Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

“Solemn oaths undone in cruel slaughter”: Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Each of Ishiguro’s first six novels consists of the first-person narrative of its central character. The Buried Giant (2015) stands apart from them: while it too has an “I”, that “I” (a few asides apart) does not take up the narrative till the book’s final chapter. (There are in addition two “reveries”, in which an aged knight tells himself about his life.)

In the first-person novels, the protagonists have a tendancy towards self-deception: their understanding of themselves and their circumstances are (to some extent wilfully) limited. (You can find what I’ve written about Never Let Me Go on my blog, and about the short stories in Nocturnes in an earlier issue of this newsletter.)

In The Buried Giant, the whole country is enveloped in a memory-corroding mist: nobody is entirely sure why they behave as they do, or what they have done in the past, though the degree of bewilderment is not evenly distributed. The novel is set in Britain some decades after the death of King Arthur. Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is still alive though now an old man. He is still doing his best to carry out a task entrusted to him by Arthur but he finds the armour that he wears increasingly a burden both to himself and to his patient but worn out old horse:

I curse this armour more and more. Has it really saved me from much? A small wound or two at best. It is the sword, not the armour, I have to thank for this abiding health. (p. 232)

The country is at peace: travelling Britons may stay a night in a Saxon village or even, as in the case of Ivor, live there long-term and become respected and influential. Britons and Saxons have their villages within walking distance of each other without the eruption of conflict. It seems that the only threat to the safety of the people comes from marauding ogres and a dragon named Querig who now herself too old to get out and cause mayhem as she used to.

At the centre of the novel are two elderly Britons, Axl and Beatrice, a husband and wife. Axl understands, though he doesn’t say so, that Beatrice will soon die and that there is some outstanding dispute (though he doesn’t remember exactly what) involving their son, so the two of them set off to try to find the son. They go part of the way with two Saxons, Wistan, a warrior from the East of the country (who was nevertheless brought up and trained among Britons) and Edwin, a 12-year-old whom Wistan rescued from ogres who had seized him.

While held by the ogres, Edwin was bitten by a baby dragon. On seeing the bite, his family, who had earlier been distraught at what the ogres might do to him, suddenly wanted to kill him. So, Wistan rescued him again.

It eventually emerges that long ago, during Arthur’s reign, Axl had been an important and admired Briton. Gawain recognizes him at once but keeps the fact to himself, while Wistan thinks Axl might have been someone that he had admired when he was a child among the Britons. Gawain remembers that Axl

had never been much of a swordsman, his skill being for diplomacy and, when required, intrigue. (p. 263)

Back in that forgotten time, Axl had negotiated a treaty between Arthur on one side and the Saxons on the other, according to which the soldiers and warriors on each side would continue to make war to their hearts’ content, but villages, families, wives and children would be off limits. In agreeing this treaty, neither Axl nor Arthur was acting in bad faith. The arrangement they had agreed to held up for some years.

The problem was, it wasn’t bringing the conflict to an end. As Gawain explained to the older Axl, whose memory was returning piecemeal:

“… For that was a great treaty you brokered, and well held for years. Didn’t all men, Christian and pagan, sleep more easily for it, even on the eve of battle? To fight knowing our innocents safe in our villages? And yet, sir, the wars didn’t finish. Where once we fought for land and God, we now fought to avenge fallen comrades, themselves slaughtered in vengeance. Where could it end? Babes growing to men knowing only days of war …” (p. 312)

So, Arthur repudiated the treaty, ordering his soldiers to wipe out the Saxon villages, and to slaughter the children who would not now grow up to replace the present generation of Saxon fighters. Axl was horrified, cursed the king and denounced his betrayal. Gawain, in contrast, saw in Arthur’s decisive action “the hand of a truly great king” (p. 313), one who succeeded in bringing peace to the land.

To ensure that his perfidy would not be remembered, Arthur sent Gawain with four other knights to trap Querig and allow Merlin to enact some kind of magic spell that would turn the dragon’s breath into the mist that erased memories.

Now, at the time of Axl’s and Beatrice’s journey, Querig is old and feeble, but still breathing. The mist she exhales still suppresses memories, though perhaps not as effectively as it once did. In any case, she’s not going to live forever.

The Saxons in the East of the country are not disposed to wait. Wistan, whose extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and combat skills seem to be universally admired, has been sent by his king to kill Querig. When Gawain hears this he protests that killing the dragon is his job, one that Arthur had given him years before. Eventually, though, Gawain admits to Axl that his mission has not been to slay the dragon, but to protect her.

