When Homer wrote The Iliad he was recording stories for posterity, but he could hardly have known the influence his work would carry throughout centuries that would be alien to him. How could he predict that this epic tale would be broken down and analysed, reimagined and reworked, right down to the minutest detail. Both Malouf in his short novel Ransom and Glück in her poem “The Triumph of Achilles” focus on the events that follow the death of Hector, creating an intense and personal depiction of the anguish, anger, desperation and grief, of which Hector is respectively the object of lamentation and the possible means to vengeance and closure. In these texts we see Hector as the murderer, Hector as the object of grief, the war as the backdrop and the gods as enigmatic yet explainable, but we must ultimately look to Homer to find; Hector the man, the fury of the Trojan War, the importance of the gods and the ultimate fate of the characters.
The Trojan War, whilst intrinsic to Glück and Ransom’s works, is not depicted in any great detail, for Homer’s text, and it’s preoccupation with war, provides a wealth of powerful material to be drawn upon. The longevity and notoriety of The Iliad has seeped into modern culture, so many readers can make the intertextual connections, often without having read The Iliad. With experts sighting that “interest in Homer in the 21st century seems to be stronger than ever” (Myrsiade, 1) the scale and drama of this legendary war can be called upon by Glück to show the intensity of Achilles grief, which she shows as completely eclipsing the importance and carnage of the war going on around him; “What were the Greek ships on fire compared to this loss?” (Glück, 13-14). Glück presents the reader with a very narrow portal into the grief of one hero in a tale rich with acts of heroism, even beginning her poem by asserting in the very first line that it is the story of Patroclus that the reader is encountering, not of the great Achilles, Hector, or the fall of Troy. This almost claustrophobic view of a section of Homer’s epic uses the resonance of the Troy story to very poignantly look at a very selective section of the vast work. Malouf’s approach to the Trojan War though more detailed, is an account of the war from the personal perspective of Achilles, who does not seem to see, care or be affected by the greater war and that which does not immediately affect him. Malouf shows us very clearly that the reader is surely not seeing the full picture of the conflict in Achilles reflection on Patroclus’s disillusionment with his friend’s command; “He sees my indifference to the fate of these Greeks as a stain to my honour, Achilles told himself, and to his own” (Malouf, 16).
The cause of the war is not examined within the modern texts, as even many who have not read The Iliad have at least a cursory background knowledge of the battle of Troy, the beautiful Helen, and the personal pride that lead to this epic conflict. This war that is the result of personal insult and injury is examined closely in Homer, allowing Glück and Malouf the luxury of not having to rehash and reimagine the ideas that are not crucial to their vision of the personal grief of select characters; “Why, pray, must the Argives needs fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the host and bring them? Was it not for the sake of Helen? Are the sons of Atreus the only men in the world who love their wives? Any man of common right feeling will love and cherish her who is his own, as I this woman, with my whole heart” (Homer, 95).
Through focusing on different sections of the epic Iliad, Glück and Malouf are able to draw upon the wealth of information, and cultural familiarity of the story, to utilise the power, formidable legacy and notoriety of the Achilles character to great effect. For whilst it is possible for the reader to form a picture of the great hero from the two modern texts in question, it is through the knowledge of the eventual fate of Achilles in the final passages of The Iliad that the character of this doomed and desperate hero really comes to life. To approach Ransom without knowledge of the Iliad is to forgo the knowledge that informs passages such as this:
“But the sea is not where it will end. It will end here on the beach in the treacherous shingle, or out there on the plain. That is fixed, inevitable. With the pious resignation of the old man he will never become, he has accepted this.” (Malouf, 9).
Without the knowledge of his eventual downfall, and the weight of the mythology that surrounds him, this statement does not have the same level of foreboding. Similarly Glück’s allusion to the emotional death of Achilles (Glück, 18) is an ominous sign of the fate that is to befall him. Achilles, as the son of a Goddess and legendary warrior, carries with him the qualities and form of an entire ancient culture. His journey as a Homeric hero and the godly rage that he possesses is intrinsically Greek, allowing the modern reader to draw on the legacy of the Trojan War to better understand the circumstances surrounding these deeply personal stories of loss. Glück’s focus on the personal anguish of Achilles allows the reader familiar with The Iliad to hold a magnifying glass up to the torment of grief that occurs for one character despite the unmarked deaths of many. The disregard for the value of the life of the average individual in the Greek epic is highlighted by the intensity of Achilles reaction to the death of Patroclus, and his blatant indifference to the soldiers who are dying every day as the result of his inaction, an inaction that is documented in Homer, and the knowledge of which is relied upon by Glück to complete the picture of Achilles irrational grief and intense personal torment.
