Table of Contents

Al Sterelees Withinne a Boot: 

The Layers of Fate in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Lisa Goetz

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Navigating the concept of fate in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde may seem like trying to steer a rudderless boat.  The wind seems to bear down from every direction, and it becomes extremely difficult to see the way in which Chaucer intended fate or “Fortune” to function.  Interestingly, and to Chaucer’s credit as an insightful writer, the ignorance of Troilus and Criseyde regarding their notions of fate becomes our ignorance as readers.  As they are pulled about by what seems to be the tides of Fortune, as readers we also waver.  While we may know the outcome of the story, we must wonder, why do things ultimately turn out badly for these two characters?  Can this be attributed to the literary world of Troy with its foreboding celestial patterns?  It is easy to become wrapped up in the story so that it might even seem plausible that fate is acting on these characters.  The practical reader may attribute the outcome of the poem to simple authorial intent, yet even this does not provide a conclusive answer.  There are also the chance influences that shaped the author and the inspirations for his writing to consider.  It seems then that fate occurs in a layered pattern: to act on the characters as well as on Chaucer.  In the end, Troilus’ flight out into the eighth layer of atmospheric space in Book V mirrors a figurative panning-out that occurs to the reader as he or she attempts to understand fate and realizes that it, like the concept of a layered atmosphere, functions in multiple spheres.  We can observe Chaucer’s creation of fate at the “litel earthe” level as the character’s Troy, and we can also observe a fate which pans out to encompass the narrator, author, and even the contemporary reader.  Like Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer ensures that the reader also is affixed in a world governed by inevitability.       
    Perhaps the first layering of fate occurs at the level of the city of Troy.  While the characters may believe that their predicament was predetermined, they are unable to anticipate that which is fated to happen.  Criseyde and Troilus are submissive to the whims of Fortune and cannot predict what will occur from minute to minute, but Pandarus takes a proactive role towards fate.  He does not wait for a romance to naturally occur or naturally fail to occur between his niece and Troilus.  Instead, he goes to great lengths to try to ensure that their romance successfully occurs.  In a sense, Pandarus even acts as fate in the first two books.  Of course, his actions prove to be ridiculous, and only temporarily effective.  By Book Three, a Boethian structure is apparent, a greater fate takes over, and Pandarus no longer seems to be in control.     
    Troilus and Criseyde may initially be faulted for lacking will and intent.  While Troilus desires the love of Criseyde, he simply sits alone in his room, lamenting his lovesickness.  It is Pandarus who apparently architects their affair to the smallest detail.  In a sense, he seems to be the one who takes a static Troilus and Criseyde and animates them.  Troilus simply obeys the dictates of Pandarus and resigns himself to circumstances.  
For al that comth, comth by necessitee:
Thus to ben lorn, it is my destine. . .
Syn God seeth every thyng, out of doutauce,
And hem disponyth, thorugh his ordinaunce.
(IV, 958 – 964)
In Troilus’ estimation, “whatever is, is right,” and there is no need to try to change his destiny.  However, Troilus’ words here clearly do not suggest that Pandarus controls destiny, as much as Pandarus–and perhaps Troilus–may desire it to be so.  Troilus recognizes that he is beholden to the “ordinaunce” of God, regardless of who seems to cause a particular course of events.  One might say that Troilus lacks range-in-motion, “trapped by love, constrained in his body, bound to the wheel of Fortune, and enmeshed in the cloth of destiny” (Barney 457).  The same may be said for Criseyde.  While she perhaps seems to be the more thoughtful and willful member of the couple, weighing carefully the potential for a romantic relationship, Criseyde proves to lack strong intent.  She, weighs her options, but when it is time for action, she, like Troilus, is pulled about– by the machinations of Pandarus or by some other power.
[Criseyde] is acted upon by Pandarus, by the stunning sight of Troilus (“Who yaf me drinke?”), by the song of true love which Antigone sings, by her own dreams, by–if we can trust the narrator–astrological powers, perhaps most deeply by the sweet song of a nightingale. (Barney 445-446)
The attraction that occurs between Troilus and Criseyde functions as though it were some foreign external force, so that Troilus must ask, “And if love is, what thing and which is he? (I, 401).  Troilus and Criseyde cannot know whether their emotional state is the result of Pandarus’ actions, love, fate, fortune, or God.  They simply are submissive to the predicament that befalls each of them.  While they may be faulted for a lack of will, they may also be credited with having a realistic understanding of their place in the Boethian world.  They, unlike Pandarus, recognize that their intent signifies little when fate is concerned.  
    Pandarus tries to function as fate.  In contrast to Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus is strong willed and will not leave the future of their romance to chance.  He architects their relationship using manipulation, coercion, and trickery.  He commands his niece, “Cast your widowes habit to mischaunce!” (II, 222).  However, it becomes increasingly clear that Pandarus does not call all of the shots.  While he may create scenarios, he is not the ultimate authority on the outcome of the love affair.  In fact, Pandarus’ authority may only seem powerful in the first two books because his machinations appear to coincide with that which was already fated.  Interestingly, in “Between the Motion and the Act: Intention and Ends in Chaucer’s Troilus,” Osberg notes that “Pandarus’ careful plot in Book II, 1247-67, in maneuvering Criseyde to the window as Troilus rides past recapitulates a predestined action occurring six hundred lines earlier” (262).
