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An Equestrian Tragedy
The image of the horse and the fall of Troy in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

by Christopher Dow




Many images emerge from the story of the Trojan War. Achilles, the nearly invulnerable hero is legendary, as are the beauty of Helen, the lusts of Paris, and Odysseus’s long and eventful voyage home at the close of the war. One image, however, rises above all others in memory and imagination—that of the huge and hollow equestrian statue known as the Trojan Horse. The beauty of Helen and the lusts of Paris precipitated the Trojan War, and the exploits of Achilles provided many of its memorable moments, but the Trojan Horse was the specific and immediate means by which it ended. Troy, secure behind its walls and facing a demoralized enemy, fell only because of the horse. Geoffrey Chaucer does not explicitly allude to the Trojan Horse in his epic poem about the Trojan War, Troilus and Criseyde, most obviously because the action of the story ends well before the statue figures in the war. Chaucer does, however, make interesting use of equestrian imagery in connection with his main characters, their relationships, and the fates of Troilus and Troy.


The parallels between love and war often have been noted. Troilus and Criseyde juxtaposes the armorial conflict of the Trojan War with the amourial conflict of the love affair between Troilus and Criseyde, and Chaucer extends the equivalencies into definition of character and delineation of plot. Indeed, Chaucer defines the characters of Troilus and Criseyde in direct relationship to the partisan forces of the historical war, and the particulars and results of the love affair offer analogies to the historical outcome of the conflict.


That the character of Troilus personifies the city of Troy is most directly indicated by their nearly identical names. The parity of Troilus and Troy is lent further weight by the fact that the identity of a nation’s ruler, particularly for the Medieval audience, is equated with national identity. Troilus, as prince of Troy, acquires a comparable identification as the state. Chaucer further connects the man and the city in the first two lines of the work when he refers to “The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen, That was kyng Priamus sone of Troye.” (One, 1–2) In addition to their coincident naming in these first two lines of the work, Troilus and Troy are conjoined by the double sorrow—Troilus’s private sorrow at being defeated in love and Troy’s public sorrow at being defeated in war.


Thus, Troilus personifies Troy. Chaucer carries the analogy further by presenting, within the context of the love story, the Greek enemy. Criseyde, being Troilus’s counterpart in the love affair, is that enemy. Even Troilus eventually comes to think of her in this way. After she has left the city, Troilus realizes that she will never return and that she has transferred her love to Diomede. He says, “O herte myn, Criseyde, O swete fo!” (Five, 228) He agrees that Criseyde represents the Greeks, but his understanding comes too late, for this characterization of Criseyde as the Greeks is not new in Book Five. From the outset, Chaucer has presented it as a major motif. Just as the Greeks oppose the Trojans in the war, Criseyde consistently has played the antithesis of Troilus. That she is the feminine side of the love affair and he is the masculine is the most basic level, but the metaphor grows from that foundation.


Unlike Troilus, an inexperienced lover who has until now completely scorned and rejected love, Criseyde has been married. Not only does this demonstrate her experience and acceptance of love, but having been married also implies that Criseyde has prior binding loyalties. What sets the distinction between her past marriage and her present affair with Troilus is that though she married for love, the affair is contrived through the machinations of Pandarus rather than because Criseyde is drawn to the prince through innate affection. And there is another, more significant aspect of the lovers’ manifold roles that invites further examination. This is the unusual paring of masculinity with innocence on the one hand and femininity with experience on the other.


Troilus, the soldier, is shown to be strong externally, for he is a warrior second only to Hector. At the same time, he is internally weak, for he vacillates and finds it nearly impossible to initiate advances toward Criseyde. She, on the other hand, is weak externally, for she is a woman with no political rights living in a city her father has betrayed. At the same time, Criseyde possesses internal strength shown by her willful self-determination. These contradictory attributes in the two lovers mirror the forces they represent. Troilus’s strong exterior and weak interior portray the powerful walls of the city protecting the militarily weak population of Troy. Criseyde’s weak exterior but strong interior depicts exactly the state of the Greeks who, though devoid of externally protecting walls, maintain a determined will to conquer the Trojans.


