Troy as Romance


Love Destroys Achillès in Benoit de Sainte Maure's Roman de Troie

Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Adapted from: "Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy," Diane P. Thompson, DIS., CUNY, 1981.

Benoit de Sainte-Maure's twelfth century Roman de Troie traces the unavoidable destruction of rather decent men and women by the forces of the irrational: Fortune and Amors. The Troie tells the complete story of the fall of Troy from the first errors of King Laomedon being rude to Hercules and Jason, on down to the final destruction of Troy and the return of the heroes. Interwoven with the many council meetings, battles, prophecies and lamentations are four tragic love stories: Jason and Medea, Paris and Helen, Troilus and Briseida (new in Benoit) and Achillès and Polyxena. Benoit, although sensitive to the beauty and power of love, focuses on how the passions of love and war, along with the inexplicable malice of fortune, lead to unavoidable degradation and disaster.

Although Achillès had been Homer's most excellent warrior in the Iliad, the furor of his excellence had been suspect for millennia. Also suspect were the intimacy of his relationship to Patroclus, and the sacrifice of Polyxena at his tomb. Passion of one sort or another always was Achillès' dominant attribute; the passion of love destroys him in the Troie.

Amors is the most destructive force that interferes with the rational free will of characters in the Troie. Benoit develops the story of Achillès' love for Polixena to display the power of Amors to destroy Achillès' rational will and, eventually, his very personality. Benoit presents a careful analysis of the means by which the nominally chivalrous Achillès is utterly devastated to the point of beastlike loss of sense and reason before his actual death at the hands of Polixena's brother, Paris, and a gang of Trojans who ambush him. This episode illuminates not only the loss of sense and reason under the control of Amors, but also the conflicting value systems which led Benoit into such compassionate ambivalence.

Achillès' destruction by Amors begins on the anniversary of Hector's death, when the Greeks enter Troy during a truce for a festival at his tomb. Achillès goes, completely ignorant of what the day will bring:

    It is too bad that his feet carried him there, since before he may turn around or come back from the festival he will be so misguided that he will have taken his own death into his heart. He saw Polixena there, a clear view of her face. This is the occasion and the means by which he will be snatched from life and his soul parted from his body. Hear what destiny did! Now you will hear how he was totally destroyed by fine amor. (Troie 17535-47; Le Roman De Troie, ed. L. Constans, 1904; Johnson Rpt. Corp., 1968. Line numbers refer to this edition; the translations are my own. )

Achillès, once wounded by Amors, has no chance of surviving: "Neither strength, virtue, nor courage are worth anything against Amors"(17565-68). Achillès' virtues as a warrior are useless against Amors. The values of the warrior (honor) and the values of the lover (Amors) provide the opposites of the conflict that will torment Achillès, destroying his personality and even his senses, debasing him into a bestial creature who hacks up a dead body and dies, finally, in a well-deserved, treacherous ambush.

This Amors does not care at all about Achillès' welfare. He traps Achillès rather like an animal is trapped in a hunting net. Trapped, aware of it, and unable to free himself, Achillès can only act out the deadly process of Amors. He recognizes that he is in love with a visual image, since he has had no personal contact with Polixena. Achillès knows that his love will be his death: "'I love my death and my injury'"(17696). But there is nothing he can do to protect himself.

Achillès' mind will degenerate later; but at first it functions with a heightened consciousness stimulated by Amors. He catches himself in self-deception right away:

    "Isn't she my deadly enemy? Yes, but now she will be my lover. Truly, I've chosen well. I delude and deceive myself, I fool myself, in my opinion, for I know surely that she would like to have me killed." (17657-63)

Achillès knows that Polixena would like him to be killed, because he killed her brother, Hector. Unfortunately, his knowledge is useless. After all his talk of illness and death, Achillès ends with a prayer to God for advice to help him win Polixena's affection.

Achillès sends a messenger to the Trojans offering to return to Greece with his troops if he can marry Polixena, but Priant replies that the Greeks will all have to leave in peace before Achillès can marry her. Achillès then tries to persuade the Greeks to abandon the war and go home. He chides them that it is folly to war over a woman, but Thoas retorts that they are not at war for the sake of a woman, but for honor and glory (18331). The Greeks all reject Achillès' anti-war arguments, and he becomes furious and withdraws himself and his troops from combat. Achillès has utterly forgotten his honor.

Benoit's Amors is a total destructive force, undermining all the necessary social institutions best summed up in the word "honor"; and yet, people cannot avoid falling in love. When the Greek army sends ambassadors to Achillès and they accuse him of dishonorable behavior, he replies by attacking the institution of chivalric warfare.

Under pressure from the Greeks, who are being killed and desperately need his support, Achillès refuses to fight, but finally allows his troops to go into battle. Here, acting to help his own people, he breaks his promise not to fight against the Trojans, ending any chance of his marriage to Polyxena. It is also an unpardonable sin against the code of Amors, who accosts Achillès and accuses him of having broken his law.

    "You have violated my law. You should not have sent your Mirmidoneis into battle. . . . This deed will be paid for dearly. Justice will have its way. You must pay terribly, the penalty will be very hard. I know certainly that you must die of her beauty and her appearance." (20715-17;20720-25)

This is a reversal of the morality of honor which would demand that Achillès defend his own side loyally.