    While it may seem to readers that Pandarus is “acting” as fate, it becomes clear that he is never truly functioning as fate.  Troilus and Criseyde each recognize that a greater power may be acting upon them.  (Neither seems to think that the greater power is Pandarus).  In “Troilus Bound,” Stephen A. Barney notes that the characters are mistaken when they cite Fortune as the cause of their predicament:  
I believe it would be safe to generalize [. . .] that when Chaucer’s characters [. . .] complain of nature or the stars or Fortune as the determinant of their plight, they are wrong, and simply do not have a large enough vision to get at the real causes. (Barney 448)
The “real causes” of the characters’ situation clearly reside in their perceptions of destiny and causality are incomplete.  They are able to see just one layer of fate, but Chaucer stacks layer upon layer of fate in this poem.  At one level, their greater power is, perhaps, the author.
    The reader must recognize that “fate,” as it occurs in the poem, is the invention of the author.  Clearly, Chaucer creates the Troy of this poem, and with it he creates the inevitability of the lover’s affair.  While “fate” in their world is the invention of Chaucer, he usually deflects attention from his own role, and instead assigns fate to the seasons or the stars in Troy.  Of course, these too are the creation of the author.  
    The author and readers know that the real city of Troy falls in the war that takes place throughout the romance of Troilus and Criseyde.  Of course, no character is aware of this inevitability.  Descriptions of the location add to the reader’s sense of that which is predetermined.  There are constant references throughout the text to the stars and planetary movements throughout the sky.  These background forces seem to exert at least a small effect on the behavior of the characters–even if this effect amounts to a “placebo effect” resulting from the characters’ own superstitions.  There is also a sense of inevitability that is established through “the underlying, seasonal pattern, expressed in metaphors, of fresh spring and dying winter, a pattern which reinforces the doom and hints finally at new life” (Barney 445).  
    Essentially, the setting of the story is established in such a way to suggest to the reader that the outcome of these characters is predestined.  While Chaucer masks his role as the creator of Troilus and Criseyde’s world and destiny, he also occasionally inserts himself in the text.  At the beginning of Book I, the narrator (perhaps Chaucer) beings by saying that the story of Troilus and Criseyde is a tragedy:
The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovynge, how his adventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie. . .  
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I write. (I, 1-7)  
In other words, the writer of this story (whether the narrator or Chaucer himself) knows the outcome or destiny of the romance.  While the characters will remain ignorant of their fate until the end of the poem, the author of their story knows from the beginning that the story is a tragedy.  We as readers do not know why the writer chose to keep the story a tragedy rather than changing the ending, but apparently it is enough for us to know that the author has complete knowledge of the destiny of his characters.
    When Pandarus states “I kan sey no more,” it ought to remind readers that Pandarus’ words are dictated by Chaucer (V, 1743).  When Chaucer states that a poet knows the outcome of his book from the outset of his writing it, readers are also made aware of the role that Chaucer himself plays in fating these characters.  These may seem like playful and obvious reminders to readers that it is Chaucer, not Pandarus, and not the Fortune of the imaginary world of Troy that dictates the characters’ destiny.  However, the action of panning out does not stop here.  Chaucer does not conclude by positioning himself at the top of a Boethian heap.  Instead, he recognizes himself, as author and as human being, as a part of a Boethian structure, and he challenges readers to examine their own position in this world.        
    Chaucer suggests that external forces dictate his own destiny as an author.  Initially, this is apparent to the reader based on the mere fact that Chaucer’s work is a translation of Il Filostrato.  For that reason alone, it is clear that Chaucer’s “destiny” in writing Troilus and Criseyde, was restricted.  While his translation was far more than a rote rendering of the text, certain details of the story were preserved, and the outcome of the love affair of Troilus and Criseyde was inevitable in so far as Chaucer adhered to Il Filostrato.
    Because Chaucer himself is not a character in the tale, his relationship to destiny can only be viewed at the level of the narrator.  While it would be a leap to say that the narrator is equal to Chaucer, it is clear that when the narrator speaks about writing, he at least parallels the position of Chaucer as poet.  In doing so, the narrator, Chaucer, and the characters are aligned and shown to all be subjects of some predestined fate.
As Troilus absolves himself of responsibility by assigning it to a higher agency, so the narrator absolves himself, assigning authority to the old books of Dares, Dite, and Lollius [. . .] as Troilus rails against his ineluctable destiny, the narrator laments his inability to alter it. (Osberg 263)
Ultimately, it becomes increasingly clear that there are no exemptions–for characters, author, narrator, perhaps even for the reader–from the dictates of an inevitable destiny.  
