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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Pandarus, the Narrator and the Author in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde


In Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, there is a close similarity between the author and his creations of Pandarus and the Narrator. This is due to fact that Chaucer modifies his sources (the preceding 'auctoritees'/authors) to introduce a literary-critical element into a text whose ambiguities and tensions could otherwise be too-neatly resolved by the Christian ethic.


There are three methods of plot creation in Troilus and Criseyde. The first plot is constructed by Pandarus who forms the relationship between Troilus and Criseyde in a way similar to an author manipulating his characters. He is a reader and storyteller and it is his relating of the 'narrative' of the state of Troilus's emotion to Criseyde or Criseyde's to Troilus which enables their relationship to come about. On the second level the story of Pandarus's actions and their results is manipulated by the narrator who, unlike the characters, sees both beginning and end of the relationship, the move from "wo to wele, and after out of joie" (I.4). However, the narrator does not have full control of his text since the story comes to him from his 'auctor', Lollius. These multiple levels of narration create problems for the reader because of the way in which personal 'experience' seems to undermine the credibility, or 'auctoritee', of all three perspectives. A key fascination of the poem is whether Pandarus's delight in controlling the love affairs of Troilus might represent his projection of his own suppressed desire for Criseyde through his friend. If this is the case his position as an unbiased go-between, the one who objectively relates feelings or offers independent advice, is comprehensively undermined. Similarly the narrator claims passivity in his story-telling - he is the "instrument/that helpeth loveres" (I.11) - yet he is 'sorwful' and emotionally involved in his "woful vers, that wepen as I write" (I.7) in a way which suggests he possesses an interest in the context of love. It is possible that he too is using his narrative as a form of psychological transference, projecting his desires onto the characters he manipulates.1 Finally, the third narrative level, Lollius, is itself a fiction. By suggesting the presence of a higher narrative, this implies the text is written in the way it is because it has to follow its original path, not because it derives from personal events. When the 'auctour' is realised to be a sham this forces us, through the persona of the narrator, to comment on the status of the text itself and its real-world significance for Chaucer. By making 'experience' destroy the clarity of a single objective authoritative version of events, Troilus and Criseyde comments on the status of fiction and history, narration and authority.

Pandaurus and the narrator do possess a natural alignment in the fact of their storytelling. Just as Pandarus is the go-between for Criseyde and Troilus, so the narrator is the intermediary between text and its recipient.2 In both cases this intervention may be motivated by personal desire. However, in terms of characterisation it is not possible to see Pandarus and the narrator as being congruent fictional figures and, indeed, the narrator is a stylised metafictional device rather than a comprehensive character in his own right. Pandarus's sententiousness is not paralleled by the narrator. His proverbial insights which litter the poem offer neat verbal summaries but no real solutions. Pandarus is practical and, apparently, emotionally detached, a fact which leads him to oversimplify and under-empathise. This is obvious when his immediate response to Troilus's loss of Criseyde is to quote from his reading of Zanzis that "newe love out chaceth ofte the olde" (IV.415). This is highly ironic, given that it is precisely this effect which overcomes Criseyde and leads to the consequent tragedy. The limitations of Pandarus's outlook are exposed when he hears of Criseyde's treachery and he is reduced to "stant, astoned of thise causes tweye,/As stille as ston; a word ne kowde he seye" (V.1728-29). He has no means of positive response and is reduced to retrospect: he hopes that his actions might have given Troilus some transient happiness. By contrast the narrator becomes expansive, projecting forwards beyond the immediate events and becoming ultimately detached, as Troilus does, from the morality of the characters in his poem. The addressing of his book to 'moral Gower', the leader of Chaucer's set of reader-critics, is significant because it locates the narrator within a specific set of writers working at a unique cultural time and therefore not of the same era and outlook as those characters he represents. The narrator's text is specifically English and must be read from within the context of Christianity. Crucially, however, as well as the epilogue providing ultimate distance between the narrator and Pandarus, it also drives a gap between the narrator and Chaucer.

The specific context in which the narrator is constructing his text is only present at the end of the poem. Preceding this, the narrator invokes ancient muse alongside Christian god, and he directs his text to lovers rather than critics.3 Throughout, the narrator's religion is fluid. He simultaneously serves the god of love - that god to which Troilus consistently prays and who, equally consistently, fails to intervene - and the Christian God. Yet the end, with the commitment of its final stanza to the Holy Trinity, suggests the totality of his conversion. It is as if the narrator has, in 'this woful vers, that wepen as I write', been spontaneously philosophising and analysing in the background and this has moved him to a new position. However, the narrator is not primarily a character of interest in relation to the story or its characters, but in relation to the text itself. The persona of the narrator is both a metacritical and a dramatic device, Chaucer's creation designed to motivate the audience's response both to the actual being of the poem and, through the ambiguities contained within him, to condition our criticism of the poem itself as a textual artefact.

