Ransom by David Malouf

In reinterpreting Homer’s Greek classic, the Illiad, Malouf alerts readers to the fact that he is more interested in the “untold tale” found in the margins.  Whilst he, like Homer, draws upon the historical context of the Trojan war, Malouf gives greater prominence to the death of Patroclus and the transformation of Podarces to King Priam — events that only occupy a “half a dozen lines” in the original tale.  As the author notes, he is primarily interested in “storytelling itself” and the reason stories are told and often changed.  In this case, the change becomes of paramount importance in Ransom as King Priam dares to reimagine his role by stepping outside convention and inventing a different path. In this retelling, or retold story, Malouf foregrounds the central act of ransom and refashions a novel for our times.

The act of ransom

During war-time in ancient Greek history, women were taken as booty of war, while men were either ransomed or killed on the battlefield. Generally, a prisoner of war remained as a hostage, while a ransom was raised. It was a fee paid to the victor.

In Priam’s case, the ransom, or fee paid to Achilles consists of a cartload of precious booty. Symbolically, too, the ransom is also the “fee paid in advance” for life as Priam immerses himself in a personal journey for meaning. This dual symbolism captures many of Malouf’s central concerns. In addition, the act of ransom also functions as a structuring device as Malouf sets up important contrasts between Priam’s ransom and other traditional forms of ransoms that are embedded in the text.

Traditional forms of ransom: Achilles and Agammemnon: ancient Greek mythology

Whilst Achilles is embroiled in the fight to revenge Patroclus’ death, we learn of the earlier ransom, and the catalyst for the fatal fight between Patroclus (dressed as Achilles) and Hector. Both Agamemnon and Achilles had received the young women Chryseis and Briseis as prizes of war or war brides which embroiled them both in a tug of war, about pride and honor. Agamemnon had to return Chryseis to the priest of Apollo if he wanted the plague to end, which he did, but only on the condition that he take possession of the war prize of Achilles — Briseis — as a replacement.  His pride wounded, Achilles withdraws his troops (the Myrmidons), resulting in heavy losses. Patroclus persuades Achilles that his Myrmidons would make the difference in the battle. Sporting Achilles’ personal armor, Patroclus is struck down by Prince Hector, the noble son of Trojan King Priam.

Please see a summary relating to Hector and Achilles from the Illiad by Homer

Using this ransom as a backdrop, Malouf focuses our attention on the dual aspects of Achilles’ nature as he struggles to cope with his grief. He slays Hector in revenge, and, barbarically destroys Hector’s body which he drags through the dust. However, rather than a release, he gives vent to “self consuming rage” and is enshrouded with a “clogging grey web” that lays waste to his warrior spirit.

The chain of events stemming from the ransom eventually divides and separates Achilles from his “true spirit”. “His runner spirit has deserted him” and a certain “earth heaviness” immobilises him. If a man, and particularly a hero, is defined by his actions, then Achilles becomes “as fouled with dust as the thing – bloody and unrecognisable –  that he trails from his axle-bar”.

Achilles awaits “something new or something unimaginable”.

Heracle’s gift: a traditional ransom

Priam’s novel idea to offer a ransom in return for his son’s body parallels the earlier ransom which is critical to Priam’s rebirth. After the father’s defeat, Troy is ransacked. Priam, the pampered son of Laomedon, King of Troy, becomes “just one of a rabble of slave children”, trying to escape the fate of his brothers, drowning in their own blood in the King’s citadel. Heracles, his father’s enemy, and victor, is a divine hero in Greek mythology and the son of Zeus and Alcmene, typically representing extraordinary strength and courage. He is the epitome of masculinity, “hulking and dark” with “muscled cheeks”. He offers the young, six-year old Podarces as a gift to Hesione, Priam’s sister and Priam becomes “the price paid, the gift given to buy your brother back from the dead”.

