English & EAL

Ransom: Themes & Symbols

by
Lisa Tran

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Themes

Identity

Ransom explores who we are and what is means to have an identity. As the leader of Troy for many decades, Priam has always viewed himself as a king. It appears as though Priam has been unhappy with his identity for quite some time, since he continues to age, is physically weak and feels as though he cannot protect his kingdom as efficiently as he used to. However, the death of Hector is a catalyst for Priam for he realises that he needs to become a ‘father’ rather than the ‘king’ he had become so accustomed to. His search for Hector is also a search for himself, to reinvent who he is and how he wishes others to remember him.

Meanwhile, Somax is designated as the king’s herald, with the name Idaeus. He secretly notes his unhappiness with this appointment, since he is ‘Somax, not Idaeus.’ The name ‘Somax’ is associated with many significant events in his life including his marriage and family, yet the new unfamiliar name strips him of this identity. Somax’s confidence and pride in his identity is starkly contrasted with Priam’s pursuit for an identity transformation.

Change

Malouf demonstrates that it is never too late to change one’s ways. Priam’s determination to change how he is remembered – from just another king leading a regal life to a hero who went to extraordinary lengths to regain his child – demonstrates that change is at our grasp. Even though his beautiful wife Hecuba and the rest of his family have reservations about his desire to confront Achilles, Priam is resolved in taking a ‘chance,’ rather than achieving nothing by remaining within the walls of his home. Unexpectedly, this one idea propels Priam into a multitude of other changes. His journey with Somax teaches Priam a far greater deal than he had anticipated for he learns to appreciate the value of love and other simplicities in life.

Although Achilles is driven by hatred and anger after Patroclus’ death, likewise with Priam he manages to change his ways. He is touched by Priam’s pleads and consequently accepts the ransom and returns Hector’s body. He is able to reach this state of peace by releasing his immoral intentions and even offers to hold a ritual Hector’s body in the Greek walls that very night. This transformation from a human who faced grief with revenge to acceptance and forgiveness demonstrates the benefits we can gain from amending our ways.

Revenge, Guilt and Peace

Revenge is a vicious cycle that is never-ending until both parties reach a negotiation or peace. After Patroclus’ death, Achilles hunts down Hector in order to avenge his best friend’s early death. Although he is successful in murdering Hector, Achilles does not follow the custom of leaving the body for the grieving family to bury. Instead, Achilles feels the need to mutilate the body day after day without any sense of remorse or regret. His additional need to inflict harm on Hector’s body indicates that revenge will not bring closure. His sense of loss is shown as he reflects feeling empty inside, to the point where he no longer feels like himself, but someone else altogether.

Although the Achilles and Priam ultimately find peace in themselves, many years later Achilles’ son Neoptolemus murders Priam bound with the same hatred and pain depicted by Achilles. Neoptolemus’ subsequent guilt and regret is carried with him throughout the rest of his life, demonstrating that again revenge is not the answer to any problem.

Chance and fate

The role of the gods is heavily weaved into the events that unfold in Ransom. Priam only begins his transition and journey after envisioning the goddess Iris, who suggests that he take a ‘chance’ and try to save Hector from Achilles’ camp. During his journey, a jovial young man who joins the travellers is revealed as Hermes, a god who has come to safely guide the elderly men to Achilles. The power of the gods in controlling human fate is illustrated during the scene where Hermes saves the travellers from being swept away by a stream.

Nevertheless, it can also be argued that it is the characters’ decisions that lead them to their fate. Although the Gods may have instilled the idea in Priam that he should rescue Hector, it is the king’s determination which is a main driving force for the journey. Even when confronted with doubt and hesitance from his family, it is Priam who pushes onwards to fulfil his vision.

Nature versus man

Man’s presence on earth is shown to have little significance in comparison to the power of nature. While the events in Ransom teach the characters many valuable lessons, ultimately these meaningful moments in the humans’ lives disappear as one reaches their fate – death. Time moves on beyond our lives as we are forgotten over decades and centuries while nature prevails. Priam’s desire to be remembered by others highlights how little significance a life possesses unless one behaves extraordinarily. Malouf demonstrates that in the end, life just is – we are granted by nature to have a brief existence yet in the end, nature and time will moves forward without us.