Achillès is trapped between the logic of moral human loyalty and the logic of love loyalty. Amors points out triumphantly that Achillès has ruined himself by both codes: honor and love. Further, Amors explains that the very love which led Achillès to lose his men will now destroy him:

    "I wish that she may cause her desire to kill and torment you, that she may take away from you drink and eating, sleep, rest and relief, without hope or expectation. Now it's all arranged how she may overcome you in her bonds." (20768-74)

Achillès responds to Amors' threats not with regrets for his lost men, but with regrets for his now unavailable love. Achillès blames himself for having sinned against love and then addresses the now and forever unattainable Polixena:

"Other than you, nothing can have any value for me. . . . Ah! sweet, pure, fresh flower, above all the beautiful spirits and above all the angels, how I lose my life for you, without having help or aid! Work of divine nature, queen above all other beauties, my spirit goes to you, but alas, it will never be received there. I know and see how Amors has injured me. He will never release me. Polixena, I dedicate myself to you." (20793;20798-809) Achillès understands Amors as a transcendent value, beyond all earthly concerns with right and wrong, except according to the code of love. Achillès has lost because he has sinned against the standards of that transcendent value. Polixena is no mere woman, but an idealized embodiment of an absolute principle of love and beauty which destroys earthly values other than those of love. Achillès has lost her forever, although he cannot and will not lose his love for her until the end of his life when his memory and senses are destroyed. This love as transcendence, without an attainable object, can only lead to death, and Achillès accepts death as the price of his experience. Certainly he is not yet a coward or a fool. He must, however, be destroyed, and this is done by a systematic breakdown of his personality.

Composed of conflicting parts, Achillès will now be literally taken apart, his senses destroyed and his personality broken down and robbed of its basic elements. He is taken apart by Amors as he is hurried on to his inevitable death, in ways that degrade him from a man to a beast to a senseless and unperceiving monster.

Achillès declines from his peak of love-death ecstasy and renews his conflict of whether to fight or not to fight, but he is no longer master of himself: He wants to go there, but soon Amors, for his part, so overwhelms him that he doesn't dare lift a foot. Bravery and reason, all love and courage and knighthood, are quite destroyed in his heart. He is no longer master of himself, since Amors holds him fast in his net. (20851-58).

Loss of self-mastery is the key to Achillès' destruction. He refuses to fight to aid his own troops and remains firm until the Trojans have carried the battle to his own tent. The Greeks cry out that not only are his men being slaughtered, but he too is in danger. Finally he responds to save himself. However, even here, as his behavior degenerates to that of a raging beast, Benoit explains the cause as a complete loss of self-control, not deliberate immorality: "He's very upset and grieved by what he hears and sees; he's in such anguish and so distraught that he has neither reason nor memory"(21068-71). Achillès has lost his reason and memory. He certainly could not act other than he does.

Achillès has been under the control of Amors; now he is swept up by the control of wrath: "He's so enraged that he doesn't remember either lover or love" (21083-84). His very mind has ceased to function. Without reason or memory, Achillès is no longer a man, but a beast, and his ensuing behavior is precisely bestial:

    Just as the starving lion sweats among the lambs . . . Furious and mad and swept away by wrath, he charged amongst his enemies. He wrought among them like a wolf among sheep. He made more than two hundred bloody heads among them in a little while. He is a wolf that devours all. (21089- 90;21097-102)

Achillès lost his will to Amors; he has lost his mind to wrath. Forgetting his love, he fights. Priant, hearing of this, swears that Polixena shall never marry him.

Benoit continues to emphasize the unchivalric behavior of the ruined Achillès, who, after having his men surround Troilus and unhorse him, comes up and kills him. Benoit comments with disapproval: "He committed great cruelty, great treachery" (21444-45). Achillès then attaches Troilus' dead body to the tail of his horse and drags him along the ground. Mennon sees this and rescues the body, wounding Achillès in the process. Achillès now craves revenge against Mennon. When he finally does kill him, it is not combat, but butchery, and Achillès chops Mennon's body into so many pieces that he must be gathered together before he can be buried.

Ecuba now arranges to lure Achillès into an ambush and have him murdered by Paris and a gang of Trojans. Polixena, unwitting, is used as the bait, and a messenger promises Achillès that if he comes into Troy he will be given her as his wife. Fresh from his butchery of the Trojans, Achillès again switches allegiance, telling the messenger to inform Ecuba that he will now deliver Troy from the Greeks. His mind is so devastated by Amors that he does not even suspect a trick and hurries to the temple where he thinks he is to marry Polixena: "Amors destroys his reason for him; he doesn't know or see or perceive. He doesn't fear death; he doesn't remember it. Thus wrought Amors, who fears nothing" (22117-20).

Achillès can no longer judge right and wrong. He cannot even judge whether or not a situation is dangerous. His mind, his senses, have been destroyed by Amors:

    He doesn't fear danger or interference, because Amors has caused his mind to change, who makes a man deaf, blind and mute. Amors has so overcome and deceived him that he no longer has any desire except to go to his woeful martyrdom and grievous destiny. (22129-35)

Achillès is ambushed, killed, and then Agamemnon praises him: "He was so valiant and brave, and lord and master above all others" (22391-92).

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(c) Diane Thompson: 11/10/1998; updated: 01/26/2011