Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Troilus and Cresida" - Geoffrey Chaucer

Now that exams are over and summer is here, I'm hoping to get a lot more reading done over the next few months. Troilus and Cresida was definitely the most readable Great Book for a while, and I thought it was great - probably the best fictional book about love that I've ever read (not that it faces much competition). No one can write about crushes quite like medieval authors and it proves that, even though our customs change, the patterns of our thoughts and the stirring of our souls have remained more or less constant. In fact there were stretches of time when I didn't want to read because Troilus' woes reminded me too much of my own, especially towards the beginning of the book. 

The main character Troilus was a man who had rejected love all his life as something only fit for fools until Cupid exacts his revenge by causing Troilus to fall quickly and deeply in love with Cresida. Cresida, on the other hand, develops feelings for Troilus slowly and cautiously. I find it interesting that in medieval literature, it is often the male characters who are driven the most by love. It's the opposite of the modern stereotype of female characters being too dependent on the love of a man. Ladies often come to the rescue of knights in medieval literature as well, but that's a whole other story...

Pandarus got on my nerves a little bit. He seemed emotionally manipulative towards Cresida, even if he had good intentions, and he committed the unforgivable crime of giving the "plenty of fish in the sea" talk to Troilus after Cresida leaves Troy. But then there were times when he spoke genuine wisdom.

The combination of classical setting with medieval sensibilities was also interesting. Although the Troilus and Cresida shares the setting with the Iliad, the harshness of the war is removed. It often feels like Troilus is riding off to a tournament rather than a war. The rough warriors are also replaced with gentle knights.

Troilus and Cresida was just as much about Fortune as it was about love. Life inexorably goes through periods of bad, and then good, and then back to bad. Troilus loves Cresida from afar and feels sick at the thought of her never returning his love. Eventually Cresida does return his love, but is all too soon taken from Troilus by her father to the Greek camp where she surrenders he heart to Diomedes the Greek warrior.

Chaucer ends the book on a joyful, if sobering, ending. Troilus is killed by Achilles ( darn it, Achilles, first Hector and now Troilus!), and Troilus ascends to the heavens where he considers his former earthly concerns to be vanity compared with the felicity of heaven he now experiences. Troilus laughs at those who mourn him. Chaucer tells his readers to give their hearts to God rather than to unpredictable youthful passions. Much as my heart hates to admit it, I think he's right.

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