Another specific connection between Criseyde and the Greeks is her identification with Helen. The two women are first linked when Pandarus asks Troilus the identity of the object of his affections. He says, “Ne, by my trouthe, I kepe nat restreyne The from thi love, theigh that it were Eleyne That is thi brother wif.” (One, 676–678) By mentioning them in this manner, Chaucer creates an immediate correlation between Helen and Criseyde, a correlation that is reinforced by the fact that Criseyde and Helen are the only two Greek women in Troilus and Criseyde.


The two women are reciprocal in other respects as well. Both are in love relationships with princes of Troy, but both have only reluctantly entered into these relationships. Helen is kidnapped by Paris, and Criseyde is coerced into her affair with Troilus. Furthermore, by being maneuvered into these relationships, both women lose positions of personal influence and power. As wife of Menelaus, Helen had been a queen, but as wife of Paris she is only a princess to a prince who is not even the direct heir to the throne. Similarly, the widowed Criseyde possesses freedom and self-determination that she is reluctant to give up by becoming involved with Troilus.


The bonds between the two women and the Greeks extend even deeper. Although Helen appears only briefly in Troilus and Criseyde, her actions demonstrate a symbolic significance within the context of the historical tale. At the end of Book Two, Helen pledges to protect Criseyde from those who might conspire to harm her: “Joves lat hym nevere thryve, That doth yow harm...If that I may, and alle folk be trewe!” (Two, 1607–1610) Because Helen only appears this one time, it is important to examine this vow in relation to Criseyde as a symbol of Greece.


The legend of the Trojan War relates that Helen was forcefully taken by Paris. Though she may have submitted to his charms while captive, at heart she remained loyal to Menelaus and the Greeks. Within Troy was a statue of Minerva, reputedly fallen from the heavens, that protected Troy as long as it remained within the walls. Odysseus and another warrior entered Troy in disguise and stole the statue. While on the mission, they were spotted by Helen, who recognized Odysseus. Her loyalty to the Greeks was such that, although she recognized Odysseus, she did not raise an alarm but let the Greeks escape with the protective talisman of Troy. Thus, in offering to protect Criseyde from her enemies, Helen is symbolically fulfilling her role as secret protector of disguised Greeks as they work mischief within the walls of Troy. The scenario is equally applicable to the Trojan Horse, the ultimate in Greek disguise, which was devised by none other than crafty Odysseus. And what truly cements this subtle conspiracy is that the warrior who accompanied Odysseus was Diomede, the Greek prince for whom Criseyde forsakes Troilus.


Criseyde, therefore, in the context of the love story, represents the Greeks to Troilus’s Troy. Thus, since the Trojan Horse was the downfall of Troy, horses in Troilus and Criseyde need to be examined in the context of the lovers and of Troilus’s downfall. Chaucer does, indeed, continue his analogy by presenting in the fate of Troilus a mirror image of the fate of Troy—fallen because of an equestrian image.


A symbiosis exists between a knight and horse that signifies military power and success, for a knight depends upon his horse to lend him strength, mobility, and superior position in battle. Just as the knight who controls a horse in battle possesses the power of victory, the tribe or nation that lays claim to the equestrian image symbolically possesses the power of dominion. Throughout the rising action of Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus is the premier knight of the story, and as the primary representative of the dominant power, he has a special relationship with the equestrian image.


In fact, during the first four books, Troilus is the only person seen in a direct and personal relationship to a horse, and the only other people seen riding are the warriors under his direct command: “Troilus...Com ryding with his tenthe som y fere.” (Two, 1248–1249) Troilus is referred to as a knight who “sat on his hors aright.” (Two, 1261–1263) Furthermore, the steed that Troilus rides is the only one in the entire work that is given a name—Bayard—and it is a powerful steed. (One, 218). Troilus’s personal control of the horse suggests that he controls the symbolic potency of this potent image. This, in the representation of Troilus as Troy, is consonant with Troy’s superior position in the war, for the city, secure behind its walls, is in possession of the victory that is alluded to by the military power of the horse. It is, in essence, a warrior sitting in a strategically and tactically superior position.


