Epic literature varies from culture to culture, but one core feature of the genre is its concern with people and situations that exist outside the bounds of normal human experience. The Iliad, for instance, deals with an epic event (the Trojan War) and is populated by characters who are either gods, demigods (e.g. Achilles), or royalty with abilities that verge on superhuman (e.g. Hector, Odysseus). Ransom, of course, takes its plot from the final book of the The Iliad and generally adheres closely to Homer’s version of the story. In terms of tone, however, the two works are strikingly different, in part because Malouf introduces elements (e.g. the carter Somax) that belong to the realm of ordinary, unheroic life. In the end, these differences not only mark a shift in genre (from epic poetry to novel), but also constitute a claim about what makes human life worthwhile.
As the novel opens, both Achilles and Priam clearly belong to the world of epic literature: Priam is a king, while Achilles is a demigod conventionally held to be the greatest warrior to take part in the Trojan War. Both men, moreover, possess the ability to communicate with the gods and see into the future. Interestingly, however, Ransom downplays the grandeur of its protagonists’ capabilities. Priam, for instance, sees his visions as simply one more “aspect of daily being,” and Achilles (as a boy) viewed his ability to straddle humanity and divinity as “natural.” This normalization of unusual traits and experiences points to Ransom’s skepticism of the lofty world of epic literature. The royal sphere that Priam inhabits, for example, is in many ways a stifling one, because it limits his ability to express or even experience ordinary emotions. In some ways, this process is even dehumanizing: Priam must always exist as a “ceremonial figurehead” rather than as a living and breathing person.
Not surprisingly, then, part of what appeals to Priam about approaching Achilles with ransom is the opportunity to stop acting like a king and begin acting like an ordinary man and father. Over the course of his journey with Somax, however, Priam discovers that everyday life holds many pleasures over and apart from the pleasure of being “merely” human: the sensation of wading in cool water, the sounds of birds flying overhead, and all the other details of his surroundings that are “just themselves” rather than symbols of a grander world. In fact, the entire midsection of the novel functions as a defense of the ordinary, since it disrupts the main storyline involving Priam and Achilles to focus on the thoughts and feelings of a lower-class carter who is not particularly strong, brave, wise, etc.
Perhaps the most telling indication of the novel’s stance on the epic vs. the everyday comes in its final pages. Instead of ending with Priam or Achilles, Ransom closes with a lengthy description of Somax’s life as an old man, by which point no one believes his stories about the role he played in the Trojan War. On the face of it, this might seem to undercut the seriousness of the novel’s central episode: Priam’s meeting with Achilles. In terms of personal development, however, the function of this meeting was to free both men from the constraints of being archetypical characters in an epic story, and to allow them to be ordinary humans who are complex and imperfect. By ending with Somax and Beauty—a common, albeit pretty, mule—Malouf prioritizes everyday life in all its confusion and pleasure.
The Epic and the Everyday ThemeTracker
The Epic and the Everyday Quotes in Ransom
[B1] He was waiting for the rage to fill him that would be equal at last to the outrage he was committing. That would assuage his grief, and be so convincing to the witnesses of this barbaric spectacle that he too might believe there was a living man at the centre of it, and that man himself.
He is obliged, in his role as king, to think of the king's sacred body, this brief six feet of earth he moves and breathes in—aches and sneezes and all—as at once a body like any other and an abstract of the lands he represents, their living map.
He had never in his life till now had to do with any but simple folk like himself, eaters of sheep's cheese and raw garlic, women laying out a bit of washing to dry on a bush beside the road, half-naked children, their heads shaven against lice…He would have to rely on native wit, and such bits of experience as are common to all, whether the gods in their wisdom have set us high or low.
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.
It was such a comfort just to hold on to her, and feel the warmth of her, and the scratchiness of her hide against my cheek. But whether it was for grief at my loss, or joy that she was safe, I can't tell you, sir. We're such contrary creatures. Maybe both.
He isn't [Idaeus]—of course he isn't, he's Somax. A simple workman, who this morning, as on every other morning of his life, just happened to be standing in the marketplace waiting to be hired when two strangers appeared who just happened to be he king's sons, Trojan princes.
This is the first world we come into, he thinks now, his world of hot-water pitchers and oil jars and freshly laundered linen or wool. And the last place we pass through before our body is done with it all. Unheroic thoughts.
Look, he wants to shout, I am still here, but the I is different. I come as a man of sorrow bringing the body of my son for burial, but I come also as the hero of the deed that till now was never attempted.
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.
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.