The first thing to notice about The Buried Giant is that it's told. The very first word of the book, which is "You," brings us directly into a campfire circle of telling that we never leave, even though never at any point are we given the name of a teller. It might of course be both sensible and appropriate to assume that the tale's archaic story-drenched mise-en-scène is in itself sufficient warrant for a more than usually visible implied narrator, a slightly enhanced but ultimately routine Body English of conveyance of story, whose slitheringly unfixable "confidences" will teasingly unmask—or not bother to unmask—the shrouded secrecies of the text; and it is certainly the case that Kazuo Ishiguro, who is as polite as an owl, does not conspicuously punish a reading which treats the implied narrator as a rhetorical figuration, despite the frequent and loaded use of You and we and I throughout, and despite the heavily weighted last chapter, which is told in clear as a first-person narrative.
All the same, it might be worth thinking that Ishiguro—whose most famous novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), is arguably told by its protagonist butler to an unseen confidant—has not in fact been as undevious as all that, and that establishing who may be telling us this tale, set in the densely storyable aftermath of a devastated Arthurian Britain, may be central to our grasping how he has managed with such unwavering iron finesse to embed his archaic tale into a twenty-first-century frame. So (to repeat) we need a secret-master teller in whose own view the tale he tells is of grave import; and that attempting to identify him is not only a game but a necessary engagement with The Buried Giant.
During the course of Ishiguro's tale of the Last Days of a world about to become another world, we meet more than once a Charon-like ferryman, a stick-thin mythago-like entity whose nature requires him to be unbound by time and space if he is properly to exercise his primordial liminal function of deciding who and what shall pass. He is an arbiter of the value of the tales of others, a conductor and teller of change; and though he never calls himself by name, it is he who conveys us, in his own first-person voice, through the crossroad crises exposed in the final chapter. And once he takes shape in the mind's eye during these final passages, it is not easy to abandon the thought that throughout The Buried Giant it is the ferryman who has been speaking with unholy exactness into our own ears. Certainly, in a novel built on passages of transit—from amnesia to anagnorisis; from pilgrimage to death; from mute solitude to Dies Irae conversazione; from an almost literally beheaded Arthurian Britain into a world toxically aborning; from polder to peneplain—it seems appropriately literal to conceive of being ferried through the tale by the boatman himself.
"You would have searched a long time," continues the first sentence of the tale, "for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated." A simple sentence, but cunning: if you happened [says the boatman] to imagine yourself embedded into the meme-drenched mythical land I am about to describe, you would not discover much there that resembled that later meme-drenched mythical England you would have had certainly heard of: because whoever you are you are not me. The Roman roads are now broken [he continues], leaving a few "rough-hewn paths" through uncultivated fields, and over hills and moors. An unapprehensive reader might read this first paragraph as a clumsily unhistorical sketch of Dark Ages Britain, but it is soon made clear that the "desolate" land the boatman is delineating is not "historical" at all, and that in fact we are being introduced to the fabulous Romano-Celtic Britain King Arthur founded and ruled justly with the help of Excalibur and Merlin and Christ, a land which never existed except in tales about the Matter of Britain, like The Buried Giant. The ogres that now haunt this land, whose presence in the very first paragraph of the text has seemed risible to some unbriefed critics, are in fact decayed parodies of the giant ogre of Mont-Saint-Michel who has blocked King Arthur from his just conquest of Europe, a key event recounted more than once in the Arthurian corpus but maybe most clearly foregrounded in the Alliterative Morte Arthure (written circa 1400; urgently translated by Simon Armitage as The Death of King Arthur in 2012). The point of the episode is that Arthur rids his land of this upheaval of chaos and old night; that Camelot is saved. Ogres once again on the rampage designate a loosening of the stays of just governance, a corroding of the roots of the world; something terrible has happened; can the King be dead? "One wonders," muses the boatman, "what desperation [my italics]" led the inhabitants of this region to settle in a land where something darkens the heart.
