Monday, February 22, 2010

Fatum & Ransom

I've been unusually interested in myth lately. I've been collecting novels that retell myths, David Malouf's Ransom among them, and enjoying his reinterpretation of the story of Priam.

It has to do with teaching adult ed Latin, and reading an English translation of The Aeneid with my students. It's very different from teaching Latin IV, where I help students read the Aeneid in Latin and we read small chunks at a time. I'm confronted with the fatum-furor-pietas symbolic triad (fate--furor-- & recognition of duty to gods, country, and family) coming at me at an incredible speed. It's all there, all at once, a jumble, a grief, a tragedy, a weariness, terror, love, battles, and the epic agony of having to go on, whether one wants to or not. Aeneas, an unusual hero, ravaged and numbed by the destruction of his civilization, comes to terms with the difficulty and horror of his mission, to lead the Trojan people to Italy. (He is seven years on the road when the poem starts.) This is a beautiful, under-read epic poem with countless allusions to the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the days when everyone took Latin, of course everyone knew this poem.

David Malouf's novel Ransom is an inspired reimagining of the Iliad, not the Aeneid, so you may wonder why I'm so intrigued. Well, the answer is, in case you haven't read the Aeneid lately or ever, that Virgil pays brilliant homage to Homer, alluding to episodes and speeches from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and sometimes reimagining them with a Roman twist. As Malouf says about his new novel, it "re-enters the world of the Iliad to recount the story of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector, and, in a very different version from the original, Priam's journey to the Greek camp."

At the heart of Ransom is Priam's questioning of fate. In a dream/vision Iris, a messenger of the gods, visits him, and tells him that perhaps it is chance, not fate, that has killed his sons and wrecked Troy. This goes against all the teachings: the gods condone or chastise, favor or destroy empires, seemingly on a whim, sometimes to punish one man's hubris, even when a country like Troy has honored the gods. Priam hatches a plan that will challenge and rethink the acceptance of fatum: he will go, a suppliant, in a humble cart, filled with gold and Trojan wealth, driven by a working-class driver, to Achilles' camp to ransom his son Hector's body. He will approach Achilles on a personal level, not as a king of Troy. He will change the assumptions of civilization.

He approaches his wife, Hecuba, and in an epic speech, tries to persuade her that his plan is sanctioned by his vision.

"But to Hecuba the image is a shocking one--she is more tied to convention than she believes--and as Priam warms to his subject she grows more and more disturbed."

Malouf writes beautifully, and one of my favorite books of all time is An Imaginary Life, the novel he wrote about Ovid in exile and his encounters with a feral boy. Ransom is quieter, more formal. The epic dignity is there. It is a beautiful, short book.

Graham's Black Ships revisits the Aeneid: I've barely started it, but I can hardly wait!


Ellen said...

As you must know, Priam visiting Achilles in this way occurs at the end of the Ilaid (Book 24).
Two summers ago we read Christa Wolff's Cassandra on WWTTA. Superb.


Frisbee said...

Malouf rewrites Homer's Priam episode by stressing Priam's new idea that chance has played and will play a role in Troy. I was fascinated.

Ellen, I'll have to reread Cassandra. In Ransom, Priam's ideas about his two prophet children, Cassandra and Helenus, are also novel. He believes Cassandra is too out there with her visions, while Helenus is too political. Priam also has visions, about which he tends to be discreet.

Buried In Print said...

i studied Latin in university to meet the Second Language Requirement, which I could have more easily done with French, but I thought the idea of learning Latin very Romantic! The order, the rhythm ::sigh::

Myth Retellings: Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson's Weight. I don't read widely in this area, but I've been impressed by what I have read.

Frisbee said...

Thank you so much for the recommendations! Often I collect the books and admire them. I found one called Alcestis, by Katharine Beutner: she was a classics major so of course I have to support her. I