Sometimes I think the classics that most move us throughout the centuries are those that have the most holes, the most openings for us to insert out own concerns and beliefs. If too much is said, a text becomes tied to a particular place and time, but when there is much left unsaid--or even much that seems at odds with itself, there is room for the reader. I'm thinking of texts like Homer and the Bible that allow us to interpret their words in myriad ways, making them always seem fresh and immediate.
On the recommendation of Chris at the ProSe blog, I recently picked up a slim novel by Australian writer David Malouf, newly out in paperback. Ransom retells one of the most moving sections of Homer's Iliad. After Achilles's friend Patroclus is killed on the battlefield by Hector, Achilles enters the fray and kills Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam. In his grief and anger, Achilles drags Hector's dead body behind his chariot and refuses to relinquish it to his family for a proper burial.
After watching the humiliation, Priam resolves to disguise himself, confront Achilles in his tent, and offers him great treasures as a ransom for his son's corpse. Priam's name can be taken to mean "ransom"--and it is here that Malouf finds a new door into the story and opens it up wide.
I talked in an earlier post about how Achilles questioned the role of hero in which he was cast. It was only by considering his desires and responsibilities personally that he can come to an acceptance of his position. Malouf suggests that King Priam must go through the same reconsidering of the traditional role of king as he embodies the more personal role of father. Only through this reconsideration--this transformation through disguise--is he allowed to beg, to be equal with his servant, to observe the everyday such as making griddle cakes, and even be allowed to grieve. In short, he gets to become an ordinary human being for a little while.
In the course of Malouf's short novel, we learn everything from his own past as a ransomed child to the death that awaits him. We see that this moment of sparkling ordinary life is set within the limits of mortality. I'm reminded of one of Malouf's own images which echos this theme: “Tucked in between rocky outcrops there are kitchen gardens, with a fig tree, a pomegranate, a row or two of lettuce or broad beans, a clump of herbs where snails the size of a baby’s fingernail are reborn in their dozens after a storm and hang like raindrops from every stalk.”