Ransom by David Malouf

Brief Synopsis of Ransom by David Malouf 


This Resource is for students studying Mainstream English in the Victorian Curriculum with Ransom as a single text. OR students in Year 12 studying the comparative texts of Ransom with The Queen. Year 12 students can use these notes as background information to understand the narrative written by David Malouf.

Ransom by David Malouf is derived from the final section of Homer’s The Iliad

Drawn from a section of the Ancient Greek poet Homer’s The Iliad, David Malouf’s poignant novel Ransom explores the themes of revenge, redemption and fate during the Trojan War.  The common theme of all Greek mythology concerns powerful gods, heroes, mythological creatures and humans. These myths have had major influences in art and culture, and even during modern society today with its teaching of our beginnings, history, morals and lessons for our daily lives.  While The Iliad is heavily focused on the gods and the battles fought amongst the people, Ransom explores a new avenue of human relationships through two main characters: Achilles, the greatest warrior and hero of the Trojan War and Priam, the elderly king of Troy who has lost his son in battle.

The Historical Action of Ransom

David Malouf structured the characters and events of Ransom during the 9th year of the legendary Trojan War in The Iliad (around 1100 BCE).  Where as-yet untold stories might emerge, Malouf created an inner life for his main characters Achilles and Priam that are not told in the Iliad.  The novel plays out over one full day and the following morning, although Malouf has allowed his characters flash-backs and flash-forwards that weave significant events into the narrative.  Ransom commences on the 12th day after the death of the Trojan hero Hector, son of Priam King of Troy who is slain by the famed Greek warrior Achilles in revenge for the death of his loved step-brother Patroclus.

The Human Action of Ransom

In Ransom both Priam and Achilles must face and overcome dilemmas.  Each questions the role he has been playing.  The narrative allows the characters to liberate themselves from a crisis of personal values and a loss of self-esteem, something quite different from the view of human action in The Iliad.   Malouf presents his main characters with moral and imaginative courage in choosing to act beyond the bounds of their normal roles.  Both Priam and Achilles come to a new understanding of what it means to be human.  Priam, dressed simply and with no weapons or crown, pleads with Achilles to release Hector’s body.  He appeals to his humanity and in doing so raises the question of what it means to be ‘human’.  Are the characters ruled by animal instincts, by the influence of the gods or by human reason and feeling?  A blend of all these facets suggests the permeable, open nature of human beings in the novel.

The Importance of Family Affection and Father-Son Relationships

Priam reminds Achilles of the importance of family affection and the closeness of father-son loyalty.  They are both fathers and sons before anything else.  They are also mortals where death is always present.  Priam begs Achilles “… as a father, and as one poor mortal to another – to accept the ransom I bring and give me back the body of my son” (p.182).  Priam wants Achilles to act as both their “… fathers and forefathers have done through all the ages” to show that they are in effect “men, children of the gods and not ravening beasts” (p.183).

Pity and Compassion

Even in the long, harsh war between the Trojans and Greeks, enduring human values emerge.  Malouf has allowed his main characters to express compassion and pity that we see goes beyond social class and political beliefs.  Priam pleads with Achilles as one human to another, since they all die in the end, he argues they should feel each other’s sorrows now and be compassionate.  He asks Achilles to think of his son Neoptolemus, and his father Peleus “Would you not do for him what I am doing here for Hector?  Would your father Peleus, not do the same for you?” (p.184).  Achilles’ personality is influenced by its origins.  We see this in flashbacks in the novel of Achilles expressing his love for his son and his father.  Priam has made Achilles contemplate Hector’s body and his own death with fresh respect.  In pitying Priam as a father, Achilles is reminded of his own son Neoptolemus and changes his view of Hector.  Achilles allows Priam to take the body of Hector in exchange for the ransom of gold in the wagon.  In a key moment between the warrior Achilles and the king Priam, their physical gesture of reconciliation is shown “Quietly, as they ate together, he and Achilles had discovered a kind of intimacy; wary at first, though also respectful” (p.198).

Taking a Chance – Choosing Action

The concept that humans have free will to act and should take opportunities as they come was foreign to the ancient Greeks, who believed that human life is governed by larger powers such as greater destiny or supernatural beings.  Malouf’s narrative allows each of these approaches to work in the story.  We see some of the characters decide to risk action and take a chance, yet they still accept the workings of fate and the interferences of the gods.  The novel invites the reader to ask questions about our own beliefs.  Should we believe in fate or chance?  How should a person decide?

Priam acts in an unexpected way to achieve a positive goal when he decides to follow chance rather than passive customs.  In doing so he must oppose those close to him who expect the king to always be predictable to “… follow convention, slip his arms into the sleeves of an empty garment and stand still”.  Instead Priam steps “… into a space that till now was uninhabited and found a way to fill it” (p.208-209).  He feels “bold” and “defiant” rather than passive and dismissive “sure of his decision” (p.49) to retrieve the body of his dead son Hector from the camp of his enemy Achilles.

Achilles’ reputation, well known throughout the territory, was capitalised by Patroclus to frighten the Trojans and inspire the Greeks to fight on.  Despite the years spent earning this reputation, this would not be what Achilles would be remembered for.  Malouf shows us the raw emotional side of Achilles with his grief for the death of Patroclus.  In fact by dragging the dead body of Hector each morning behind his chariot, Achilles “… breaks daily every rule [his men] … have been taught to live by.  Their only explanation is that he is mad” (p.29).  Achilles tells himself his “half-blind rage” is for Patroclus “But it is never enough.  That is what he feels.  That is what torments him” (p.33-34).  Releasing Hector’s body to Priam is his greatest challenge and act in the novel.  It is Achilles acceptance of his role as a hero-warrior that brings him peace in Part IV.

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