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Medium Aevum

Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

Derek Pearsall

After the Oxford Guide to The Canterbury Tales, by Helen Cooper, we have now the Oxford Guide to Troilus and Criseyde. The volume on the shorter poems, by A. J. Minnis, is to follow. The idea of such a series of ‘Guides’ is a traditional and on the whole didactic one: there are things to be known and people who know them and who are prepared and even eager to explain them to others. They are called teachers. The Guides are also like very long Introductions to an edition of a work, in which the editor tells us what he has learned during the process of editing. Indeed, this is more precisely the analogy to be made here, since Windeatt’s Guide derives its special authority and much of its material from his magnificent edition of Troilus and Criseyde (1984), with its attendant apparatus.

‘The object of this book’, we are told, ‘is to give an up-to-date summary of what is known about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and to offer interpretation’, using the scholarship and criticism on the poem as a help. The book is organized into eight chapters or ‘areas of discussion’ of very unequal length headed ‘Date’, ‘Text’, ‘Sources’ (very long), ‘Genre’, ‘Structure’, ‘Themes’ (very long), ‘Style’ and ‘Imitation and Allusion c. 1385-1700’. In certain of the chapters, Windeatt is rehearsing, re-exploring or expanding his own already published writing on the poem, and in the chapter on sources some of the material is adapted, redigested and re-ordered (even ‘in eched’) from his explanatory notes in the edition of Troilus. He often adds tabulated material, some of it very useful, such as the analytical tables for each book (pp. 54-69) showing at a glance (by the use of different type-founts) what is borrowed from Boccaccio, what is extensively modified and what is added. Elsewhere he is more a reporter and compiler of what has been said by other writers. He excels, I think, as both auctor and compilator, the latter role sounds more modest but it is actually quite a difficult one, and there must be few who can re-present and summarize other people’s arguments as succinctly, fairly and sensibly as Windeatt. In areas of scholarly and critical discussion that one knows well, and where one is alert for the false step and the misplaced nuance, his touch is very sure.

The argument put forward for a Guide such as this is, in part, that the study of Chaucer has advanced to a point where some reappraisal is both possible and necessary. This is a sound argument, though it is true that Windeatt does take up his position somewhat in the rear of the foremost vanguard in this general advance. Aers, Dinshaw, Patterson and other such are all referred to regularly in the bibliographical apparatus, but there is not much sign that Windeatt wants to take up the issues they raise, nor those, more generally, raised by feminist readings of the poem. Windeatt works for the most part in terms of pre-existing categories. The chapter on genre, for example, works through sections on epic, romance, history, tragedy, drama, lyric, fabliau and allegory on the principle that the ‘distinctive nature’ of Troilus is as a ‘generic hybrid’ (p. 159). These are, so to speak, eight different lenses to try out in our already fitted generic spectacles: Troilus comes out as a huge blur. It is an approach that ‘precludes any single unified point of view’ (p. 179); I am sure that single unified points of view are a bad thing, but I am not sure that I need eight. This is Windeatt’s usual strategy: in the chapter on themes he speaks of how the poem ‘asks questions … resists any simple interpretation … invites multiple points of view’ (p. 212); in the chapter on style he speaks of ‘a sense of continual interplay between styles’ (p. 319). It is an eclecticism perhaps forced upon him to some extent by the genre in which he is writing, but I do not get the impression that it is altogether alien to him.

The responsibilities for reviewing, summarizing and tabulating that the Guide takes on do not make it exciting to read through: it is a book that will perhaps be found most useful for purposes of reference (for such purposes, an index of passages discussed would have been a valuable addition to the apparatus). Nevertheless, there are many felicities of style and observation and everything to admire in the consistency, clarity, comprehensiveness of scope and generosity of mind with which Windeatt has carried out his task. This Guide is a book that every reader of the poem will want to have to hand.

DEREK PEARSALL Cambridge, Massachusetts

COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning