Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Heroism, Human Nature, and the Brutal Impact of War
Malouf’s 2009 novel Ransom is a retelling of the final parts of Homer’s Iliad. Thus, one of the book’s main themes is the brutal and dehumanizing impact of war—specifically the Trojan War—on the lives of those who are unfortunate enough to be involved in it. At Troy, many witness the death of their loved ones and either cause or suffer a great deal of damage, both physically and emotionally. Priam and Achilles are essentially two heroes burdened by their responsibilities as honorable and just leaders. They each have a separate persona—a mask which they put on whenever they have to take on the role of a moral king or a skilled and courageous warrior, respectively, in order to showcase power, pride, and authority. Behind their carefully constructed facades, Achilles and Priam are two men desperate to be loved and remembered who yearn for comfort, intimacy, and the freedom to express their emotions.
Malouf alludes to the fact that Achilles is aware that his thirst for revenge is not something a true hero should feel and will not bring him closure. The rage and grief he feels when he loses his closest friend portrays him not as a hero, but a human being: a young man frightened to defy his moral code but doing so anyway.
He was waiting for the rage to fill him that would be equal at last to the outrage he was committing. That would assuage his grief, and be so convincing to the witnesses of this barbaric spectacle that he too might believe there was a living man at the center of it, and that man himself.
Priam, on the other hand—a noble who has lived his entire life in the shadows of tradition and obligation and believes that the gods have acted “against him a second time in this business of war”—decides to no longer suppress his humanity and goes to retrieve his son’s body.
Both Achilles and Priam manage to find peace; Priam leaves his mark on history as the king who breaks tradition and proudly showcases his humanity and emotion, and Achilles as the warrior who, by accepting Priam’s ransom, realizes that being a simple human is much nobler and more honorable than being a hero. In this context, Malouf shows how war has transformed these two men into people they never meant to become—and how they are able to reclaim their humanity through their choices.
The Meaning of Mortality
Ransom is largely concerned with the meaning and reality of mortality and the inevitability of death. Malouf, however, doesn’t portray these concepts negatively; instead, he presents them as unique privileges of humankind. Both Priam and Achilles realize that mortality is not a weakness; as an older man, Priam understands that he doesn’t have much time left in the world of the living, and the young Achilles knows deep down that, even though he is nearly invincible, he still might lose his life in battle. Through Priam, Malouf argues that mortality is something that should inspire all people to be more loving and compassionate and to treat others with kindness and respect.
[Death] is the hard bargain life makes with us—with all of us, every one—and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses.
Here, Malouf argues that the shared burden of mortality should inspire people to act with compassion and to appreciate life in all its brevity. If humans were immortal like the gods, they wouldn’t be able to experience the...
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joys or even the sorrows of life.
Ultimately, accepting the impermanence of life, and realizing that there are more important things than honor, transforms Priam’s character. In attempting to retrieve his son’s body, he is determined to be remembered not just as the king of Troy, but also as a loving father and husband who valued compassion and humility above status and wealth:
It is only a provisional triumph, of course; the gods are not to be trusted when they tilt the balance momentarily in your favor. And what sort of triumph is it to be bringing home the body of a son? But he has done something for which he will be remembered for as long as such stories are told. He has stepped into a space that till now was uninhabited and found a way to fill it. Not as he filled his old role as king, since all he had to do in that case was follow convention, slip his arms into the sleeves of an empty garment and stand still, but as one for whom every gesture had still to be hit upon, every word discovered anew, to say nothing of the conviction needed to carry all to its conclusion. He has done that and is coming home, even in these last days of his life, as a man remade.
Free Will versus Fate
Like the characters in the Iliad, the characters in Ransom believe in the concepts of fate and destiny; for them, coincidence doesn’t exist, each of their actions has a purpose, and their life is predetermined and controlled by the gods. It was the gods’ will that made Priam a king and Somax a commoner; it was Achilles’s destiny to become a hero, and it was Hector’s destiny to die at his hands. When he loses his son, however, Priam understands that he might be the master of his own fate and that he is responsible for his actions, and he decides to ignore custom and risk his life in an attempt to ransom Hector’s body. Even the goddess Iris suggests that, although the gods may interfere in everyone’s lives and steer them in a certain direction, the outcome that the gods desire is not necessarily the only one or the right one; in the end, it depends on a person’s own actions and decisions. In this context, Malouf invites readers to wonder if Priam’s actions are truly his own choice or if he is simply following a predetermined path toward his fate. Thus, Malouf indirectly asks the question of whether or not the concept of free will exists.
It seems to me . . . that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course.
The Importance of Family
Malouf touches upon the importance of family throughout the novel. Somax—a commoner and “ordinary carter” who accompanies Priam on his journey to retrieve Hector’s body—teaches Priam what a person’s real values should be. Somax lost all of his sons and has mourned their deaths; he feels sadness and grief whenever he thinks of them, but he also enjoys remembering the happy times they spent together as a family. Priam believes that his relationship with his children is more formal than this and wonders if losing Hector “really did mean the same for him as it did for the driver.” Gradually, he learns to appreciate love and family, and he understands that his status as a king has blinded him to life’s true pleasures and privileges.
Furthermore, Malouf writes of Achilles’s regret that he never managed to form a close relationship with his son, Neoptolemus. His responsibilities as a warrior and leader distanced him from his family, much to his great disappointment, as he truly wishes to have a more loving relationship with his son and to spend more time with him. It is his longing for love and family, and his wish to be "simply a man," that motivates Achilles to agree to give Hector’s body to Priam in the end.