English & EAL

Ransom Study Guide

Lisa Tran

May 27, 2012

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Latest blog update 17/05/20.

Ransom is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Characters

Priam

Priam is an elderly king of Troy. As a child, his sister Hesione saved him from slavery, and had his named changed from Podarces to Priam, the name meaning ‘the ransomed one’ or ‘the price paid.’ After the death of his son Hector, Priam envisions himself in plain clothing, riding a plain cart to Achilles who is effectively holding Hector ransom. His vision is the catalyst for the novel’s events, for his journey is one of learning and self-development. Though the royal family is doubtful of his plan to save Hector, Priam is resolute and insists that he needs to try his best to confront Achilles as a father, rather than as king. After many decades as king of Troy, Priam is determined to reinvent how he will be remembered; as a king who performed an extraordinary act of heroism in order to save his beloved son.

Achilles

Achilles is known as the greatest warrior of the Greeks. The death of Patroclus, his closest companion and hinted lover, drives Achilles to insanity. Hector murdered Patroclus, and as a result Achilles takes revenge by killing Hector. He then drags Hector’s dead body along the walls of Troy for the next 11 days. Achilles loses his sense of humanity as he is possessed by his rage, hatred, and grief.

Somax

Somax is representative of the ‘common man’ in Ransom. He is chosen to escort Priam to Achilles. His simple and plain presence is contrasted with Priam’s royal status. He often engages in useless chatter and performs daily activities in a way that is foreign to the king. Although Somax is far from royalty, his great deal of affection for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter teaches Priam about love, family, and life.

Beauty

Beauty is Somax’s favourite mule. She accompanies Priam and Somax on their journey to the Greek camp where Achilles resides.

Shock

Somax’s other mule who carries the cart to Achilles’ camp.

Hecuba

Hecuba is Priam’s beloved wife and mother of Hector. She is initially uncertain of Priam’s vision to save Hector. However, after hearing Priam’s sentimental reasons, she shows support and urges him to first share his plan with their family and the kingdom’s council before he departs.

Hector

Hector is Priam’s son and also the leader of the Trojan army. He is kind, brave, and noble without any cruel intentions, unlike his rival Achilles. During a battle between the Trojans and the Greeks, Hector kills Patroclus. This results in Achilles challenging Hector to a battle, resulting in Hector’s death and Achilles’ triumph.

Neoptolemus

Neoptolemus is Achilles’ son. Although he is mentioned throughout Ransom, he makes his first appearance at the end of the novel where he savagely slaughters an old and defenseless Priam in an effort to avenge his father’s death.


Themes

Identity

Ransom explores who we are and what it 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, 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 as 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 name 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 within 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 the human connection and other daily 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 for Hector’s body in the Greek walls that very night. This transformation from a human who responds to grief with vengeance, to someone who releases and forgives, demonstrates the benefits we can gain from amending our ways.

Revenge, Guilt, and Peace

Revenge is portrayed as a never-ending vicious cycle 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 Achilles and Priam ultimately find peace within themselves, many years later Achilles’ son Neoptolemus murders Priam, bounded 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 woven 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 in Priam the idea 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. Whether his actions were already predestined or of his own agency is up to you to decide.

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 move forward without us.

Commoners Versus Royalty

Although royalty is portrayed to be blessed with power and authority, it is ironically the commoners in Ransom who appear to have the ‘richest’ (and more fulfilled) lives. 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 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, as a father to another father. 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’ reflect 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 that occur 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. This is a cruel reminder of the god’s ability to ‘toy around’ with the Ancient Greeks’ lives. Hector’s body also symbolises how revenge is not the answer to any conflict, since dealing with a tragic loss through revenge does not gain anything but more pain and suffering.

Sniffing

Although Priam initially believes he understands the distress of losing a son, Somax’s experience of 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 son, 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.


Plot, Analysis, Important Passages and Quotes

Chapter I

Plot

Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, stands next to the sea while reminiscing about the past. After his mother’s death he had ‘entered the rough world of men’ [pg 6] where wars and battles prevail. Every morning, he feels the need to ‘tramp to shore’ [pg 10] since he is haunted by the death of his ‘soulmate and companion’ Patroclus, and his raging hatred towards Hector, killer of Patroclus and thus, the ‘implacable enemy.’