Wistan fights and kills Gawain and then kills the dragon. Beatrice in particular has been very much on Wistan’s side until now, believing that it’s better to remember the past, including the unpleasant or distressing bits than to live in blissful ignorance. So, Beatrice is at first pleased that Querig is dead. But then Wistan tells her and Axl what they should expect from the revival of memory in the country:

“… My king sent me to destroy this she-dragon not simply to build a monument to kin slain long ago. You begin to see, sir, that this dragon died to make ready the way for the coming conquest.” (p. 339)

To Axl’s scepticism about the strength of the Saxon forces, he answers:

”It’s true our armies are yet meagre in numbers, even in the fenlands. Yet look across this whole land. In every valley, beside every river, you’ll now find Saxon communities, and each with strong men and growing boys. It’s from these we’ll swell our ranks even as we come sweeping westward.” (p. 339)

Beatrice resists the growing belief that the bonds of community and the habits of peace will so easily be broken:

“… You see yourself how in these parts it’s your kin and mine mingle village by village. Who among them would turn on neighbours loved since childhood?” (p. 339)

Wistan tries to explain his own feelings about the carnage to come:

“I’d take delight if I could, Master Axl, for it’ll be vengeance justly served. Yet I’m enfeebled by my years among you, and try as I will, a part of me turns from the flames of hatred. It’s a weakness shames me, yet I’ll soon offer in my place one trained by my own hand, one with a will far cleaner than mine.” (p. 340)

He means Edwin, of course, whom he has already required to swear that he will hate all Britons, and will not soften towards them. For Wistan, the redress of injustice is indistinguishable from revenge, and the coming conquest will be revenge “justly served” for the long-hidden perfidy of King Arthur.

Earlier, when they find themselves in a monastery which, as Wistan quickly perceives, was once a Saxon fortress, he point out how the beseiged inhabitants would have taken, and delighted in, a kind of anticipatory revenge against the attacking Britons:

“… The fort may hold several days, perhaps even a week or two. But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they’ve seen it already, from whence they fled. They’ve seen the enemy burn and cut, take turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds. They know this is to come, and so must cherish the earlier days of the siege, when the enemy first pay the price for what they will later do. In other words, Master Axl, it’s vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place …” (p. 162)

It should be clear by this point that the novel is an examination of the founding myths of the English and (to a lesser extent) Welsh nations. Because we are dealing with myth, not history, Ishiguro has plenty of scope for invention and speculation. The story he presents is a morally complex one. How is the reader to view Arthur’s actions, for a start?

Gawain first introduces himself as “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice” (p. 121). But even this is not necessarily to imply that Arthur continued to rule with wisdom and justice right up to the end of his reign. It is clear that the peace he bought with his breach of faith — and with the lives of innocent children — was never likely to outlive Querig. It would last a few decades at best. Did he pay too high a price?

Whether he did or not, the novel implies that the attempt to fight wars in accordance with civilized rules will usually be doomed. The consquences of defeat will be so catastrophic that even a leader as wise and just as Gawain believed his uncle to be will be unable to resist the temptation to take some decisive but illegitimate advantage.

There’s a curious parallel between this novel and 2000’s When We Were Orphans. In the earlier novel, Christopher Banks, who has spent his childhood in Shanghai, grows up to become a consulting detective (obviously in imitation of Sherlock Holmes) partly in the hope of eventually finding and rescuing his parents, both of whom he believes to have been kidnapped. In fact, it turns out that his father has simply abandoned the family, in part out of despair at being able to live up to the moral standards required by Christopher’s mother, a campaigner against the opium trade.

But Christopher’s mother really has been kidnapped, by a warlord she angered and insulted. Christopher delays for many years before going back to Shanghai to search for his parents: his notion of what might have happened to them seems to be frozen in time, so that he still thinks they might be held in the house where they were orinally brought by the kidnappers so many years earlier. It’s as if he can’t face the prospect of thinking through what is likely to have happened to them.

Edwin, the young Saxon in The Buried Giant likewise goes in search of his kidnapped mother. She was taken by Britons when he was 5 years old, so he has been waiting for only seven years, a much shorter period than Christopher’s delay. Edwin imagines he hears his mother’s voice calling for him to come and find her.

This happens only after he has been bitten by the baby dragon. Edwin can barely be restrained from rushing off to where he believes his mother to be. Wistan ties a rope around him so that he can follow. But Edwin in fact leads Wistan to Querig’s hiding place. So, it would seem that Ishiguro has returned to the idea that a character who intends to find and rescue his missing mother turns out to have been unknowingly pursuing another quest entirely.

Edition: Faber paperback, 2021. The quotation in the title of this post is to be found on page 335.

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