Troilus and Criseyde is a long poem by Geoffrey Chaucer set to the background of the Trojan war. The story of Troilus and Criseyde had long travelled before it reached Chaucer's time and literary skill. The immediate predecessor of Chaucer's work is Boccaccio's Il Filostrato but in fact the story can be traced back to the French poet Benoit de Sainte-Maure and the twelfth century. In the course of this long journey the story preserved its original plot and main idea but changed considerably in character and ideology.
What makes Troilus and Criseyde different from Il Filostrato is the presence of the knighthood element and the tradition of courtly love. This is of course all very natural because of the difference in the literary tradition to which each of the works belongs. The ideas of knighthood and courtly love are not only expected but associated with English medieval literature and maybe that is why at first sight Troilus and Criseyde may seem unremarkable or even predictable to some readers. In fact, the poem reveals the importance of these two peculiarities of the medieval English value system and the way they change the motives and ideas of the characters.
In principle Troilus and Criseyde follows the mechanism of Roman de la Rose: we have the lady in the face of Criseyde, the lover represented by Troilus and the helpful friend - Pandarus. However, Chaucer does not leave the things so simple and adds a certain amount of complexity to the characters and makes them seem plausible and human-like. In the spirit of the medieval tradition Chaucer builds every character as a certain pattern of behavior: Troilus is the brave warrior struck by the power of love, who would do anything for his beloved; Criseyde is the beautiful and virtuous lady who eventually turns out unfaithful; and Pandarus - the loyal and witty friend who turns the affair between the lover and the lady into a mission of his. The characters do not change or develop in some unexpected way: they are rather very well described and follow very strictly the path their personality suggests. No doubt Chaucer should be given some credit for the psychological dept he achieves in building them.
After the short description of the Trojan war and the situation the Greeks and the Tojans are involved in we are immediately presented with a scene that very much reminds us of a medieval court gathering (although it takes place in a temple). Chaucer does not hesitate to mix the ancient tradition and customs with an image of his own society and its courtly system. In the very first lines of the description of the people in the temple we read about knights and ladies: "And namely, so many a lusty knight, / So many a lady fresh and a mayden bright" (Book I, 165-166). Knighthood was an important part of the courtly tradition in medieval times and Chaucer as a person very much involved in this tradition holds its values and principles dear. Troilus is the main character of his work and most probably the natural way for Chaucer to present him as a true hero was to ascribe all the knightly virtues to him. The poet does not try to hide this in any way. When we see Troilus for the first time after the prologue he is presented as the leader of a group of young knights: "This Troilus, as he was wont to gyde / His younge knightes, ladde hem up and doun" (Book I, 183-184). We are first told that Troilus is a knight and we understand that he is not an ordinary one, but one superior to others, which suggests the exceptional bravery and skill of the character and so his higher position in society. He is of course one of Priam's sons which adds inborn nobility to his character. At this early stage of the poem we have Troilus outlines as a knight and he is to justify tis later on in the poem. Indeed this happens, but in the first scene Troilus sounds a bit immature. In the temple Troilus goes around with his group of knights sharing his thoughts on the matter of love. For him love is a waste of time and it does nothing better than turn people into fools. After saying that he does something that gives out the fact that what he says may not be exactly an instance of personal experience: "And with that word he gan cast up the brows, / Ascaunces, 'Lo! Is tis nought wysly spoken?'". Troilus is in fact innocent when it comes to love. He has never been in love before. Boccaccio's Troilo has some experience which has led him to similar thoughts but Chaucer's knight has undergone nothing of the sort. Troilus's attitude towards love is immature and on the whole his behavior may be described as childish. Only later on when hit by Cupid's arrow does he start to grow up. That leads us to one of the features of the courtly love system: love ennobles men. Troilus develops and matures because of his love for Criseyde. His thoughts become wiser and his insight deeper. At a certain point he reflects on the clash between free will, God's foreknowledge of things and Fortune's role. What he concludes is that free will does not exist and that everything that happens to you is just a matter the scenario God has prepared for you. These are already much more mature thoughts far more suitable for a knight. In a way love makes Troilus a better knight - he becomes a better soldier and gets rid of all his vices. Even when confronted with the decision whether to stick to the knightly values or to abandon them and claim his wish of Criseyde staying in Troy in front of his brother Hector, Troilus decides to preserve his lady's honor and not reveal their secret. A bit later on we see that there is a moment when Troilus offers Criseyde to elope with him but that is in the moment of total despair before she leaves - a moment where the above- mentioned resemblance between the characters and actual people is evident. Very plausibly Troilus gives way to his real feelings and for a moment abandons his knightliness.