The symbolic linking of knight and horse is a general motif, but Chaucer wastes no time in conflating Troilus and the horse in specific terms. He does so, though, in ways that gradually erode Troilus’s control of the image. No sooner has Troilus been introduced in person than he makes a prideful boast in defiance of love: “I have herd told...of...Ye loveres....O veray fooles, nyce and blynde be ye!” (One, 197–202) Troilus is ostensibly speaking for himself, but since he represents Troy, his statements are equally indicative of the situation of the city. The blind lusts of Paris have precipitated the war, and the foolish pride of Priamus convinces the city that it should and can defend the illicit acts of Paris in the face of the armed might of Greece. Immediately after Troilus makes his boasts, Cupid’s arrow smites him in the eye. Love is to be Troilus’s personal downfall for the hubris of pride, just as love precipitated the downfall of Troy for a similar sin.


Horse imagery immediately surfaces following this foreshadowing of the “double sorrow,” merging love and pride and Troilus in a special way in the very next stanza when Troilus mounts his horse and says, “‘Yet am I but an hors, and horses lawe I moot endure, and with my feres drawe.’” (One, 223–224) The law, or influence, of the power of the horse will rule Troilus, just as it rules the fate of Troy. Fealty to the equestrian image may seem appropriate to the young Troilus, warrior and knight, but the following stanza demonstrates the lack of foresight inherent in the vow when the narrator points out that “So ferde it by this fierse and proud knyght...Wax sodeynly moost subjit unto love.” (One, 225–231) Troilus may be the leader of the horses, but right away his control over the image begins to wane, for at the same time, he is now ruled by love. If Troilus controls the horses but is himself controlled by love, then love actually controls the equestrian image, not he. Since Criseyde is the object of Troilus’s love, Troilus thus transfers the essence of the power of the image to her. Now she, symbolically, is in control of the equestrian image. So, although the horse initially lends its power to Troilus and Troy, there is intimation that the power is as subject to the wheel of fortune as is love.


Even Pandarus confirms that Troilus’s claim to the equestrian image has begun to deteriorate when he awakens Troilus with, “‘Artow like an asse?” (One, 731) Wily Pandarus senses that Troilus’s equestrian power has degenerated into a laughable imitation. From the moment of being stung by Cupid’s arrow, Troilus’s claim to the image and power of the horse progressively disintegrates. At the end of Book One, he mounts his powerful bay steed to do battle with the Greeks (One, 173–175), but when he returns, “Wownded was his hors, and gan to blede.” (Two, 626) Troilus’s control over the equestrian image has not only begun to deteriorate, but the Greeks have contributed to its weakening by physically wounding his horse, indicating that the Greeks are beginning to lay claim to the power of the image.


Criseyde, the symbolic Greek foe, further usurps Troilus’s proprietorship of the power of the image when she says, “Shal noon housbonde seyn to me ‘chek mat!’” (Two, 754), then refers to Troilus, only seven lines later as “this knyght.” (Two, 761) The proximity of a reference to the game of chess and the word “knight” creates a distinct visualization of the chess piece called the knight, which is shaped like a horse. Unfortunately for Troilus, he is not a player in this game, but merely a piece to be manipulated by both Pandarus and Criseyde, both of whom are more experienced and subtle players.


After Troilus’s bay steed is wounded by the Greeks and his claim to the equestrian image is checkmated by Criseyde, both of which indicate the Trojan’s near-total loss of control over the power of the equestrian image, the action turns at the beginning of Book Five to favor the Greeks. At this time, Criseyde leaves the city to join the Greeks, taking with her both Troilus’s love and the equestrian image. This move destroys Troilus and at the same time heralds the destruction of Troy.


Criseyde’s appropriation of the horse image for the Greeks is blatantly demonstrated by the fact that she, accompanied by Diomede, rides a horse out of the city gates. Until now, no one else has been seen in direct and personal relationship to the equestrian image except for Troilus. Now, Criseyde and Diomede, representatives of the Greeks, are in control of it, and they irrevocably remove it from Troy in much the same way that Diomede and another crafty Greek removed another important talisman of power from the city. As if to emphasize the completeness of the transfer of power, Troilus, while waiting for Criseyde to ride out of the city, is “So wo-bigon, al wolde he naught hym pleyne, Than on his hors unnethe he sat for peyne.” (Five, 34–35). In some way, Troilus is uncomfortably aware that all the power is departing from the city, leaving it vulnerable.


