Monday, January 31, 2011

Beowulf: 5 Questions for Discussion

Okay, I know I said we could hopefully get more help on the history of Beowulf this week, but that is not going to happen. It seems as if there is really nothing more we can do with that. There are whole books out there dedicated to attempting to date this epic, but still no one knows anything for sure. So I decided to post some of the questions my instructor brought up in class and discuss the answers here. One of them, and I honestly for the life of me cannot remember which one, was pointed out as the type of question commonly asked on the exam. You would think I would write something like that down, but here we are…

1. Is Grendel’s mother a monster for wishing to avenge her son? Or is she simply doing the same thing as Beowulf, which is an accepted part of his culture?

Short answer: yes with an “if.” Long answer: still yes, but with much more explanation…which I will give here.

Grendel’s mother is seeking vengeance which is appropriate for the culture, but she does not use the proper etiquette and manners when doing it. Much like the thief that steals the cup from the dragon, he doesn’t do the proper thing of challenging the dragon openly and honorably. Grendel’s mother comes in at night when everyone is asleep and kills the King’s favorite servant. Also, she is attempting to be the last word in a problem that her son, the one she is avenging, is responsible for causing. Also, Beowulf and his friends have community, while Grendel and his mother barely have each other (we don’t even see them interacting with each other as when Beowulf goes to their home, Grendel is (presumably) already dead)). They are dangerous because they are outside of the society, without community, without a sense of order, and they act alone. The other women in the story (granted, they are few) attempt to keep the peace – Grendel’s mother is achieving the exact opposite.

2. If Grendel is the objectification of our desire to kill another man, what is the dragon an objectification of?

Maybe the inevitability of the end. The end is going to come anyway (the story mentions that the dragon is “driven” to hunt out underground hoards of gold and guard it, even though it is of no use to him), but the people can make the best of it by doing what you’re supposed to.

The dragon hoards, which is bad, as these societies thrive on gift-giving and the exchange of gold. If these societies hoard their gold, their civilization will end. If the gold doesn’t move, then their story ends and the civilization passes from memory.

While we’re on the subject of inevitability, there is one line from the story that sums up this society’s view on courage and fate: “Often, for undaunted courage, / fate spares the man it has not already marked (Lines 572-573). Chew on that one for awhile…

3. Why is the fame of the Geats not enough to keep the Swedes at bay? Why can’t the gold keep passing? Why hasn’t anyone stepped up to be the new leader after Beowulf?

After Beowulf dies, the society seemingly will fall apart, and they all know it and seem to view it as an inevitable thing that can’t be helped. Wiglaf asserts that once the Swedes hear of Beowulf’s death, they will come over the hill and take over. Beowulf has no heir, and nothing is ever mentioned about him getting one, although it should be a concern. Because of their lack of an appropriate heir, the society has failed.

And a fun note about Old English – it has no future tense. Talk about fatalistic imagination…

4. What cultural work does poetry perform in the story?

The poetry of the story gives honor and veneration to the men of the day. His corroboration is more important than the actual action. The poetry is history, entertainment, bold, assertive, and it is what makes Grendel angry. It is what makes a man into a god and causes his name to be sung throughout eternity. The singer/performer grants the hero the only kind of after life these people would know of. Beowulf itself is a poem about history and a specific moment in history. It is a history, but not a history of a people. It is more about respect for the past then knowledge of it.

5. Is there an ideological battle between Christianity and Paganism being played out here?

There is definitely a tension, but the narrator is almost diplomatic about it. He does not come out and say these people are going to hell, but he seems to make the point that they aren’t necessarily bound for heaven either. He is not condescending or condemnatory. If anything, he is Christianizing a Germanic story.

The question should be rather, what does the narrator or poet think about the past? What exactly does he mean when he mentions “God?” The Christianity we know today is probably not the same Christianity the poet is holding as true. The poet was most likely a cleric, making him a believing baptized Christian of the time, and he saw what the Danes and Geats were doing as different from what he was doing, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still Christian. The poem is a window into a time of no baptism and no redemption, but a powerful realization of deity, fate, and some kind of almighty.

The words “pagan” and “Christian” have a broad spectrum of meaning throughout time. The poet would know more about the depth of his own people, but not the paganism of Beowulf’s time.

