David Malouf's novel Ransom, which is based upon Homer's Iliad, is divided into five parts.
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.
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.
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.
Achilles is in his hut with his lieutenants when he sees a figure approaching....
(The entire section is 1,052 words.)