You’ll often find that study guides begin with a section on historical context. Even though it might be tempting to skip over this section, there’s a lot you can take away from understanding the period of time in which your texts are set in. I’ll show you how with examples for both Ransom and The Queen in this video.
Let’s start with a brief overview of why you need to know the historical context. Context, a topic explored in detail in our How To Write A Killer Text Response, plummets you back to the era of when your texts were set. You effectively ‘step into the shoes’ of the people living in that time, and in doing so, gain a better understanding of their views and values. People’s views and values are often shaped by important events of the time, social culture and norms, and everyday experiences. For example, think about your own context. You’re part of Generation Z, and one defining part of a Gen Z experience is growing up with technology from a young age. Social media is just normality, pretty much everyone has it, uses it as a source of online communication. So how does this shape your views and values? By having access to online information in this way, Gen Zers tend to be more passionate about social issues, because people of this age can leverage social media to voice their opinions or follow those who resonate with them. Only 20 years or so ago, we only had giant media that voiced their own opinions via newspapers or TV. You didn’t have such a wide array of voices from people of different races or experiences. Think about the recent death of George Floyd, and the incredible ripple effect his death had on the world and the power of social media in the Black Lives Matter movement.
So looking at The Queen and Ransom, we want to dive right into their respective eras and understand how people thought and felt during these time periods. This helps us better understand what the messages Frears and Malouf are trying to tell or teach us through their works, enabling you to write better essays. Let’s start with The Queen.
The 1980s to 1990s was a time when the world was enamoured by the Princess of Wales (or Diana, as we’ll call her). Her shyness, broken family history, ongoing charitable efforts, and iconic fashion choices made her a royal favourite. She was dubbed the ‘People’s Princess’ not only because of her relatability but also because of her tenuous relationship with the royal family. She’d been wronged by the royal family; first by Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla, then with the lack of support from the Queen when she asked for marriage advice.
At the time, public opinion of the royal family was greatly influenced by tabloid papers - after all, there was no Instagram for the royals to tell their own story. After an estimated 750 million people tuned in to watch Diana’s wedding to Charles, paparazzi began documenting her every move. Princess Diana became the most photographed person in the world, with paparazzi offered up to £500,000 for even grainy pictures of her (that’s equivalent to $1.5 million AUD today!). In the competitive fight to snap the most profitable photos of Diana, the paparazzi invaded her most private moments, taking shots of her kissing Dodi Al Fayed while on holidays, and sunbathing topless at her hotel in Spain. Diana’s despair and requests to be left alone remained unanswered, so when the paparazzi chased her to her death in 1997, the public response was emphatic.
The public turned against Britain's press and photographers, and the overwhelming outpour of grief is a testament to the injustice the public felt on behalf of Diana. To add insult to injury, the monarchy’s initial reticent response was deemed inadequate, negatively shifting the public’s attitude or ‘mood’ - a term we often hear in the film - towards the royals. The monarchy needs to stay in the public’s favour, lest the end of the institution.
That’s why The Queen is a film about change on several fronts, the first dynamic response from the public, The Queen abandoning royal tradition and acquiescing to public demand, and how all this happens within months of Tony Blair’s new premiership.
With this, you can understand why change is one of the biggest themes discussed when comparing these two texts. Let’s look at Ransom.
Moving back a further 3000 years earlier than The Queen, Ransom is a retelling the Trojan War, one of the most famous events in Greek mythology. To truly understand random, you must first familiarise yourself with Greek mythology, the Trojan War, and The Iliad. We’ll have a look at these three as if they’re matryoshka dolls (where dolls of decreasing size are place done inside another):
The biggest doll: Greek mythology
We’ll start with Greek mythology since it’s the umbrella knowledge you need to know before understanding the Trojan War and The Iliad. Essentially a collection of stories about gods, heroes and other creatures, Greek mythology was used by ancient Greeks to explain the existence of the world. Without the scientific developments we’ve discovered to date, ancient Greeks attempted to explain the creation of the earth, human behaviour, death and love through their mythical stories. Notice how the gods (Iris, Hermes) appear when Priam needs help and advice throughout Ransom.
The reason why Greek mythology is still prevalent in modern society is that the lessons taught in these stories are still applicable today as they depict universal truths about human qualities such as our strengths and flaws. Without you even realising it, our world today is filled with references to Greek mythology. Take, for example, Pandora, (the jewellery company that sells little charms you need to buy separately to make up a bracelet), whose namesake comes from the myth about Pandora’s box (basically, Pandora’s unchecked curiosity led her to open a forbidden box, releasing all illnesses and death into the world - side note, could we blame Pandora for COVID-19 then? Just kidding). Or take the first God of War game, which follows the story of Kratos whose ability to be a loving father is overpowered by his anger and desire for vengeance. Interestingly, the tale of Pandora’s box also is featured in this game.
Luckily for you though, you don’t have to be an expert in all Greek mythology, but you should probably have a good gist of the Trojan War.
The middle doll: The Trojan War
Now we narrow things down to one of the most legendary Greek myths - the Trojan War. This war might be familiar to you because it is the backdrop and context for Malouf’s Ransom.
