While Priam’s decision to defy kingly conventions and act as ‘an ordinary man’ shows that a man’s actions can indeed make up a significant element of one’s identity, Malouf also makes it clear that a man’s emotional connections with others define him. Priam’s humble request of Achilles, and Achille’s agreement to this, humanize the two men and highlight their compassionate sides as opposed to their societal statuses.
However, the love both men have for their sons is, and always has been, entrenched in their identities, and prompts these life-changing actions.
In dismissing his royal obligations and appealing to Achilles as a man and a father, Priam defied his lifelong identity as a ‘ceremonial figurehead’ and redefined himself as ‘simply a man.’ Tormented by the idea that his fate lay with the gods, whom he believed were making a ‘mockery’ of him, Priam had previously believed that his identity was defined by their whims, and that he was powerless to change what they had predetermined.
However, upon being awakened by the Goddess Iris to the concept of ‘chance,’ Priam is empowered to try ‘something that might force events into a different course,’ going against the Gods’ wishes and defining himself by making his own decisions. In this way, Priam is able to escape the identity that has been forced upon him- that of a ‘ceremonial figurehead that might just as well be of stone and wood’, by personally taking action as an ordinary man and a father.
From this angle, it was indeed Priam’s actions as a man, ‘stripped of all glittering distractions and disguises,’ that redefined him as a human being.
Through his encounter with Priam, Achilles is ‘ransomed’ in that he is given the opportunity to make a decision as a father and a man of compassion in order to salvage his identity. Contrary to Priam’s notion that he is offering Achilles the chance “to break free of the obligation of being always the hero”, Achilles is enabled through his decision to give Hector’s body back to ‘break the spell’ of ‘self-consuming rage’ and grief over Patroclus’s death and regain a sense of humanity. After savagely dragging Hector behind his chariot fails to bring him closure and satisfaction after the death of his ‘soul mate,’ Achilles realizes that an act of redemption is needed to free himself from the ‘clogging grey web that enfolds him’ and define himself as a man rather than a ‘ravening beast.’ However, it is also due to a shared understanding between the two men of ‘a father’s soft affections’ that Achilles is touched by Priam’s speech and makes the decision to return the body of Priam’s son.
Although it was through taking these unlikely actions that Priam and Achilles were able to escape convention and create new identities for themselves, it was because of their love and human compassion as fathers that they were inspired to carry out the exchange. As Priam discovers during his journey with Somax and his meeting with Achilles, all humans are joined by their love and emotional connections, and it is this that determines the decisions a person makes in life. It is not only Priam’s desire to escape his kingly obligations, but his love for his son and Hecuba, whose motherly bond with Hector amplifies her grief, that cause him to swallow his ‘kingly pride and dignity’ in order to retrieve Hector’s body. It is then Priam’s appeal to Achille’s paternal side, asking him to consider if it had been Achilles’ son’s body ‘for whom you have a father’s soft affections, to whom you owe sacred duties that nothing, nothing in the world, can cancel’ being dragged behind a chariot, that convinces Achilles to make the decision that will redefine him as a man of values. Therefore, it is not just the actions themselves that define a person, but the love and mercy of common humanity that prompts these actions.
Achilles and Priam from acting purely as is appropriate to their roles as leaders of their people. It is therefore their emotional connections that define them as not just King of Troy and ‘Achilles the Brute, ’ but as ordinary human beings who share the natural emotions and desires of any man.