In a tale of heroes it is important not to lose sight of the man whose body is merely an object, a spectre of its former glory by the time Malouf picks up the story of The Iliad; Hector. Ransom does little to differentiate the heroism of Hector from the heroism of Achilles, merely positioning him as a man of honour and Achilles Trojan equivalent in many ways, highlighting Hector’s use of Achilles armour in the battle that would lead to his demise and uttering the words that tie their fates together “You will not long outlive me Achilles” (Malouf, 23). Hector is not mentioned by name in the poem of Glück, but he is present as the slayer of Patroclus (Glück, 1-2). In both texts Hector haunts the fringes, unable to assert his own merits and character due to omission or death. The reader relies on Homer entirely to inform their deeper knowledge of Hector, which is crucial to understanding the drama unfolding. Bernadete warns us of the perils of dismissing Hector as the Trojan mirror of Achilles: “Achilles and Hector are heroes, one an Achaean, the other a Trojan; but to know them better, so that even away from their camps, we should not mistake them, forces us to find other traits peculiar to themselves.” (Bernadete, 12).
To understand the gravity of the king and grieving father Priam’s actions and their consequences in a world of restraint and decorum The Iliad provides the context that allows Malouf to depict the old man’s journey of discovery (Brennan 3). In Ransom, Priam struggles with the notion of autonomy and destiny, breaking free of the godly constraints that are so evident in Homer’s Iliad, and choosing his own path. As an epic in the tradition of Greek tragedy The Iliad is spurred on by the will of the gods, whereas it is Priam’s creative thought in the face of desperation that drives the action of Ransom. While Priam is still reliant on the good will and inspiration of the gods, he is forced to consider chance as a factor in determining the fate of his son Hector’s body. The context for Priam the parent is also laid down in The Iliad with scholars such as Pratt asserting the importance of parenthood and the child in Homer’s work (Pratt, 25). In light of this parental motif it is perhaps not as surprising as it initially appears that Malouf has chosen to focus on the struggles and enlightenment of a grieving father, and to introduce another grieving father, Somax, who by his class does not represent the repression and preoccupation with formality the stately Priam does. By comparing the sombre and stately Priam of Homer with the jovial and affectionate cart driver, the universal truth and emotion that lies beneath Homer’s epic is exposed.
The legacy and weight of the Iliad as an intertextual reference cannot be denied and the powerful images and cultural protocols of the Greeks that the epic conjures up serve the authors who rely on them in order to create a fleshed out story, with characters, who by their familiarity and iconicity cannot fail to resonate with readers. This is particularly evident in the poem of Glück which, by its brevity, draws much of its detail and power from its intertextual elements, but the value of these intertextual references in Malouf should also not be underestimated. Whilst both works stand up to scrutiny on their own, they draw great power and substance from their relationship to The Iliad, and the weight of one of the greatest stories ever told.
• Benardete, Seth. “Achilles and the Iliad.” Hermes (1963): 1-16. . Reprinted in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy by Seth Benardete, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
• Brennan, Bernadette. “Singing it anew: David Malouf’s Ransom.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 11, no. 1 (2011). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/1846/2629
• Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: the basics. Routledge, 2007.
• Glück, Louise. The triumph of Achilles. Vol. 32. Ecco Press, 1985.
• Homer, The Iliad and the Odyssey. Special Edition Books, e-book, 2006.
• Malouf, David. Ransom. Random House, Sydney, Kindle Edition, 2010.
• Morris, Daniel. The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction. University of Missouri Press, 2006.
• Myrsiades, Kostas. “Introduction: Homer; Analysis and Influence.” College Literature 35, no. 4 (2008): xi-xix.: Accessed 8/5/2015 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25114371.
• Pratt, Louise. “The Parental Ethos of the Iliad.” Hesperia. Supplement (2007): 25-40. Accessed 2/5/2015 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2006678.
Picture: “The “Triumph of Achilles” fresco, in Corfu Achilleion” by Franz von Matsch – Own work by רנדום, 2011-08-27. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_%22Triumph_of_Achilles%22_fresco,_in_Corfu_Achilleion.jpg#/media/File:The_%22Triumph_of_Achilles%22_fresco,_in_Corfu_Achilleion.jpg