Homer’s Iliad tells of Achilles’ rage; it is also the story of Priam’s grief over the death of his son, the noble Hector, at the hands of Achilles. We know of this rage and that grief, but at the remove of centuries. David Malouf, in Ransom, brings us into the experience.
This novel is also a meditation of the meaning of our roles in life: Achilles’ role as a warrior, Priam’s role as king.
My role was to hold myself apart in ceremonial stillness and let others be my arm, my fist–my breath too when talk was needed, because … I have always had a herald at my side, our good Idaeus, to find words for me. To be seen as a man like other men–human as we are, all of us–would have suggested that I was impermanent and weak. Better to stand still and keep silent, so that when old age came upon me, as it has at last, this world would not see how shaky my grip has become, and how cracked and thin my voice. Only that I am still here. Fixed and permanent.
Priam’s permanence as a king has cost him humanity and the power to express his own human needs. He has also lost — or never had — the daily experiences that most men share of work and occasional hardships and doing without. Priam sets out on a journey to ransom his son, accompanied only by a workingman, a carter, and his two mules. He is allowed to be hot, to be hungry, to speak for himself, and to enjoy the talk that is not ceremonial.
Priam was himself ransomed when, as a boy, he was redeemed from a life of slavery by his sister. Priam’s name means “the price”, the price that was paid for his freedom. It is also, ironically, the price he has paid for many years for his kingship, his sons, and now this war. Malouf brings us back to to Homer again because Homer contains it all: a young man’s rage and and old man’s grief.