I simply must admit it: when I first read through all 317 pages of The Buried Giant (2015) by the Nobel prize-winning author, I became engulfed by it. I carried that novel with me wherever I went and spent many nights mulling it over in my mind as I read those deliciously creamy pages. Yes, the medieval setting in mythologized post-Arthurian Britain (presumably around the sixth-century or so) wrapped me in a blanket of giddy contentment. The novel follows an endearing elderly couple who set out to visit the son they hardly remember due to an amnesiac mist surrounding the land of Britain filled with ogres, terrorizing pixies (remember the Greek’s Sirens?), and mysterious Monks- of course, it was a book I satisfyingly devoured. A book I picked up by another’s recommendation became a cherished and favorite novel of mine for many years to come. Quite simply, I became a Kazuo Ishiguro fan.
This novel has slowly simmered in my mind long after I finished that final page.
At its fundamental core, The Buried Giant is a love story for our dear Axl and Beatrice; they are our two elderly lovers that more modern society may deem too old to be of interest. The pure and tender love they share for one another over the decades they have spent in marriage is indeed an example of Couple Goals™. In my humble opinion, Ishiguro incorporates a bit of an agism conflict between the couple and the rest of the villagers in the warren. For instance, they are shown little to no respect, are not allowed to have a lit candle in their chamber, and the others in the warren appear to think them a bit incapable. In American Westernized culture, aren’t we also a bit hasty to roll our eyes and disregard the respect for our elderly and aged?
*takes a deep breath* ANYWAY.
The action of our story begins with Axl, our Gentle Man™ quietly slipping out of bed after awaking with a renewed sensation that he would soon come to a momentous decision, fueling him with excitement at this sudden remembering. He decides that the time has come for him and his wife, Beatrice, to set off on a journey to visit the adult son they forgot they had. What drove him away? Why have they not seen him? The couple’s shock comes in a saddened wave of guilt over forgetting him, though they still cannot recall his name or what he looked like. Why this forgetfulness? This issue here isn’t one related to age. All the dwellers of the land of Britain are affected by this amnesia, seemingly forgetting the events and details of the past, as well as even more recently, the day before. A mysterious, hazy mist covers the land. It is told that this mist comes directly from the breath of the dreaded dragon, Querig, whom our brave knight, Sir Gawain was instructed by the late King Arthur to destroy. He makes his entrance shortly…
Axl and Beatrice soon begin their perilous journey and come to an abandoned house where they meet an angry woman clutching a rabbit and harassing a boatman. That sounds to be a humorous sentence, yes? Well, it happened. We are introduced to a myth that boatmen will allow passage for couples deeply bonded and in love to pass together to a luscious island where they may spend their days in peace- if they can prove their love is unmarred. This boatman and his ferry are also reminiscent of Charon and the River Styx of the Underworld in Greek mythology.
Coincidence? I think not. The resemblance is uncanny and subtly hints at a masterfully effective foreshadowing interwoven throughout. *sniffles* *wipes away tears* AHEM.
The couple reaches a Saxon village where Beatrice often does her trading. She meets up with a woman who can provide her medicine for a terrible pain in her side that she’s been experiencing. We follow the couple in their stay at the mayor Ivor’s home whilst a quest is performed in search of the Young Lad™ Edwin, that was kidnapped by ogres shortly before the couple’s arrival in the village. Here, they meet the Saxon Warrior™ Wistan, who accompanies them on the rest of their journey to the darkly secretive Monastery and a Giant’s Cairn.
Beatrice infers that this mist might be a form of punishment from God, that perhaps He is ashamed of their pasts, from something so horrible they’ve done, that He is willing them to forget it. And quite possibly that God, too, has forgotten as well. The Princess™ was maybe closer to the truth, but largely unaware of the implications that notion suggested at the time.
Later, they run into one of the late King Arthur’s most trusted knights, Sir Gawain. They also reach the quiet Monastery, where they search out Father Jonus who may have a cure for Beatrice’s pain (all on their way of seeking their son’s village, of course). After discovering a disheartening torture device, the group realizes all is not as it seems; the monastery covers a labyrinth of bloody secrets and a nauseating history of violence and vengeance from years earlier.
This crux here was suspensefully surprising to come to this point alongside our lovable cast of characters. The reality of the wars fought, vengeance and hatred between the Britons and Saxons, broken treaties, and the bloodbath that followed creep a few steps closer into the light from their shadowy hiding places. Cue *gasps*. And the plot thickens.
