Homer’s Iliad is one of my favourite works and I have always been particularly drawn to the scene where Priam sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles for the return of the body of his son, Hector. I have always loved the humanity that is present in Homer; how he focused on the individual lives of those who were fighting the war. It is this episode that sums up what Homer does so well. Here we have two men, caught up in their aching grief and sharing that with each other as equals. It is in this moment that humanity shines through this bloody war of the gods.
In Ransom, David Malouf has taken this scene and transformed it into something new. The book mainly follows Priam, as he makes this unprecedented decision from the depths of his grief. Malouf shows us that whilst mourning is something that we will all have to go through at some point, we experience it differently. Priam cares deeply about all the sons he has lost to this war, but when he talks to his wife, Hecuba, he realises that she mourns for them on a different level. She remembers them as children. She remembers carrying them in her womb, teaching them to walk, the toys with which they played. Priam feels his loss deeply, but these are not the memories that he holds of his sons. He also grieves for his city and the dangers that the deaths of his sons may bring on his people and remaining family.
As for the grief of Achilles. Well, his grief for Patroclus is transformed into rage. If his lover is dead, then the world should die with him.
Malouf also invents character named Somax, the man who rides the wagon that transports Priam to the Greek camps. Somax is also mourning the deaths of his sons, although they did not die in battle. It is through Somax and Priam’s shared, but contrasting, experiences of grief that they form an unlikely friendship for the night. Their conversations were some of my favourite and it was reminiscent of how Homer never lets the reader forget that all those who die have lived their own intricate lives.
It would be impossible to talk about this book and not mention the prose. Malouf’s writing is equal parts lavish and brutal. At times it is tender, but at others it is filled with blood and gore. It is a treat to read:
In the aftermath of Priam’s words, he sees beyond Priam another old man, both close and further off: his father Peleus, and beyond him another, himself, the old man he will never be. And is struck, in a breath and in all his limbs, by such a coldness as he has never known, even on the deepest winter nights on the Trojan plain. Ice ribs him round with an iron grip. It is the coldness of that distant start that is the body’s isolation in death.
Ransom is a beautiful re-telling that highlights one of the most important aspects of the Iliad. It is a book that requires reading in a setting where you can lose yourself in its pages and the lives of the characters. Malouf has transformed these events and crafted a new story, but he has done so in a way that honours and elevates the source material. It is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. A stunning tribute to Homer’s work.
Also, the last half of this year has strengthened my desire to read as many Iliad re-tellings as possible, so if you have any recommendations please let me know. I need them!