In popular culture, Achilles has fared pretty well. Though he came from an age crowded with demigods, he has outlasted his contemporaries to become uniquely prevalent in the modern imagination. Anybody who’s been devoted to a sports team knows that a season can be lost to a torn Achilles tendon (so named because Achilles learned archery from a great tutor, and their bows were made from ankle sinew), and anyone who’s ever uttered a cliché is familiar with an Achilles heel (derived from the post-Homeric legend that Achilles’s mother gripped his foot when she dunked him in the River Styx, thereby leaving it untouched, and unprotected, by the death-defying waters). Today, moreover, if you’ve ever flourished an emoticon you’ll affiliate the Greek warrior with Brad Pitt, all bronzed forearms and gorgeous pout.

But the Achilles who appears in literature is a more ambiguous hero, and for this dubious legacy as well as his superstardom he has Homer to thank. For one thing, the bulk of the Iliad is framed around Achilles’s least flattering hour, when, in the tenth year of the Trojan War, he has sulkily withdrawn from combat (and even prayed for Greek losses) because his general has stolen his girlfriend. Even his glorious moment of redemption, when he kills Hector and avenges the death of his closest friend, Patroclus, is stained by a similar childishness. Like a spoiled boy repeatedly smashing a toy he’s already broken, Achilles proceeds to defile Hector’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot as he circles Troy at full speed.

The figure who emerges from Homer’s epic has a lot in common with tarnished sports stars like Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods. Achilles is unmatched on the battlefield but disastrously ill equipped to be a paragon in any other aspect of life. We read with increasing dislike as he wrong-foots his way through Patroclus’ funeral games, his tears histrionic, his commands officious, his attempts at stoicism sententious and insincere. When finally Zeus has had enough of his depredations upon Hector’s body and orders him to yield it up to the Trojan king, Priam, the slain man’s father, Achilles snaps, “So be it. [Priam] can bring the ransom and take off the body,  / if the Olympian himself so urgently bids it” — a reaction that any parent of a teenager will easily translate as “Fine. Whatever.”

Priam’s visit to plead for Hector’s body is the basis of David Malouf’s slim, hypnotic novel Ransom, and it is characteristic of Achilles’ fate at the hands of the Muses that Priam owns this book almost from the outset. For emotional depth, farsightedness, and even courage, Achilles is a mere stripling sidekick to the bereaved Trojan king.

Even so, Malouf deals compassionately with Achilles, invoking what may seem like a curiously modern diagnosis for so ancient a story. When Ransom begins, Achilles is afflicted by feelings of emotional numbness, “a self-consciousness that at times makes us strange to ourselves and darkly divided.” He has avenged Patroclus and outraged Hector’s corpse and yet discovered that these acts have done nothing to assuage his guilt and sadness. So he is trapped in a “self-consuming rage,” taking out his anger on a dead body and knowing as he does so that he’s only sharpening his despair.

Priam is likewise haunted by an unappeased ghost. He has already lost 50 sons in the war, but Hector was different, the first born and first among his children in the king’s regard. As long as Hector’s body is held hostage, Priam’s mourning is without solace, and endless.

Ransom, then, is a novel about grief. Achilles is prevented from truly mourning for Patroclus because in his role as a hero he tries to conquer grief as he would any adversary, with strength of arm and will. The forlorn Priam is constrained by the obligations of royalty, which requires an outward equanimity in the face of catastrophe. His bold decision (conceived with some divine nudging) to go to Achilles in plain clothing, and with only a mule carter as his escort, is inspired by his need to break the strictures of his mighty role in order to discover a more human way to grieve. “I believe,” he tells his skeptical wife, Hecuba, “that the thing that is needed to cut the knot we are all tied in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new.”