Thereafter, Priam remembers the ransom, the “price paid”,  as one that is humiliating and degrading. He remembers the stinking, runaway refugee that he has become as he flees death. He also remembers the trivial, delightful game that Heracles plays with his sister.  We are reminded that “the gift was given then taken back again, and only in a joking, left-handed way restored.”  It is “that sort of low, back-handed nobility” of which Heracles was “capable”. Furthermore, the reincarnation is forged through language, through the renaming process itself. Heracles changes Podarces’ name (to Priam) “so that each time he hears himself named, this is what he will recall.”

Once again then, just as in Achille’s case, the ransom signals a divided self and the “true self” for which Priam hankers, is by necessity, always distant and removed, characterised by displacement and loss.

The ransom: an ambiguous vision

The idea of the ransom is ambiguously prompted by Priam’s dream and the vision of Iris. On the one hand, she plants the seed and prompts his novel and blasphemous train of thought. The controlling hand of the Gods looms large in Priam’s life since his “rebirth” and the ransom is after all the “fee” for life: death is ordained and, in Priam’s case, Neoptolemus strikes the “fireball” that will be the “fiery-headed agent” of his death.

But the vision is also audaciously Priam’s own, because “I have thought of it”. Iris explains that chance is the “way things are. Not the way things must be, but the way they have turned out.” And by speaking the word “chance” aloud, Priam recasts it as his own. Typically, Malouf ambiguously states that it is “possible because it is not possible”, and it is for this very contradictory reason that Priam believes it must be attempted.  “And because it is simple,” although it involves the complicated process of travelling into enemy heartland. Priam recognises that he can change the course of his life, and he tries to “force events into a different course”; however, he knows that he cannot change his death, the details of which have been ordained.

Audaciously, then, Priam sets out to embrace chance, which is to challenge the way things are and try something completely new. The ransom is “Something impossible. Something new”. The ransom is liberating, offering Priam the chance to break free of the obligation of being always the hero.

But the offer of a ransom to Hector’s slayer, challenges and defies community expectations.  At the meeting of sons, daughters, husbands, councillors and advisors in the inner court of the palace the novelty of the old man’s scheme shocks and dazzles; the misgivings swell to “outright consternation”.  This scheme challenges their very notion of who their father is. Likewise, the sight of Priam “stripped of all finery and show” challenges the crowd who do not “know how to react”. They recognise the city’s wealth, but wonder where it is going.

The ransom of self and son

In many ways, the audacity of the ransom and the fact that Priam places his act centre stage means that it is also about the ransoming of self, “myself as well as my son”. He is reminded of the first act of ransom, when, as the victim of war, he is chosen by Heracles. According to Priam, the gods have chosen “against me a second time in this business of war”. But he rises to the challenge and asserts his own individual stamp on the act of ransoming, which enables Priam to “break the knot” which engulfs both Priam and his arch-rival, Achilles.

If Heracles offers the gift as part of his kingly, godly sphere, Priam’s ransom is focussed on the human side. If Heracles’ act is born of contempt, Priam’s is presented as a humble gesture. Priam’s gift to Achilles enables him to discover the “lack” at the core of his rebirth as Podarces-Priam. Symbols such as the rattling “pea in the golden husk of (my)… dazzling eminence” and the “sleeve in an empty garment” capture the distance between Priam’s royal
and human selves and focus our attention on the object of his search for meaning.

Ransom as a “fee paid in advance”

Malouf frequently italicises the verb “to be” and its conjugations to depict the object of Priam’s ransom: to discover who or what  “I am” and leave a legacy of what “I was”, in all its simplicity and earthliness. The most simple thing of all to this common man is the awareness of his death and the pain associated with grief and loss. He knows he must accept the consequences — “less easy to accept is what follows from it”. This also involves responsibilities as a human being towards another, a lesson that is afforded by the ordinary carter.

