It is nighttime in Troy, but the king of Troy, Priam, is having difficulty sleeping, as he has for the past eleven days since his son Hector’s death. He suffers from nightmares of Troy in flames, and is tormented by grief not only for his son, but also for everyone whom Hector’s death has made vulnerable: Priam’s wife Hecuba, his surviving children, and his citizens.
Like Achilles, Priam begins the novel overwhelmed by thoughts of death. In Priam's mind, the destruction of Troy is so inevitable that it has already happened: the Trojans "believe themselves quietly asleep and safe in their beds," but are in fact "the corpses he moves among." This passage also expands on a theme that becomes increasingly important in Parts 2 and 3—namely, the role of language. Although Priam's rest is fitful and unpleasant, his "sleeplessness" is "like so much else in his life…a manner of speaking." In other words, what matters in the Trojan court is not whether Priam is literally unable to sleep, but the use of an expression that seems appropriate to his situation. Part of Priam's personal journey over the course of the novel will involve learning to use language in a different and less symbolic way.
Suddenly, Priam senses a shift in the room’s atmosphere and realizes that a god is about to appear. He recognizes the signs—the shimmering air, his own sense of passivity, etc.— because he is frequently on the receiving end of these visits. As he waits for the god to materialize, he thinks about the two children he has who share his power: Helenus uses it professionally as a priest of Apollo, while his daughter Cassandra gives herself over entirely to her visions in a kind of crazed ecstasy. From here, his thoughts drift to the dual life ts he lives as a king—with his body as both a real physical presence and a symbol for the realm in its entirety.
Priam's supernatural gifts are in one sense an indication of his status as an epic figure: he possesses abilities that lie far outside the realm of ordinary human experience. In comparing Priam's style of foresight to his children's, however, Malouf insists on making Priam's abilities as normal as possible. Unlike Helenus and Cassandra, who use their skills in ceremonial and/or dramatic ways, Priam has integrated his divine visitations into the fabric of his everyday life. This passage, then, hints at Malouf's ultimate defense of the everyday, since it depicts even extraordinary events in an ordinary way. Relatedly, it begins to sketch out Priam's discontent with his ceremonial identity as king, which limits his ability to express or even feel common emotions. Like Achilles, Priam will make peace with his identity only once he has learned what it means to be "any" man.
As Priam continues to wait for the god’s arrival, he recalls the moment he saw Achilles kill Hector and defile his body. Priam ran down to the city gates and poured dirt over his crowned head, which he saw (and sees) as a fitting symbol of how the gods have mocked him by making him king only to overthrow him through this war that seems destined to end in Troy’s defeat.
Priam's despair in this passage is not simply a result of his son's death, but also of his entire worldview. In Greek mythology, fate governs everything; in the Iliad, for instance, even the gods cannot prevent the death of someone fated to die. For Priam, the natural corollary to this is the idea that fate or the gods placed him in power only to humiliate him by taking it away. From this perspective, his entire life seems wasted, because everything he worked for and prided himself on was ultimately a cruel joke.
The goddess Iris appears, and interrupts Priam’s gloomy thoughts. She gently tells him that he is mistaken to see what has happened as mockery, or even as being (entirely) intentional: chance, she says, also plays a role in the course of human life. Priam is confused, but has no chance to question Iris further, because she has disappeared. Alone, he wonders whether Iris was ever there at all, but ultimately dismisses the idea that he himself could have come up with the “blasphemous” idea of chance, even in a dream.
On the face of it, Iris's remarks about chance seem difficult to reconcile with the novel's depiction of certain events (e.g. Priam's death at Neoptolemus's hands) as inevitable. In some ways, however, Ransom is less concerned with the fate vs. chance debate as a question of fact (i.e. which view is correct) than it is with how humans choose to interpret the world. It may be that certain events are "destined" (e.g. death) and that others become unavoidable at some point along the way (e.g. the destruction of Troy). To a certain extent, however, the very fact that humans can imagine alternate scenarios suggests (to paraphrase Iris) that the way things are is not the way things have to be. This is an important distinction, because Ransom hinges on the idea that change is at least possible on an internal level—but not, presumably, if a person is incapable of imagining that change to begin with.
Already feeling a bit better, Priam sits still as a vision comes to him. In it, he sees himself stripped of any finery, sitting on a mule-drawn cart beside a common driver. The cart is towing a covered load that Priam recognizes as ransom for his son’s body. Now truly excited, Priam rushes off to find Hecuba. On the way, he ignores the servants he passes who try to help or serve him because he needs to “get used to the unaccustomed.”