This theme of newness is what elevates Ransom from a capable homage to the Iliad to a novel that expresses the distinctive fixations of a wise and searching writer. Throughout his impressive career — totaling over 20 books, including poetry and libretti — David Malouf has been charting treks into the unprecedented and undiscovered. Indeterminacy is at the heart of all his work. Most of his books take place in the shakily settled bushland of his native Australia, like the terrific story collection Dream Stuff (2001) or the book club favorite Remembering Babylon (1994), a novel about a European who was raised by aborigines and so serves as a kind of living bridge between civilized society and the frightening outback. But Ransom has the most in common with Malouf’s exquisite 1978 novel, An Imaginary Life, a fiction based on the Roman poet Ovid’s exile to the barbarian village of Tomis. Ovid is a cosmopolitan poet and lover forced to start over in rude surroundings; he soon comes to renounce his past and even distance himself from the meager trappings of civilization in the hinterlands of the empire. “What else,” he says, “should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown….”

Priam’s journey into the unfamiliar is immediately invigorating to his senses, and gives rise to some of Malouf’s most joyously descriptive prose. The king is struck, for instance, by the difference between the cunning silences that pervade the “realm of the royal” and the noisiness of nature:

…out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape….

Garrulous, unselfconscious nature is here personified by Priam’s mule carter, a commoner named Somax invented by the author. He’s a fine creation, often offering a sweetly funny counterpart to the grandeur of the legends who surround him. (When we first meet Somax, he notices a chickenhawk flying overhead; he is surprised that a royal priest proclaims the bird to be an eagle, provoking the palace to erupt in gratitude for Jove’s good omen.) During the trip he talks about his mules, his beloved daughter-in-law, and then his two dead sons. As he tells of his losses, a change comes over Priam like that which affects King Lear on the stormy heath — he is filled with empathy for another man’s sorrows.

It is this spirit of empathy, as much as the aid of the smart-alecky god Hermes, which allows Priam to gain access to Achilles and elicit from the warrior an unwonted tenderness. Priam and Achilles discover that they are linked not only by the decrees of destiny (they both possess a slippery prescience that Achilles will soon die and his son Neoptolemus will kill Priam) but by the fellowship of mortality. They see their own grief in the face of the other.

“Grief,” C.  S. Lewis wrote, “gives life a permanently provisional feeling.” A soft, evanescent Iliad novel is admittedly a strange thing to encounter, and it is jarring to make a cognitive association between the gentle breezes of Malouf’s passages and the sweat and ordure of Homer’s epic. War has a dreamlike unreality in Ransom — Somax, for one, gives no sign that he knows it’s been ongoing for a decade outside his city’s walls (his sons both died in domestic accidents; it’s hard to understand why they weren’t soldiers). Viewed from afar, the novel can seem diminutive.

Yet Ransom faithfully adapts the very brief parenthesis of amnesty that concludes the Iliad. The touchstone moment comes when, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, Achilles “gazed on Dardanian Priam / and wondered, and he saw his brave looks and listened to him talking.” It is possibly the first time in his adult life that Achilles has pensively listened to another person. Petulant and selfish to that point, Achilles is enlarged by his interaction with Priam; he becomes, at least for the moment, gracious, even mature.

Malouf depicts the complex kinship between these two enemies with beauty and prowess. The surest mark of his success is in the speech Priam delivers to Achilles when he begs for Hector’s body. In some ways, the whole of the Iliad converges upon this moment, and it contains the poem’s most famous line: “I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” You have to achieve a symmetry of eloquence and humility to make this plea convincing. Like so much else in Ransom, Malouf carries it off wonderfully:

Think, Achilles. Think of your son, Neoptolemus. Would you not do for him what I am doing here for Hector? Would your father, Peleus, not do the same for you? Strip himself of all ornaments of power, and with no concern any longer for pride or distinction, do what is most human — come as I do, a plain man white-haired and old, and entreat the killer of his son, with whatever small dignity is left him, to remember his own death, and the death of his father, and do as these things are honorably done among us, to take the ransom I bring and give me back my son.

Thus spoke the aged, godlike Priam.