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Last Updated on December 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

David Malouf's novel Ransom, which is based upon Homer's Iliad, is divided into five parts.

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Part 1

Achilles is looking out to sea. He thinks of his mother, the goddess Thetis, and how he has become separated from her over the years. He has spent the last nine years fighting at Troy, and this war has removed him from his family, including his young son, Neoptolemus, but also from the land and the sea. He thinks of the death that he knows is coming and of the two men who loom largest in his mind: his dearest friend, Patroclus; and his bitterest enemy, Hector.

At the age of thirteen, Patroclus came to live at the court of Phthia, where Peleus, the father of Achilles, was and remains king. Patroclus had been exiled from his native land for killing another boy while they were playing. Achilles was three years younger than Patroclus, and they soon became like brothers. They came to fight at Troy together, and when Achilles withdrew from the fighting after a quarrel with Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, Patroclus supported him. Soon, however, Patroclus became appalled by the scale of the Greek casualties and returned to the battle, wearing the armor of Achilles. Hector killed him, and Achilles, mad with grief, returned to battle and killed Hector. Achilles now keeps Hector’s corpse in his camp, refusing to bury it and dragging it behind his chariot to pollute the body. However, it is miraculously restored to a pristine condition after he does this, increasing Achilles’s fury and showing that the gods are against him.

Part 2

In his palace in Troy, King Priam is unable to sleep, plagued by nightmares of the city burning. He broods on the death of Hector and Achilles’s mistreatment of his corpse, which he himself has witnessed from the walls of Troy. The rainbow goddess, Iris, appears to him and shows him a vision of himself in a cart loaded with treasure, going to ransom Hector’s body from Achilles. He shares this vision with his wife, Hecuba, saying that he intends to follow the vision and ransom the corpse. Hecuba opposes this notion on several grounds, thinking it will never work, that Priam will not return, and that, in any case, the king of Troy should not place himself in this humiliating position.

Priam replies by telling her the story of his own ransom from Heracles, who attacked Troy when he was a child. Hecuba asks him to take advice from his sons and his counselors, which he does the next morning. They share Hecuba's views, but Priam will not be dissuaded. He has a cart loaded with treasure and chooses a simple man called Somax to drive him, instead of proceeding with his customary retinue and herald. Priam takes leave of his wife and sons and departs from the city in the cart.

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Part 3

Priam and Somax stop by the side of the Scamander River. Somax persuades Priam to eat and drink and to wash his feet in the water. Priam is momentarily distracted from his grief and enjoys these simple pleasures. He begins to think that his life as a king, bounded on every side by formal rules and customs, has been limiting and has cut him off from the rest of humanity. The two men talk, and Priam discovers that Somax has lost all his sons. He reflects that these losses must have been even worse for Somax than they were for him, since Priam had a rather distant relationship with his sons (besides having a great many of them, some of whom remain alive).

A young man who calls himself Orchilus approaches the cart and seems to be about to steal the treasure. Priam and Somax do not trust him, but he stays with them as they ford the river. When they have crossed, Priam realizes that Orchilus is actually Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hermes confirms his identity and says that he has come to help them on their journey to find Achilles.

Part 4

Achilles is in his hut with his lieutenants when he sees a figure approaching. He immediately thinks of Patroclus but soon realizes this is an old man and then believes that he recognizes his father, Peleus. He drops to his knees before he sees that the old man is a stranger. Priam identifies himself, though Achilles is still thinking of his own father.

Priam pleads with Achilles to accept the ransom, referring to his own son and father. Wouldn’t Achilles do what he is doing if Neoptolemus were to be killed? Or wouldn’t Peleus do the same in the case of Achilles’s death? Achilles sees in a vision that it is Neoptolemus who will eventually kill Priam. He goes to fetch Hector’s body, which, as always, is uncorrupted by his own attempts to pollute it. While this used to make him angry, he now sees it as fitting for a hero. Priam eats with Achilles and sleeps the night in his hut. In the morning, he returns to Troy with the body of Hector.

Part 5

Priam and Somax drive back to Troy from the Greek camp, through the devastation that has been caused by the war. The king weeps over the body of his son but also reflects on what he has discovered through this experience, including his common humanity with his driver, Somax; and his enemy, Achilles.

Far away, Neoptolemus is coming to join the war and thinking about the great deeds he will accomplish. Actually, Malouf explains, the war will not be anything like the glorious conflict Neoptolemus imagines, and though he will indeed kill Priam, he will come to regard the murder of the old man as a shameful act and will be haunted by terrible guilt for the rest of his life.

Priam and Somax return to Troy. Somax is thinking about the stories he will tell of this remarkable encounter. However, the author remarks, his future listeners will not believe his tales of heroes and gods, since it will seem so incongruous for a commonplace character like Somax to have played a part in these legendary events. The only part of his tale they will believe concerns the mule who pulled the cart, whose name was Beauty.

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