Ransom

by

David Malouf

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Ransom: Part 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At dusk, Somax and Priam stop to rest on the banks of the River Scamander. Priam, however, does not immediately climb down from the cart, saying he wants to stay with his son’s body. Somax does not point out Priam’s mistake (that the treasure under the cloth is not his son’s body), but does quietly persuade Priam to disembark.
As Part 3 opens, Somax's interactions with Priam are still somewhat tentative. Somax is especially aware that he does not know the customs that govern addressing a king, so he initially avoids saying anything. Significantly, when Somax does break his silence, it's because he is newly aware of Priam as a father like himself; when Priam mistakes the covered treasure for Hector's body, Somax instantly realizes what has happened and knows what to say. In other words, the exchange illustrates a type of communication based in empathy rather than protocol.
Themes
Identity, Humanity, and Mortality Theme Icon
Language, Storytelling, and Empathy Theme Icon
Somax wades into the river and quickly realizes that Priam has not followed. Although still uncomfortable with the difference in status, Somax decides that he needs to take charge of the king, who seems somewhat dazed. Somax therefore encourages Priam to dip his feet in the water as well, and even unbuckles Priam’s sandals for him. As Priam dangles his feet in the water, he watches fish swim by and thinks about Somax’s behavior and words, which do not conform to ordinary courtly protocol. Priam does not find this disturbing, however, and even thinks Somax’s demeanor might be more appropriate to the situation they’re currently in.
Despite his wish to experience life as an ordinary person, Priam is still uncomfortable with the everyday world at this point in the novel. Here, for instance, he seems to be at a loss as to how to act in his new surroundings. Once he has settled in alongside the river, however, Priam begins to take pleasure in the ordinary nature of the scene and his place within it: he is amused, for instance, that the fish ignore him just as much as they ignore Somax. Relatedly, Priam also finds himself grateful for Somax's "rough" manners, which he thinks may be more useful than "a knowledge of the forms." The implication, again, is that the ceremony and symbolism of life at court is not suited to everyday life, which is full of unexpected twists and turns.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
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Somax unpacks some food and encourages Priam to eat. Priam at first declines, and instead simply listens as Somax describes how his daughter-in-law cooks griddlecakes, deftly flipping them with her fingers. Eventually, however, Somax does mange to convince Priam to drink a bit of wine and eat a griddlecake by reminding him that humans are not solely spiritual, but also children of “earth.” This comment impresses Priam, who has typically tried to distance himself from bodily needs.
Somax's remarks about the dual nature of humanity are presumably not a new idea to Priam, whom Malouf has shown to be highly conscious of both his mortal, human side and his royal and eternal one. The easy way in which Somax connects the earthly to the spiritual, however, does seem to impress Priam. As Somax describes it, a "good comfortable feeling in the belly and the legs" actually "help[s] the spirit along." This idea that the spiritual and physical might be inseparable from one another is clearly very different from the uneasy split Priam feels between the two halves of his identity. The talk about the griddlecakes, meanwhile, begins to hint at the role of storytelling in the novel, which Priam will reflect on in the coming pages.
Themes
Identity, Humanity, and Mortality Theme Icon
Language, Storytelling, and Empathy Theme Icon
As Priam settles in on the riverbank, he thinks about how unfamiliar everything he is experiencing is to him. His previous trips outside his palace have always been ceremonial in nature, even when they took him into the natural world; boar hunts, for instance, adhere to a set of formal rules, and anything that deviates from established procedure is simply ignored. Priam is therefore surprised to discover that he takes so much pleasure in the “incidental” details of what is going on around him—the fish swimming around his feet, the swifts flying overhead, etc.—even though these details hold no deeper meaning. He is also unused to being a spectator rather than the center of attention, but again finds that he enjoys the experience.