    The layering of fate eventually pans out so far that Chaucer’s narrator (or Chaucer the narrator), articulates apprehensions regarding fate.  In Book V, Chaucer recognizes that the destiny of his own book is outside of his control.  In other words, as much as the writer may want to act as Pandarus (to try to control the world in which he lives), ultimately the narrator recognizes that the fate of his work lies beyond his own control.  Book V represents a realization that the Boethian world of the characters extends to that of Chaucer.  The narrator says:
Go litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedye!
(V, 1786-1788)  
Here, the narrator recognizes the role of God in allowing for authorial inspiration.  He hopes that before he dies he will be able to write a comedy.  He is not so bold to declare that he will write a comedy, but he prays that he will be granted the requisite life-span, inspiration, and circumstances in order to produce a comedy.  These lines suggest that the narrator realizes that the effortful intent and machinations of Pandarus represent the wrongful assumption that an individual may determine his or her own fate.  Intent only works when the external circumstances are right.  It is interesting that the language of the above quotation may be rendered in a number of ways.  On the surface, line 1787 (“Ther God thi makere”) states that God is the maker of the narrator.  But since the subject of the sentence was the “litel bok,” the line may also be read to mean that God in fact was the maker of the book.  This reading of the line certainly corresponds with the notion that a superior power predestines any and all future events.  Readers have come to see through the text that intent alone cannot produce the intended results.  Again, as the poem progresses, notions of fate extend beyond the world of the characters and beyond the world of the narrator.  It becomes increasingly clear that “Fortune,” with its elusive origin and function, is a worthwhile mystery for any thoughtful character, author, or human being.       
    Later in Book V, Chaucer’s narrator enters a sort of a plea with the higher power.  Yet here, more than anywhere else, it seems that the words are not those of a narrator, but those of Chaucer himself.  These lines state an apprehensive plea that the poem will be understood by future generations and that it will not be lost or mistranslated.      
And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,
so prey I God that non miswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge
And red wherso thow be or elles songe,
that thow be understonde, God I biseche!
But yet to purpose of my rather speche . . . .
(V, 1793 – 1799)
At this moment in the text, there is yet another panning out, as we see that Chaucer himself seems to be subject to destiny.  Likewise, his artistic work is subject to uncontrollable external factors such as the dialect that will be spoken in the future.  No amount of intention or effort could control future circumstances such as the dialect that is prominent 600 years after writing a text.  How wonderful that Chaucer’s dialect is readable by English speakers today.  One might even say, what luck!  What fate!
    The good fortune of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to survive as a relevant and readable literary work becomes the reader’s good fortune.  Chaucer’s gesture of panning out would be incomplete if it did not reach the reader him or herself.  When Chaucer enters a plea that his work will survive, readers cannot help but marvel that his work did in fact survive.  The reader is holding the book containing the wish of an author who wrote hundreds of years ago, and by reading, that reader is fulfilling the author’s wish. Perhaps eerily–certainly effectively–Chaucer’s work directly addresses the reader and implicates him or her in one last layer of fate.    
    Ultimately, Chaucer achieves a fascinating figurative panning out as readers realize that fate is functioning at various levels in this literary work.  However, in observing the layers of fate, a reader never quite reaches an outer atmospheric circle as does Troilus in book V.   In reading Troilus and Criseyde, one never arrives at a point in which he or she can look down on the “litel earthe” and definitively identify the cause of any particular event. Ultimately, readers must find themselves in a predicament very similar to that of Troilus, Criseyde, Pandarus, the narrator, or even Chaucer himself: the reader ultimately never knows where the ill fate of the lovers originated or why.  Even while looking down at the world of the characters, the reader is implicated as also a subject to fate.  
    As modern readers, we are perhaps inclined to think of the notion of “fate” as superstitious;  however, it is an integral part in the structure of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. As the fate of the characters in an imagined Troy and the fate of Chaucer and his literary works are called into question time and again, readers cannot help but wonder whether the concept of “fate” is best reserved to literature and history, or whether it truly holds relevance to their own understanding of the world of today.  The poem challenges modern readers to question their assumptions about intent and outcome.              
    Chaucer opens up a world in which the simple dismissal of something as “fate” must be questioned.  Layers of fate emerge, like a Matryoshka (those wooden doll stacked one around the next), and we as readers find ourselves situated somewhere in the middle of this stack, attempting to take apart the mystery as if we are located, somehow, above it all.  Instead, Chaucer illuminates the fact that–even as we hold a poem within our two hands–we as readers and as human beings lack full knowledge of the origin and outcomes of the seemingly inevitable.  

Works Cited
Barney, Stephen A.  “Troilus Bound.” Speculum 47.3 (July
1972): 445-458.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Ed. Stephen A. Barney.
New York: W. W. Norton. 2006.
Ganim, John M. “Tone and Time in Chaucer’s Troilus.” ELH
43.2 (Summer 1976): 141-153.
Osberg, Richard H. “Between the Motion and the Act: Intention
and Ends in Chaucer’s Troilus.” ELH 48.2 (Summer 1981): 257-270.