Fortune in Troilus and Criseyde
As a poem that presents tragedy within love as inevitable, in Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer also explores the forces that control this downfall: Fortune, the planets and free will. These can be separated in to two categories, those that exist in the human world, and those that are of a higher power. However, Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’- a key text in Chaucer’s process of writing- states that “the free exercise of the human will is part of destiny”. This definition renders the distinction between free will and fortune as inaccurate if human will is seen as part of a greater scheme. This is portrayed through Chaucer’s work in that human intervention in the form of Pandarus occurs and still Troilus is thrown from the wheel. Therefore, Troilus and Criseyde explores not only the effects of tragedy in love but the cause of both the fortune and misfortune that is bestowed upon the characters.
Within the poem, Fortune is viewed as the traditional symbol of a wheel. Whilst the associations with Fortune are good, Chaucer specifies that “cessed she Fortune anon to be” if she were unable to set another on the wheel in her favour. This suggests that in order for the idea of Fortune to exist in Troilus and Criseyde, it must be a force with the ability to induce pain as well as pleasure. This is evident from Book I, which provides a suggestion of inevitable failure in love in the verses to come: “how his aventures fellen/ From wo to wele, and after out of joie” (Chaucer, Book 1: l.6-7). Structurally, the sentence echoes the overall structure of the five books; the ‘happiness’ of good fortune characterises approximately the first three books, whilst the last two are encompassed by the ‘wo’ of bad fortune. This translates to a wheel in that Troilus is put in good favour for almost the same amount of time he is in bad favour, presenting the idea of an equilibrium. In order for there to remain a balance in not only Troilus’s fortunes but the rest of the human world, the good must be offset with the bad and vice versa. It also suggests a self-fashioning in Chaucer’s writing, suggesting a further theme that Fortune is not so arbitrary through displaying it as symmetrical. However, the focus cannot be on the two experiences as separate entities but coming together “out of joie”; love is the unifying factor, suggesting that you cannot love someone without also feeling pain. This encompasses also the medieval idea of courtly romance in that during a courtship, there is an intense feeling of love sickness. Yet the repetition of differing forms of ‘wo’ presents the idea not only of a love sickness, but a mourning of a loss of love, thus echoing the symbolic death and ‘twynnyng’(Chaucer, Book IV, l.1302) of lovers in Book IV. Additionally, it can also be seen not only how Fortune must exist as a wheel but also that the control of the wheel lies above the earthly sphere. This suggests an undeniable element of tragedy within the romance in that whether Fortune is an arbitrary force or not, Troilus and Criseyde are unable to control where they are placed on the wheel. Furthermore, whilst Fortune is portrayed as a wheel that humans have no control over, Chaucer does suggest at a certain amount of control within the human sphere in the way that each individual responds to what they are given. Whilst Troilus mourns Criseyde until his death, she tries to make the best out of a bad situation. Therefore, Chaucer sees Fortune as not a way of bringing good luck, but as a balance; in order for good to occur in the world, there must be a balancing of evil.
Once Chaucer establishes Fortune as a force that is out of human control, there continues to be an exploration of whether it is tailored to each individual or whether it is a force common to all. This also explores whether Fortune is a completely arbitrary force or if the fortune it bestows is in direct correlation to the actions of the individuals. And when a wight is from hire whiel ythrowe, Than laugheth she, and maketh hym the mowe.” (Chaucer, Book IV, l.6-7) From the beginning of Book IV, Fortune is portrayed as a force that individually targets Troilus as opposed to being random. This is emphasised through the patriarchal use of language- ‘hym’- that suggests that Fortune is not only tailored to individuals, but Troilus alone. Yet the tragedy does not occur to Troilus alone; a romance typically denotes man and woman. Criseyde is omitted from not only this sentence, but from almost this entire process of grief. This malicious behaviour is emphasised by her action of laughing, suggesting that as a wider force Fortune cares little for the consequences of the events she causes in only one person’s life. Additionally, the grimace she induces provides one of the many mirroring acts within Troilus and Criseyde. Similarly to how Troilus experiences pain through love sickness throughout Book II, he now experiences pain through the loss of this love. Yet, the treatment of Fortune here is dualistic in that it appears as an arbitrary force also. Despite previous references to Troilus as an individual, the impersonal phrase ‘a wight’ presents this statement as a wider comment as to the fortune of all men. Furthermore, the phrase ‘and when’ suggests that being thrown from the ‘whiel’ is simply inevitable; if there were a chance that man could exist with only good fortune, Chaucer could have simply used ‘if’. The use of pronouns in this Book is especially important as Fortune is personified as ‘her’, suggesting that human intent imbues every actions she takes. Mann suggests that in capitalising Fortune to the goddess Fortuna, human beings can deceive themselves in to thinking the force as independent from themselves. This is supported by the traditional image of Fortuna as blindfolded, suggesting that even she is controlled by chance when she bestows the good or bad. This proceeds to the conclusion that perhaps the nature of Fortune has not changed over the course of the three books; it remains about perspective. At the beginning of Book IV, Troilus remains in the grips of grief and therefore sees Fortune as not an arbitrary force but one specific to pushing him to tragedy. To view it from Diomedes perspective, his fortunes at this point turn for the better. Additionally, from Criseyde’s perspective, tragedy has occurred yet she understands that through lack of choice she must find another lover for protection. Thus, Chaucer’s treatment of Fortune, whilst fixed, does change through perspective of the character and does not occur ‘without a reason’. Therefore, it can be argued that whether Fortune predestines one’s futures or if it occurs by chance, it remains not about controlling the fates but the human reaction to what it given out to each of us.
