Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Motif: The Wheel of Fortune

One of the main questions that arises when reading Troilus and Criseyde is that of fate: do Troilus and Criseyde truly decide their own destiny or are they mere puppets of Fortune? The Wheel of Fortune is a pivotal archetype in ancient mythology, expressing the cyclical nature of life in its seemingly random ups and downs. This unpredictability is personified in a goddess, Fortuna, who was said to control the fates of men.

In the opening of Book I, the narrator suggests that the couple are at the mercy of this deity, deeming her symbolic wheel as vitally important in the unfolding of the story. Fortune is evoked regularly throughout the book as the architect and instigator of all major plot points. Her constantly spinning wheel is regarded as the force behind Troilus' emotional highs and lows. After news of Criseyde's departure to Greece, Troilus directly addresses Fortune and asks if his entire life is truly directed by her whims. For the majority of the story, Troilus believes that everything is preordained; it is not until he experiences heartbreak that he begins to question if such suffering is purposely inflicted on him through predetermined means.

Symbol: The Brooch

Before Criseyde departs for the Greek camp, Troilus gifts her a special brooch to remember him by and keep with her always. It is a symbol of their shared love and dedication, and suggests that she will return to Troilus as soon as she can. This is a symbol that then evolves, as Troilus later finds the brooch on a tunic that was captured from Diomedes, confirming that Criseyde has been unfaithful. The brooch for Troilus is multi-faceted, representing both the blissful love that the couple once shared and the shocking infidelity of Criseyde. Yet, it holds another meaning for Criseyde, who regards the brooch in a more practical way, unaffected by any romantic implications. In a foreign land, she feels she must offer her brooch, and thus her loyalty, to whoever can protect her, even if it goes agains the vows she made to Troilus.

Motif: The Chivalric Knight

Knights are important figures in the social world of ancient Troy. The image of the heroic knight is what initially lures Criseyde into opening her heart to Troilus. When she first sees him out the window, she is impressed; he has just returned from war, and is the perfect embodiment of the chivalric knight. He is triumphant from battle yet modest and handsome. In Troilus embodying this motif, he confirms to Criseyde that he is a suitable match. Later on, Criseyde is wooed by Diomedes who also fits into this archetype in his stature and desire to serve and protect her.

Symbol: The Eagle

After Criseyde’s initial meeting with Troilus, she goes to sleep and dreams that a large, white eagle swoops down and replaces her heart with his own. This is symbolically important in a number of ways. We can understand that the eagle is a manifestation of Troilus, whose appearance as an eagle shows himself to be a chivalric and masculine character, as the eagle often represents the God of War. The quick give and take of hearts suggests not only a love at first sight, but also a lack of thoughtfulness and agency, with Criseyde having no time to consider if this is an exchange she desires. This once again colors their relationship as fated and controlled by a superior force of Fortune. Despite the violent imagery, Criseyde describes the exchange of hearts as "painless." This is symbolic of how easy it can be to fall in love and foretells a major lesson of the story: it is effortless to give your heart away, but increasingly painful when one tries to take it back.

Motif: The Letters

The many letters exchanged between Troilus and Criseyde in their initial courtship are of great importance. They serve as motifs of traditional courtly love, offering Troilus the chance to express his "lovesickness" to the reader. Yet, they also illustrate the role of Pandarus in orchestrating the relationship. It is Pandarus who suggests to Criseyde what to write, and who urges Troilus to wet his letter with tears to show his emotional capacity. This brings us to question if the love affair would have naturally bloomed without the interference of Pandarus.

After Criseyde's betrayal, Troilus continues to write to her in desperation. Pandarus no longer assists his friend, understanding that the relationship is all but doomed. Criseyde's cold and brief responses to Troilus' dramatic letters suggest that perhaps Criseyde was never as devoted to Troilus as she presented herself to be.