I found the discussion on these questions extremely helpful and enlightening. I have read Beowulf at least four times now and I have never felt as informed about it as I do now. Next week, I will move away from Old English and embrace Elizabethan with William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Required Work: Beowulf

I am fortunate enough (or stupid enough, depending on how you want to look at it) to be taking Medieval Literature semester. This class will be covering both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For this blog, I will cover Beowulf both this week and next, while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be covered on February 17th and 24th. I will take the time between these two works and afterwards to cover both the required plays of Shakespeare and the optional plays I chose for my personal M.A. exam list, making it six plays in all. Now, I realize this will only account for 10 of the 16 weeks in the semester, but I am sure I will find other works to fill in the time…it is not like I have a shortage of works to cover.

FYI: The edition of Beowulf pictured at the right is the Norton Critical Edition. It is a modern verse translation by the poet Seamus Heaney, and is the version that is used to the questions on the M.A. exam. I found it incredibly helpful and easy to understand, and it includes plenty of support material that will help with the history of the poem.


Clearly Beowulf is one long poem…an epic poem if you will, so let’s move on…

The story is not structured the way we are used to stories being formatted. The storyline is linear for the most part, but it contains many digressions (for lack of a better word) that move the reader back in time. If anything, the digressions show that this is a retelling of a story that the narrator was not around to witness first-hand (think The Scarlet Letter). The narrator clearly admires the story and the heroic ethos of the culture, but he is also clearly distant from it. The narrator also appears to be a Christian, while the people he is discussing are pagans. In lines 175-183 he discusses the pagan rituals of sacrificing to idols by saying “That was their way, /their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts/they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge/of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, /Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, /was unknown to them.” It is also important to note that narrator is not necessarily the same as the poet (think Huck Finn with Mark Twain).

The story reads like a narrative that is supposed to be written while still being unlike a narrative that is supposed to be written. Since the culture of Beowulf the character was one in which stories were passed along orally, it makes sense that there would be this disconnect.

In actuality, this poem is sui generis – it is of its own genre. No other narrative in English is quite like it. It is often labeled as an epic, which is more of a classic and Greek notion. It is also often put into the subset of a folk epic – the setting is vast and covers great nations. But while Beowulf seems like an epic, it does not play by all of the rules. It is not necessarily an epic, but it has characteristics of an epic. It does, however, participate in the epic or heroic mode.


Beowulf joins the ranks (or rather these works join it) of Pale Fire and Song of Solomon in that it is cyclical: it opens and closes with a funeral. There is a lot of death and killing in this story. There is also a lot of talking, memory work and recollection, although mostly about death and killing. In fact, the corroboration of the death of (spoiler alert!) Grendel appears to be more important than his actual death. There is more talking and remembering than actual death and killing. If this story was all about action, it would be a lot shorter.

This is also a poem concerned with social etiquette. Great anxiety is expressed on the part of the poet about accepted social norms when it comes to the “other.” When Beowulf first arrives, he comes ready with ritualized performances to show that he comes in peace, and it is these rituals that make Beowulf a better outsider than Grendel (of course, Grendel is also killing people, which is generally frowned upon). It is Beowulf’s strength and etiquette that makes him so easily accepted in a strange land, and it is also what is holding his own people together. It is commonly known in Beowulf’s home land that after he is dead, it is only a matter of time before another culture comes in and takes over.

Gift-giving and story telling is part of this societies etiquette, and not only does Grendel not share in any of that, but his appearance disrupts this process and keeps others from participating in an effective community. Gifts are rewards for loyalties and acts of great courage. Songs are also rewards for such things as they will survive after a hero’s death and be sung in perpetuity throughout the universe. It is clear to the guard that Beowulf is the leader because he wears the most gifts (rings and such made of gold) that prove his loyalty and accomplishments. The gift as a reward is the opposite of vengeance as a punishment...which can actually be warded off by giving gold.

Another issue that is brought about in this feeling of anxiety about social norms is the issue of the other. The thief is an other because he is an outcast who attempts to buy his way back into society by stealing a cup from the dragon’s gold instead of challenging the dragon properly, and that is a social no-no as it is the opposite of a courageous act. Grendel is an other because he is a loner who is not (and does not appear to want to be) part of a larger community and interrupts other communities. He is similar to human, but also different from human. And then there is the dragon, which is brought into the story as he responds to what he sees as a wrongdoing done to him when someone steals a gold cup, even though the gold is not really his to begin with. All three of these others are guilty of interrupting the gift-giving and story-telling of another community.

