That’s where David Malouf found room to write his wonderful little novel, . Between the lines of Book XXIV of the Iliad, Malouf has drawn prose pictures of Achilles and King Priam, culminating in the King ransoming the body of his son, Hector, from his killer. In the process, he creates a hero of Priam, a king who wins one battle not with weapons but with an idea.
’It seems to me,’ he says, almost dreamily, ‘that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course.’
His revolutionary act is to go himself, as a father, without any paraphernalia of kingship or power but a wagonload of treasure, to beg, as a father, for the return of his son’s body to be mourned properly by his people. To do this, he asks that a simple carter’s wagon, with two ordinary mules, driven by an ordinary muleteer, be hired, filled with precious things, and that they two go alone.
On the way, they talk a little, stop at a stream to cool their feet, and eat some cakes that the driver has brought. Priam, being in mourning, had not thought to ask for provisions and apparently his courtiers had taken him at his word that he would travel simply, in a white robe, taking nothing but the loaded wagon. Priam finds his driver interesting in ways he had not anticipated, as if you had found yourself peering through the crack in a door … into the fellow’s life, his world …
That matter of the little cakes, for instance. The ingredients that went into them, … It had never occurred to him that the food that came to his table so promptly, and in such abundance, might have ingredients. That a griddlecake…might have some previous form as batter
.Malouf takes a wonderful detour between the lines, imagining the driver and the king, and lets us travel with them inevitably toward a moment that has lived in human imaginations for over 3,000 years.
Think of thy father, and this helpless face behold
See him in me, as helpless and as old!
Though not so wretched: there he yields to me,
The first of men in sovereign misery!
Thus forced to kneel, thus groveling to embrace
The scourge and ruin of my realm and race;
Suppliant my children’s murderer to implore,
And kiss those hands yet reeking with their gore!
— Spoken by Priam to Achilles; , Book XXIV, Pope's translation
By the time he does so, he is no longer simply Priam the doomed king of Troy. He is Priam, a man with whom we have spent some time, dabbled our feet on a hot day in a cooling stream, and shared a simple meal. With Priam and the muleteer, we have lived a little more fully in the spaces between the lines.