The Buried Giant—NOT a simple story

The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2015

Read July 2016

This reader led a discussion of this book for her book discussion group in fall 2016.  It’s taken too long to prepare this essay about a really remarkable book.  Perhaps now is a good time to pick this book off the shelf and give it a go.

When released, the book got variable reviews, primarily because there are “fantasy” elements in it.  In fact, the book was considered for awards by a couple of fantasy book groups.  The book can be read quickly and lightly and put away at the end—or not because Ishiguro’s books are never just light and easy.

There is a “mist” over the land in ~450 AD after King Arthur has conquered the Saxons and the Britons and Saxons are living “peacefully” in the same countryside (although villages are still fairly segregated).  The “mist” seems to be the reason for everyone’s inability to form short term memories and for their near loss of longer-term memories.  Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in one of the villages who recall they have a son who lives in the next village.  They decide to go and see him.  The story then follows their adventures – which occur over only a few days if one stops to consider the timing. 

In the next village—where their son isn’t residing after all so the couple will continue forward—a young boy is discovered to have a strange bite which frightens the villages.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take him with them and leave him in their son’s village–which must be the next one.  Wistan, a young Saxon soldier recently arrived, gets involved as well and wants to take charge of the boy when it’s learned the bite is probably from a dragon.   Wistan has knowledge of this dragon and wishes to slay him, for reasons that slowly become apparent.  This offends Sir Gawain, whose mission has been for many years, to find and slay the dragon.  The reader comes to understand Sir Gawain’s mission more completely as the story evolves.

As the few but very event-filled days pass, Axl’s memory slowly returns.  These memories remind him of the role he played during the war between the Saxons and the Britons while a leader in King Arthur’s government. He also is slowly but perhaps not completely remembering a hurt inflicted by his wife on him.  He and his wife finally remember that their son has died and they decide they wish to reside on the island where he is buried.  There is a requirement, however, that for a couple to be together on this island, their love must be proven to be strong and proven.  They expect to meet this requirement and must trust the boatman, who will ferry them to the island, to help them prove it.  The novel ends before we know whether Beatrice’s notion to trust the boatman was correct or not.  This reader, although not all those in the book discussion group, enjoys such ambiguous endings. 

Once again Ishiguro provides the readers a seemingly simple story that actually holds many questions for the reader that are universally relevant including the following:  What are the reasons for war and for “fighting to the death” —are they valid?  Will mankind ever be able to move past them? Can mankind move past tribal loyalty?  How are the wars between nations/tribes different—or not—from wars between two people in a relationship that has encountered troubles.  What is the difference between “justice” and “vengeance” if any?  Is it acceptable to choose to not fulfill a commitment made if it proves injurious to others?  Does that then make you disloyal and/or a bad citizen?  Are all values learned or are some innate?  A simple story with some fantasy elements but a deep story indeed. 

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