Skipping ahead in the story for the sake of not spoiling further events (all of which can be discovered upon reading the novel in its entirety – do it! You’ll thank me later), it can be observed that The Buried Giant may be viewed as a portrait of the beautifully noble, ugly and bloody, wounded and ignorant humanity. Consider it better to obscure the truth of the dark past, blocking it from ever stepping back into the line of sight. Wrong. The residual damage deals a critical blow once the veil of amnesia is removed from the land, threatening once more: an outbreak of a hateful war with a hunger for revenge. A healthy dose of forgiveness might be the only mending for the Saxons and Britons. Can such terrible deeds be forgiven? Better yet, will they be forgiven?
Doesn’t silly humanity ever learn? Perhaps for some, ignorance really does mean bliss. Truths too gruesome, too complex, and too heartbreaking cause us to wish to forget because the alternative – remembering – is simply too painful to possibly endure. How do we forget the lessons we have learned from the devastating wars fought in our history as the human race? Or is it more that we have not learned much of anything at all? War, genocide (remember the Holocaust?), slavery, racism, mass shootings, the list goes on in the shameful atrocities of mankind. It could be noted that perhaps this is why many of us would relate to the desire for that amnesiac mist to remain. Can we bear the weight of it all?
I like to think that we can. We can learn. This time with peace over vengeance, love over hate, forgiveness over revenge. If we choose to lay down our weapons of destruction and let bygones be bygones, we can choose better this time. Of course, we shall make more mistakes. But each time that we fall, we may yet choose to do better still.
The novel is a meditation on memory and the unique power it holds in our lives. The Buried Giant is also a luminous novel that pokes questions into the very heart of humanity. One of the aspects I loved most about the novel is its unassuming philosophical nature in the realm of the fantastical. One could say it is a toned-down version of fantasy. As you can see, the ogres, the dragon, pixies, and other creatures don’t play such a large role overall. Sir Kazuo Ishiguro unapologetically explores these elements of love and war, vengeance and peace, the act of forgetting, and the profound isolation of journeying alone into the afterlife that oft leaves us haunted by truths each one of these concepts carries. Upon the closing of the Important Events™ that I purposely have not mentioned (for the sake of your reading), Axl and Beatrice partake in their own test of love and returned memories that bring them once more to the feet of the boatman.
The boatman coaxes the couple into allowing him to first take Beatrice to the much-awaited Harmonious Island™, where Axl assists Beatrice into the boat and tells her his love for her before he walks back to the shore. The boatman does not appear to notice Axl or keep his word at retrieving him- and wades on. The poignancy of this moment cannot be missed. One is born into the world alone and ultimately, leaves it, alone (no matter how strong the bond of love). The journey into the afterlife, as I interpret this stunning ending, must be one traveled by oneself. This particular resolution – or lack thereof – left me stunned. I legitimately sat back for several long minutes before attempting to pull myself back to reality from this novel. This may be considered a high-brow type of ending, which certainly pays off. It did win the Nobel Prize in 2017. Bravo, Sir Ishiguro. I thoroughly enjoy the speculation and various interpretations of motives and outcomes here that Kazuo Ishiguro invites with this particular choice of ending.
Would Axl sing sad songs in his eagerness to reunite with his beloved princess for the time when he, too, would cross to the island? Much like the story of Orpheus and his longing to be with his true love, Eurydice, in the Underworld?
Perhaps we shall never know.
Much like life, the forms that lurk in the shadows often need a little light to shine on them. A little bravery, even when the resolution isn’t going to be neatly defined. The words of Rainer Maria Rilke come to mind: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” I like to think that the intention set forth here by Kazuo Ishiguro is similar to this succinct notion. We must act with beauty and courage, to face that which frightens us. In the end, amid all of our mistakes and our terrible flaws -our hamartias- we are helpless for love.
In our wonderful but feeble human hearts, it can easily become commonplace to avoid hard truths that we would honestly rather forget- and even welcome the absence of. It is sensible to see how we may desire to call upon Lethe to wash us in forgetfulness and oblivion… Even still, the opportunity for the redemption of peace, forgiveness, and love is not too far away.
We shall hope and fight for the mist surrounding us to be lifted and cleared from before our straining eyes to finally see- and remember the lovely as well as the terrible. For both are absolutely necessary.
See you in the funny papers,
The Wallflower Maiden