Soon after this, Troilus, devoid of both love and power, “sodeynly doun from his hors he stert” (Five, 200) and is never again seen mounted on a horse. He, and Troy, have lost control of the power of the horse, and that power is conferred completely upon the Greeks.


And after this he to the yates wente

Ther as Criseyde out rood a ful good paas...

Ans to hymself ful ofte he seyde, “Allas!

Fro hennes rood my blisse and my solas!” (Five, 603–607)


Hereafter, instead of riding, Troilus can only stand on the walls of the city watching Criseyde, the representative of the Greeks, blatantly exhibiting her control of the equestrian image as she rides about on the open ground beyond the walls.


More subtle elements accompany the transfer of the power of the horse from the Trojans to the Greeks. As Criseyde exits Troy, she is accompanied by Diomede, who, ironically, is described as the second greatest warrior for the Greeks, which makes him the Greek parallel to Troilus. But Diomede does not simply accompany Criseyde. He leads her horse out of the city by the bridle. (Five, 92) This action overtly indicates both his growing relationship with Criseyde and complete Greek mastery of the equestrian image. With the conflation of “bridle” and “bridal,” not only will Diomede become the new object of Criseyde’s love, thus contributing the personal blow that will result in the death of Troilus, but his presence is significant in relation to the public sorrow of the defeat of the city.


Very important is that fact that Diomede and Criseyde are in joint possession of the image of the horse as they appropriate it from the city. The parallel to the theft of the statue of Minerva is unmistakable. In that instance, Diomede and a disguised Greek jointly removed another symbol of power from Troy. While the statue represented spiritual protection for the city, the symbolic horse that Diomede and this disguised Greek, Criseyde, remove from Troy represents Trojan military power. Thus, Diomede has had a personal hand in both destroying the will of Troy to defend itself and compromising its offensive capabilities, thus ensuring the defeat of the city.


Diomede and the Greeks now control the love and the equestrian image that formerly had been the provinces of his opposite number, Troilus. From this point onward, it is Diomede rather than Troilus who is consistently referred to as “the knight,” and the Greek wields the power of the equestrian symbol for his people. He tells Criseyde:


For trewliche he swor hire, as a knyght,

That ther nas thyng with which he myghte hire plese,

That he nolde don his peyne and al his myght

To don it…. (Five, 113–116)


The meaning is unmistakable. The Greeks have control of the horse, and it will do anything to serve them.


The tide of battle turns immediately toward Greek victory. Troilus, his aggression purloined along with his heart, becomes a slipshod warrior, indicating that the interior weakness of the city has begun to adversely affect Trojan defenses, which the impregnable walls should ensure. Indeed, it will be sloppy military strategy that will allow the Trojan Horse within the walls of Troy. Punctuating Greek control of the power of the equestrian image, Diomede wins Troilus’s bay steed in battle. He gives it to Criseyde and she gives it back to him (Five, 1038–1039), reinforcing the transference of the power of the equestrian image from Troilus/Troy, though the intermediary Criseyde, to Diomede/Greece. Finally, Troilus is slain by Achilles—a Greek who is also the most powerful warrior of the war. With his death, the fate of Troy is sealed. Superior Greek forces will infiltrate and overwhelm the city.


Chaucer brings the Trojan War to neat closure with an ironical juxtaposition: The Trojan War begins because a Trojan prince betrays an alliance with the Greeks by seducing a Greek woman and kidnapping her, and it ends because a Greek woman betrays an alliance with Troy by seducing a Trojan Prince and escaping. Specifically, Troilus falls because a disguised Greek penetrated his defenses and destroyed him from within by taking from him his strength and power, symbolized by the weakening effect of his unrequited love and the theft of the equestrian image. Mirroring the tragedy of the Trojan prince is the destruction of his city, which also falls to disguised Greeks who now employ the equestrian power the Trojans have lost. Ultimately, it is a specific equestrian image—this time of heroic proportions in the Trojan Horse—that wins the war when it is turned against Troy, reentering the city by the very gates through which Criseyde removed it.






Chaucer, Geoffrey, Troilus and Criseyde, R. A. Shoaf, ed., Colleagues Press, 1989.

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