Friday, 29 January 2010

A King's Ransom

In Ransom, David Malouf has taken an episode recounted in the Iliad, and investigated it to find its inner workings. It is a moment of suspense and inaction, in which war has petered out because of a failure of mourning, on both sides. A father’s desire to honour his dead son is pitted against a man’s desire to avenge the death of his best friend, and stalemate has ensued.

Hector, King Priam’s son, has been killed by Achilles, the Greek warrior and leader of the Myrmidons. This is in reprisal for Hector’s killing of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend.

Achilles has dishonoured Hector’s body by dragging it behind a chariot up and down in front of the walls of Troy for twelve days, in front of the horrified Priam and Queen Hecuba. He has refused to return the body for proper burial.

War is suspended while Achilles, maddened by grief, cannot abandon Hector’s body or grieve for Patroclus. Neither side, in fact, can begin the grieving process: on Priam’s side because the symbol of death, the buried body, is missing, and on Achilles’ side because the body is all too present, and cannot be killed again. Achilles is walled up inside his fury, unable to mourn Patroclus because he cannot stop killing Hector. Priam is walled up inside the besieged Troy, powerless to act.

Priam is a king of visions. He converses with the gods:

‘An old, dreamlike passivity in him that he no longer finds it necessary to resist will dissolve the boundary between what is solid and tangible in the world […] and the weightless medium in which is consciousness is adrift, where the gods, in their bodily presence, have the same consistency as his thoughts.’

His ability to suspend his conscious focus on materiality around him is paralleled by his understanding of his own kingship:

‘Holding in his head all the roads that lead out to the distant parts of his kingdom, he feels them at times as ribbons tied at the centre of him, for the most part loose but sometimes stretched taut and pulling a little, according to what is occurring out there — events that his body is aware of as a dim foreboding long before the last in a relay of messengers, who for days have been running down dusty roads, bursts in to deliver it as news.’

Kingship consists of an act of empathetic imagination (in an era lacking instantaneous communication), in which the king intuits through his own body whether his citizens are well or ill.

What Priam learns from his conversation with the Goddess Iris, after Hector’s death, is that events have fallen out not by predetermination, but by chance. And it is this sudden apprehension that chance may determine outcomes that inspires in him a dream or vision of himself going to Achilles not as a king but as an old man, with a cartload of gold, to offer as a symbolic ransom for his son’s body. As a man, not as a king, and yet with a king’s ransom. He realizes that it is only in taking the greatest risk, making himself most vulnerable, appearing as he is without the adornment of his symbolic status, that he stands a chance of retrieving Hector. He must take his chances, and enter the unknown, because the normal protocols of war and diplomacy have failed. Normality has been disordered.

He is determined to take a ransom to Achilles, not because he feels he can put a price on his son’s body, but because he was himself ransomed as a six-year-old boy. Born Podarces, a prince, the son of King Laomedon of Troy, he survived slaughter at the hands of Laomedon’s enemy Heracles only because his sister Hesione chose him as her plaything just before she was sent away as a gift of war. Heracles grants Hesione her wish but renames Podarces:

“Let his name, from now on, be Priam, the price paid, the gift given to buy your brother back from the dead. So that each time he hears himself named, this is what he will recall. That till I allowed you to chose him out of this filthy rabble, he was a slave like any other, a nameless thing.”

Priam has never been able to forget this moment, the forking of the way in his life. He was exposed to chance as a six-year-old, and shown that the gods can play with mortals, that nothing is given. Part of him has lived the life of the slave he so nearly became. He is not a king through and through.

It is because Priam has before crossed over to the other side of his own destiny, and envisioned one completely contrary to the one that has actually played out, that he is able to commune with the gods through visions. It is this metaphysical traversal that also makes it possible for him to understand that he can abandon his king’s trappings, and cross over to the Greeks’ camp as an old man and a father.

The whole of Ransom, then, turns on the idea of crossings, from Troy to the Greek camp, from youth to old age, from son to father, from anger to grief, from life to death. Nothing can reverse death, the dead cannot cross back over to the side of the living, but in the world of the Iliad, and for David Malouf, it seems that the symbolic energy of death can be activated by transferring the body to its rightful place. This is what will enable the fluidity of grief to flow into the space that the physical body once occupied, and also enable time to move forward again.

But these crossings all come at a price. There is a ransom to be paid, whether it is symbolic or actual (and it is always both) in order to effect the crossing. The Romans placed a coin in the mouth of their dead to pay Charon the boatman who would ferry them across the Styx into the Underworld. The custom of burying kings with their treasure, even their slaves and wives, is well known from Egypt to Sussex. To change from one state to another, we must give something up.

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