Edward Shen, 12K
In David Malouf’s Ransom, King Priam of Troy is adamant to restore Achilles’ humanity in the aftermath of his savage desecration of Hector’s body. For Priam, the only method to cease his unending cycle of barbarity and wrath is to venture into Achilles’ camp, ‘with no sign on [him] of royal dignity, and to ultimately’ provide Achilles with the opportunity to ‘simply be a man’. By venturing into a newfound territory of self-awareness, Priam forces change in both Achilles, and himself, by appealing to the common grounds of humanity that is found across all social hierarchies. However, they are not fully liberated from their roles, as their identities have become so entrenched upon the very roles that they perform in. For Malouf, although restored in humanity, both Priam and Achilles are trapped in their impending destinies due to the intertwined nature of identity and responsibility.
Priam’s journey to retrieve his body as a ‘father’ forces a fundamental change in both himself and Achilles, allowing them the brief opportunity to rid themselves of their obligations. The duality of both characters is established from contrasting nature of their mental consciousness and their outward appearance, which function as restraints upon their emotions. Achilles yearns for his mother’s presence and seeks to express the tender emotions in which he has repressed within him since he had become his ‘hardened self’. The use of such imagery symbolises Achilles as an impersonal figure devoid of notions of compassion and ‘tender’ emotions, as well as a tendency to resist change. The stereotypical connotations associated with heroic warriors, such as indifference towards the deaths of others, force Achilles to ‘silently’ grieve at the loss of his mother, ‘never permitting himself to betray to others what he felt’. Malouf conveys Achilles as being torn by a desire to simultaneously express his emotions while living up to the ‘tough’ expectations of others, and it is this unstable condition that allows Priam to exploit Achilles’ fragile emotions in the hope of restoring his humanity.
Yet, Priam is also prompted to step out of the royal sphere and to behave as an ordinary man. He is forced to re-evaluate his relationship with his family as a result of Somax’s ‘personal’ and ‘raw’ recounts of the death of his children, ‘none of them now living’. The death of Somax’s children affects him deeply and Priam begins to ponder whether he had truly felt the same intensity of emotions that Somax did towards the death of his children, and in doing so he is forced to step out of his ‘royal sphere’ and to regard his children as not merely “small squealing bundles”. Malouf’s grotesque portrayal of the birth of his children exemplifies Priam’s previous perception of them as commodities to be readily exchanged and presented as gifts. In reflecting upon the previous ‘formal and symbolic’ relationship with his children, Priam contemplates on what it means to be not only a king but that of an ordinary ‘man of sorrow’, which ultimately aids him to approach Achilles as “one poor mortal to another”, reminding Achilles of the ‘sore ache’ that the absence of family has inflicted upon him. With Priam’s appearance, Achilles feels a ‘melting of will…of self” within him and a ‘suspension of his hard, manly qualities’ , providing him with an opportunity to break ‘free’ of ‘a need, an obligation’ of repressing his feelings. For Malouf, Priam’s decision to confront Achilles by appealing to the common notions of family and empathy demonstrates that all human beings are able to act rationally and humanely given the greatest amount of hatred towards each other, when they are not bound to obligations of their circumstances.
Yet, with their humanity restored, Priam and Achilles cannot be fully liberated from the responsibilities and identities they have assumed. Both Achilles and