There you see him in the picture above, the lone hero, bundle on his back, pausing as he catches sight of his journey’s end, glittering against the sky. This is the major trope of fantasy fiction, the Hero’s Journey. Whether it is to find a magical object, ‘one ring to bind them all’ as in Lord of the Rings, the secret of eternal life as in Gilgamesh, or the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend, the long and perilous journey has a clear goal. In the context of this journey the reader can usually reliably expect a vividly created world with varied terrain (the journey has to be arduous), peasants, ogres, wizards, dark lords and many beings of dubious intent. Diana Wynne Jones has written an amusing and informative Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which gives exhaustive information on all aspects of traditional fantasy fiction.
I preface my review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant with this overview of the accepted tropes of fantasy fiction to emphasize the ways in which this book is not what the fantasy reader would expect. But first let me declare myself, I loved this book. It felt to me like a beloved old book I had read many times in my life. The storytelling voice of the first pages at times falls away into the voices of Axl or Sir Gawain, but then again and again comes back to comment or muse on the events that have taken place.
We try, not always successfully, to avoid spoilers on this blog, and to avoid spelling out the plot. We hope to give tantalising glimpses that will make you want to read the book for yourself.
The Buried Giant starts, ‘You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.’ Roman ruins lie scattered, and the Saxons have conquered the Britons. There are ogres and bogs, and the villagers live in ‘warrens,’ structures tunnelled out under hillsides. And we have no hero or heroine as main characters, just two old Britons with fading memories living in one of these collective housing groups where their existence is tenuous. The fire is in the centre of the structure and Axl and Beatrice live at the furthest edge away from the fire. They don’t have a strong wall protecting them from the outside world. Their status is low and getting lower. Recently some children aggressively took their candle, and when Beatrice gets another it is taken from them by the pastor. They are told they are no longer entitled to have light.
The population in general are stricken by loss of memory and blame their fading memories on the mist coming from the breath of the dragon Querig. Beatrice is more deeply affected by the loss of memory than Axl. He is able to recollect more but this leads to arguments. He can remember the ‘red-haired woman’ a healer who was kind and cared about the village people, in whom Beatrice refuses to believe, and whom his neighbours have forgotten too.
‘Must have been a long time ago,’ they say.
They set out on a journey to see their son, whom they can barely remember, as Axl says,
‘I don’t recall his face now at all…It must be the work of all 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.”
As they journey they meet others, among them the warrior Wistan, the boy Edwin, and Sir Gawain. Gawain and Wistan have opposing aims in their journeys, one to kill and one to preserve. But Sir Gawain is no longer the sprightly Green Knight, he is a mournful old man in rusty armour on a bony horse, a Don Quixote figure.
Axl’s past becomes a little clearer as they travel, as some he encounters on his way remember him as one with status and power. At first he denies it, but more of his former life slowly emerges. Beatrice, who a great deal of the time is asleep in a hump of bedding, also has the capacity to give wise council at times. Axl calls her princess, an endearment or based on something in her past we are not sure.
The story they tell about their son waiting to see them becomes stronger as they travel but it is still not clear that they know where he lives or how.
People lie to them, they lie to each other. They meet good monks and bad, and along the way the use of the mist of forgetfulness becomes the central argument of the book. Is forgetting good and necessary in the service of peace and reconciliation? Or do we lose our precious lives when we can no longer recall the important events of our past?
Bitterness seems to be the result of memory returning to Axl and Beatrice, as Axl says,
‘…was it what I failed say or do? It’s all distant now, like a bird flown by and become a speck in the sky.’
When The Buried Giant came out some readers of Ishiguro were disturbed by the fact it could be described as ‘fantasy’. I think Ishiguro is playing with this genre to raise important questions. I also don’t think it is allegory in the purest sense and think it unfair for James Wood to criticise him for not writing a true allegory when this was not his intention. I think this writer has always been interested in memory and perception as we see in The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans. And I am happy to read this supple and expressive prose rather than his usual faux British style. Highly recommended.