In the Afterword to Ransom, Malouf says that he considers the novel to be, at heart, about storytelling. Given that the novel is a reworking of a preexisting story—told most famously in The Iliad—this is not surprising. Still, it is striking just how often Malouf interrupts the main narrative to tell a story-within-a-story. These interludes serve different purposes over the course of the novel, from offering necessary backstory to providing entertainment. Most importantly, however, they provide a contrast to the rigid and formal language of the Trojan royal court. Whereas the stylized speech of the court tends to bind people more tightly to a set role in life, storytelling encourages them to look beyond the boundaries of self, space, and time.
Broadly speaking, Ransom deals with two types of language: ceremonial and narrative. As King of Troy, Priam is used to the former—highly stylized arguments, speeches, and exchanges that follow rigid formulas. This kind of language typically serves a set purpose, which is one reason why Hecuba reacts with such alarm when Priam begins to question the limits of fate: she is used to thinking of words as “agents” that act in specific and powerful ways, so she fears that Priam will unleash chaos simply by talking about chance. In fact, the language used in the Trojan court is actually designed to limit chance by maintain a particular social order. Within this world of the court, words and even people have established symbolic meanings, so the act of speaking tends to reinforce a person’s status, his formal relationship to others, etc. For Priam, even remaining silent is a way of shoring up his position as a king: “Silence…was expressive. Power lay in containment.”
When Priam ventures out beyond his palace, however, he begins to notice a different kind of language—one associated with narrative. The stories his carter Somax tells about his daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and sons are not “important” in the sense of serving a particular function or conveying a particular meaning (in fact, Priam associates Somax’s speech with the meaningless “prattle” of water, wind, and animals). With that said, Priam quickly discovers that he enjoys Somax’s stories, and draws a distinction between importance and “interest,” implying that storytelling can be a pleasurable way of passing the time if nothing else.
Ultimately, however, Ransom suggests that storytelling does serve a purpose besides enjoyment. More specifically, narrative offers Ransom’s characters what Priam calls a “crack in the door” through which they can access other people’s worlds. Narrative language, whether in a spoken story or a novel, thrives on the specific, sensory details that symbolic language considers "unnecessary." As a result, listening to stories is a very physical experience in Ransom. When Priam eats the griddlecakes, for instance, he feels that he can taste the deft motions Somax has described his daughter-in-law using to flip them. Even more strikingly, Achilles seems to experience in real time events he never witnessed simply by hearing the story of how Patroclus came to be in exile: “Achilles too stands spellbound. Like a sleeper who has stumbled in on another’s dream, he sees what is about to happen but can neither move nor cry out to prevent it…The blow is about to come.”
On a basic level, then, Ransom depicts storytelling as a way of fostering empathy. It does this, however, not simply by pointing out that stories provide insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings, but by suggesting that stories literally allow people to transcend their own identities and lives, which are otherwise limited by everything from social position to mortality. When Priam presents his “story” to Achilles, for instance, Achilles imagines himself as an old man, and thus experiences a version of himself that will never exist in reality (as he his fated to die young, and knows that this is his fate). Achilles, the, can only ever know himself as an old man through the empathy and imaginative connection created by storytelling. In this way, storytelling also intersects with the theme of chance—through narrative, Malouf suggests, humans can experience what could be but isn’t, including who they could be if they were not themselves.
Language, Storytelling, and Empathy ThemeTracker
Language, Storytelling, and Empathy Quotes in Ransom
He had entered the rough world of men, where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of a story. A world of pain, loss, dependency, bursts of violence and elation…at last of death.
For a long moment the taws hang there at the top of their flight; as if, in the father's grave retelling of these events, he were allowing for a gap to be opened where this time round some higher agency might step in and, with the high-handed indifference of those who have infinite power over the world of conjunction and accident, reverse what is about to occur.
It seems to me…that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course.
And I am back there in the very midst of it, looking down that white-dust road into another life. And it means nothing, that other story. In this one the miraculous turnabout has never happened. I am just one more slave-thing like the rest, one among many.
The realm of the royal was representational, ideal. Everything that was merely accidental…all this was to be ignored, left to fall away into the confused and confusing realm of the incidental and the ordinary.
His whole life was like that, or had been. But out here, he discovered, everything was just itself. That was what seemed new.
It was as if you had found yourself peering through the crack in a door (exciting, Priam found, this imagining himself into a situation he would never have dreamed of acting out) and saw clearly for a moment into the fellow's life, his world.
Royal custom—the habit of averting his gaze, always, from the unnecessary and particular—had saved him from all that. And yet it was just such unnecessary things in the old man's talk, occasions in which pain and pleasure were inextricably mixed, that so engaged and moved him.
And for him the misery of this moment will last forever; that is the hard fact he must live with. However the story is told and elaborated, the raw shame of it will be with him now till his last breath.
This old fellow, like most storytellers, is a stealer of other men's tales, of other men's lives.
The most remarkable thing about him was that he was the owner of a little black mule who is still remembered in this part of the country and much talked about. A charming creature, big-eyed and sleek, she bore the name of Beauty—and very appropriately too, it seems, which is not always the case.