Set during the Trojan War, one of the most famous events in Greek mythology, David Malouf’s historical fiction Ransom seeks to explore the overwhelming destruction caused by war, and the immense power of reconciliation. Drawing on “The Iliad,” the epic poem by Homer, Malouf focuses on the events of one day and night, in which King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy Greek encampment to plead with the warrior Achilles to release the body of Priam’s son, Hector. Maddened by grief at the murder of his friend Patroclus, Achilles desecrates the body of Hector as revenge. Despite Achilles’ refusal to give up Hector’s body, Priam is convinced there must be a way of reclaiming the body – of pitting new ways against the old, and forcing the hand of fate. Malouf’s fable reflects the epic themes of the Trojan War, as fatherhood, love, grief, and pride are expertly recast for our times.
To learn more, head over to our Ransom Study Guide (which covers themes, characters, and more).
Set in the weeks leading up to and after the infamous death of Princess Diana in 1997, The Queen captures the private moments of the monarchy's grief and loss, and Queen Elizabeth II's inner conflict as she attempts to keep her private and public affairs separate.
The film opens with Tony Blair's "landslide victory" in the election as the "youngest Prime Minister in almost two hundred years," preempting viewers of the "radical modernisation" that's to come as he takes the reign. Juxtaposed with Blair's introduction is the stoic Queen Elizabeth II, residing in Buckingham Palace serenaded by bagpipes, in a ritual unchanged since Queen Victoria, immediately establishing the entrenched traditional values she represents. Princess Diana’s sudden death at the hands of relentless paparazzi results in turmoil in both the lives of those in the monarchy and adoring British citizens who mourn for the loss of the “people's princess." As days ensue with no public response from the Royal Family, the British people grow in disdain towards the authority, demanding a more empathetic response. Caught between the people and the monarchy is Blair, who sees the Royal Family’s public image suffer as a result of inaction.
Despite heavy resistance from the Queen, he eventually encourages her to surrender old royal protocols and adopt a more modern approach to meet public expectation: to fly the flag at half-mast, hold a public funeral, and publicly grieve for the loss of Princess Diana – all in all, to show the people that the monarchy cares. The Queen’s decision to accept Blair’s advice ultimately reconnects her with the British people and restores the Royal Family’s reputation amongst the public.
Together, Ransom and The Queen showcase the challenges involved in leadership roles: the inner conflict that leaves these individuals torn between their private and public demands. More on this in the next section.
Themes in Ransom and The Queen
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative ebook. I use this strategy throughout my discussion of themes below and techniques in the next section.
In both texts, deaths act as a catalyst for both Priam and the Queen’s personal change – Priam’s son Hector, and the Queen’s, ex-daughter-in-law, Princess Diana.
In Ransom, we learn of the familial sacrifice Priam has needed to make as a leader. His separation from loved ones is expected as he has been ‘asked to stand…at a kingly distance from the human, which in [his] kingly role…[he] can have no part in.’ Up until Hector’s death, Priam has been removed from paternal experiences, a sad truth when he admits that his relationships with his children are merely ‘formal and symbolic,’ and a part of the ‘splendour and the ordeal of kingship.’ Unlike his wife Hecuba, whose grief is assailed by intimate moments with her children as she recalls, ‘Troilus was very late in walking…I was in labour for eighteen hours with Hector,’ Priam is unable to recall these private memories. Despite what would ordinarily be experiences shared by both father and mother, Priam cannot echo his wife’s grief to the same extent as these experiences have not been ‘in his sphere’ and he is even ‘unnerved’ by them. Malouf demonstrates how Priam’s royal obligations have suffocated his role as a father, and consequentially, he has been unable to connect with his family in the way he would desire to.
While Priam’s overt expressiveness in his limitations as a father may sway empathy from Ransom readers, Queen Elizabeth’s stoicism at first makes her appear cold-hearted and unfeeling. Her reaction to Prince Charles’ desire to fly a private jet to see Diana in hospital (‘Isn’t that precisely the sort of extravagance they always attack us for?…this isn’t a matter of state.’) is one more concerned of the media’s reaction, rather than of familial care and concern. However, as the film unfolds, viewers come to understand that her stoicism doesn’t necessarily come about because of her own personal choice, but rather, because her role demands it of her.
TIP: Save the words ‘stoicism’ and ‘stoic’ to use in your essay.
Someone who experiences suffering but doesn’t openly express it.
We see the Queen’s quiet intentions to protect her grandchildren – ‘I think the less attention one draws to [Diana’s death], the better…for the boys’ – yet her silence is the inadvertent cause of public scorn. As such, Frears doesn’t make a villain out of the Queen, someone who on the outside may seem unfeeling and apathetic, but encourages viewers to see her from a unique perspective – a woman who struggles to manage her identity in both the private and public light.
It is only when Priam and the Queen detach themselves from their traditional roles that we see a change for the better in both of their personal journeys. Priam’s removal of his ‘jewelled amulet [and] golden armbands’ is symbolic of his shedding of the royal weight, and paving way for his step into a paternal role. Likewise, the Queen’s physical distancing from Buckingham Palace, an iconic symbol for tradition, into the public sphere where she mingles with the British people enables her to finally play the role of a grandmother. Both texts show how parenthood can lead to a more enriched human experience. Malouf finally portrays Priam as a happy man when he has the vision to be remembered in his legacy for his role as a father first, then as a king. Likewise in The Queen, her highness’ public mourning connects her with her people, and brings her joy and delight at last.