The general sense of anxiety seems ever-present as major heroic events are connected by remembering, but interwoven with regret, anxiety, and the constant state of being under a threat.

There is an interesting tone of regret on the part of the narrator throughout the story. There is something deeply sad about the poem that seems to come from the narrator knowing Christ and the fact that the people he is talking about do not. This makes the story of Beowulf both a great success and a great failure, as he and his entire nation dies without knowing Christ.

And finally, the story deals with the issue of fate. Is it inevitable, or is it all random? In Beowulf, it appears that fate can be forestalled by courage as opposed to knowledge and trying to anticipate events. It is the difference between a decider and a knower. The end may be inevitable, but until it comes, you can decide how you want to live, and maybe even delay it.


It is generally believed that Beowulf was composed between 735 and 1000 A.D. But what can we do with a poem that is hard to date? Anglo-Saxons still had halls and gave gifts, but beyond that, there isn’t much we can do to give this story a more specific timeline.

And I, for one, am completely okay with that. Maybe someday in the future we will know more about when exactly the story of Beowulf was first written down, but until then, I am cool with this being a literary mystery.

Next week will be spent once again on Beowulf, and hopefully we can get more help on the history of this staple of English literature programs.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Required Poet: John Donne

So, I finished reading the required works from John Donne, and while I am grateful that his poetry didn’t take very long to read, I am still not okay that this stuff is required. I barely understand any of it and I find it incredibly boring to read, discuss, or even think about. But that is just me. Nevertheless, selected works by John Donne are required and I will do my best to discuss them in detail here. If there is anything I missed please, please, please feel free to comment. I cannot stress enough that poetry is not, in any way, my strong point.


Donne wrote satire, love poetry, elegies, and sermons. He was considered the most undisputed leader of the Metaphysical School of Poetry, but I’ll discuss that literary movement more in the history section.

Seven of the works on the M.A. list fall under the category of Songs and Sonnets in the edition I am using (The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne by The Modern Library Classics). Elegy 19 (To His Mistress Going to Bed”) is obviously, well, an elegy, and “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” is considered a Divine Poem. The list then includes three Holy Sonnets, and then the very last entry on the list is “Meditation 17” from Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Clearly, this guy was versatile and did not stick with one formula, giving us a lot to work with.


Donne’s work suggests a healthy appetite for life and its pleasures, while also expressing deep emotion. He was considered to be a master of the metaphysical conceit: an extended metaphor that combines two different ideas into a single one, often while using imagery. An example of this can be seen in “The Canonization.” And unlike Petrarchan conceits, which formed conceits between two similar subjects, metaphysical conceits go deeper by taking two mismatched ideas. This can be seen in “A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning.”

Donne was also a fan of using wit, paradoxes, abrupt openings, dislocations, argumentative structure, puns, and subtle analogies. His poetry is oftentimes ironic and cynical, especially when dealing with love, death, and religion. His poetry represented the shift from classical forms to more personal poetry.


The metaphysical poets were a group of British lyric poets of the 17th century who were interested in metaphysical concerns and a common means of investigating them. Interestingly enough, these poets were not formally affiliated, and a lot of them did not even know or read each other. Their poetry was influenced by the changing times, new sciences, and the debauched scene of the 17th century.

The chronology of Donne’s poetry is not known for sure, but scholars generally believe that the majority of his Elegies and Satires, and possibly the Songs and Sonnets, were written during his student years. Much of his youth was fraught with religious doubt as he went back and forth between the doctrines of Catholicism and the Anglican Church. By the mid 1590s, Donne had quietly abandoned the Catholic Church, and in 1615, he took up orders with the Anglican Church due to intense pressure from James I. He is commemorated as a priest in the calendar of the Church of England and in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 31st.

