THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro is a literary novel in fantasy fiction form. The novel is in four parts, primarily written from the perspective of a third-person narrator, with the exception of the first and last chapter of Part 3 Gawain’s First Reverie and Gawain’s Second Reverie (told in first-person by the aged knight of King Arthur, Sir Gawain), and the final chapter (told in first-person by a ferryman).
Kazuo Ishiguro is a literary giant, the author of REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO, and this is the fruits of a long buried idea of his, his first release in ten years. As with REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO, Ishiguro continues his thesis on the decisions of individuals in a world where we are seemingly powerless pawns being blown around by fate. The defiance of one can cause an untraceable ripple effect of slightly changing attitudes during long periods of upheaval. Ishiguro likes to show how a single personal relationship and how it softens a person can be the catalyst for changing bureaucratic or political systems. One shred of tenderness can be infinitely infectious, but over a very long time, and perhaps in the smallest of ways, so small it is often overlooked. In REMAINS OF THE DAY the rigid butler, Stevens, is changed by the compassion and vulnerability he sees in the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, in the lead-up to WWII. This personal relationship happens in the halls of a traditional country manor where English aristocrats are choosing whether or not to side with Germany in the expanding conflict. Miss Kenton causes Stevens to ever so slightly change his perspective on the world in which he lives and his role in it. In THE BURIED GIANT it is Axl who makes Sir Gawain reconsider his staunchly held positions. He softens at the idea of having a wife like Beatrice as his loyal shadow, and reconsiders why he does simple things like lean on his sword.
THE BURIED GIANT is an allegory about the futility of intergenerational grudges. England was once connected to the mainland of Europe and when sea levels increased it became an island and the people that remained there developed their own language and culture. We now refer to them as Celtic people, but they are also known as native Britons. The Britons were tribal people who lived in caves and tunnels and warrens. Ishiguro describes it in the novel as “For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors.” Britons spent a period living under Roman rule, but when the Roman-empire declined and the Roman soldiers abandoned England they left a void which was filled by Germanic Anglo-Saxon migrants. THE BURIED GIANT takes place during this time where Britons, led by King Arthur, are warring against the new settling Saxons. The debate is over the treatment of women and children after men fight, whether children left alive grow up to avenge their fathers, or whether the slaughter of civilians “forged instead in iron” the circle of hate.
The plot of THE BURIED GIANT is essentially a road trip story arc. Elderly Briton couple Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to locate a son they barely remember. They encounter a cast of characters on their way and get side-tracked with several other quests and tasks. They travel with two Saxon men, a warrior named Wiston and a cursed boy named Edwin. Regardless of kindness shown by individual Britons, one Saxon says to the other “Should I fall and you survive, promise me this. That you’ll carry in your heart a hatred of Britons,” and, “We have a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of this novel is the inclusion of various mysterious ferryman and what they represent. The image of the ferryman draws an immediate association with Dante’s ferryman to the River Styx, especially when the destination is described as “one who arrives there will walk among the greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul”. Axl and Beatrice cross paths with a disgruntled elderly woman who believes the ferryman cheated her out of a future with her husband. The ferryman tells a different tale saying “I’d happily have ferried this woman, but when she understood she wouldn’t be with her husband, she declared she didn’t care for such solitude and refused to go” and referring to a series of qualifying questions that a couple must be able to answer in order to take a joint journey to this isle of solitude.
A perishing tethered dragon, with a hawthorn bush as its only companion, proves another striking image, reminiscent of the child kept in perpetual filth and misery in Ursula LeGuin’s short story THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS . It is something of an anticlimax in a novel that is more mythbusting than epic legend. This is not a satisfying tale by any strictly literal reading. It requires a second-reading and at least a passing knowledge of modern entrenched military disputes such as Bosnia or Rwanda to contextualise what Ishiguro is trying to convey.
The title THE BURIED GIANT hints that there will be some formidable mega-enemy to rally against. But like the cultural reference it is most likely inspired by (the quote “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”) the ‘giant’ is not an ogre or a dragon, it is an attitude shift in a person or people caused by one’s own actions. Ishiguro is a Japanese-Briton himself, living in England since he was a young boy. The quote is about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in WWII, that brought America into the war unnecessarily and irreversibly. The characters in THE BURIED GIANT exist in a sort of waiting room that will last for the lifespan of the she-dragon Querig. They spend a lot of time discussing whether the forgetting-mists of Querig’s breath should be cut short early, so that memory can be restored to Britons and Saxons alike. The conflict has been on pause. The journey they must go on is one of realisation that actions cannot be undone once hatred is provoked, and that the timing of the unpause is largely inconsequential.