The Buried Giant is an enigmatic, allegorical novel. Do those two features work well together – can an allegory actually be enigmatic, because if it is then is it really an allegory (and if so of what?). These are the questions that I am grappling with in shaping this review, whereas I suspect they may actually be a distraction, because The Buried Giant is first and foremost an enjoyable story.
Set in Britain in what became known as the Dark Ages, the period in history roughly between the departure of the Roman occupation and the Norman Conquest, this novel tells the story of two Britons, Axl and Beatrice, as they journey from their village to visit their son. Journeys of this nature were at the best of times dangerous and challenging, here all the more so because Axl and Beatrice are old. Although peace has descended on the countryside following years of conflict between Britons and Anglo-Saxons, this is still a world full of danger and menace, so of it very practical – a fall or an infection could easily prove fatal – and some of it fantastical, such as the unspoken threat that lurks on the Great Plains, or the ogres that steal children away from villages.
The fantasy element of the novel sits a little uncomfortably alongside the highly realistic portrait of Dark Ages life, in all its primitive, brutish and short nastiness. It becomes slowly apparent that the people are being affected by a form of collective amnesia – Axl and Beatrice refer to it as ‘the mist’ meaning that they quickly forget even recent events, and lives their lives in a fog of the very recent past. Axl sometimes wonders if this is a blessing, allowing them to forget upsetting incidents in their past, whether it be the conflicts that have swept across the land between Britons and Anglo-Saxons, or the personal problems the couple have faced, despite appearing the model of old-age devotion.
An adventure element to the novel is introduced with the character of Wistan, an Anglo-Saxon warrior sent by his king in the fens to travel west on an unspecified quest. Wistan rescues a boy from some ogres and agrees to share Axl and Beatrice’s journey for some of the way. They meet an aging Sir Gawain, knight of the Round Table, who is also on a quest. Slowly the truth about the amnesia causing fog and the characters’ back story emerges, and while I don’t think I would be spoiling the plot for you if I said more, I won’t in case it might. The adventure element of the novel keeps the pages turning, even if the allegorical nature of the plot (nothing is ever just itself – it always represents or stands for something, and after a while this gets a little distracting) is really what we are here for, with the sword fights and escapes through mysterious tunnels just a bit of a distraction.
This is very much an aside, but I would have liked it if Ishiguro had avoided some of the cliches about the Dark Ages. Of course they were difficult dangerous times, but the savagery and lawlessness that is suggested is probably wrong. There is evidence, principally archaeological, that travel and trading between Britain and the continent continued after the Romans left, and that society continued in many ways unchanged, with cooperation and inter-marriage between Britons and Anglo-Saxons. But of course it suits the narrative here to have these as savage times.
So what’s the novel an allegory of? It’s a meditation on relationship, naturally, but however touching the relationship of Axl and Beatrice is this is not more than a portrait of a couple growing old together and coming to terms with the challenges their marriage has faced over the years. In the end Axl faces the loss of his wife with stoicism. Their journey through the country can be seen as Bunyanesque, with the challenges they face as metaphorical manifestations – ogres, dragons, dog-beasts – of child-rearing, infidelity and old-age. You have to work hard at these allegorical associations – Ishiguro doesn’t join any dots for the reader – and I am not convinced that they really work. Everyone will have their own personal interpretation of these symbols. The Buried Giant itself only appears in passing, and is a slightly easier puzzle – conflict in the land has been buried by the collective amnesia caused by Merlin’s spell, and when it awakes there will be a heavy price to pay.
I’ve read a few negative reviews of this novel, both when it was published and subsequently in preparing for this post. Some of the objections are relatively trivial – if the identity of the narrator in some chapters is unclear, does it really matter? (I did notice, and it niggled slightly, but I got over it). The concerns about Ishiguro appropriating the tropes of fantasy fiction – which when it boils down to it that just means dragons – seem a bit ridiculous in hindsight. Of course you can put dragons into your novels if you want to, who says you can’t? That doesn’t mean you are showing disrespect to the authors who were writing about dragons before you came along with your Nobel prize and your realism. I think this is one of those novels that unsettle readers and reviewers when it first comes out, but over time comes to be appreciated for what it is.
Despite my minor reservations, this was a genuinely enjoyable read. The characters are interesting, and you come to care about them as more than just cyphers for the values they represent. Post-Roman England is realistically portrayed. What I really like about Ishiguro’s work is that he refuses to be pigeon-holed by genre – novels as varied as this work, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day are all worth reading. Although it was published in 2015 this is his most recent novel – let’s hope the fuss about the use of fantasy tropes when it come out haven’t put Ishiguro off taking risks in his fiction.