Now, I will attempt to go through the poems on the list one by one and highlight the major key points. Let’s take a deep breath, and begin…

The Flea

Category: Songs and Sonnets
Okay, for me this poem gets the “icky” award, not only for being about a flea, but because of the entire general theme and tone. Donne flexes his metaphysical conceit muscle by likening a flea to a romance. The narrator is pointing out the flea to his beloved and basically attempting to convince her that because the flea bit them both, and is therefore mixing both of their blood in the same tiny body (uniting them in a way), it is as if they are already married, and therefore, there is no harm in them sleeping together. See? Icky.
Standout line: And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee

Song. “Go and catch a falling star”

Category: Songs and Sonnets
Basically, according to Donne in this poem, it is impossible to find a woman that is both attractive and faithful to one man. The list of impossible tasks at the beginning is, for the narrator, just as impossible as finding a faithful woman. The tone switches around between magical, bitter, self-pitying, mocking, and even bossy.
Standout line: Teach me to hear Mermaids singing

The Canonization

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The speaker is apparently being criticized by the unknown addressee for being in love, and the narrator would like for said addressee to leave him alone and let him love. He even asks the unknown person to criticize anything else about him, but to at least let him love. The speaker argues that no one is being hurt by his love, and he even believes that poetry that will be subsequently written about him and his lover will cause them to be canonized and admitted to the sainthood of love.
Standout line: Call us what you will, we are made such by love

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The poem is a nocturnal – a reflective and somber meditation. It takes place at midnight on the day of the winter solstice (“Being the shortest day”). It appears the narrator’s lover has died and he is now reflecting on how that love has changed him. Actually, he is more reflecting on how the love has “ruined” him. This is definitely one of the poems that was the hardest for me to understand, but this is what I got.
Standout line: Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not

A Valediction: Forbidden Mourning

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The speaker is being forced to spend time apart from his lover, but before he leaves he explains to her that their goodbye should not be full of mourning and sorrow. Their love is refined enough to where they should not lament the loss and absence of “eyes, lips, and hands.” Donne then likens the two loves to the feet on a compass (there is that metaphysical stuff again).
Standout line: So let us melt, and make no noise

A Lecture upon the Shadow

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The shadows are cares and fears that the two lovers have. Just like shadows disappear and reappear with the movement of the people and the sun, so do the couples cares and fears. The shadows or fears of the afternoon are different from the ones in the morning. Some are fears that the two lovers created themselves, others sneak up on them from behind, and still others slowly grow longer through out the day.
Standout line: Love is a growing, or full constant light

Twickenham Garden

Category: Songs and Sonnets
The poet is sad because he is in love with a married woman who cannot reciprocate his feelings. He goes into the garden to cheer himself up, but he is too sad for it to work. He surmises that the only way to feel better is to become a part of the garden himself. He then asserts that if the tears of a lover are not like his, then they are not genuine tears.
Standout line: Or a stone fountain weeping out my years

Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed

Category: Elegies
This one gets an “icky” award too. It is bedtime, and by the end of the poem the narrator is naked and he asserts “What needst thou have more covering than a man.” I really don’t think I need to say anything more than that.
Standout line: Lincence my roaving hands, and let them go

Holy Sonnet 10 (Death be not proud)

Category: Holy Sonnets
It appears that the narrator is basically asserting that death is not that big a deal. The tone suggests more of a personal victory over death as opposed to death being the great conqueror. The narrator addresses death as if it were an equal or even an inferior, but definitely not a superior. It also almost seems as if the narrator is mocking death because he sees death as lasting only but a moment before the person goes off to heaven.
Standout line: One short sleep past, we wake eternally

Holy Sonnet 14 (Batter my heart)

Category: Holy Sonnets
This poem is about the union between God and man. The narrator wants God to come in and break his heart, and the only way for him to stand firm in his faith is if God come in and takes over completely. The narrator’s heart has been taken over completely the enemy, but he cannot let God take over again because he is still in union with sin and tends to take on traits of the enemy. He wants God to take him and imprison him, which would actually be more like freedom as opposed to slavery.
Standout line: That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee’, and bend

Holy Sonnet 17 (Since she whom I lov’d)

Category: Holy Sonnets
From what I can tell, the narrator’s lover has died (it just keeps happening doesn’t it?), so now his mind is constantly on heaven because that is where he believes her to be. Since his mind has been drawn to heaven, and it is also, consequently, drawn to God and to seeking him. He feels he ahs found God and that his thirst for him has been fed, but he still longs for something more (basically someone else to love). But he then questions his desire for another love as he still thinks about his about old one, and he now gives his love to Saints and Angels, not the flesh.
Standout line: And her Soule early into heaven ravished

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Category: Divine Poems
Profound religious insights accompanied by sincere personal penance. It contains intricate religious logic and deals with the poets understanding of himself in relation to God. The devotion of human begins to God keeps them on the right path. In the end, the narrator reflects on being glad not to have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. He then implores God to punish him so that he may be more like Christ.
Standout line: Could I behold those hands which span the Poles