Whilst Fortune plays an important part in the romance of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer also acknowledges Fortune as only one of the non-human entities that control human lives. The planets such as Venus and Mars feature as having a certain influence when in the right alignment; their influence depends on what each planets represent and how this corresponds to the occurrences on Earth. Through tracing the influence of Venus throughout the books, we can see where the planets also have an influence. A crucial section within Book II displays how Fortune and Venus work in unison: “And also blisful Venus, wel arrayed […] To helpe sely Troilus of his woo” (Chaucer, Book II, l. 673-683) Through positioning the influence of Venus within the initial courtship of Criseyde and Troilus, it suggests that the planet of love aided them in coming together. This is emphasised through the use of ‘also’, suggesting that Fortune alone may not be sufficient in encouraging the love affair. Yet it is also implied that Venus works separately from Fortune through the description of Troilus ‘of his woo’, insinuating that he is destined for tragedy through being at the mercy of fortune alone. Even with this implication, the planets are still seen as a secondary influence to Fortune. To support this, the Ptolemaic structure of spheres must be referred to as it presents planetary alignment as a higher power than Fortune. Through Fortune controlling earthly events, it remains at an almost human level whilst Venus remains in a sphere of light above earth. This suggests Venus remains as perfect and incorruptible, whereas Fortune presides in an area where it can be corrupted. It can also be seen as a higher power in that Venus remains unchanged in its support of love whereas Fortune is changeable through the symbol of the wheel. This constancy can be seen in the alignment of the planets being apparent in the romance between Diomede and Criseyde: “brighte Venus folwede and ay taught/ The wey.” (Chaucer, Book V, l.1016) The phrase ‘folwede’ suggests that whenever the planets are in alignment, they influence human action. Through encouraging love for Diomede also, it suggests that planetary alignment is not as specific as Fortune is portrayed to be towards Troilus; it remains a force higher than this in influencing whoever is in the right situation. Therefore, Chaucer treats Fortune as only one of higher powers that influence human situation. Yet, Fortune is seen as more prominent in that it deals directly with human affairs, instead of being a secondary aid as Venus is seen as throughout Book II especially.
Fortune is not only used in the aspects of love, but must be viewed as a wider force capable of penetrating all areas of life. Whilst Chaucer primarily uses Fortune within romance, he also uses wider events such as the Trojan siege to suggest its influences in other matters. Through the siege in the background, it also connects this idea of Fortune as a wider force yet also influencing individual fates. Through his name alone, Troilus is inextricably linked to the fate of Troy, alluding to the Troilus as a symbol of premature death. Also, through using the inevitable downfall of Troy, it suggests how Fortune is an arbitrary force that can control the lives of many. Troilus therefore becomes a symbol of the fate of Troy, linking the fates of all men and his fate within his romance with Criseyde. Therefore, Fortune is treated both as a wider force and one individual to certain men; it is only through the genre of romance and the intimate focus on Troilus that we see it predominantly as a force specific to certain people.
Bibliography Boethius, ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Jill Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Chaucer, G. Troilus and Criseyde, ed. by Barry Windeatt (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
Mann, J. ‘Chance and Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight’s Tale’ in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Jill Mann (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003)
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