The third paragraph begins like a fairytale: "In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice." The name "Axl" may be hard to locate (only many pages later are we told that his full name is the cod-Latinish Axelus or Axelum), but from the very start Axl sounds like a monicker out of the Romano-Celtic mists, a name which may never have existed but should have. "Beatrice" may also seem anachronistic: but the early Christian martyr Saint Beatrix was strangled in Rome around 300 CE, just in time for her fame to spread to the Christianized neverwhere utopia created by Arthur. But Axl and Beatrice, despite the fabulous redolence of their names, live in a land which has been blighted. Their village, and all the country about, has been afflicted by a surreal amnesia, though perhaps that quasi-cod-medical term misdescribes the eradication of the past in a world of fable, a world where loss of memory is a curse, a world that (in the model of the central moves in fantasy I prefer) has suffered Thinning. "A sense of some unnamed loss" assaults Axl, and the fragments of memory he or his neighbours intermittently retrieve inevitably fade "into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes" where ogres roam. Some fixable memories do accumulate, all the same, some hints of True Names can be articulated in the ashen fugue of aftermath. It becomes clear that before the Land fell Axl had been a figure of some renown at the end of Arthur's life, perhaps a leader of warriors, a man of substance conversant with other memorable figures, including Sir Gawain in his prime (who, now aged, he will soon meet). And when he speaks to his beloved wife Beatrice he calls her "princess."
He never calls her by any other name. The veil trembles, trembles. But does not fall.
The miracle here is not that Beatrice is or had been a princess; the miracle is that Axl is able to call her princess. Only a critic deeply resistant to the tint of mythopoesis could take this honorific as casual, or Axl's command of such language as lacking tragic significance: for we know that Axl and Beatrice, who were once "painted figures" [the boatman says] in the tapestry of Camelot, have been stripped of their glamour, because the curse has denied them knowledge of their lives; what we do surmise is that their every act of recovery is an act of courage against supernatural odds. What we surmise is that their hauntingly formal converse—flowing with a dignified play-like to-and-fro typical of Arthurian romances—gives us all we need to understand of their passion for one another, of their lifelong assumption of the necessity of mutual care, of their terror that the story they are beginning to remember will destroy them. What they first remember is that they must now leave their village on pilgrimage to visit their son:
"You've long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it's time now to think on it anew. There's a journey we must go on, and no more delay."
"A journey, princess? What sort of journey?"
"A journey to our son's village. It's not far, husband, we know that. Even with our slow steps, a few days' walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain. And the spring will soon be upon us."
No tricks here, no hidden iambic pentameters (though the exchange could be written as verse). They are speaking as figures speak in a fable, like Ivy Compton-Burnett in Camelot.
The slow unveiling and the double tragedy begins. Axl and Beatrice take shelter from sudden rain in an abandoned Roman villa, where they discover two silent strangers, one of whom is a bald birdlike figure "who looked as tall and thin as those players do when they hobble on their stilts." He is a boatman. He ferries passengers across a river to an island which [the boatman tells us] is the Island of the Dead. Only couples who have demonstrated that their love is pure can be transported together across the water. With the boatman is a woman who berates him imploringly for severing her from her husband, leaving her behind in a world become featureless. Beatrice is stricken by fear that her own amnesia will have obliterated her love, or that it will lift uncovering an old blight upon their union; and that she and Axl will be severed from one another, at the end of all. This fear is never lifted. A growing pain in her side, which has slowed their progress, worsens.
They gain safe lodging in a Saxon village where a reticent but stable Arthurian peace seems to have prevailed between the two cultures and tongues. But an ogre has been killing children. A greatly skilled Saxon warrior named Wistan, sent by his distant king to kill the terrible dragon Querig, now appears. We note his resemblance to Beowulf, but rightly treat it as a harmonic, not as a clash of overlay to be deciphered. Wistan dispatches the ogre off-stage, is visibly distressed when he seems to recognize Axl, but joins them as they are heading towards a mountain monastery conveniently close to dragon country, where wise Father Jonus may cure Beatrice's pain (he does not). Some armed Britons guarding a bridge block their way. Wistan pretends idiocy, and they are allowed to pass.
There is a beat from the drum of story.
