The Use of Characterisation to Inspire Readers in Ransom and Beowulf
Through the use of characterisation, the true identities and traits of characters are able to be revealed to readers, particularly when viewed through qualities such as leadership. Collectively, this leads to narrative meaning becoming a tool that initiates thinking through the use of emotive language or exaggeration. This notion is evident in David Malouf’s historical fiction novel ‘Ransom’ and Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’, whereby they both glorify the common perception that wars and battles are heroic and honourable events, however, in present context such situations are perceived as inhumane and rather fuels the downfall of individuals. Specifically, Ransom derives from an epic poem in the ‘The Iliad’ that explores a few weeks of the ten-year Trojan War, using characterisation to focus on the burdensome and restricting nature of leadership in a monarchical society. Moreover, the epic poem set during the medieval literary period ‘Beowulf’, explores the two main events in the life of a legendary hero, Beowulf, with some references to the unsustainable nature of power and immortality. Essentially, both texts are fluid through any context as they depict characters who are intriguing and relevant to readers.
All individuals experience times of hardship that may be difficult to overcome, however for a leader to lead, they must be able to move on, in turn revealing to readers their true character and identity in either a positive or negative light. In Ransom, leadership eventually becomes a quality that vividly portrays to readers the true nature of the main protagonists, particularly during times of conflict. Here, it is of crucial value to explore how Malouf utilises leadership to characterise the inner worlds of Priam and Malouf, in turn instigating reader engagement.
At the forefront of the text, neither of these characters sustain a stable sense of identity as they are occupied with their social roles. Initially, Achille’s character has been complicated by the death of his friend Patroclus at the hands of the Trojan prince Hector, whereby the metaphor “clogging grey web” conveys the grief that entraps him and consequently tarnishes his image as a leader due to his barbaric act of revenge when killing Hector. Malouf’s previous epithet of Achilles’ “swiftness of foot” accentuates how his past strong characterisation as a godlike warrior is immediately undermined by the fact his “spirit” “deserted” him moments after the death – connotative of abandonment and loss of his identity. In the Iliad, Achilles kills Hector and drags his body behind his chariot in retribution for Patroclus’s death. However, Malouf characterises Achilles in this scene as not necessarily angry, but rather dead himself. This contemporary remaking of the Iliad positions readers to perceive the characters as more “normal” human beings and stresses that Ransom’s primary interest is storytelling and how stories get skewed in the telling (Murphy 2016).
Comparatively, Malouf utilises characterisation in Priam differently to depict him as a humane and compassionate character who is trapped between physicality and spirituality. Here, he is exposed to the same pains that impact other individuals but is trapped within a fixed social order that limits the way he can express himself. The use of a simile in “rattling about like a pea in the golden husk of his … dazzling eminence” conveys Priam’s worry of losing himself inside his role as a king. Here, Malouf signifies to readers the often-perceived idea that a leader’s character in a monarchical society must be suppressed and no emotion should be revealed. However, as the novel progresses Priam experiences extreme grief regarding the death of his son and realises the need to be “stripped off all distractions” of power and remain ‘bold’ in his decision to confront Achilles. Here, the elusive use of the negative connotation, “distractions”, is representative of Priam’s character as a humble leader who wants to “do what is most human”, rather than being the “figurehead”.
Furthermore, the emotive language in “the chance to break free of the obligation of being always the hero, as I am expected always to be the king. To take on the lighter bond of being simply a man…. Perhaps that is the ransom” characterises Priam as a humble leader and allows readers to foresee the importance of compassion and empathy in any aspect of life, whereby after a lifetime as a King, Priam wants to experience being an ordinary man and father. Ultimately, Malouf reveals to readers that it is Priams remarkable act of leadership that has influenced and transformed Achilles character by the end of the novel, into an empathetic and humane man who has “pity for one another’s losses” and is capable of sharing in other people’s misfortunes. It is important here to mention the incredible narrative meaning that is achieved through Malouf’s powerful word choice that he is acutely aware of. Here, Malouf’s aim is to express the beauty and, at the same time, a physical and spiritual instrument which touches an individual’s inner self (Shaw 2011).
The idea that leadership is a quality that can invite readers to see the true colours of characters during good and bad times continues in the poem ‘Beowulf’. Written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, the text displays all of the traits of a hero and leader through the main protagonists to depict to readers a good example of individuals who make sacrifices for their people. In this, the character Beowulf is characterised as a brave, strong and decisive leader who is loyal to his people. The author conveys Beowulf’s character to readers through other characters who speak highly of him.
For instance, the use of dialogue in Hrothgar’s comment “Beowulf’s doings were praised over and over again. Nowhere, they said…was there anyone better to rule a kingdom” (page 28, line 848-81) references Beowulf’s wisdom – a kingly trait. Furthermore, the use of third person in “through the strength of one they all prevailed; they would crush their enemy and come through in triumph and gladness” (page 23, line 675-708) conveys to readers how Beowulf’s strong character has not only impacted him directly but also holds an extensive value to his people, as it is this act of bravery and leadership that has kept them alive. Essentially, Beowulf’s characterisation invites reader engagement as it depicts how a true leader should be – brave, strong, caring and loyal. However, it is important to mention that Beowulf declares that his victory would have been impossible without the grace of God and constantly remembers god’s work/aid during his moments of pride, which again depicts Beowulf’s character (Bodek 2004).
On the contrary, King Hrothgar is depicted as a different kind of leader than that of the youthful warrior Beowulf, whereby he is characterised as more of a father figure to Beowulf and a model for the kind of king that Beowulf becomes. This representation of Hrothgar as a ‘mentor’ like figure is evident in one of the most important speeches of the epic, whereby the pleading tone in “beware of that trap” (line 1758) refers to hubris that can represent a lack of moral virtue in Beowulf’s character. This depiction of character invites readers as they witness an admirable moment of advice and mentorship.
Furthermore, the repetition of the word ‘you’ in “you hold power with balance, with the wisdom of the mind. And you shall bring peace to your people for a long time to come” demonstrates that the traits of warriors mentioned represent the full bloom of their abilities. This kind of leadership allows readers to be engaged with Hrothgar’s character as a kind, generous and concerned individual who is still ruling the throne but humbly believes that Beowulf is on the same hierarchal level as him. To gain proper insight into the narrative meaning within the poem, experts had to recognise the interaction between narrative and commentary, admire the massive portrayal of heroic identity and isolate the emotions evoked by the poem (Irving 1990). In other words, Beowulf testifies to the long-lastingness of narrative as a tool for thinking through the formulation and transmission of experiences and values (Herman 2003). Ultimately, narrative meaning in this text is conveyed through dramatic exaggerations which convey emotive language enriched with extensive symbolism and meaning.
Conclusively, in both texts character has been depicted through the dominant quality of leadership. This allows for readers to engage with the texts as they are able to gain insight into the types of characters represented and the implications this has on the individual’s identity. With this, it is important to recognise the impact narrative meaning has on the text. In Ransom, the modern remaking of the text has allowed readers to experience a more toned-down character of Achilles, whilst still maintaining the implicit beauty in his writing. In contrast, Beowulf conveys a traditional manner of writing, however, utilises characterisation to depict meaning. It is a common opinion that both these texts are highly recognised in the world of literature due to their timeless relevance and everlasting message – an individual should not suppress their identity due to their position, but rather shine through their admirable traits of compassion, loyalty and respect.
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