The first book opens with the narrator telling us how he aims to impart the tragic story of Troilus, who is the son of King Priam of Troy. Addressing the reader directly, the narrator asks us to remember our own sadness and adversity in order to empathize with Troilus and for all others who are “in despair in love and will never recover.” He also asks us to pray for those in contentment to continue to be happy. He brings us to the setting of the story: the Greek invasion of Troy. There is a lord there named Calchas who foresees the destruction of Troy. As a result, he flees Troy and allies himself with the Greeks, thus becoming a traitor.
Calchas leaves behind a beautiful daughter named Criseyde, and she suffers greatly from this situation. She begs forgiveness of her father from Hector, the brother of Troilus. Time passes and there continues to be war between the Greeks and Trojans. Even in destruction, the Trojans continue honoring their gods, especially at the Palladium, where there occurs many ceremonies. Criseyde attends these, dressed in black. At the Palladium, the prince Troilus walks around with his men, discouraging his knights from developing any love for the ladies there. Here, the narrator notes that Troilus’ arrogance is observed by the God of Love and will lead to his later downfall. According to the narrator, all men are bound to Love, which is a law of nature.
At the Palladium, Troilus spots Criseyde and is instantly enamored with her. He feels so overwhelmed by his sudden love, he leaves the temple, feeling ashamed to have taunted the “devotees” of love. At home, he dwells on what happened. He realizes he must now pursue Criseyde and the art of love. The narrator then reveals Troilus’ song that he writes for Criseyde, where he questions God and the nature of love. The “fire of love” continues to torture Troilus, as he continually obsesses over Criseyde.
This burning passion motivates Troilus to act very fiercely in battle with the Greeks, secretly wanting to please Criseyde. Eventually he becomes unable to sleep or eat. He worries that Criseyde loves someone else and will never pay attention to him. His unhappiness becomes unbearable. One day his friend Pandarus—who is also the uncle of Criseyde—visits him and observes Troilus’ wailing. He questions the cause of such distress. Troilus tries to hide his sorrows and Pandarus pushes him further to share. Finally, Troilus reveals how love is breaking his heart and making him miserable.
Pandarus lectures Troilus, telling him that he should listen despite the fact that Pandarus doesn’t seem like someone who is wise on matters of love. Pandarus states that his own hardships in love make him well-qualified to advise Troilus. He vows to help Troilus and be a trustworthy friend. He emphasizes how it is important for friends to share honestly with each other. This, according to Pandarus, will make Troilus less unhappy.
Following this speech, Troilus says nothing and remains very still. Pandarus yells at his friend to “wake up.” Troilus tells him to be quiet and stop shouting. Troilus says there is nothing Pandarus can do, as he is too wretched of a creature to win over Criseyde. Pandarus responds that he shouldn’t give up hope, and that he doesn’t have to be so unreasonable as to end his own life. Troilus realizes his friend is right and that he would not gain anything by killing himself except committing a sin.
Troilus blames the goddess Fortune for his troubles, calling her his “enemy.” Pandarus tells him not to blame the goddess. He demands to know the name of Troilus’ love. When he reveals that it is Criseyde, Pandarus is happy to hear this, as he knows Criseyde has a good heart and many virtues. Pandarus is also elated that Troilus has surrendered to love and is finally able to see his own foolishness in attacking it. Pandarus agrees to do everything he can to help Troilus unite with Criseyde, for which Troilus is very grateful. From then on, Troilus becomes a much more agreeable and pleasant person and his cruelty transforms into virtue.
In the first pages of Troilus and Criseyde, we are introduced not to the protagonists but to the narrator himself as a character, a prominent aspect of Chaucer’s storytelling. The narrator introduces the story of the lovers by identifying himself as being loyal to the truth and calling himself a “servant of the servant of the God of Love.” In this way, he aims to qualify himself as an adequate narrator, who has compassion for his subject matter. He also asks the readers to feel a similar empathy for the plight of Troilus and Criseyde. With this gesture, the reader is also made to feel like an active participant in the story rather than just a passive observer.
We then meet the main characters, Troilus and Criseyde, in the midst of intense circumstances. Criseyde has recently lost her father after he commits treason and now she moves around the city in constant grief. When we first encounter Troilus, we are immediately shown his tragic flaw: pride and mockery of love. The narrator is sure to emphasize the irony of Troilus falling madly in love right after taunting his knights for gazing affectionately at ladies in the Palladium. From this humbling moment onward, Troilus is forever changed, as he begins to question not only how to deal with his lovesickness but also why God has struck him in this unexpected way.
For the narrator, and Chaucer who speaks through him, love is not merely the mundane affection between two people but a sort of universal force in itself, reflected in the way it is often capitalized as a proper noun. As his good friend Pandarus points out, Troilus has long “attacked Love scornfully” and regarded those who are in love as fools. By going against this fundamental law of nature, Troilus has been dished a sort of karmic retribution by the gods, where he is made to intimately understand love in both the bliss and utter devastation it provokes.
Within the first book, we already see how despite Troilus’ bouts of misery, he altogether benefits from the presence of love in his life. We are told that he now is able to become a stronger and fiercer warrior. He also is a much more kind person, whereas once he was known to be cold and cruel. Love has humbled Troilus by showing him that he, as a mere mortal, has no means of resisting this cosmic force when it is his turn. It is only the softness and beauty of a woman which is able to take the brute force of a knight down a notch.
The reader will certainly note that Chaucer makes prominent use of metaphorical language. It is especially obvious in the passionate conversation between Troilus and his friend Pandarus, where the men speak poetically as a way to convey the emotional potency they are feeling. For instance, at the sight of Troilus’ despondency and refusal to open up about his feelings, Pandarus bluntly tells him that “whoever wants to be healed by his doctor must first uncover his wound.” These sort of metaphors not only heighten the drama of the scene but also serve to more accurately illustrate the point the character is trying to make.
These pages are also populated with many historical references and allusions that can become confusing if we are not well-versed in ancient Greek history and myth. A good knowledge of the invasion of Troy, Queen Niobe, or Tityus in hell may not be necessary for understanding the overall plot, but reading the clarifications provided by the footnotes may help enrich our ability to relate with the characters and their dialogue.