Commoners versus royalty

Although royalty is portrayed to be blessed with power and authority, ironically it is the commoners in Ransom who appear to be most ‘privileged.’ For the first time, Priam is exposed to the different interests and values of the common man and is intrigued by the simplicities of life. It is Somax, a mere old man from the marketplace who teaches Priam more about life than he had imagined possible.

Symbols

Jove’s eagle

Jove’s eagle is a representation of the eagle, a bird renowned for its keen sight. The presence of Jove’s eagle during Priam and Somax’s departure hints that the gods will safely guide their journey as the bird behaves as a lookout. Furthermore, the symbol of the eagle’s powerful vision is contrasted with Priam’s ‘blindness’ at the beginning of the journey since he is yet to experience the outside world. It is during the journey that he learns about himself and others, and thus improving his ‘sight.’ Coincidently, Jove’s eagle is no longer mentioned when Priam is endowed with his new insight.

Cart

The royal cart is ‘a fine new one, the marks of the adze still visible on its timbers. The twelve-spoked wheels are elaborately carved and painted, a wickerwork canopy covers the tray.’ On all occasions, the king had used this elegant cart to alert others that royalty was present. The use of this cart demonstrates how Priam has been encapsulated in his own royal sphere since everything is meticulously chosen and designed specifically for the king. Nevertheless, his demand for a ‘common work cart’ depicts his determination for a simple approach to Achilles. This simplicity highlights Priam’s desire to become just another man and father, anonymous in the plain cart with the hopes of retrieving Hector.

Priam as a child

At the beginning of the journey, Priam is characterised with childish traits. When Somax urges Priam to dabble his feet in the stream, words such as ‘obedient toddler,’ ‘three uncertain steps’ and ‘happy smile’ reflects the actions of a young child trying new experiences. This childish nature is contrasted with Priam’s old and frail age, which demonstrates that although he has lived a life in royalty, his lack of exposure to real life has left him crippled of the simplest experiences such as the cooling effect of feet in water and eating delicious homemade cookies.

Cakes

The cakes Somax brings along during the journey highlight Priam’s lack of knowledge of even the simplest things. For Somax, the little griddlecakes are a regular and delectable snack, yet Priam ‘ha[s] never seen them before.’ Priam’s unfamiliarity with the cakes represents his isolation from the ‘real world’ since he has been deprived from things that even commoners view as ordinary.

Futhermore, Somax’s lengthy chatter about his daughter-in-law cooking the cakes with the ‘batter bubbling and setting and turning a golden brown’ prompts Priam to think about the activities in his kingdom behind closed doors. He had previously never noticed that there was much preparation and work that went into the food that appeared at his table, let alone the ingredients and thickness of a batter. These matters had been of little concern for Priam yet he realises that even the ‘common and low…activities and facts of life, had an appeal.’

Hector’s body

Although Achilles drags Hector’s body across the walls of Troy for eleven days, each morning he would return to find Hector’s body healed of any wounds, and absent of any physical damage to his body. His body symbolises how revenge is not the answer to any battle, since dealing with a tragic loss through revenge does not gain anything, but only more pain and suffering.

Sniffing

Although Priam initially believes he understands the distress of losing a son, Somax’s experience with losing his son is driven with emotions that Priam had never previously experienced. When sharing the story of his son’s death, Somax sniffles, an ‘odd habit’ according to Priam. The use of ‘odd habit’ to describe Somax’s sadness demonstrates how Priam has never truly felt the loss of his sons, but only the loss of a royal relationship between king and prince.

Later on, Somax once again ‘snuffles’ and ‘rubs his nose’ at the thought of the ending to their journey. Similarly, Priam makes ‘small sounds’, presumably crying as well. The transformation of Priam from someone who failed to empathise with Somax’s tears at the beginning of the journey to a man filled with emotions demonstrates that Priam undergoes both a physical and metaphysical journey where he undergoes self-development and appreciation of the world around him.

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