Priam's vision of going to retrieve Hector's body is a good example of the delicate balance the novel strikes between fate and chance (or free will). On the one hand, the fact that Priam accurately predicts something that hasn't yet happened tends to imply that the future is fixed. That said, Priam has to consciously work to make his vision a reality, which suggests there is a place for free will in the world after all. The details of Priam's vision, meanwhile, reflect another ongoing debate in the novel: the epic vs. the everyday. In this case, however, the implications are very clear, since it is central to Priam's plan that he appear not as a king but simply as an ordinary man.
When Priam reaches Hecuba’s room, he realizes that she has been awake all night as well, crying. The two embrace in silence before Priam tentatively broaches his reason for coming, saying that since Hector’s death, all they have been able to do is grieve. Hecuba, however, retorts that she is crying out of a sense of powerless fury that she can do nothing to stop Achilles from further mutilating Hector’s body. As she goes on, describing what it felt like to carry and give birth to Hector (and her other dead sons), Priam finds himself at a loss, unable to remember the personal details that Hecuba does.
Although she will later react with shock to Priam's desire to experience ordinary fatherhood, Hecuba begins the novel with a connection to her children that is much more personal (and thus "normal") than her husband's. She remembers, for example, milestones in each child's development, like the fact that her son Troilus only began to walk when Priam bribed him with a dagger. The intimacy of Hecuba's relationship to her children seems to stem in part from the fact that she literally shared a body with them during pregnancy. To a certain extent, in fact, she seems to feel that this shared physical presence has persisted over the years, because she describes Achilles's desecration of Hector's body as a mutilation of her own flesh. By contrast, Priam's relationship to his sons has been mostly ceremonial, so he finds Hecuba's words strange, and even dismisses them as "women's talk." This remark lays the groundwork for Priam's later reflections on the pleasures of speech that has no ceremonial or symbolic purpose, but instead reflects an immediate, sensory reality.
Priam attempts to redirect the conversation toward his plan, acknowledging that he is too old to go to battle himself, and that that was never his role as king to begin with. In fact, he says, he has carefully avoided doing anything that would remind his subjects of his bodily presence and mortality, instead constructing an image of himself as unchanging and eternal. Now, however, Priam says that he has changed, and that Hecuba herself must have noticed this. Priam then begins to describe his vision to Hecuba. She reacts with shock, thinking to herself that dreams are not supposed to be taken literally.
At heart, what makes Priam's role as king constraining is its denial of any kind of change or impermanence: because Priam is a symbol of the kingdom itself, any instability on his part would suggest that Troy is similarly unstable. As a result, Priam is forced to publically deny the physical changes associated with aging. This is problematic in and of itself, since Ransom ultimately suggests that mortality (and physical weakness in general) form the basis for empathy. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the pressure to be "unchangeable" risks denying the possibility of internal change and development, which is a major concern in Ransom.
Priam continues before Hecuba can interrupt, painting a picture of the cart first loaded with ransom—coins, plate, armor, etc.—and then after the exchange with Hector’s body, “all his limbs newly restored and shining, restored and ransomed.”
In this passage, Malouf begins to explore the symbolic significance of the ransom Priam gives to Achilles. Priam's description of Hector's body as "restored and ransomed" is, on the face of it, a reference to the fact that the payment will "restore" Hector to his family. That said, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Malouf (like Homer) describes Hector's body as "restored" in the much more literal sense of being unblemished. Although this is actually a result of divine intervention, Priam's remarks here hint at a metaphorical connection between his "ransoming" of his son and the preservation of his son's body. In other words, Malouf suggests that by reaching out to Achilles in the way that he does (i.e. humbling himself and appealing to Achilles's humanity), Priam is, in a figurative sense, able to overcome death.
Hecuba is disturbed and objects that Achilles will never agree to Priam’s terms, as he already ignored Hector’s request that the winner of the duel return his opponent’s body for burial. Priam responds that he does not necessarily expect Achilles to agree, but that he thinks the strength of his idea lies in the very fact that it is unlikely. Hecuba then points out that Priam will probably be killed before he even reaches Achilles’s hut, but Priam simply reiterates his belief that the situation they are in requires unconventional thinking. Furthermore, he says, he thinks that Achilles may seize on the chance to act simply as a “man” rather than a “hero,” just as Priam wishes to act as a father rather than as a king.
