Troilus and Criseyde

“Wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery feere,
And to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.”

 Geoffrey Chaucer

If Northanger Abbey was the upside of revision, then Troilus and Criseyde is the downside. It’s a 10,000-line poem by a guy called Geoffrey Chaucer, supposedly the father of English letters, set in the besieged city of Troy a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. (Not that last bit, obviously.)

This is what happens:

Troilus falls in love with Criseyde. He tells his best friend Pandarus all about the pains of love, etc., etc., at great length. Pandarus, arch-pimp, happily informs his friend that Criseyde is, fortunately enough, his niece, and that he can get her to sleep with Troilus. (His niece, Constant Reader. His actual niece.) Subjected to much pressure, not to mention a juicy bit of emotional blackmail, Criseyde eventually agrees, only to leave the doomed city shortly afterwards and take up with a Greek guy named Diomede. Troilus once again complains of the pains of love at great length, and eventually commits suicide-by-Greek-soldier on the plains before Troy.

I repeat: this poem is 10,000 lines long. There’s a lot of talking.

Plus it’s in Middle English, which is not the easiest of things to read at the best of times.

Constant Reader, I hate to say it, being an English student and all, but Chaucer is boring. Intensely, mind-suckingly tedious. Oh, he’s bright, yes: he knows how to write words, he knows how to use his verse, he can pun with the best of them. He’s read his classics, he knows his Dante, he’s probably read every single other book around. But given a choice between reading Troilus and Criseyde again and voting UKIP, I’d…

…OK, I’d probably re-read Troilus and Criseyde. But you get the idea. Chaucer is like that pretentious person at a party spouting impenetrable puns to make other people feel small. It might be clever, but it’s not nice. You could spend hours interpreting such behaviour, but you don’t want to be on the pointy end of it.

Plus, the bits with Pandarus in – which is most of the poem – make me seriously ragey. Like, I get that Chaucer is making a point about the line between public and private, and the vulnerability of women in his era to the men who control them – but couldn’t he have done it with a nicer person? Or at least made something satisfyingly bad happen to Pandarus in the end?

I imagine Shakespeare’s version is much better, or at the very least more fun to read. Chaucer may have been a genius, but that doesn’t mean I want to read him.

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