to catch up with them, because it starts to rain heavily. (Of course I know it’s not a realist novel, but I can’t help judging them. I have so few joys in life.)