The problem with seeing the narrator as a progressing, independent character is that this suggests he does not have full control over his text. In the rewriting he himself is coming to a new conclusion and he is at once both writer and critic of his own text. Yet such spontaneity is impossible given the tight technical controls the narrator exerts. Our first experience of Troilus is of his arrogant contempt for those in love. Knowing what will soon happen to him, the narrator offers the comic comment that:

This Troilus is clomben on the staire,
And litel weneth that he moot descenden;
But alday faileth thing that fooles wenden. (I.215-217)

Structural irony such as this requires both the present state and the future outcome of a thing to be known and hence foresight. Rather than simply telling the story, the narrator is able to condition our responses. Here it is for the effect of comedy. At the end of the poem the exchange of letters is controlled such that we read Troilus's letter as it was written but are only informed of Criseyde's vague response, then read Criseyde's actual letter and hear of Troilus's overly optimistic interpretation of it. Importantly also, Book V is the point at which we start to possess significantly superior knowledge to Pandarus in a way which comically undermines his authority and again separates the narrator from him. When Pandarus patronisingly dismisses Troilus's interpretation of his dream vision as symbolising Criseyde's disloyalty, the reader knows that Troilus's dream is actually prescient. This structure heightens our detachment from Criseyde and our sorrow for the consistently but futilely hopeful Troilus and forms greater distance between the narrator (omniscient) and Pandarus (a control freak who, ultimately, lacks control). Structurally, the text is pre-programmed to allow such ironies to take place. But such careful planning is inconsistent with a narrator who is moving from one philosophy to another simultaneous with his writing.

The answer to this problem might be that the narrator is simply a translator of Lollius's history. In the proem to Book II, the narrator claims he is inflexible in writing his text. He apologises for any failure of sentiment and places the responsibility for this on his 'auctour':

Wherefore I nyl have neither thank ne blame
Of al this wek, but prey yow mekely,
Disblameth me if any word be lame,
For as myn auctour seyde, so sey I. (II.15-18)

If plot and style have been pre-formed, as the narrator claims, then in translating from Latin he becomes less of a writer and more of a reader. Just as we are to be moved by the 'double sorwe', so the narrator too can be moved emotionally, whilst the text can maintain pre-existing structural devices. But Troilus and Criseyde is clearly not a direct translation. The narrator first mentions his 'auctour' some three-hundred lines into the poem (I.394). He feigns originality in his style, if not in the events themselves, by invoking the Fury Tisiphone as his muse at the start, then suddenly claims he is simply an objective interpreter of an original. Before he mentions his 'auctour' he says:

But how this town com to destruccion
Ne falleth naught to purpos me to telle,
For it were a long digression
Fro my matere, and yow too long to dwelle. (I.141-144)

The possessive, 'my matere', indicates that he has control over the choice of subject matter, but he suddenly loses any freedom when the he comes to the song of Troilus, which is a direct translation from "myn auctour called Lollius" with "every word right thus/as I shal seyn" (I.397). Yet in his translation the narrator is not so objective as he claims. He is forced to defend his text against those 'envious' who would 'jangle' at its lack of realistic characterisation but rather than this defence taking a form of referring back to the original 'auctour', and his stylistic deficiencies, the narrator makes a personal case:

For I sey nought that she so sodenly
Yaf hym hire love, but that she gan enclyne
To like hym first, and I have told yow why. (II.666-668)

He also makes judgements about the characters based on his reading outside his principal source which make it impossible to position him as a passive intermediary: "I fynde ek in stories elleswhere...Men seyn - I not - that she yaf hym hire herte." (V.1044-1059). Thus we must either orientate the narrator as an actual and active character, carrying out a background philosophising which leads him to his new dogmatism at the end, in which case the reliability of his narration is undermined, or we see him as a passive translator, but this position is paradoxical, given that the status of the translation is made ambiguous by the narrator who professes his inability to manipulate the text whilst quite clearly imposing himself on it. This problem can only be resolved if there is a higher level of controlling narrative force distinct from that pretended by the narrator.

The narrator's premise is that the story is the faithful reproduction of another text which, actually, is itself a fiction.4 This ultimate ironic upsetting of the narrator's standpoint opens a clear gap between Chaucer and the narrator. It is Chaucer who is manipulating genuine historical sources and the narrator is Chaucer's creation. The narrator's claim for the inflexibility of his position in response to the tale parallels the desire expressed for metamorphosis to comedy at the end. But whereas the narrator is flexible in his response and manipulation of his (fictional) source, Chaucer finds it impossible to be fully flexible in response to his genuine source (Boccaccio). The reflection on the book at the end occurs as Chaucer's voice, and ties together the religious, the aesthetic and the literary:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in som comedye! (V.1786-1788)

Alerting the reader to the status of the text in relation to literary history is dramatically unnecessary since it diverts us from our response to the text on a literal level as offering solace to lovers or conveying Christian dogma. This section therefore marks a break from the aims of the narrator and raises further questions. How can the narrator set the book on its own, standing alongside Virgil and Ovil, when he has admitted before that it is translation? How can he commit it to God as its maker, when he has invoked a pagan muse in the preceding four sections? Why does he desire it to contain comedy, when its prime intention was to tell a story of 'double sorwe'? The narrator has performed a reversal but such a shift is inconsistent with the structure of a retrospective text which is always aware of how the story will conclude. It can only be Chaucer's voice projecting through his narrator here because it marks such a shift from his standards, a shift which could not have occurred in him given the coherent nature of the plot itself.