When Achilles was a child, his cousin Patroclus, came to live with the young Achilles since the former had killed the son of a high official of the royal court due to a ‘quarrel over a game of knucklebones’ [pg 11]. In need of asylum, Patroclus came to live with Achilles’ family. As the years passed, the pair grew closer to the extent where Achilles believes that ‘he had mated with Patroclus’ [pg 15].

When the tide of the battle was against the Greeks, Patroclus disguises himself in Achilles’ armour in order to instill fear in the Trojans and cause them to return to the safety of their walls, thus providing temporary relief for the Greeks. In his last act for his closest friend, Patroclus is killed in battle*. The death of Patroclus left Achilles with an overwhelming sense of loss and also burning animosity. Achilles whispers that he will join Patroclus soon, but firstly, he has to avenge Patroclus’ killer, Hector.

Hector, the son of Trojan king Priam and leader of the Trojan army, wore Achilles' armour as a sign of triumph and disrespect for the Greeks. In a dramatic battle between Hector and himself, Achilles was successful in killing his enemy. Achilles’ Myrmidons then stripped Hector of his armour and ‘without pity…plunged their swords into Hector’s unprotected flesh’ [pg 24]. For Achilles, however, this was not enough. Still fuelled by his pain, Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it ‘up and down under the walls of Troy’ [pg 26] as the dead warrior’s royal family devastatingly watches on. Achilles feels like a ‘dead man…feeling nothing’ [pg 26], unable to seal the void left by his beloved friend.

The next day, Achilles is furious to find Hector’s body ‘smoothly sealed and the torn flesh made whole again.’ His men cannot bear to look at him as he drives the chariot with Hector’s body along the walls of the Trojans once again. Afterwards he quickly falls asleep, into ‘oblivion’ [pg 35] as he struggles with his shame and guilt of his actions. He is ‘waiting for a break…something new and unimaginable’ in his life.

Analysis

The Human Side

Along with the conflict between Greece and Troy, Ransom also delves into the consequences of those affected by the war. As the greatest warrior of all Greeks, Achilles has lived his life as a fighter. Nevertheless, his pathway in life has led him to believe that ‘such a life is death to the warrior spirit’ [pg 7]. While warriors are known for sacrificing their lives in the battlefield, Achilles does not literally refer to warriors confronting death each time they fight for their team. In fact, ‘death to the warrior spirit’ means to metaphorically lose what it means to ‘live’ when one experiences bloodshed in each war. Growing up surrounded by ‘the rough world of men’ [pg 6], Achilles develops traits of aggression, cruelty, and vengefulness in order to become an implacable man of war. As a consequence, Achilles only knows how to deal with Patroclus’ death with a fighter’s mindset. Instead of grieving openly, ‘he never permit[s] himself to betray to others what he [feels]’ [pg 5], thus detaching himself from the natural human process of grieving. In order to deal with his friend’s tragic ending, Achilles' ‘soul chang[es] colour’ as drags Hector’s body for eleven days without any sense of regret or remorse, and thus, is referred to as ‘death to his human spirit’ since he was no longer ‘a living man’ [pg 27]. He faces Patroclus’ death with the same warrior traits of aggression, cruelty, and vengefulness, depriving himself of any ability to humanely mourn his close friend’s death.

Furthermore, Achilles grieves for his mother in the opening passages of Ransom. During this time of loss, his mother symbolises Achilles’ need to be nurtured. The imagery of the sea surface as a ‘belly’ and ‘a membrane stretched to a fine transparency’  [pg 3] represents his mother’s pregnancy where he ‘had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence’ for ‘nine changes of the moon’ – or in other words, nine months of pregnancy. Achilles is characterised as a foetus, for his position is ‘chin down, shoulders hunched’ as though he is inside a womb. Although Achilles is a fighter, he hides the fact that he wishes to be ‘rocked and comforted’ by his mother, thus demonstrating that even beneath the surface of a cold-hearted warrior, the current of human emotions can cripple a man’s confident veneer.

If you'd like to read more of my analysis, feel free to download a sample of our Ransom Text Guide below. In this guide, I cover Plot, Analysis, Important Passages and Quotes so you can prepare for your SAC and exam. I've also included 5 Sample A+ English essays on Ransom, complete with annotations so you know exactly what you need to do in your next essay to achieve an A+.

All the best for your studies in Ransom!

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