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128 pages, Kindle Edition
First published January 1, 2009
Often, in the lapse of light in the chamber where he sits nodding, or in a leisure hour beside the fishpond in his garden, one or other of the gods will materialise, jelly-like, out of the radiant vacancy. 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 around him – mulberry leaves afloat on their shadows, the knobbly extrusions on the trunk of a pine – and the weightless medium in which his consciousness is adrift, where the gods, in their bodily presence, have the same consistency as his thoughts.
Mightn’t the gods regret it too, and think they acted too hasty, and be sorry now to have seen all that strength go for nothing in the world? Ah, there’s many things we don’t know, sir. The worst happens, and there, it’s done. The fleas go on biting. The sun comes up again.
Then Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication:
“Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man
like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps
he too is worn down by enemy troops,
with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin.
Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive,
feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward
to seeing his child, whom he loves dearly, come home.
My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men
in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive.
I had fifty sons before the Achaeans came here,
nineteen from a single woman, and all the rest
were borne to me by other wives in my palace.
Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war.
The only one I could truly count on, the one
who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him
a few days ago as he fought to defend his country:
Hector. It is for his sake that I have come,
to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom.
Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember
your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is,
since I have endured what no mortal ever endured:
I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children. 24.475-497
“Father,” he [Achilles] says again, aloud this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty. “Peleus! Father!”
The great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee*, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe. Automedon and Alcimus, their swords now drawn and gleaming, leap to his side.
Achilles, startled, looks again….
“I am Priam, King of Troy,” he says simply. “I have come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home.” (pp. 174-5)
"'Achilles,' he says, his voice steady now, 'you know, as I do, what we men are. We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us--with all of us, every one--and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses. For the sorrows that must come sooner or later to each one of us, in a world we enter only on mortal terms.'"Upon reading this I suddenly realized that Malouf wants us to realize, just as Priam and Achilles have, that being Human, and therefore mortal, is better than being one of the Immortals. Humans, with all of our warts and short-comings, have reasons to live and love, reasons to do the right things, and reasons to make our brief lives mean something that might be remembered through the ages, or even for just a few moments. Homer, through The Iliad, makes us remember Achilles and King Priam, and Malouf's novel helps us better understand why we should.