Tradition, change, and the new
Both texts explore the challenging tug and pull between upholding traditions and making way for the new.
As humans, we cherish traditions because they are customs or beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation. They have sentimental value, and by continuing on these traditions, our actions show that we respect the path our elders have laid for us. Tradition is not necessarily depicted in a negative light in either texts, but rather, shown to have its place. The Queen’s resistance against sailing the flag at half mast is out of deference for her elders. Even Somax’s casual storytelling about his daughter-in-law’s griddlecakes is customary, as each time his son would ‘set up the stones’ and her ‘quick and light…flipping’ of the cakes. However, Frears and Malouf both assert that adaptability in upholding tradition is also needed in order for us to grow and develop as humans.
The new is not depicted as an experience one should fear, but rather, an experience one should approach with curiosity. As Malouf writes, ‘[Priam] saw that what was new could also be pleasurable.’ The following positive expressions from the king ‘chuckling’ and ‘smiling’ echo the sentiment that while humans naturally resist change, embracing it is often beneficial to our lives. To be meta, Ransom is the retelling of the Trojan events, but Malouf adds to this tradition with a fresh perspective on the story.
Frears and Malouf both demonstrate that change is often propelled into possibility through the support and urging of others. Priam’s vision for his journey is instilled by the goddess Iris, who comes to him in a dream. His consequential journey is supported by Somax, whose ordinary everyday experiences teach Priam more about fatherhood than he had learnt as a father himself. Meanwhile, Achilles drags Hector’s body day after day, with no intention of change until Priam suddenly appears in his camp. Both texts highlight the influence those surrounding us can have on our personal change.
Literary and Cinematic Techniques in Ransom and The Queen
Opening portrayals of Queen Elizabeth and Priam
When Charles consoles Prince William and Harry after informing them of their mother’s death, Queen Elizabeth peers inwards from outside the room, distant and removed from her family. The enclosed frame of the door only serves to heighten her isolation from her family as she is pained by the ‘unrestrained intimacy and affection’ between the boys and their father, something she is unable to partake in. Her face half-covered by the shadows stresses how her familial experience only occurs from afar as she prioritises her role as her highness. Internal change, at least at this point in the film, has yet to begin.
Meanwhile in Ransom, Priam’s journey of personal change is established immediately as he realises that he needs to move beyond this ‘brief six feet of earth he moves and breathes in.’ The finite space he has become accustomed to now almost represents (and this may be an intense interpretation) a jail cell in which he as a father, as a human being, has been incarcerated in. He is ready to pursue a new identity beyond just that as a king. Both Ransom and The Queen showcase the sacrifices made by both leaders, and the rigid, almost-dehumanising expectations that are set upon them when they take reign. Both texts encourage their audience to empathise with the leaders, for the challenges they face in their unique positions.
Historical footage and context
Based on historical events, The Queen is interspersed with real archive television footage leading to, and following Princess Diana’s death. Frears incorporates these clips to help provide viewers insight on the politics, media culture, and public reaction in 1997.
Princess Diana’s introduction through archival clips at the beginning of the film highlight her as a vulnerable individual at the mercy of oppressive and intrusive tabloid newspapers. The sweeping pan of paparazzi on the night of Diana’s death serves to emphasise the obsessive media, who at the time, were paid in excess of one million pounds for taking photos of her. Moments of her kissing on a boat are revealed to the world without any respect for her privacy. This archival footage helps viewers understand the distressing omnipresence of the media, and the turn of the public against the paparazzi and media following Diana’s death.
Likewise, Malouf uses parts of “The Iliad” as foundations for his novel. The original tale, written during the 8th century BC, explores in detail Achilles’ refusal to fight for his leader Agamemnon, Patroclus’ role in the war, and also the disputes between the gods as they argue over the fate of mortals. By offering a retrospective of this historical story, Malouf invites readers to better understand the Trojan War and Greek mythology, and the impact the gods had on Trojans and Greeks.
For more discussion on literary and cinematic techniques, have a look at my A Killer Comparative Guide: Ransom and The Queen. In this in-depth study guide, Angelina Xu (ATAR 99.6, 46 English study score) and I also break down 5 essay topics, providing you explanations on how to brainstorm and plan each of these essays, then convert these plans into A+ essays complete with annotations! I've dropped some sample essay topics below for you to try at home yourselves:
Essay Topics for Ransom and The Queen
"I told him he shouldn't change a thing." (The Queen)
Compare how Ransom and The Queen explore resistance to change.
Compare the ways the two texts explore the efficacy of different leadership types.
Compare the ways the two texts explore the importance of storytelling.
'Wordless but not silent.’ (Ransom)
Ransom and The Queen explore how silence can be louder than words.
"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” (The Queen)
“...the lighter role of being a man.” (Ransom). Compare how the two texts show the burden experienced by those in leadership positions.
Resources for Ransom and The Queen
The following resources are no longer on the study design; however, you might still pick up a few valuable tips nonetheless:
[Video] Ransom and Invictus