Priam's sense that his situation demands an unlikely course of action illustrates the novel's ideas about fate and chance. The plan to ransom Hector's body is "unexpected" not only in the sense that it defies social norms, but also in a deeper way: Priam describes it as "impossible," implying that it flies in the face of the basic laws that govern the universe. To a certain extent, of course, those laws have already been flouted, as Hecuba notes when she describes Achilles's desecration of Hector's body as a "thing unheard of…a [violation] of every law of gods and men." However, where Hecuba sees this not only as an insult but also as a threat to the fundamental order of things, Priam sees it as all the more reason to respond in kind with his own "impossible" plan.
Hecuba worries that Priam will not return, and that she will be left to cope with whatever happens to Troy alone. Priam, however, suggests that failing in his quest would mean the end of Troy anyway, and that they should leave matters to the gods or to chance. This reference to chance scandalizes Hecuba, but Priam nevertheless forges ahead, saying that he thinks there may be a place for free will to operate after all. Hecuba remains alarmed. She advises that Priam can discuss his plan with his counselors, but that he should keep his ideas about chance to himself for fear of causing chaos: forgoing traditional ideas about the order of the universe and society could lead to fear and violence.
Ransom frequently links fate to social convention and tradition, in part because both imply limitations on people's ability to act freely. Priam's reference to chance therefore strikes Hecuba as dangerous both because it questions the power of the gods, and because it could undermine the fabric of Trojan society: if there are limits to fate, for instance, people might feel free to question why the royal family has the power that it does (and, even more problematically, whether it should). Furthermore, this understanding of fate and order has implications for how language should be used. Since words "can be the agents of…what is conceivable," Hecuba feels that they should be chosen with extreme care, and in a way that corresponds to the broader laws of society and the universe.
Priam, undeterred, says there is more that Hecuba needs to understand: although she has heard the story of his childhood, she has not heard it from him. Before he begins the story, he first asks her to imagine what it was like to live the story, not knowing how it would end. Then Priam launches into a description of himself as a boy, standing amongst a group of frightened and orphaned children just after Heracles had sacked Troy. Priam’s father Laomedon was King of Troy at the time, and had hidden Priam—then known as Podarces—among the common children for protection during the attack. Even so, now he had been captured. Priam describes looking at one of the roads leading out of Troy and imagining being led down it as a slave. In fact, he says that in some sense he never truly did escape, and that he has lived a parallel life as just one more nameless and forgotten slave.
Although Priam's backstory in Ransom is based on Greek mythology, it is notably not present in the Iliad. Malouf's decision to include it is therefore especially striking, and a good example of the importance of storytelling in the novel. Strictly speaking, Priam's childhood ordeal does not seem to have permanently altered the course of his life; "all the gods promised" to him did in fact come to pass, because he is now King of Troy. The experience, however, seems to have made him more receptive to the idea that fate is not all-powerful. Because he can imagine an alternate reality in which he never escaped (i.e. he can tell a story about it), Priam sees his current circumstances as conditional rather than destined. Furthermore, in constructing this narrative about the way his life might have played out, Priam in some sense "experiences" life as a slave instead of a king. This perhaps helps explain his acute awareness of the gap between his royal identity and his human one; Priam has already experienced what it means to be a person like anyone else.
Continuing his narrative, Priam describes how his sister Hesione, who had herself been taken captive, recognized him in the crowd of children. Since Heracles had told Hesione she could choose a gift, she demanded her brother’s life. Heracles agreed, but renamed Podarces “Priam”—“the price paid”—as a reminder that Podarces was saved from slavery only through his generosity. The improbability of his escape, however, combined with the experience of being in the crowd of children, have permanently altered Priam’s sense of himself and his life.
Priam describes his renaming as the death of one self and the birth of another. Although Podarces was not literally slated to die, he was bound for the "oblivion" of a life of enslavement, where no one would have known or told his story. His resurrection, though, comes at a cost (another form of "ransom"), since Podarces is now aware of how precarious his lot in life really is. Even his new name—Priam—is a reminder of the fact that his life could have gone very differently. The entire episode, then, ties into the association between mortality and empathy in the novel; by "dying" as a child, Priam learned to feel a sense of kinship with all the people who were not lucky enough to escape.
