To the medieval Europeans who built magnificent cathedrals and oversaw the greatest flowering of Western culture since Rome, few stories had more resonance than that of Troilus and Criseyde. All three European languages that have given us significant medieval literatures—French, Italian and English—also left their own versions of the tale produced by poets considered masters of their craft. It continued to resonate: Shakespeare told his own version of it, and other accounts were produced in languages as obscure as Scots. The leading Middle English version, written by Geoffrey Chaucer—and a longtime favorite of Chaucer scholars—is now the focus of a version produced by the British poet Lavinia Greenlaw.

The story, in Chaucer’s telling, goes like this: During the Trojan War, Troilus, a prince of Troy, falls for Criseyde, the widowed daughter of the disgraced soothsayer Calchas. They are brought together not by chance, but rather through the machinations of Criseyde’s sinister uncle Pandarus. The two exchange letters through him. Eventually, they meet and consummate their relationship. But their love is doomed: Calchas, who has gone to the Greek camp after foreseeing Troy’s defeat, asks his hosts to trade a prisoner for his daughter. The two lovers consider eloping but decide not to; instead, Criseyde says she’ll escape and return to Troilus’ after 10 days.

She doesn’t. Instead, she responds coldly to Troilus’s letters and ends up in bed—more or less willingly—with a Greek named Diomede. Troilus realizes she isn’t coming back and, with nothing left to live for, perishes in battle.

Chaucer borrowed almost all of this plot and much verbiage from Giovanni Boccaccio (best known for the Decameron), who, in turn, was inspired by the French Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte-Maure and, most likely, prior oral traditions.

As compelling as this story was to the medieval mind, it has largely faded from view. A little-performed opera seems to be the only adaptation of note to emerge from the 20th century. Even in college classes intended for English majors, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are used far more often to introduce Middle English than Troilus. And Shakespeare’s version remains one of his least performed plays.

In some ways, this is a pity because Chaucer’s poem has much to recommend it. It’s all lovely sounding Middle English verse written in seven-line rhyme royal stanzas (A, B, A, B, B, C, C) and offers, in Criseyde, the first fully realized female character in English-language literature. The complex exchange of letters and depths of emotion establish an ideal of courtly love better than any other work in Middle English.

That said, Chaucer’s poem is frustrating to read: The ultimate fate of Criseyde, likely the most sympathetic character in the poem, never gets revealed. Instead, after Troilus dies, Chaucer launches into a semi-apology for speaking ill of women, a discussion of eternal love, and then a rant about how Christianity is better than paganism. Many minor plot threads are never resolved, and some plot elements make little sense. (Greenlaw’s own introductory notes point to a forest hunting sequence that takes place during the siege of Troy.)

In fact, upon examination, the hostage exchange that sets the final tragedy into motion is simply bad plotting: Calchas never gives a particularly good reason why the Greeks would agree to trade a prisoner in exchange for a young girl of no particular military or financial value, especially on behalf of someone who isn’t actually fighting. And some other rewards often found in Chaucer’s work are absent: Troilus isn’t funny (like many of the Canterbury Tales) and, despite having a plot drenched with sex, it is uncharacteristically coy by Chaucerian standards. A masterwork, yes, but ultimately, pretty boring.

In fact, it’s the very opportunity to correct the flaws in Chaucer’s work that makes Lavinia Greenlaw’s new take on the story so fresh and vital. Writing in what she calls a “corrupt version” of rhyme royal, and using a wholly modern English vocabulary, she distills Chaucer’s tale into 211 seven-line poems, each with its own title, appearing one per page. The resulting work is much shorter and, while it often paraphrases Chaucer (and, occasionally, Boccaccio), it’s hardly lacking in creativity. At its best, it’s just beautiful. Describing Criseyde during a festival, Greenlaw writes.

Among these candy colors stands Criseyde

a white veil above her widow’s black.

The crowd acknowledge her natural place,

as before all others only she holds back.

This works well on a number of levels. First, like much good poetry, it condenses meaning in a very effective manner: a woman in black amid a shimmering spring festival, aloof and somehow important. Second, the poetry is pretty: The alliteration of candy / colors / Criseyde and white / widow’s in the first lines sounds marvelous when read aloud and may, to modern ears, recapture some of the feelings the poem invoked in Chaucer’s original language. Without becoming archaic, she manages to evoke a “long ago” feeling by using dated phrases such as “candy colors” and “natural place.”

Where Chaucer is slow in telling the story, Greenlaw writes in distinctly economical language, moving the plot forward with almost terrifying efficiency. Her use of subtitles—moving the plot along at the bottom of many pages—gives the poem a very becoming urgency. And while the story is certainly stripped to its essentials, it’s never difficult to follow.

And she’s very good at unraveling the psychology of her characters. Introducing Pandarus, the poem’s villain, she launches immediately into his twisted psychology, both narrating and offering insight into the mind of a manipulator:

Has The Prince—flat-out, sobbing—

been hurt

Or has some devilry borne fruit?

He pulls up a chair.

He can taste the juice.

This is simple, of course, but also very telling. Pandarus, sympathetic on the outside, is eager for the “juice” of “devilry.”

Greenlaw also does a good job where Chaucer himself proves strongest: She’s particularly good at Troilus, who, despite having the most time onstage in Chaucer’s poem, remains the least interesting of the central triumvirate. Greenlaw, in far fewer words than Chaucer, offers at least as much insight. Describing the way he feels when he sees her for what turns out to be the last time, she manages to convey his emotional state with elegance and to foreshadow his demise:

Long after dawn they lie tight pressed.

At last he makes himself dress

All the while looking upon his lover

As if upon his death.

She’s just as good—and heartbreaking—in describing his descent into depression and quasi-suicide on the battlefield. In describing his despair over the realization that he has lost Criseyde, she writes:

He recites old letters as if they were prayers

And imposes her form.

He’s a locked room.

In just a few lines, Greenlaw describes Troilus’s actions (reciting letters) and embodies the feelings of depression overtaking him. This is the work of a master. Lavinia Greenlaw, standing in the shadow of a giant, has done something extraordinary. In many important respects, she has managed to improve on a great work.

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