More than perhaps anything else in the novel, Priam's description of his surroundings as "incidental" reveals the connection between everyday life and chance. What Priam appreciates about the scene is not only its unimportance, but also its arbitrary nature: the fish Priam sees, for instance, could just as easily be different fish. This noticeably contrasts with Priam's experiences as King of Troy, where everything that is "accidental" is either ignored or transformed into a symbol of something idealized and eternal. Boar hunting, for instance, is never about "this particular occasion, or this boar, or this king." Now, however, Priam discovers that he appreciates the immediacy of the ordinary and coincidental.
Themes
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Language, Storytelling, and Empathy Theme Icon
The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Priam continues to reflect on the novelty of what is happening, now focusing in particular on Somax’s way of speaking. Whereas Priam is used to thinking of language as something that serves very specific functions, Somax seems to talk simply for pleasure, and as a way of passing the time. What’s more, Priam appreciates the fact that Somax’s speech gives him insight into someone else’s life: as Priam eats the griddlecake, he pictures Somax’s daughter-in-law making it and feels a connection to her.
Priam's thoughts on language in this passage grow out of and reflect his earlier thoughts on chance and the everyday. Somax's speech, like the world Priam has now entered, is "unnecessary" in the sense that has no established purpose; it does not, for instance, reinforce a social relationship, or symbolically represent a truth about the universe. The story of the griddlecakes is not really "about" anything other than itself, but this allows it to offer an uncommonly vivid window into the day-to-day lives of Somax and his daughter-in-law. In fact, the story is so real to Priam that he seems to "taste" elements of it in the griddlecakes. This idea that storytelling can render distant events viscerally present to a listener or reader is central to Ransom, where it allows characters to step outside their own minds, lifespans, etc. in order to empathize with others.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
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Priam finds that he wants to know more about Somax and his daughter-in-law, but he does not know how to ask. Instead, Priam latches onto a reference Somax had made to his sons. Somax, however, says that his only surviving relatives at this point are his daughter-in-law and her own daughter, who is currently sick with a fever. He confesses that he is worried about the girl, and reflects aloud on how fragile the human body is, and how painful that knowledge is for a parent. He dwells in particular on an instance when his granddaughter fell on a stake and bled so heavily he feared she would die, thus ending Somax’s entire family line. He acknowledges, however, that life goes on even after enormous loss, and remarks that he once had seven children, all of whom are now dead.
As the conversation strays further and further away from the formal language of the Trojan court, it is Priam who finds that he does not know how to proceed. As a result, the question he eventually asks does not directly involve the topic that had piqued his interest. It does, however, offer new insights into Somax's life, which Malouf suggests is one function of storytelling. More specifically, it prompts an extended meditation on mortality, with Somax noting how strange it is that all the vitality of the human spirit exists in a frail physical frame. This awareness of human vulnerability plays a key role in Priam's later appeal to Achilles, since (Priam says) it ought to inspire compassion.
Themes
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Somax continues to talk about his children, noting that only two of his sons lived to be full grown. He fondly recalls how cheerful one of them was as a child, and says that he grew up to be particularly strong. Priam presses Somax on what happened to this son, and Somax explains that he died trying to lift a stuck wagon out of the mud: one of his organs ruptured and he was pinned underneath the wagon. The accident was in character, Somax says, because his son was reckless and a bit of a show-off. These traits irritated Somax at the time, but he now regrets ever treating his son harshly, and wonders whether the gods themselves might also regret killing him.
As Somax talks more about the circumstances of his children's deaths, the differences between his worldview and Priam's become more evident. In Book 2, Priam attributed the death of Hector (and all the disasters that might result from it) to a longstanding and malicious divine plan. Somax, however, seems to view even the gods' actions in terms of accident, suggesting that they might have killed his son by mistake. In other words, Somax sees chance (rather than fate) at work even on a cosmic level, imagining that events could have and might have unfolded differently.
Themes
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Identity, Humanity, and Mortality Theme Icon
Priam thinks about the sons he himself has lost, remembering the role he has played in each one’s funeral. In some ways, however, he feels he has not experienced what Somax has, because he did not have particularly personal relationships with any of his children. In fact, he is not even entirely sure how many sons he sired, and he certainly can’t imagine having interacted with any of them the way Somax describes interacting with his own children. This is a source of regret to Priam, although he recognizes that the loss of any given son would have been more painful if he had highly particularized memories attached to each one.
