By Alec Greenfield
Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, 345 pages), is an eccentric addition to the King Arthur corpus. Those who have certain expectations regarding the fantasy genre should set those expectations aside when they sit down to read it. This novel, Ishiguro’s first in a decade, reinvents the most English of folk legends and turns it into a very personal vision; the book will no doubt appal Arthurian scholars. As for casual fans - if you are expecting a semi-sequel to T.H. White’s lively The Once and Future King, then you will be disappointed.
The main characters in The Buried Giant are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in England’s Dark Ages. They belong to a tribe of Britons. For those of you not up to speed on British history, the so-called Dark Ages refer to the time period (roughly 5th and 6th centuries C.E.) when the Roman Empire lost its hold on the island nation and Saxon tribes from northern Europe began invading and settling. The presence of these new Saxon tribes caused friction and outright conflict with the older Briton communities. The legend of King Arthur, who was a Briton, rose up during this era.
Axl is a former knight of the Round Table, but his mind, and that of Beatrice, is clouded. Near the end of his life, King Arthur asked his sorcerer, Merlin, to cast a spell of forgetfulness over all the tribes. After many years of wars, Arthur wanted to preserve peace in the kingdom after his death. Merlin used a dragon named Querig to achieve this result; so long as the dragon breathes out its mist, the people will forget their past hatred. But there’s more to it than that. Axl has a vague recollection of once being a knight, but he cannot remember for certain. Both Axl and Beatrice know they have an adult son, but cannot recall all the details. Where is he now?
It’s a shame that the philosopher George Santayana was born far too late. He would have advised Arthur, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Based on the descriptions in the novel, life on the island is not particularly peaceful or pleasant. Axl and Beatrice live in a cavernous establishment dug directly into a hill. Ishiguro describes it as a “warren” – a rambling series of corridors and chambers in which an entire community lives in squalor. Ishiguro conveys a memorable picture here of nature invading the bizarre architecture (writing about the couple’s chamber door): “…a large wooden frame criss-crossed with small branches, vines, and thistles which someone going in and out would each time have to lift to one side.” Furthermore, we see that people are just as suspicious and violent as they were during wartime. Outsiders are viewed as either possessed or dangerous, and every man is quick to draw a sword.
Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their depressing home life and find their half-forgotten son. They hope to move in with him. On their journey, they encounter several unique individuals: an orphaned Saxon boy named Edwin, a lone warrior named Wistan, and the aged knight Sir Gawain. Gawain’s mission is to find and slay the dragon Querig in order to lift the spell. During their long walk, they must be mindful of skulking ogres. Viewed in this light, The Buried Giant is a classic saga.
My first thought on finishing the book was that Ishiguro loves symbols. Let’s count a few. Everyone in the warren is an amnesiac, and Axl and Beatrice are denied even one candle to light their room – a life without “illumination.” Check out their names: Beatrice is a reference to the lead character in Dante’s Paradiso (a tip-off as to where the novel is headed), while Axl is the Scandinavian version of Absalom. If you remember your lessons from Sunday school, Absalom was the rebellious son of King David. So Axl has some personal history to hide. When we encounter the dragon near the end, it is not quite what we expect, its physical state a clear analogy to England at that time. The ferryman the couple meets has a parallel in Greek mythology. If you enjoy decoding symbols, then this is the novel for you.
My second thought is that The Buried Giant is an assured artistic statement. Ishiguro could have easily used the King Arthur legend to write an entertaining rendition along the lines of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Pendragon Cycle. But Ishiguro has loftier ambitions. This novel is a meditation on the power of myth, memory, and the human need for loving relationships. He uses the famous legend as a platform for his exploration of these themes. In my view, it is speculative fiction of a high order: an Arthurian fantasy transformed into literary art.
Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.