Nature of Humanity in David Malouf’s Reimagination of the Homeric Classic The Iliad

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David Malouf’s Ransom reimagines the Homeric classic The Iliad, in a way that stays true to the original epic, but also introduces elements which prompt a new approach to what makes life valuable. It is Malouf’s retelling of fate and the nature of humanity from The Iliad that enlightens 21st century audiences of issues from the past and present that are relevant to their society. Ransom explores how experiences can unite people from different backgrounds, especially those of grief and loss, and focuses on the idea of chance and the opportunity to act as ourselves. Malouf redefines the Homeric understanding of a hero, rather shifting attention from the ancient Greek glorified warriors to the heroic traits of men whose stories are in the margins of the Iliad.

Malouf shows how people from different backgrounds can be seen as similar through their experiences of grief and loss, through which they are able to unite. This is conveyed through the gathering of Priam and Somax. The relationship between Priam and Somax shows how Malouf challenges the traditional social class structure, in which both are able to connect through their underlying humanity. The contrast between Priam and Somax is emphasised when Somax is introduced to the court, where we see a stark difference in the manner in which they conduct themselves: ‘all the members of the court … clap their hands – but in a restrained and formal way, with a sound so pit-a-pat small that the pigeons are barely disturbed.’ In comparison to Somax who appears as a ‘rough-looking fellow’ and presumes Jove’s emblem is a ‘chickenhawk’, Malouf further exemplifies the difference in their social class. However, this difference is overcome during their journey to Achilles, where they connect over their losses as a father. Both Priam and Somax share their vivid stories of the deaths of their sons, which emotionally provoke both men, in particular Priam. We see that Priam is unaccustomed to being open with his emotions, which causes him to reflect and reveal the regrets he has over his relationships with his sons as a result of being a king: ‘Did he regret these human occasions, and the memory of them that might have twined his sons more deeply into his affections and made his relationship with them more warm and particular?’ Clearly, Priam’s time spent talking with Somax has created a common ground between the two men, and has changed his outlook on life and how Hector’s death has helped to restore him: ‘Royal customs – the habit of averting his gaze … had saved him from all that. And yet it was just such unnecessary things in the old man’s talk, occasions in which pain and pleasure were inextricably mixed, that so engaged and moved him.’ Hence, Malouf confronts the traditional social class structure and expresses how people from different backgrounds are able to unite based on their experiences, especially those of grief and loss.

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While Malouf acknowledges the idea of fate from the original epic, he concludes that chance is the changing factor in our lives, where we must take a chance to discover the humanity in ourselves. In Ransom, the characters choose to take a chance, instead of following the path the Gods have made, which defies the traditional and conservative society of Homer’s world. The consequences of taking a chance are exhibited especially through Priam, when he decides to act on Iris’s suggestion and confronts Achilles to gain Hector’s body back. By allowing chance to take its new course, Priam is able to discover his ordinariness and detach from his king status, and we see this when he is introduced to the Griddlecake. Somax recalls to Priam how his daughter–in–law makes the cakes, how she ‘flipped them over, vey deftly so not to burn her fingers’ which triggers Priam to think about how such things are formed in his home. He comes to recognise the amount of work that goes into making such food, which reveals how disconnected he is with others and how he has disregarded the value of such meagre activities in his life: ‘The life he had come from, … was full of activities and facts that, for all that they were common and low, had an appeal.’ Priam’s realisation of the concept of chance, reflects Malouf’s attitudes and beliefs towards fate and chance, and how chance ‘offers a kind of opening’ and ‘the opportunity to act as ourselves’. Hence, Malouf explores how chance as opposed to fate, can lead to internal change and the acknowledgement of the humanity in our lives.

Malouf challenges the definition of a hero from the Iliad and focuses on those whose stories have been marginalised, over those who are glorified for fighting in the Trojan war. Somax embodies Malouf’s humanistic approach on what a hero is, despite being an ordinary man, contrary to the original epic. Through the stories Somax shares with Priam, we see that Somax has a great deal of affection for his daughter–in–law and granddaughter, which in turn open’s Priam’s eyes about his family and the pleasures of being just a man. However, Malouf further highlights why Somax is seen as a hero through the telling of the death of his son, indirectly caused by his mule Beauty. Somax had ‘felt like punching her’ but refrained, aware ‘that wouldn’t have brought him back’. Instead, we see Somax openly expressing his emotions by breaking into a ‘sobbing fit to break my heart’. Through this, we see how Somax has turned to humility and embraced his emotions, rather than turning to revenge and violence and not expressing his grief. Although Beauty was initially a source of the friction between revenge and forgiveness, she became a symbol of the transformation in Somax, in that he has come to accept the death of his son. The contrast in the way Somax deals with his grief in comparison to Achilles and Priam, who instead immediately turn to violence and ‘avert their gaze’, portrays Malouf’s belief that a hero possesses the ability to forgive as well as the courage and humility it takes in order to forgive. Hence, Malouf subverts Homer’s definition of a hero by concentrating on the humanistic qualities of a man and emphasising that humility, courage and forgiveness can help us to grow as a person.

Malouf’s Ransom reimagines Homer’s The Iliad by incorporating elements that are true to the original epic as well as new ideas which convey his thoughts on humanity and what makes life valuable. Ransom explores how people of different social status and class can unite through pivotal experiences, especially those of grief and loss. Malouf delves deeper into the concept of chance as opposed to fate, where although one’s future is destined, it is our decisions that can change the path of our future as well as internally change ourselves. Ransom redefines what a hero is which diverges from our common understanding of a hero from Homer’s classic, where Malouf focuses on a humanistic approach and the importance of having humility, courage and forgiveness which in turn transforms us. Malouf informs 21st century audiences of the value of life and how embracing our humanity can help us to grow, which is a lesson that is derived from the past and relevant to the present and future.


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