“The gods themselves know nothing of this, and in this respect, perhaps may envy us.”
The “this” which the gods themselves know nothing of is mortality. Priam is reflecting upon the fact that he is a king but by the grace of god and yet, even though a king, he is as mortal as a slave. Mortality is not all bad, however, for without knowing it will all end, how can one truly enjoy the present? In this respect, Priam suggests, mortals may in fact hold an advantage over the gods.
“Tears. Oh, I have plenty of those. But not of grief. Of anger, of fury, that I am a woman and can do nothing but sit here and rage and weep while the body of my son, Hector, after eleven days and nights, is still out there on the plain…”
Ransom is a male story, based on a male mythic legend powered by war. Despite Helen being the centerpiece of the Trojan War, it is really not a story of young love and beauty. Priam and his wife Hecuba are advanced in age, and they know that the ransoming of Hector's body represents an existential threat: if the war should be lost or peace failed to be negotiated, Priam will be dead and Hecuba will fall from queen to slave.
“The fleas go on biting. The sun comes up again.”
Achilles may well be the first action hero. Priam is a king. Hector is a dead martyr. Larger than life, all of them, and yet it is a simple man—Priam’s lowly carter—who often stands at the center of the novel as its guiding philosophical light. Not that his philosophy is complex or complicated. But in the end, it is the philosophy that spells it all out for king and carter, hero and martyr alike. We all die, but life goes on.
A charming creature, big-eyed and sleek, she bore the name of Beauty—and very appropriately too, it seems, which is not always the case.
"Beauty" here refers literally to one of Somax’s two mules. This is the novel's last sentence, and so this seemingly simple statement takes on larger significance. The important element here is the “not always the case” because, you may recall, the central mythic figure most associated with the Trojan War is Helen, she of Troy. Notably, Helen is entirely absent from Malouf’s retelling except for one very quick, ambiguous reference as merely a figure in the distance. You may also recall, however, that it was Helen’s beauty which launched a thousand ships; the metaphor for the Trojan War supposedly fought over her abduction. That the novel ends on this note when such a vital figure is so remarkably absent should not be overlooked.
‘You will not long outlive me, Achilles,’ the voice whispered. Then, ‘The days are few now that you have to walk on the earth. To eat and exchange talk with your companions and enjoy the pleasures of women. Already, away there in your father’s house in Phthia, they are preparing to mourn.’
One of the biggest tensions surrounding Achilles' character is the knowledge he has that he will die soon. While it is foreshadowed throughout, this is the moment when Achilles actually receives this prophecy. Achilles is a haunted character: his biggest emotional developments are marked by death, and accordingly, the final prophecy about his life is delivered as the dying words of someone that he killed. At this moment, Hector draws a parallel between the two of them that makes Achilles' choice to abuse Hector's body even more startling: the fact that soon, Achilles will also be a corpse.
I did it out of defiance of the gods, as well as in fearful reverence for them. In defiance of the fact that their first choice, all those years ago, was against me, as perhaps they have chosen against me a second time in this business of the war, so that I have now to be ransomed a second time—to ransom myself, as well as my son. By going to Achilles, not in a ceremonial way, as my symbolic self, but stripped of all glittering distractions and disguises, as I am.
Here, Priam is talking about his refusal to show even a hint of weakness and his commitment to remaining regal in light of his past as someone who was almost sold into slavery. It's only by chance that he is currently king, not by the will of the gods, who would see him fail. But just like all those years ago, where his sister ransomed him by humbling herself in front of Heracles, so too must he humble himself in front of his enemy in order to get his son back. And to do so, Priam has to strip away all the pieces that make him a symbol and get to the core of what makes him a man, specifically what makes him a father.
Priam wondered if 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. Whether what he had felt for the loss of Gorgythion, whose mother, the lovely Castianira, had come all the way from Aesyme to marry him, and Doryclus and Isus and Troilus and the rest, was in any way comparable to what this man had felt for a boy who was, after all, neither a prince nor a warrior, just a villager like so many more.
For the first time, Priam really understands the difference between what Hecuba and Somax feel as parents versus what he feels. While Hector is important to Priam, Hector is as much as a symbol for Priam as his kingship is. As a man with dozens of sons who are the result of political alliances, his relationship to his children is extremely different from Somax and Hecuba, who are tied to their children primarily out of love, and not out of politics. This difference forces Priam to reconsider what it means to love a son, and reflect upon the different levels and kinds of grief.
‘Achilles,’ he says, his voice steady now, ‘you know, as I do, what we men are. We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us—with all of us, every one—and the condition we share...'
Achilles is a demigod, and so it might be easy for the reader to forget that he is also mortal. Yet, as the beginning of the novel reveals with its discussions of earth, Achilles' fundamental nature is that of his father, who is a mortal. Beyond sharing fatherhood with Priam, Achilles also shares the key, inevitable characteristic of mortality: that in the end, they will both die. This, as opposed to fatherhood, could be considered the thing that sways Achilles to give back Hector's body: the simple awareness that both of them will be in Hector's position soon enough.
Out here, for a time yet, he is one of them; the air, with its cool edge, a reminder of how present and warm he is in his envelope of flesh.
For a time.
Till he too, like Hector, is in there. Naked as he began. Being turned this way then that in the hands of women.
This is another moment where Achilles reflects on how much he is on the boundary between life and death. He stands at the boundary between the house, where Hector's body is being prepared, and the open air, which reminds him of his aliveness with "its cool edge." Achilles being drawn towards the house yet kept out foreshadows how close he is to death, something he realizes in his reflection about how he will soon be allowed in the hut. He also draws an interesting parallel between those moments and the moments where he was born, where he was also naked and being handled by women in a space that was sectioned off from the outside. This contributes to the way that Malouf portrays life as cyclic throughout the novel.
‘Call on me, Priam,’ he says lightly, ‘when the walls of Troy are falling around you, and I will come to your aid.’
It is their moment of parting.
Priam pauses, and the cruelty of the answer that comes to his lips surprises him.
‘And if, when I call, you are already among the shades?’
Achilles feels a chill pass through him. It is cold out here.
'Then alas for you, Priam, I will not come.’
Besides the moment with Hector, this is the only part of the book where the futures of Priam and Achilles are actually spoken out loud. Achilles, knowing how Priam will die, offers to help, but Priam's question reveals that that help will come far too late—something which Achilles senses. However, the irony of Priam's cruelty is that Achilles' death is what will, unbeknownst to him, cause his own. While Achilles could likely prevent his son from killing Priam, Achilles' death likely only encourages Neoptolemus to kill him.
Ransom Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ransom is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I would pick Achilles. He is attempting to make a point throughout the novel, both to the gods and to the remainder of society: that although he is aware that he will eventually die, they can not control everything that he does while he is still...
Achilles's didn't know it, but he was also in desperate need of the exchange, because his constant failure to deface the body just reminded him of his dear friend Patroclus. In order for him to mourn Patroclus, he has to understand that the family...