The role of Somax

Critical to the act of ransom is the vision of the “ordinary carter”, Somax, who sits on his “plain wooden cart” which is “drawn by two coal-black mules”.   If Priam is the king, Somax is the man and son of Astrogon. He is a “bull-shouldered fellow”, a “bearded, shaggy-headed fellow” in an “ungirdled robe of homespun”. But he is also a father of three sons and four daughters, and it is in his role as son-father that he bridges the gap between Priam and Achilles. Somax inducts Priam into the world of humanity by being “simply a man”, where the “unnecessary” and the “particular” intermingle. “It had never occurred to him that the food that came to his table so promptly .. might have ingredients”.  He wants to “know more about the unnecessary, and to satisfy in himself a new sort of emptiness”.  It was in his conversations that revolve around the “unnecessary” and that have no “point or use” that Priam discovers what it is to be a “man” and “mortal”.  Everything was just “itself” in this world whereby Priam speaks “for myself”.

Somax is exposed to the raw intimacy of grief, unlike Priam who grieves according to custom and law and whose relationships are dictated by the “ordeal of kingship”  Priam is particularly touched by the extent of Somax’s loss; he nurses a broken heart after the deaths of his children and Priam wonders whether “the phrase he had taken up so easily, that he knew what it was to lose a son, really did mean the same for him as it did for the driver”.

Malouf presents Somax’s response to Beauty, the agent of his son’s death, as admirable. Having lost her footing, Beauty possibly “knocked him sideways”.  However, unlike Achilles, who vents his anger at Hector for the loss of Patroclus, Somax who “felt like punching her”, comforted her instead. He began “sobbing fit to break my heart”.  Typically, Beauty becomes the site of conflicting emotions – grief over the son’s death and joy over the donkey’s survival. Subsequently, the two become inseparable and eventually the stuff of legends. That Somax finds it in himself to forgive Beauty after the death of his beloved son becomes one of Priam’s most critical lessons and helps him achieve success as the “man remade”.

Priam’s mission: the “man remade”

The key to Priam’s successful mission – the capture of his son’s body – is his heightened awareness of death and its consequences. In this regard, Priam comes to understand the real and symbolic nature of the ransom motif – that it is the “fee paid in advance” for life.  As Malouf suggests, this is the “hard bargain life makes with us, with all of us, every one”.   It is this “fee” that also causes intolerable grief and sorrow.  According to Malouf an awareness of the consequences of this “hard bargain” enables us to show pity rather than hatred towards each other.

Armed with the knowledge of his ordinariness and frailty, he approaches Achilles as  a man and a father, appealing to his arch-enemy to focus on the similarities that bind them as well as their interdependency. They are both joined by their experiences of the death of a beloved and their shared role as father-son — in Achille’s case with Neoptolemus, the son and with Peleus, the father. Consequently, as a “plain man white-haired and old” Priam relies on the qualities of humility and mercy to “break the knot” and to appeal to Achilles’ sense of compassion. Priam humbly “entreats the killer of his son, with whatever small dignity is left to him to remember his own death, and the death of his father”. As Malouf suggests, the enemies need to capitalise on their shared grief to resolve their grievances and differences.

Earlier Malouf alerted readers to the fact that an immobilised and grief-stricken Achilles was waiting for “something new and unimaginable”. Here, he suggests that Priam’s unimaginable deed not only binds the heroes together, but that they are dependent upon each other for release and for a successful resolution.

Somax is critical, then to Priam’s recovery and the interplay of the ransoming Podarces-Priam. He, too, is a “stealer of tales” retelling the story of a son’s recovery and recreating the legend of self at the same time. (“He was the owner of a little black mule who is still remembered in this part of the country and much talked about.”) Likewise, through the act of ransom, Priam seeks to recast himself in a similar mould based on the “beauty” tale of forgiveness and reconciliation – in place of the primordial, ancient ransoming revenge narrative.  Priam concentrates on ‘words” that centre on common generational bonds between father and son – both of a literal and a symbolic kind — and urges Achilles, too, to think about his own legacy.

See The Symbolic Journey with Somax and Ransom Quotes

By Dr Jennifer Minter, The Significance of the Ransom, VCE study notes, (www.englishworks.com.au)