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The Buried Giant

November 5, 2017

With a giant in the title, you’d think I’d have expected to find ogres, pixies, and an actual knight of the round table in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and yet I kept being surprised by the fairy-tale elements because it reads like a very realistic story about a slow, careful old couple. Even though readers keep getting hints about how long ago this couple lived—they are Britons who start out traveling from their home warren to a nearby Saxon village—they seem like any old couple still fond of each other. Their goal in setting out on a journey isn’t clear, and at first readers may chalk it up to the vagaries of old age. In the end, though, everything is revealed to have been very, very literal, from the very beginning. Their memory loss is real, and it’s caused by the breath of a dragon. Their goal is to find their son, and it turns out that’s where they’ve been headed, all along.

We get to know the old couple, Axl and Beatrice, through their everyday actions and conversation. As they set out, they lament the way they can’t remember what they son looked like. Beatrice says he had
“A strong, handsome face, that much I remember. But the colour of his eyes, the turn of his cheek, I’ve no memory of them.”
“I don’t recall his face now at all,” Axl said. “It must be all the work of this mist. Many things I’ll happily let go to it, but it’s cruel when we can’t remember a precious thing like that.”

Early in their journey, they meet a boatman and a woman who is angry with him because she says “the boatman took away my husband and left me waiting on the shore, after forty years and more of our being husband and wife and hardly a day apart.” Meeting the angry woman makes Beatrice remember another woman who had come by their warren saying that “her husband too had been taken by a boatman and she left behind on the shore” and she worries about being separated from Axl. They reassure each other and walk on. Although the boatman seemed a bit Charon-like, I figured that was an intentional echo and read on.

When Axl and Beatrice stop at the Saxon village, they hear about fear and unrest in the country, and they acquire two more traveling companions, a boy cast out from the village because of what seems like superstition and a mighty Saxon warrior named Wistan. They head for a monastery where Beatrice hopes to get some advice about a mysterious pain, and along the way they meet Sir Gawain, who introduces himself as “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice. I was settled many years in the west, but these days Horace and I travel where we may.” We get some hints that Wistan, Gawaine, and Axl were once acquainted, but like the hints of enmity and revenge between Britons and Saxons they continue to meet along their way, they are disregarded. The “mist” has made them forget their quarrels, if they ever had any.

At the monastery, Wistan reveals the purpose of one of the towers to be tactical, a place to trap and kill Briton enemies. He is teaching the boy to fight and to hate Britons, although at the same time they continue to treat Beatrice and Axl kindly and protect them. Along their journey, we learn about a few more of the memories Axl and Gawain retain, mostly impressions but sometimes a concrete story, like the one about a British maiden that Gawain protected even after bringing down her Saxon enemy so that “he lay breathing on the earth, his legs no more use to him, staring his hatred up at the sky” and seeing her as she
“stood above him, the shield tossed aside, and the look in her eyes chilled my blood over all else to be seen across that ghastly field. Then she brought the hoe down not with a swing, but a small prod, the another, the way she is searching for potatoes in the soil, until I am made to cry ‘Finish it, maiden, or I’ll do it myself!’”
We find out that Axl was once called “the Knight of Peace,” sent into the countryside by Arthur to make peace between Saxon and Briton villages and then dismayed to get news of
“women, children and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them, now all slaughtered by our hands, even the smallest babes. If this were lately done to us, would our hatred exhaust itself? Would we not also fight to the last as they do, each fresh wound given a balm?”
At this point, it becomes obvious to readers that the “mist” is one of the last effects of a strong, centralized government. Not only the predicament of the characters, but the political overtones of telling such a tale at such a time (the novel was published in 2015) become clear. What will any of us become without centralized governments that can broker peace between factions?

Eventually we will become like Axl and Beatrice, clinging to each other even while various temptations for forgetting offer themselves, like the voice that speaks to Axl saying
“You’ve known a long time now there’s no cure to save her. How will you bear it, what now lies in wait for her? Do you long for that day you watch your dearest love twist in agony and with nothing to offer but kind words for her ear?”

In the end, of course, the dragon is so nearly gone that slaying it is only a slight hastening of the end of the mist, the end of Gawain, the end of peace in the land.

Axl and Beatrice, who have refused to be turned from their quest to remember, end up with the boatman again, for of course he has always been their destination, having ferried their son over long ago. Axl remembers his “foolishness and pride” and says that although the boatman may “think our love flawed and broken” he hopes that “God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

It’s a slow tale, and a sad one, and full of both irritations and insight, like listening to a very old person in order to understand more about how the world as we know it was created, not only by a Creator and its most famous human architects, but by the individual actions of each person who lived before our time upon the earth. The title makes us think about the giants buried beneath our own land, those tales of hatred and revenge that we would tremble to awaken.

More discussion of this book today at The Emerald City

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2017 1:16 pm

    I like the sound of this. I keep meaning to read the Ishiguros that I haven’t got round to yet – I think I’ll make this the next one!

    • November 5, 2017 1:28 pm

      You should. I have no idea why I left it unread this long. Maybe because it is the story I really needed at this point in what feels like the ebbing tide of history.

  2. Carol S Schumacher permalink
    November 5, 2017 2:12 pm

    Sounds fun!

    • November 5, 2017 2:58 pm

      I didn’t find it fun, but very sad. A lot of it will ring true to you (and to anyone who has been married for a long time).

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