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Wisdom and power in The Book of Troilus and The Clerk’s Tale

Wisdom and power in The Book of Troilus and The Clerk’s Tale

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Published by Ash Hibbert
This essay will explore what Chaucer’s construction of Griselde and Troilus suggests about “how the idea of a hero is to be interpreted” (Windeatt 275) in medieval England, as well as to uncover any possible critique of those heroic values hidden within the text.
This essay will explore what Chaucer’s construction of Griselde and Troilus suggests about “how the idea of a hero is to be interpreted” (Windeatt 275) in medieval England, as well as to uncover any possible critique of those heroic values hidden within the text.

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Published by: Ash Hibbert on Nov 25, 2012
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05/13/2014

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 1Medieval RepresentationsAshley Hibbert - 176815
Wisdom and power in
The Book of Troilus
 and 
The Clerk’s Tale
 
This essay will explore what Chaucer’s construction of Griselde and Troilus suggestsabout “how the idea of a hero is to be interpreted” (Windeatt 275) in medievalEngland, as well as to uncover any possible critique of those heroic values hiddenwithin the text. One of the virtues of the medieval hero, I propose, is a resignation tofortune or divine will, and the epitome of the medieval hero as martyr. While theStoics conceded pain as unavoidable part of life, the Christian gaze lingers on thesuffering, dwells on the experiences, and analyses the true personality that emerges(Astell 89).
The Clerk’s Tale
then becomes part of the “devotional art and literature inthe late Middle Ages” drive by a desire to participate “in the events of the Passion andof Christ’s Life” (Stanbury 266). The Trojan experience, for example, was a deepfascination to Medieval Christianity, illustrated by medieval London being seen “asthe ‘New Troy’” (Frantzen 6), as it embodies persecution on a grand scale. Themedieval hero is one who aspired to proximity to God through similarity with God – to return to a primal, pre-fall, beginning.The appeal of the story of Troy to the medieval English may be attributed tothe correspondences that the city has with Eden: a perfect, highly cultured country issurrounded by dangerous wilderness. The story of Troilus and Criseyde extend the parallels further: Troilus (the Adam figure) is a patriot whose civic duties arecompromised by the appearance of Criseyde (the Eve figure) whose light treatment of knowledge, such as with the reading of the fall of Thebes, her financial and mentalindependence, and her self-assurance that she can negotiate with Calkus (the serpent)results in her spoiling Pandarus’ (God’s) plans for her and Troilus. Much begins to gowrong with Troy when the sieged-inhabitants go on the offensive against the Greek host – the Trojans express pride and over-confidence. There is a great loss of Trojanlives, senior Trojans are taken prisoner, there is great shame and humiliation in Troy
 
 2and Criseyde is sent into the Greek camp. Diomede is first smiled upon by Fortuneand Troilus is discarded. It could be suggested that the Trojans suffer because theyforget their place as members of a city under siege.The transition and development that the literary hero undertakes through theages, from culture to culture, era to era, is of deep interest to this author. Howattributes of the hero are successfully translated across the boundary of religion andnationality help give a strong historical understanding of the layers that constitute thecontemporary hero. The driving force behind the translation also tells us much aboutthe attitudes of the critics and writers of the respective times. That Chaucer adopts thestory of Troilus into his own form
is
a form of assimilation of the Pagan into theChristian, yet it was also a form of 
 preservation
which had a precedent in antiquity(Roberston 289). For instance, reading a Christian moral into a pagan text was notdissimilar to pre-Medieval literary critics who would approach texts as TreasureIslands whose wealth would prove to contain “contemporary relevance”.Unlike the pagan view of Fortune, the Christian view of ‘fate’ functioned“within the larger frame of providence and that Almighty God’s omniscience … didnot predetermine our free actions” (Windeatt 262). In
The Clerk’s Tale
, God is alwaysin control – yet the line between the pagan fatality and Christian concept of destiny is blurred when bad things happen to good people at the hands of powerful figures – bethey Walter or God. In the cases of the Jobs and Griseldes, the only comfort that theycan take is that their suffering is for a
reason
– but this may be an immense step intheological thought, that someone
is
in control, that they
have
escaped predetermination. The advantage that the Christian take on ‘chance’ would have hadat a moral level – as well as making it more appealing – over the Classical equivalent,is that in the afterlife there would be compensation for sufferings on earth. For theclassical period, however, all that could be hoped for is that one’s feats would ensurein story and song.From the Aristotelian view of courage “best illustrated by Homer’s heroes in asetting of martial combat”, the medieval Christian idea of courage became “bestexemplified … by political prisoners and martyred philosophers” (Astell 78),illustrated by the focal shift from the warrior Ulysses to the masochistic victim of hisown passions, the lover Troilus. Power and wisdom remain the twin virtues of aclassical hero yet in the Middle Ages the power is expressed as faith to endurefortune, while wisdom is the desire to align oneself to God’s will (Astell 70-74).
The
 
 3
Clerk’s Tale
and
Troilus
can be viewed as epic because in spite of their lack of scalethe two texts encapsulate the strongest truths of their era - “… The classical epictradition, continuous in spirit, discontinuous in form, survived and flourished in theMiddle Ages” (Astell 4). The heroes that were represented in the poetry of theAncient Greeks, such as Odysseus, acknowledged the gods as a force to be contendedwith yet did not necessarily acknowledge any higher morality in the divine. In Troilusand Griselda however, the target audience of the respective texts would haverecognised heroic traits because of the characters’ willingness to be subservient to thedivinely-inspired order. As a paragon example,
 Job
may have been considered as anepic in the Middle Ages, and Job himself as a hero, because it provided – in aChristian world – a model for the faithful to emulate Jesus, and thus to obtain acommunion with God through a phoenix-like transformation. Like Job, the “athlete ina theatrical wrestling match, championing the cause of God against Satan” (Astell 79),Griselda too is involved in a battle of wills against her domestic demon, where her very maternal instincts become a liability in the test of her sense of Justice. Throughthe fiery-pain of suffering, the pious could be reborn with a closer resemblance to the primal Adam.
The Clerk’s Tale
and
Troilus
will be approached as Christian parables – allegories that point towards a moral truth. Robertson notes:“We should … recognise the fact that one of the most useful instrument they(the medieval humanist) had at their disposal for the expression of traditionalideas in a form harmonious with the experience of their audience wasallegory.” (286)Robertson clearly indicates the pervasiveness of the use of ‘guise’ in storytelling thathad medieval critics making the texts appear deeper through obscurity; moreobscurity in the metaphor, more sacred the treasure. Allegorical techniques that“medieval students undoubtedly learned about” (Roberston 288), and other rhetoricaldevices favoured by Chaucer create an ambiguity that threatens any direct reading of Chaucer’s work. Approaching Chaucer’s text as saying one thing but meaning another allows for instance the extremity of Troilus’ single minded devotion to Pandarus andCriseyde to question “the conventions from which it derives” (Windeatt 277).

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