The myth begins with Zeus, the father of all gods, and his brother Poseidon lusting after the goddess of water, Thetis. However, they are warned by Prometheus, an intelligent mortal - better known for being chained to a rock as a result of stealing Zeus’ fire - that Thetis would give birth to a son who would be mightier than his father. Alarmed at this possibility, the two gods arrange for Thetis to marry Peleus, a mortal. Since humans were believed to be inferior to gods, this ensured that Thetis’ child would be a mere mortal, rendering the prophecy redundant.
Any potential issues appeared resolved until the gods omitted Eris, the goddess of discord from Thetis and Peleus’ wedding invitation list. Furious at this insult, Eris arrives at the wedding with her own plans. She inscribes a golden apple with the words, ‘To The Fairest’ and throws it amongst the guests. Naturally, all goddesses want to claim the prize. Eventually, the choice is narrowed down to three of the most beautiful goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. Unable to reach a decision, they turned to Zeus to judge who should win the title. However, Zeus refuses to do so and instead, elects a mortal with good judgment of beauty to make the choice. This mortal is Paris, Prince of Troy and whose birth produced a prophecy that he would one day bring misfortune to his people and town.
The three goddesses approach Paris with not only their beauty but also bribes. Hera offers him power and control over Europe and Asia, Athena promises that she will make him a great warrior while Aphrodite proposes to him the most beautiful woman on earth. Since Paris is more interested in women than power and war, he awards Aphrodite with the golden apple. With this exchange sealed, the beginning of Troy’s troubles begin as the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen is already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta.
After a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris elopes with Helen, who falls in love with Paris upon their first encounter (literature concerning this part of the story remains ambiguous). Upon discovering Paris’ betrayal, Menelaus calls on Helen’s many suitors to invade Troy and retrieve his wife. His brother, Agamemnon recruits and leads the Greek army into battle against the city of Troy, and thus begins the Trojan War.
And finally, the baby doll: The Iliad
Homer’s The Iliad is a poem that begins ten years into the Trojan War. By now, Thetis, the goddess who had married Peleus, has given birth to their mortal son Achilles, the mightiest of all Greeks, as predicted by the prophecy (Achilles should definitely be familiar to you because he’s the main character in Ransom!). Although he is a fighter for Agamemnon, their relationship is strained after Agamemnon demands that Achilles give up his beloved war prize, Briseis. Since Agamemnon desires Briseis for himself, this enrages Achilles to the point where he refuses to fight in the Trojan War. This leads to dire consequences for the Greeks as they lose many men in battle and are forced to retreat to their ships after the Trojans successfully turn the tide of the battle.
Concerned for his Myrmidons (a group of the strongest and skilled warriors who fight for Achilles) yet too proud to budge from his position, Achilles is persuaded to allow his close friend and comrade Patroclus, to wear Achilles’ renowned armour and lead his Myrmidons into battle (ah, we’re starting to see even stronger connections to Ransom now). This strategy is designed to rouse fear in the Trojans and cause them to temporarily retreat - enough time to allow the Greeks to rest and recover - as they’d see ‘Achilles’ back in battle.
Despite Patroclus’ skills as a soldier, Achilles insists that Patroclus only fight until the Greeks can successfully fend off the Trojans away from their ships. During the fight, however, Patroclus disobeys Achilles’ orders and continues to pursue the Trojans back to their gates. At this point, he encounters and is killed by Hector, the prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan army.
Fuelled with rage and grief over Patroclus’ death, Achilles agrees to fight once again for the Greek army, much to Agamemnon’s pleasure. In their next battle, Achilles kills many warriors and the Trojans are forced to retreat back to the safety of their walls. Hector, against the will of his family, faces Achilles alone outside the walls of his home, knowing that Achilles is on a path to avenge Patroclus’s death. In a fierce battle between the two greatest Trojan war warriors, Hector was killed. Achilles takes Hector’s body with him and dishonours it day after day by chaining it to a chariot and dragging it along the walls of Troy. Malouf begins the Ransom story here. The gods agree that this blasphemous behaviour cannot continue and send the god Hermes to guide king Priam, father of Hector to the Greek camp. Once in their camp, Priam falls to his knees and pleads Achilles for the body of his son. Touched by the king’s words, Achilles relents, allowing Priam to finally hold a proper burial for Hector.
Appreciating the differences between The Iliad and Ransom storyline will lead to a better understanding of the themes and symbols in Ransom.
One of the main differences between the two texts is their depiction of Priam’s journey to Achilles. In The Iliad, this journey is explored only momentarily and focuses more on the presence of Hermes. The inclusion of the new character Somax in Ransom also offers a new perspective on this old tale. While The Iliad only touches upon Achilles’ and Priam’s suffering, Malouf delves into the emotional journey that the characters undergo during the darkest episode in the Trojan War.
That’s why the themes of grief, loss and death should be quite prominent in your comparison between Ransom and The Queen along with the importance of stories and storytelling.
In my new study guide Ransom and The Queen, I show you how you can use your knowledge you’ve learned there to write A+ essays. Take a look at our study guide below!