On the face of it, Somax's story seems like it ought to be very familiar to Priam, who has also lost a number of sons. As Somax talks, however, Priam realizes that fatherhood has meant something very different to the carter, whose relationships to his children do not carry any deeper symbolic significance but are instead simply about the child as a specific individual. By contrast, Priam cannot even be sure of his sons' number, since even this basic fact has more to do with demonstrating Priam's "godlike activity in the sphere of breeding and begetting" than it does with reality. In other words, Priam's experience of fatherhood is another metaphor, or "manner of speaking." As such, it differs markedly from Somax's extended narratives about his sons, which are literal and rich in detail.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
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Priam asks Somax about his other son, and Somax points to a spot further along the river, where he says his son died. Somax explains that his son was trying to ford the river when Beauty slipped, tipping his son into the water and drowning him. Somax found the mule grazing near the river the next day and struggled not to take his anger out on her. Recognizing that it wasn’t Beauty’s fault, however, he instead hugged her and started crying. Since then, he says, he’s been especially fond of her.
Given Beauty's connection to the pleasures of everyday life, it is significant that her presence is what gives Somax the will to continue on after losing his second son. Just as Priam has found—to his own surprise—that he can find beauty and interest in the world despite his son's death, Somax was able to take comfort in the humble pleasures of ordinary life after a similar loss. The passage further links this to the novel's depiction of mortality by suggesting that Beauty was responsible for the death of Somax's son. In Ransom, the everyday world is also the physical, mortal world. It is therefore inseparable from death, but also the source of much of what gives life meaning.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
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Night is now falling, and Somax tells Priam that they  should move on. Priam is reluctant to leave, but expects to remember all the details of the spot where they’ve stopped.
Priam's thoughts on leaving the resting spot confirm the transformation that is taking place within him. Having gotten past his initial discomfort, Priam now truly enjoys Somax's meandering and "unimportant" stories, as well as the similarly incidental surroundings. The fact that Priam intends to commit all these particularities to memory suggests that he himself is becoming more ordinary and human.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
As Priam and Somax walk back toward the cart, they see a young man with glossy curls and a vain demeanor standing next to it. When he sees Somax squaring up for a fight, the young man draws a sword and says he could have already stolen their treasure if he wanted to. Claiming to be a Greek named Orchilus, the stranger says that Achilles has sent him to act as an escort. Priam is suspicious but outwardly grateful, since he fears the consequences of a fight between Somax and their escort.
Although it isn't clear at this point in the text, Orchilus is actually Hermes, the Greek messenger god. In traditional mythology, Hermes is also a trickster god, which perhaps explains his secretive and somewhat antagonistic behavior in this passage. Interestingly, however, Priam interprets Orchilus's/Hermes's boastful speech as "play-acting." This is certainly true in the sense that Hermes is acting under an assumed identity, but it perhaps also points to the wide gap between the worlds of gods and men in Ransom. Because humanity and mortality are so tightly intertwined in the novel, even a god who has assumed human form can only "play" at being a man.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
Somax attempts to get rid of Orchilus, who has made himself at home leaning against the cart. Priam also finds Orchilus's careless and haughty demeanor off-putting, but senses that it would be unwise to reject his help. He therefore allows Orchilus to pull him up onto the cart, and the trio set off. Somax, however, remains mistrustful, particularly when Hermes begins to pet and fawn over Beauty.
Superficially, the friction between Hermes and Somax stems from "Orchilus's" youthful arrogance. In retrospect, however, it is clear that the two characters reside on opposite ends of the epic-everyday spectrum: Hermes is a god and thus an entirely supernatural figure, while Somax is a human and largely unremarkable in strength, intelligence, etc. The tug-of-war between the two therefore embodies two different systems of value. In the end, Ransom will largely favor the everyday world that Somax represents, although it does retain certain elements of an "epic" worldview (e.g. an appreciation for honor and heroism, though in slightly unconventional forms).
