“For in this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”
A generation after King Arthur’s death, an uneasy calm hangs over South Britain. Saxon and Briton, once implacable foes, now live together in relative peace. But all is not well. Ogres prowl the edge of the village stockades, making daring raids to carry off unwatched children. Briton soldiers roam the countryside, lying in wait for a Saxon warrior on a quest. High up in a mountain fastness, monks use an old torture device to expose their bodies to the beaks and talons of wild birds, in expiation for some nameless, horrible crime. A mist of forgetfulness, arising from the breath of the dragon Querig, which clouds the people’s minds with uncertainty and leaves only the vaguest remembrance of things past, lies heavily upon the land. Boatmen wait to ferry old couples to the island of afterlife, charged with separating them forever unless they can recall their most cherished memories, even through the mist. And Sir Gawain, long ago of King Arthur’s court, now a feeble, aged knight, waits to carry out his old command to slay the dragon and lift the mist of forgetfulness, once and for all.
In this strained climate, Axl and Beatrice, an old couple, decide to leave their village to pay a visit to their son, whom they have not seen in years. The mist has robbed them of their memory of why and when he left them; they remember only that he lives in a village a little way away. On their path, circumstances ensure that they fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who (like Sir Gawain) has been charged with destroying the dragon Querig, to break the mist; and Edwin, a Saxon boy suffering from a dragon bite, who Wistan believes will lead them to Querig’s lair. And before long, they meet Sir Gawain himself. As the journey progresses, and slivers of memory, of their own torn and conflicted pasts, begin to return to Axl and Beatrice, the quest for their son gradually becomes a quest, with Wistan, to lift the mist and find answers to the questions that they cannot still articulate.
Kazio Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is set in the Britain of the Grail Cycle, a mystical land peopled with knights-errant, quarrelsome kings, boatmen to the afterlife, ogres, pixies, and of course, the titular “buried giant”, a dragon. It involves duels, battles, run-ins with ogres and other monstrous beasts, daring subterranean escapes, and an overarching quest that unifies the diverse characters and the divergent narrative strands. On the basis of these well-worn tropes, one might at first blush place The Buried Giant within the canon of high/romance fantasy, located in the ambiguous half-historical, half-imaginary time and space that is a staple feature of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.
Unsurprisingly, though, The Buried Giant resists any such easy classification. This is perhaps because Ishiguro’s choice of genre is – in my opinion – instrumental. An writer who has won critical acclaim for novels such as The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go has chosen the Arthurian romance as the framework for his latest novel not because of the narrative possibilities that such a world (with its established conventions, traditions and folklore) would allow him, but because it serves as a vehicle for a deeper set of political and moral arguments (or perspectives) that he wishes to express.
How does this play out in The Buried Giant? To start with, the novel is much more strongly allegorical than most fantasy writing. Ever since Tolkien expressed his “cordial dislike” for allegory, there has been a circumspection about allowing fantasy to collapse into a morality tale. In The Buried Giant, however, the moral question is categorically framed almost from the very beginning, and is reiterated whenever the fantastic elements of the story threaten to take over. For instance, immediately after discovering their torture/expiation device, one of the moments of high suspense and drama in the novel, Wistan asks the monks, “is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers?” Instances like these abound. Even as Sir Gawain hacks at a monster, or as pixies attack a rowboat in the middle of the river, the question remains foregrounded: can peace only be bought by an enforced forgetfulness of past crimes?
The allegorical focus of the novel also ensures that a number of the characters remain dimly impressionistic, at times even appearing to be caricatures. Sir Gawain’s delightfully quixotic potential is never quite realised, Wistan fights valiantly but fails to free himself from the shackles of his chivalric knighthood, and Edwin, after a promising start, seems to simply fade away into a narrative shadow. The twin exceptions (or perhaps it should be called a single exception) are Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship is portrayed with great depth and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, has left its pages and lodged itself firmly in the reader’s mind. Perhaps The Buried Giant is better read not as an Arthurian allegory about the connections between violence, collective and individual memory, but as an exploration about the “black shadows [that] make part of the whole” (p. 343) of any relationship (with an incidental, fantastic backdrop).
Such a reading is reflected in the style of the novel, which proceeds in a slow, meandering and unhurried way, much like Axl and Beatrice’s slow progress through the countryside, and their conversations with each other. Dialogue predominates over action; and even action takes its own, leisurely time. The duels are described as though they are being fought in slow motion, and the battles have an unreal, dreamlike quality about them. Much like The Remains of the Day, the novel’s pace is determined from the perspective of its protagonist(s). In another way, this reflects how Ishiguro’s use of the genre is partial at best: it is the rare fantasy novel where the protagonists are, ultimately, passive spectators to most of the pivotal events, whose own quest recedes into irrelevance midway through the novel, and whose personal journey – ultimately – comes entirely apart from the core quest.
Questions about the role of memory and forgetting in shaping identity and conflict have been explored before, in fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is an outstanding example, but perhaps comparisons with Howard Jacobson’s J are most apposite. Like Jacobson, Ishiguro is working with a genre that he is unfamiliar with; like Jacobson, he is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of personal and collective memory at the same time; like Jacobson, there are times when the story seems to be subordinate to a broader politico-moral claim. And in my opinion, like Jacobson, he succeeds – but only partially.