Like an etching by Dore, the aged Sir Gawain from Arthur's time is discovered sitting under a tree:
The face protruding from the armour was kindly and creased; above it, several long strands of snowy hair fluttered from an otherwise bald head. He might have been a sorry sight, fixed to the ground, legs splayed before him, except that the sun falling through the branches above was now dappling him in patterns of light and shade that made him look almost like one enthroned.
At first, this antique ragamuffin creature seems to resemble the Don Quixote in Part One in Cervantes's all-engendering text; but before The Buried Giant reaches its climax we will understand that Gawain is in fact the Don Quixote of Part Two, the aftermath Don who knows he is in a story, and who expects rightly that he will not survive the invigilation that irradiates and binds him. He too recognises Axl, with pain, for all three, Gawain and Wistan and Axl, are joined in some deadly knot, some poisonous event whose resurgence in their minds foretells the end of things. The most suspicious of the warrior Britons who had been guarding the bridges now appears. Sadly, after due courtesies are exchanged, Wistan kills him with a single devastating subtle silent stroke—the scene reads like a samurai joust from an early film by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961), both films set in lands about to be torn apart by history; certainly the head samurai in the first film is a kind of ferryman who conveys us into aftermath. (In an interview with Neil Gaiman, Ishiguro later confirmed he was thinking of Kurosawa.)
The boatman now tells us that long before, vainly attempting to preserve the uncanny comity of Camelot, with Britons and Saxons unnaturally at peace, King Arthur, betraying his lieutenant the irenic Axelus in the act, had committed a realpolitik atrocity witnessed by Wistan, then a child. To preserve Camelot, though as an ultimately unsustainable lie, Merlin had then instructed Gawain to enchant the dragon Querig, so its breath would spread a magic oblivion over the land. Ever since, Gawain's soul-devouring mission has been to pretend to hunt the dragon while in fact protecting it. (In two eloquent, subtly formal "reveries"—each given a separate chapter—Gawain expresses his anguish and apprehension in terms so eloquent they almost shatter the decorum of the book; as in Cervantes, these reveries can be understood as found or told stories within the Story.) Gawain's fears are of course just; the irruption into his vigil of Wistan and Axl makes it manifest that Merlin's magic has failed. Wistan will now kill Gawain, and then the aged Querig, each with a single samurai blow; and the buried giant, which is Homo sapiens awaking from magic slumber into its true nature, will begin to create the future, which is us. T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958), a text without which this tale would not exist, ends as the World Wars begin; The Buried Giant, a stilled explosion impostuming its every word into hollows of dread, ends only an instant sooner.
But The Buried Giant holds its breath until that last moment. Beatrice is ferried to the island. I think she tells the ferryman everything. Axl is left behind. "Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly [says the boatman], but he does not hear and he wades on." He is walking toward us.
So extensive a synopsis is given here not because it is not obvious, but because it is. A number of "literary" reviews have already been published of The Buried Giant, a sufficient sample of which this reviewer has read, most of which contain rudimentary notations of some of the elements in the book commented on above, but which somehow disdain to join the dots. In a novel where armed combat takes place in seconds and in total almost reverent silence, for instance, such moments are described with mulish condescension as CGI clangor signifying nothing. Ogres are universally cited, but as though Ishiguro had extracted them from a comic book (no ogres are in fact ever visible: all we see is what they mean). That the tale has something to do with the world of King Arthur is universally (if condescendingly) noted, but I don't think that the Matter of Britain itself, which the title of the tale clearly enfilades, is made much of at all. But perhaps the most distressing failure of all is to misread the subtly mutating hieratic interchanges between Axl and his princess as failed attempts at the kind of orthodox intersubjectivity found in most "realistic" novels of "character": the sort of thing facial-recognition software now does better than we do. Overall, this failure to read the story being told is a mark of the kind of intellectual bankruptcy one had hoped some paradigm shift—which is to say, the retirement of the old guard—had left behind.
The Buried Giant is not a failed assemblage of disjecta membra, and it has nothing to do with history. It is a purely and entirely fantastic tale whose every word means what it says, not something else, told by a teller who cannot tell a lie. A marriage ends. A world ends. A giant quakes the earth. Only connect. Fantastika in the twenty-first century may be described as getting what you see.