Themes
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The cart begins to ford the river, and Beauty loses her footing at one point, nearly pitching both the treasure and her riders into the water. She steadies herself, however, and Orchilus, who has been walking alongside the cart, points out a safer place to cross. The cart doesn’t slip this time, but the water wells up to Priam’s feet, and he finds that he is enjoying the adventure, and already reliving it inside his head. Once the cart is safely across, the group stops to rest for a moment before continuing on, passing through fields that have been destroyed in the war.
In addition to enjoying the immediate, sensory details of the journey (e.g. the feeling of water around his feet), Priam takes pleasure in telling himself the story of crossing the river virtually as soon as the moment is over. Although this is not the first time Priam has told a story in the novel, it is the first time he has done so purely for pleasure. This is significant, because Ransom suggests that storytelling—in addition to heightening people's capacity for empathy—is also a useful vehicle for experiencing the ordinary and visceral events that make life interesting.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon
Orchilus asks about Somax’s daughter-in-law, which irritates and confuses the carter, since he has not mentioned her to their escort. Orchilus ignores Somax’s discomfort, however, and reveals more of what he knows about the man—that he drinks, embellishes stories, and often bends the rules. As Orchilus chatters on about the pleasures of life, Somax begins to suspect that their escort may not be who he says he is, and voices his concerns to Priam.
Although Hermes, as a god, belongs to a very different world than most of the novel's characters, his speech in this passage does touch on many ideas central to Ransom. For instance, his remark about the pleasures of "talk[ing] and hear[ing] news of all that's happening in the world" bears a striking resemblance to Priam's new appreciation for ordinary conversation. 
Themes
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Priam realizes that their escort is in fact the god Hermes, and Somax becomes alarmed. Since one of Hermes’s roles is escorting the dead to the underworld, it occurs to Somax that they might have died while fording the river. Hermes, however, clarifies that he has been sent to take them not to the afterlife, but simply to Achilles’s hut. Reassuring Somax that his granddaughter is already recovering from her fever, Hermes tells Priam to brace himself, since they will reach the Greek camp soon. Priam, overwhelmed, worries that he may not be able to carry out his plans after all, but he is reassured by both Somax’s matter-of-fact attitude and the presence of Hermes. In particular, Priam takes comfort in the fact that Hermes has consistently referred to him as “father,” since he is making the journey in his capacity as a parent rather than a king.
The revelation that Orchilus is actually Hermes doubles down on the symbolism of crossing a body of water. Since Hermes is the escort of souls to the afterlife, the implication is that the journey to Achilles's hut is a metaphorical form of death. This speaks to the internal changes Priam has already begun to experience as a result of his actions, casting aside his identity (or "dying") as a king in order to be reborn as an ordinary man. Hermes's persistence in calling Priam "father" is significant in this respect, since it refers to the role Priam has taken on in going to retrieve his son's body. It is also yet another demonstration of the power of language in Ransom, since Priam immediately feels more confident in his capacity as a parent when Hermes refers to him as a father. Language, in other words, has the ability to shore up a person's identity (or possibly even confer an identity on him).
Themes
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The cart reaches a trench and blockade, with a gate that only Achilles himself has the strength to open. Inside, the soldiers who are on guard duty hear someone knocking, and then watch as the gate swings open. Hermes, who has made himself invisible, has lifted the bar. The cart passes into the camp as the soldiers watch, stunned.
Like Priam's departure from Troy, Priam's arrival in the Greek camp marks a major break with what is usual or expected. The soldiers' typical evening pastimes—chatting, playing with dice, etc.—come to an abrupt halt when the gate appears to open by itself. Malouf describes this (and other, similar moments) as a kind of suspension of normal time and activity. Ultimately, these disruptions of routine life provide a window in which change can occur.
Themes
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The Epic and the Everyday Theme Icon