Chapter 7


Troilus and Pandarus are false coiners, in a sense, though they are hardly as guilty as Master Adam, because they take a creature, the coin of another Authority, and try the one to remint it and the other to efface it in order to make it current for Troilus, his idealism, and his passion. The image of that other Authority, however, who, Chaucer says, "nyl falsen no wight" (5.1845), is ineradicable. Criseyde is a person and will not, cannot, be Troilus's ideal. This Pandarus, in fact, knew all along and is thus, if charmingly industrious, also more reprehensible, finally, than Troilus, who is so thorough a narcissist that he cannot see, seeing himself, that he sees only himself in Criseyde (cf. 3.1499).

Although his own image blinds him, and although he never becomes Narcissus transhumanized, Troilus, we must insist, is more than just Ovid's self-indulgent boy or Dante's disfigured figure. He is also, to put it most simply, a philosopher, the most consistent Platonist in Chaucer's poetry. His Boethian idiom, however distorted from its original, identifies him unmistakably.1 And just because he is a Platonist, his immersion in images and the flesh is catastrophic. The discrepancy between the "forms" which his spirit perceives and the reality of the world is finally so vast that he cannot bear it, and he rides out on the Trojan Plain to kill or be killed. Any reading of Troilus's character which omits or slights the purity of his idealism and the breathlessness of his love, even though every reading must insist on his narcissistic falsifications, misses the poignancy of his condition. Had he been able to emerge from the cave, Troilus would have seen the sun. As it turned out, Mercury "sorted hym to dwelle" (5.1827) we know not where.

At the same time, though, he is a narcissist. Chaucer is at pains to plot many allusions to Troilus's narcissism in Book 1. Manifestly, for example, when we first see him, Troilus disdains the love of women (1.190-203); and although his motives are not those of Ovid's Narcissus, he is also vain, or, at {111/112} the least, presumptuous, assuming an invulnerability (1.204-05) which does indeed suggest that "se non noverit" ("he does not know himself"; Met. 3.348). Moreover, when he does come at last to know himself--that, although he has loved another, he loved more his image of her than her--his self-knowledge that he has loved not wisely but too well will cost him, as it did Narcissus, his life.

The beginning of Troilus's self-knowledge is the God of Love's vengeance upon his presumption (1.206-10). Immediately Troilus, like Dante in Inferno 30, is "fixed" in narcissistic fascination: "in his hertes botme gan to stiken / Of hir his fixe and depe impressioun" (1.297-98; emphasis added). Furthermore, even now Troilus begins to fabricate false images: he repeatedly dissimulates his real condition (1.320-22, 488-90). And, most telling of all, he is like Narcissus trapped now in a mirror (1.365-67, 372; emphasis added):

Thus gan he make a mirour of his mynde,
In which he saugh al holly hire figure,
And that he wel koude in his herte fynde.
. . .
Imaginynge that travaille nor grame. . .
Note well that Chaucer, as did Dante before him, takes pains to emphasize the connection between mirroring and image-making. Troilus is already succumbing to the temptations of (Master) Adam.

Supplementing these direct allusions are suggestions of Troilus's narcissism through images of fire and water. Besides simple references to fire and fever (1.490-91), there are almost certain evocations of Ovid's and Dante's texts. For example, Troilus laments (1.523-25; emphasis added):

"But also cold in love towardes the
Thi lady is, as frost in wynter moone,
And thow fordon, as snow in fire is soone."
In the same way Narcissus "melted" for "unrequited love" (Met. 3.487-90). Again, Troilus complains that "desir so brennyngly me assailleth" (1.607); and in the complaint he sounds like both Ovid's Narcissus (Met. 3.464) and Dante's Master Adam (Inf.30.64-69).

As for the suggestion of Troilus's narcissism through the imagery of water, Chaucer is shrewd indeed (1.871-74; emphasis added):

But tho gan sely Troilus for to quake
As though men sholde han led hym into helle,
And seyde, "Allas! of al my wo the welle,
Thanne is my swete fo called Criseyde!" {112/113}
This is the moment when at last Troilus confesses to Pandarus who it is that he loves, and, however oblique the allusion through "the welle" to "lo specchio di Narcisso," the rhyme with "helle" and the suggestion that his confession leads Troilus to Hell combine with the allusion to evoke not only Narcissus but also the very scene in which Dante confronts Narcissus. In this "welle" Troilus will see not only himself but also, after Criseyde has betrayed him, the prospect of Hell itself. In light of Chaucer's dependence on and transformations of Dante, this moment carries chilling force, and we can only admire the care the poet has taken to set the stage.

At least one more detail of that setting needs special emphasis. At the end of Book 1 (lines 1083-85) we learn of Troilus that

Dede were his japes and his cruelte,
His heighe port and his manere estraunge,
And ecch of tho gan for a vertu chaunge.
Troilus, in short, has converted (cf. 1.999); but this conversion, unlike Dante's, does not transhumanize. In fact, that is Troilus's tragedy: he does turn to love, but his version of love does not turn him to the sun and the other stars. {113}