Troilus is represented as a knight not only by his own actions or by what the speaker says of him. He turns up in one of Criseyde's dreams as an eagle. The eagle is a symbol of strength, courage and bravery. She sees him as her protector: something that is very important for her as she is a widow and her father Calcas has left her behind joining the Greeks. Nevertheless, she acts as she is supposed to and behaves like a lady: she does not accept Troilus's love right away. In fact, there is a pretty lengthy passage devoted to her hesitation whether she should do it or not. Her honor is the last thing she has left. Again, the psychological insight of Chaucer comes into action and we see a woman who is absolutely alone, with a father-traitor and, if we assume that the situation is truly courtly-like, she is a perfect victim for the gossips. It's only normal that she is puzzling herself so hard over the question whether to succumb to her desire or not. As a whole Chaucer is very condescending when it comes to Criseyde: he does not judge her as hard as Boccaccio does. The poet refers to her unfaithfulness as "that she was unkinde" (Book IV, 16). He tries to excuse her in every possible way. Still the story goes its own way and the reader is free to judge the lady and her deeds any way they want.
As a whole Criseyde plays the typical role of the lady in the triangle of courtly love (the lover, the friend, the lady). She displays all the features the genre of Roman de la rose requires of the lady. She is very beautiful: "So aungellyk was hir natyf beautee, / That lyk a thing immortal semed she" (Book I, 102-103). She is of a noble origin and people like her; she is under the protection of Hector himself who despite the treason of her father finds her worthy of respect. But Chaucer decided that beauty and honor are not enough to make his heroine likable enough: Criseyde is represented as a well-read woman. When Pandarus goes to visit her for the first time she and two other ladies are listening to the story of "the Sege of Thebes" (Book II, 84). This is just a subtle detail but it still adds to the overall virtuousness of Criseyde.
As the tradition of courtly love commands Criseyde does not immediately plunge into a love affair with Troilus. At first she only promises to be friendly with him and to try to plese him on the condition that her honor will be preserved. And again in accordance with the rules of fine amour Troilus's only reward will be the opportunity to serve her. Criseyde, of course, starts to feel pity for the young man and so eventually decides to become his mistress. But once again Chaucer differently from Boccaccio does not represent Criseyde as a thirsty for pleasure lustful woman who's in a hurry to take her clothes off in Troilus's bedroom. On the contrary: we see her trembling and shaking with shyness in the night of the storm when the lovers are for the first time alone. Indeed this tendency to slow down the action and to prolong the time of hesitation and uncertainty creates the tender and very romantic air of the poem. The lovers should overcome the obstacles of courtly love without disrespecting its rules, which is a very hard task, but makes the outcome all the more pleasant.
The connections between the characters may seem superficial at first sight but in fact they are very important for the mechanism of the poem to work properly. In this respect, we cannot overlook the importance of Pandarus. He is the truthful friend without whom the lovers would never be together.
Differently from Troilus, Pandarus is not what we would call "a perfect knight". He lacks Troilus's carriage. Pandarus is represented as forever leaping and running around, pouring jokes and witty proverbs everywhere. He has never been successful in his love affairs and maybe if the story was to be told by a modernist writer, Pandarus would be described as a man obsessed with the relationship of his friend, trying to compensate his own lack of romance. One way or the other, Pandarus really does what he can for Troilus and is in many respects successful. He is a true friend just like the tradition of fine amour decrees. He turns his back on some values in favor of his duty to Troilus: as her uncle, Pandarus should forbid Criseyde to love another man different from her dead husband, because otherwise she would become a victim of gossip and that would be a shame for the whole family. Pandarus never even mentions that. On the contrary - he urges Criseyde to abandon her black clothes and to continue with her life of a young and beautiful woman. He once again puts friendship above family towards the end of the poem when after Criseyde's betrayal he says to Troilus, "I hate Criseyde". Pandarus is the one to abandon the knightly values and offer Troilus to take Criseyde and to elope with her. Friendship and serving his fellow knight are the highest values for him.
These beliefs of Pandarus's prove once again that the traditions of knighthood and courtly love do not simply drive the plot but represent the value system that the characters cannot escape following. These two complicated traditions model the behavior and the thoughts of the characters in Chaucer's poem.