The "ugliness" of Priam's story causes Hecuba visible discomfort: she dislikes thinking of her husband as simply another abandoned child in a crowd. Nevertheless, Priam continues his narrative, explaining that when he returned to his life of luxury as a prince and then a king, he did not do so as the same boy. Although he has tried to act as if he were completely assured of his divine right to rule, the effort has taken a toll on him. Now, he says, he needs to “ransom” himself for the second time in his life by going to retrieve Hector’s body. Hecuba remains unconvinced, and asks Priam to avoid making a final decision until after he has spoken with his advisors.
As Priam describes it, Heracles's concession "ransomed" him from a life of slavery and restored his royal status to him. By contrast, the ransom Priam is planning is very different, because there is very little sense that it will radically change the course of Priam's life. Priam will have his son back, but Troy will still be on the verge of destruction. Priam, however, seems to view his plan as a way of redeeming himself after a lifetime of feeling ill-at-ease as King of Troy. By "ransoming himself" with this fatherly action, Priam suggests that he can find peace with himself as an ordinary human. Not surprisingly, none of this sits well with Hecuba. The central message of Priam's story, for instance—that it's only by chance that he differs from the other abandoned children—flatly contradicts her ideas about fate and order. It is therefore a testament to her love for Priam that she even proposes discussing the subject with their children and counselors.
Later that morning, Priam meets with his counselors, as well as his remaining children. Most of his surviving sons are more interested in vying for power than in serving the kingdom, but he is fond of his youngest son, Polydorus, who runs up and kisses him.
Priam's plan to retrieve Hector's body hinges on the idea of approaching Achilles personally and as a father. This is a role Priam has little experience with, but his relationship with Polydorus offers a glimpse of a "normal" father-son relationship (i.e. one that appears largely unaffected by Priam's status as king).
Priam explains his plan to his sons, who feel, like Hecuba, that it is beneath his dignity as a king. Eventually, a prince named Deiphobus speaks up in protest, saying that while he understands Priam’s grief, his plan is not worth the risk to either his life or his “royal image.” Instead, Deiphobus says, Priam must resist the temptation to indulge human feelings; giving in to them, he suggests, would be an insult to Hector’s memory. Tactfully, Priam replies that he understands Deiphobus’s concerns, but that he nevertheless feels he needs to experience what it means to be an ordinary person.
Deiphobus's objections, even more so than Hecuba's, center on the idea that Priam's plan will compromise his royal status and everything that it represents. By acting as an ordinary man, Deiphobus argues, Priam jeopardizes the entire "sacred spirit of [Troy]." In keeping with his concern for convention, Deiphobus (the "most smooth-mannered and eloquent" of Priam's sons) makes his argument in a polished and stylized way, prefacing his objections with a lengthy statement about how close he was to Hector and how he would do anything to retrieve his brother's body. This formulaic display of grief exasperates Priam, but he does not show his irritation, choosing instead to reiterate his belief that casting aside his royal status is exactly what this situation demands.
Priam’s sons hope that Cassandra will object to Priam’s plan, but she has lost her taste for prophesy since her brother’s death. Instead, an advisor named Polydamas speaks up, saying he has always respected Priam for fulfilling his duties as king and maintaining order in the realm. He therefore asks Priam to spare himself an experience that would likely be painful and humiliating.
Polydamas's objections, like Deiphobus's, center on Priam's royal identity and the role that it plays in maintaining order on both a cosmic and social level. He notes, for instance, that Priam has always been "punctilious" in carrying out his duties to both the gods and his subjects. Unlike Deiophobus, however, Polydamas seems more concerned with Priam's own well-being. As Polydamas describes it, the realm of fate and ceremony is Priam's proper sphere, and venturing out into a world governed by chance, where any Greek could "happen upon" him, would likely be an upsetting experience.
Priam appreciates what Polydamas has said, but nevertheless explains his reasons for disagreeing: although he is a king, Priam says, he is also a mortal man, and therefore not immune to the suffering that all humans experience. In fact, he says, his status as a king will ultimately mean nothing if Troy falls, since he will die just as horribly as any commoner would. Nevertheless, Priam says, there is something he can do in order to ensure his legacy will be a noble and “living” one. The earnestness of Priam’s speech convinces his family that he will not change his mind, and they reluctantly agree to go along with his plan.
In this passage, Priam explicitly lays out for the first time his ideas about fate, mortality, and the implications of both for human action. As Priam describes it, death is inevitable, cutting across distinctions of class and status: in wartime, for instance, a king can be killed as easily as anyone else. Nevertheless, Priam says, it is possible to symbolically step outside the limitations of fate and death by striving to do something "new" and "living." More specifically, Priam suggests that it is possible to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of death by acting in a way that affirms the basic humanity of all people. Priam therefore concludes his appeal by saying that he needs to visit Achilles "lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust."
