Ransom by David Malouf

“Ransom” by David Malouf – Allusion and Reversal?

Imitation is the best form of flattery! In writing “Ransom”, David Malouf was consciously paying homage to what is considered as one of the first stories to have been committed to writing, Homer’s “Iliad”. In doing so, perhaps there are questions of originality that might be brought to the reader’s attention, but Malouf’s originality (such as any fictional narrative may need this) is very much at the  level of both form and substance that he crafts into and onto Homer’s narrative of Achilles’ and Priam’s quest for peace of mind, in a world that will deny them this.

Nor is Malouf’s rendering of the story a lame parody or superficial imitation … a moment of ritual and ceremonial significance in the Iliad, previously written without full psychological explanation or detailed description becomes an opportunity for Malouf to examine the unsated  human facility for grief.

Malouf’s subtlety is not only through the addition of extra characters and making the interior voice of each accessible and transparent.  The moment of supplication is, where Priam nobly “begs” for Hector’s body, reversed or “flipped”:

“Father,” he says again, allowed this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty.”Pelueus! Father!” The great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe. Automedon and Alcimus, their sword is now drawn a gleaming, leap to his side.

 “Sir!”

Achilles, startled, looks again.

The man is a stranger. Noble, yes, even in his plane row, but not at all like Peleus. What tricks the heart can play! The man is clearly not his father, but for half 100 beats of his heart is father has been truly present to him, and he continues now to feel tenderly vulnerable to all those emotions in him that belong to the sacred bond.

Which is why, to the puzzlement of his two attendants, he does not immediately take the interloper by the throat. But enquires, almost mildly, ‘ But who are you? How did you get into this hut? ‘ as if, who ever he might be, there was something uncanny in the strangers appearing so suddenly, and unnoticed, in a place thick with his followers.

The man is a stranger. Noble, yes, even in his plane row, but not at all like Peleus. What tricks the heart can play! The man is clearly not his father, but for half 100 beats of his heart is father has been truly present to him, and he continues now to feel tenderly vulnerable to all those emotions in him that belong to the sacred bond.

Which is why, to the puzzlement of his two attendants, he does not immediately take the interloper by the throat. But enquires, almost mildly, ‘ But who are you? How did you get into this hut? ‘ as if, who ever he might be, there was something uncanny in the strangers appearing so suddenly, and unnoticed, in a place thick with his followers.

The old man totters and looks as if he might fall. He glances apprehensively at the younger of the two men who faced with drawn swords. Alcimus, lionlike, can barely restrain himself from springing.

Priam steadies himself. The occasion has moved too quickly, and in a way he is not prepared for. He has come here to kneel to Achilles. Instead, the great Achilles is kneeling to him. Still, the moment has arrived. He must go on.

‘ I Priam, King of Troy, ‘ he says simply. ‘ I had come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home. ‘

 Priam closes his eyes. Now, he thinks. Now, they will strike. (See pp. 171 – 175)

In Homer’s Iliad the act of supplication is described as follows:

With these words Mercury went back to high Olympus. Priam sprang from his chariot to the ground, leaving Idaeus where he was, in charge of the mules and horses. The old man went straight into the house where Achilles, loved of the gods, was sitting. There he found him with his men seated at a distance from him: only two, the hero Automedon, and Alcimus of the race of Mars, were busy in attendance about his person, for he had but just done eating and drinking, and the table was still there. King Priam entered without their seeing him, and going right up to Achilles he clasped his knees and kissed the dread murderous hands that had slain so many of his sons.

As when some cruel spite has befallen a man that he should have killed some one in his own country, and must fly to a great man’s protection n a land of strangers, and all marvel who see him, even so did Achilles marvel as he beheld Priam. The others looked one to another and marvelled also, but Priam besought Achilles saying, “Think of your father, O Achilles like unto the gods, who is such even as I am, on the sad threshold of old age. It may be that those who dwell near him harass him, and there is none to keep war and ruin from him. Yet when he hears of you being still alive, he is glad, and his days are full of hope that he shall see his dear son come home to him from Troy; but I, wretched man that I am, had the bravest in all Troy for my sons, and there is not one of them left. I had fifty sons when the Achaeans came here; nineteen of them were from a single womb,and the others were borne to me by the women of my household. The greater part of them has fierce Mars laid low, and Hector, him who was alone left, him who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, him have you lately slain; therefore I am now come to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his body from you with a great ransom. Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.”

Any reading of Malouf’s “Ransom” would not necessarily require a knowledge of Homer’s original to the extent that any reading of a novel is not explicitly a history lesson; Malouf’s “Ransom” should to that extent stand on it own merits, as should Homer’s Iliad. A dry, word-for-word comparison between the texts would require greater time, and yet the intertextuality and allusions of supplication that Malouf draws on and then boldly reverses the symbolic order of supplication does require acknowledgement.

As Malouf writes, in reference to Priam (p. 176):

He does not kneel. The occasion for that has passed. So the whole scene, as he had imagined and acted it out in his mind, does not take place.

Where Priam had previously knelt, Achilles has knelt. The roles of the original actors in the act of supplication have been reversed.

To what purpose? Fathers and their sons? Unresolved conflict? Mutual grief? Justice? Compassion as an antidote to pity?

Or as one reviewer has noted:

Homer, through The Iliad, makes us remember Achilles and King Priam, and Malouf’s novel helps us better understand why we should.