Meditation 17 (from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

This is the only work by Donne on the list that is not a poem. It appears to be more of an essay than anything else. The Devotions themselves are a series of reflections written by Donne as he recovered from a serious illness. The devotions are divided up into 23 parts, each describing a different stage of the sickness. The parts are then further divided in Meditations. Meditation 17 from the M.A. list is part of Devotion 17, in which the narrator is preparing for death. It is the origin of the phrase “No man is an island,” and it is where Ernest Hemingway got the title for his book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The idea that no man is an island is the general theme for the entire meditation. The smallest action that happens to any member of a community affects the entire community. At this point in his illness, Donne felt like the bell was tolling for him, telling him that he was near death.

And there we have it. I can’t believe I did it, but I did. I guarantee you that as soon as I am done with this test, this collection of work by John Donne that I have been flipping through for the last two hours is going right back to Half-Price Books. I am sure there is someone out there who can appreciate it way more than me.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Required Work: To the Lighthouse

I made it! I have survived my first novel by Virginia Woolf, and while it wasn’t necessarily my particular cup of tea, I can appreciate the quality of the writing and what (I think) she was trying to do. Definitely a must read for anyone who likes stream of conscious novels and is okay with not a lot of action taking place. It is also fairly short (compared with a lot of the novels on this list), with my version clocking in at 209 pages. However, for me it was 209 pages of mental exercise. If the stream of conscious did not get me, then the constant point of view shifting between characters often did.


As already mentioned in the introduction, this novel involves a heavy amount of stream of conscious from almost every character, no matter how small their part is. The first part, “The Window,” features mostly the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay as she relates to her children, husband, and the community around their summer vacation home. However, it touches on everyone else, and also features a good amount of narrative on the thoughts of Lily Briscoe. Part two, “Time Passes,” is the shortest of the three parts as it is sort of a summary of the ten years that pass between part one and part three. For Woolf, this section made the novel to be much like a capital “H,” and part two is the corridor that joins the two larger parts. Part three brings the reader back to the vacation home and includes the actual trip to the lighthouse. As (spoiler alert!) Mrs. Ramsay is now dead (her death is discussed in Part two), most of the thoughts explored are split between Lily Briscoe as she spends the majority of it at the house attempting to finish a painting, and the three family members who have ventured out on the boat in an attempt to visit the lighthouse. The boat trip involves Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam(illa) as they are accompanied by the Macalisters. There is actually not much exploration of the thoughts going on inside the head of Mr. Ramsay. But the majority of what James and Cam are thinking involves their father and his tyranny and harsh manner of dealing with his children.

While things are happening while the characters are having these thoughts, they are not the primary focus of the novel. This causes To the Lighthouse to be classified as a modernist work, much like something that would come from Marcel Proust or James Joyce. The main focus is philosophical introspection (the existence of God, the goodness of man, the transience of man, etc.) and the prose proves to be winding and hard to follow. Much like there is little action, there is also little dialogue as the focus stays on what the characters are thinking instead of what they actually say.


The novel brings up the power of childhood emotions and how they are brought out by the adults the children interact with (mostly their mother and father). Another theme for the adults is the impermanence of adult relationships. The impermanence of these relationships is often caused by other prominent themes like loss (death), subjectivity, and the problem of perception. Of course, these three things also play a hand in the children’s emotions. For example, the fact that Mrs. Ramsay seems to dote on James, her youngest son, only adds to his problem with his father, who is clearly a harsh and stern man. Because his mother’s action differ so greatly from his father’s, it makes it that much easier for him to not him. Another example of the themes of subjectivity and the problem of perception come through Lily Briscoe. In both parts one and three, Lily seems to have a love/hate relationship with Mrs. Ramsay going on in her mind. On the one hand, she always comes to the vacation home with the Ramsay’s because she loves being with the children, but there are certain aspects of Mrs. Ramsay that she severely dislikes. It seemed to me anyway that Lily viewed Mrs. Ramsay as someone who always had to be in control, the center of attention, and things had to go her way. But we later learn that Mrs. Ramsay is a beautiful woman, while Lily Briscoe is on the road to becoming a homely old maid (and by part three, she officially is one). By the end, Lily experiences intense sadness when she attempts to come to terms with the fact that Mrs. Ramsay is dead and will no longer come to the vacation home. She even calls out the dead woman’s name in two different instances while she is painting in the house. It almost looks like Lily is experiencing survivor’s guilt as Mrs. Ramsay, the devoted wife and mother, is dead, while Lily, the single and childless painter, is allowed to live on.