The text the narrator writes has aesthetic and practical intent and is received by us at a basic emotional level. The writing of the narrator, the comic undermining both of his position as a passive translator and as an independent author, is metafictional. The narrator is the intermediary between Chaucer and his Troilus and Criseyde. As a fictional character he serves to condition the reader's response. By crying at the 'woful vers' or making comic ironic remarks he invokes a sympathy response in the reader - we laugh or cry because the teller laughs or cries. Concurrently, these subjective emotional interpretations of an apparently direct translation disrupt the status of the text itself and illustrate something about the nature of criticism.5 Creating a simple emotional response is the prime desire of the narrator. Chaucer's audience for this text which was originally delivered orally would expect some sort of presence before the tale begins and the narrator provides a fictional presence, detached from Chaucer, who is able to condition responses on a simple level through camaraderie. Thus the narrator has a dramatic origin. But Chaucer is also aware of the new, specifically English, culture of literacy into which his text is being projected. If the narrator is the present teller to an audience, any undermining of him is likely to be limited: he is there, he is speaking, he must be trusted. However, to the reader with the manuscript present this undermining of the narrator both as a reliable translator or storyteller becomes fundamental. The destruction of any coherent narrative position raises questions about the nature of the genre of which the text is the inheritor. The epilogue is consistent with the preceding text precisely because it is inconsistent. Troilus and Criseyde's key ambiguity is its tension between objective authority and subjective experience. For both the narrator and Pandarus, their sources of information are exposed as limiting and, since they are both potentially emotionally involved in their subjects, they lack any objective perspective or means of explaining the events which have occurred beyond raw emotional responses. The ultimate means of gaining distance and understanding is in the Christian ethic. The text the narrator writes has emotional intent. The writing of the narrator, though, gives Troilus and Criseyde moral and critical meaning.

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  1. In Il Filostrato the narrator is himself in love, lamenting for his lady from whom he is separated. His way of controlling his suffering is to put his passion into verse. The book is given to his lady rather than lovers in general. The heightened ambiguity of Chaucer's narrator is typical of his alterations from Boccaccio which tend to complicate the motivations of all the characters. [Back to text]

  2. The word recipient is more appropriate than reader because Troilus and Crisyede was received orally as well as textually.[Back to text]

  3. His muses are: Book I, the Fury Tisipone; Book II, Clio, the Muse of history; Book III, Venus, the Roman name for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Book IV, the three Furies and Mars, the Roman name for Ares, symbolic of storms and turmoil in human relationships and the god of war. Book V lacks a proem, but it commits the events to Parcas, the fates, to "don execucioun" (V.4) [Back to text]

  4. It does not matter whether Chaucer's audience or the modern reader are aware that Lollius is not a genuine figure. The narrator's credibility as a translator is undermined regardless of whether he is translating from a real or a fictional name. The significance of Lollius being imaginary is that it proves from a critical standpoint the separation between Chaucer and his narrator, a separation which does not affect how much aesthetic or emotional pleasure we derive from the story. [Back to text]

  5. This is a particular interest of Troilus and Criseyde, most evidently in its marking of the difference between oral and literate modes of emotional expression. Song has a consistently limited effect on Troilus. His first song has the effect of making his "lust to hire, gan quiken and encresse." (I.443) and his last passes and he "fil ayeyn into his sikes olde" (V.646). By contrast letters are permanent (Troilus takes out his old letters from Criseyde in order to recapture her appearance [V.470-476]) and as such are subject to criticism. Troilus's error is that he is a subjective critic. Just as Pandarus or the narrator possibly project their emotions through others, so Troilus analyses Criseyde's letters in the light of what he wants to hear. (V.1635). [Back to text]

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Your Comments on "Pandarus, the Narrator and the Author in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde"

Name: Stanley Gottlieb    Date: February 26, 2011

Comment: According to III 1562-1582, Pandarus' desires were no longer suppressed. Why is it that the scholars and editors of Chaucer's works avoid the clearly erotic inventions and forbidden subjects of his poetry? Doesn't the word "pander" originate from the Pandarus character?

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This page was published on 2003 | Keywords: Pandarus, Troilus, Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer

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