That afternoon, Priam waits as his sons prepare a cart and assemble the ransom—a fortune in treasure. Instead of the simple vehicle he requested, however, they bring him a highly ornamented cart, his usual herald Idaeus, and a procession that includes a chariot pulled by thoroughbred horses. Priam grows angry and tells his sons to find a common cart and driver in the marketplace.
Priam's anger with his sons stems from two separate (though related) issues. The procession the princes initially plan clearly bears little resemblance to the stripped-down and ordinary cart Priam had requested: the chariot and stallions belong in the world of the epic rather than the everyday. Just as importantly, though, the procession is not what Priam calls "new": it reflects a conventional way of thinking that does not admit the possibility of unexpected events. Since Priam's plan relies on the idea of "chance," it is symbolically important that the plan's details exist outside traditional rules and norms.
This time, the princes return with Somax—a middle-aged man who is rough around the edges and overwhelmed by the glamor of Priam’s court. Somax suspects that he has been chosen largely because one of his mules, Beauty, is unusually pretty and charming.
Given the novel's defense of ordinary life, it is appropriate that Somax—a common carter—is the only original character in Ransom. In fact, Somax's presence is itself a statement on the pleasures of the everyday, since the confusion and skepticism he displays toward the court provide much-needed humor in an otherwise serious novel. The good looks and lively temperament of Beauty—a working mule—function similarly.
Priam asks Somax whether he understands what he has been hired to do, and Somax—somewhat intimidated—says that he does. Priam approves of Somax and orders his cart and mules to be brought in, which calms the carter down somewhat. He then tells Somax that he intends to call him Idaeus, since this is the name the king’s herald always holds. Somax agrees but is inwardly alarmed, feeling as though his past and identity are under threat. Resentfully, he decides not to tell anyone the names of the mules.
If Priam's journey to Achilles's hut takes him out of the realm of the epic and into the realm of the everyday, the renaming of Somax has the opposite effect: it transforms an ordinary man into a symbol. "Idaeus" is not the name of an individual with highly particular memories, feelings, quirks, etc., but simply the name of someone who has a particular relationship to the King of Troy. Not surprisingly, then, Somax doesn’t take kindly to the change, which seems to threaten his sense of who he is. By keeping the names of the mules to himself, however, he ensures that a certain portion of his life remains off-limits to the Trojan court.
As servants load the ransom onto the cart, those who are watching feel as if they are witnessing Hector’s body taking shape. Hecuba calls for water and wine, and Priam makes an offering to the gods. As he prays, a bird flies overhead, which Somax identifies to himself as a chickenhawk. Priam's son Helenus, however, says that it is an eagle, and thus a sign of approval from the gods.
In this passage, Malouf continues to contrast the grandeur of the Trojan court with Somax's down-to-earth perceptions of his surroundings. The very formal and ritualistic offering appears to culminate in a sign that the gods have blessed Priam's plan: the eagle that Helenus identifies as a messenger from Jove, the king of the gods. Somax, however, thinks that the bird is a chickenhawk, and that it is simply looking for food—that is, that the bird's presence is simply coincidental. The episode, then, ties the epic and the everyday to two different worldviews, associating the first with fate and the second with chance.
The narrator describes the daily routine of Troy’s citizens: in the morning, they gather excitedly on the ramparts to watch the army leave, then watch again more somberly in the afternoon to see who has survived. No fighting has taken place since Hector’s death, however, so the procession leaving the palace attracts all of Troy’s attention. Even the day-to-day activities that have continued in spite of the war come to a halt, and a crowd gathers. The people watch in confusion as Somax and Priam drive by in a cart, accompanied by the king’s surviving sons. The princes eventually turn back, but the cart leaves the city and vanishes into the distance.
Malouf's depiction of Troy continues to develop ideas of the ordinary and everyday. In some ways, the city's reaction to Priam's actions mirrors the court's response; the citizens of Troy recognize his departure as a break with routine life. What is normal for the Trojan people, though, is very different from what's normal for the Trojan court. In spite of the war, ordinary and even mundane activities (laundry, pest control, etc.) continue more or less as usual. This idea of day-to-day life going on in the face of great tragedy will be a major focus of Part 3.