Woolf began writing the book as a way to understand the unresolved issues concerning her parents, and there are similarities between the plot and her own life. She often visited the real St. Ives with her parents and considered it some of the happiest time of her life. Then her mother died when she was 13, and her father plunged into gloom and self-pity (much like Mr. Ramsay, who plunged into a sort of depression because his wife was no longer around to praise him through his own doubts about his career and writing). And while Lily Briscoe is a painter, so was Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

The family rented the Talland House on St. Ives in 1882, and they used it as a retreat during the summer for ten years. To the Lighthouse actually takes place on Hebridean Island, and the house the Ramsay’s stay in is an imitation of Talland House.

In the novel, the Ramsay’s return to the house after World War I (in which Andrew, one of the Ramsay sons, is killed), while by that time Woolf’s family had given the house up. But Woolf did visit the house again much later with her sister.

So there we have it…not bad right? But you know what will be bad? Next week’s post on some of the poetry and prose of John Donne (if I finish it in time). I am no good at understanding or exploring poetry, but I have to give it a try as there are a number of poets that are required on the reading list. I have to figure out how I am going to format it and everything, as I cannot post about poetry the same way I have done some of these novels. Anyway, it will be an interesting experience at least.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Optional Work: Troilus and Criseyde

This is it – possibly the last work I will ever have to read by Chaucer (or choose to read for that matter). Granted, I could have chosen any of the other optional works besides Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in section A, but I decided to go ahead and go with an author whose language I hade already become accustomed to through The Canterbury Tales. Once again, I have chosen to go with a Modern English translation. In fact, the version pictured was so simple and easy to understand that I hardly realized that I was reading one long poem. I’m not saying that I enjoyed it that much, but the translation helped me get through it.


What is most apparent is that Troilus and Criseyde is a long poem. While The Canterbury Tales is more widely known, this is thought to be Chaucer’s best work as it is more self-contained and it was actually finished. It was composed using rime royale (a-b-a-b-b-c-c), a form that was introduced into English poetry by Chaucer.

Troilus and Criseyde is often considered a courtly romance (or chivalric romance), although this classification is often seen as being to general for Chaucer’s work. Also, this label was mostly used for stories that involved a knight going on a quest (the kind of story Miguel de Cervantes satirized in Don Quixote). When they were popular, courtly romances also often reworked fairy tales and legends to suite tastes. This actually is not that different from what Chaucer has done, as the story of Troilus and Criseyde had already been told. Chaucer’s version mad Criseyde more sincere instead of fickle, and he used humor along with sorrow.


Troilus and Criseyde is part the Matter of Rome: the literary cycle made up of Greek and Roman mythology that often focused on military heroes such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Because of this, it includes mentions of the Roman gods, as well as Fate. Also, there is a Trojan War going on in the background, so there some mention of that too. Troilus (along with his brother, Hector) is a fierce warrior and known for his abilities in battle. In the end (spoiler alert!) they are both eventually taken down by the mighty Achilles.

However, in the forefront of the novel is the romance between Troilus and Criseyde. There are lots of annoyingly long speeches; lots of lamenting; Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, does a lot of fancy footwork in order to get these two crazy kids together…basically it becomes very easy to forget that there is a war going on and that Troilus is one of the best fighters. For someone who is so accustomed to hardcore battle, he does a lot of groaning and wishing he were dead over the love of a woman. Think Romeo and Juliet, but a lot longer. Annoying right?


The character of Troilus is actually from Ancient Greek literature, but the story of him as a lover is of medieval origin. The first known version of the story is from a poem called Roman de Troie, but Chaucer seems to have used Boccaccio’s version as his main source, although the world he created for Troilus and Criseyde was much less misogynistic and more sympathetic toward Criseyde. Later writers would continue to tackle the story, some giving Criseyde a more tragic fate, while Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much darker in tone.

This is all I can currently pull from Chaucer’s story of young love gone wrong. I was forced to pick one optional work from section A, and I did so. I am sure there is much more that can be found in the way of themes, so it is incredibly possible that I will be posting on this book again. Next week I hope to have finished To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

Slowly but surely, I will conquer this list.