Kazuo Ishiguro ‘The Buried Giant’ Paints A Modern Fairy Tale — And Wow, It Looks Good

When I first encountered the title of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant (Knopf), I didn’t know what to expect. His previous novel, Never Let Me Go, written more than a decade ago, wades into the realm of science fiction; his Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day upends the manor-house drama; When We Were Orphans, his fifth novel, borrows liberally from mystery noir. Would the titular giant in his latest novel be literal or metaphorical? Would the setting be hewn from everyday reality, or would I arrive on the shores of the otherworldly?

Featuring pixies, ogres, an elusive she-dragon, and the very literal “buried giant” for which the novel is named, The Buried Giant follows in the footsteps of our most enduring and beloved adventure tales, from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Ishiguro masterfully weaves together elements of history, folklore, and mythology to create his own modern day fairy tale that, at its core, examines of the burden of memory and the near-fatal difference between failing to remember and forgiveness.

The novel follows an elderly couple — Axl and Beatrice — as they journey to a nearby village in search of their son. In typical Ishiguro fashion, the characters’ depths are obscured to the reader and to the couple themselves, who are lost to a “mist of forgetfulness” that has overtaken the countryside. Along their journey, the couple pick up a knight on an errand, a young boy outcast by his village, and an aged Sir Gawain (yes, the same Gawain of Arthur’s Round Table) clad in full-body armor, to guide — and often misguide — them on their harrowing quest.

What begins as a yearning to reunite with loved ones evolves into an epic quest — both to slay the plague of forgetfulness, and to discover whether the couple’s love can endure the wrongdoings buried in their storied past. Early on, we discover exactly how their bond will be tested: “A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years — that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together.”

In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, the protagonist couple travels downriver in two baskets tethered with rope and encounter, tangled amidst the reeds, a woman baited in a trap: “A sound made him turn, and he saw at the other end of the boat, still bathed in orange light, the old woman slumped against the bow with pixies — too many to count — swarming over her.” The two narrowly escape with their lives, and the scene serves to cement the couple’s seemingly immutable bond, while also revealing the strangeness and unpredictability of this world.

Ishiguro encourages us to ask ourselves: What can we live with? What can we ignore? What role do the injustices done to and by us play in the people we have or will become?

Gradually, memory by unearthed memory, Ishiguro gives brief glimpses into each of his characters’ pasts, which are wrought with slaughter and betrayal — keeping the reader in perpetual suspense of discovering the true complexity of their seemingly simple emotions.  And though Ishiguro has already faced criticism for the flatness and abstraction that dominate this novel, these qualities are precisely what shift the focus away from the particular sufferings of one couple and invite the reader to probe the darkness buried within her.

For instance, Axl and Beatrice refer to each other only in the abstract, as “princess” and “husband,” and they behave according to traditional gender roles — with Axl as the hero-leader and feeble Beatrice ever in need of saving. Although their predictability sometimes feels tedious, by obscuring his characters in flatness, Ishiguro shifts the emphasis to the novel’s bigger concerns, such as the capacity of human emotion and what it can — and cannot — withstand.

Similarly, the knights who accompany the couple, Wistan and Gawain, rarely reveal qualities that would elevate them above their roles as plot turners. I’ll be the first to admit it: I slogged through Gawain’s POV chapters, but I also recognize what a huge risk Ishiguro takes in departing from his protagonists’ viewpoints. I appreciate the ways in which these knights give glimpses beyond the struggles of the elderly couple. Wistan wants to know the universal implications of the land’s amnesiac fog:

“How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery? I see how devoutly you wish it for your old horrors to crumble as dust. Yet they await in the soil as white bones for men to uncover.”

Ishiguro encourages us to ask ourselves: What can we live with? What can we ignore? What role do the injustices done to and by us play in the people we have or will become?

Rather than seek to answer these questions in the concluding pages of the novel, Ishiguro thwarts our, and his characters’, fairy-tale expectations. What promises to be an epic battle scene fizzles. Once-leading characters fade out as others’ political motives are revealed. And our elderly couple’s final departure — which draws heavily from the myth of Charon, who ferries souls to the underworld in Greek mythology — does not end “happily ever after,” as we so often expect from fantasy tales.

All in all, you’ll find Ishiguro up to many of his usual tricks — his penchant for elegant and otherworldly settings; his verbose and extravagant narrators; and his affinity for war-torn eras of a forgotten past — filtered through a fairy tale lens. If you’ve noticed the magic creeping into the pages of Ishiguro’s work for decades, you won’t be surprised to discover how his masterful execution of this genre makes his message sing.  

Images: Jeff Cottenden/Knopf; Kazuo Ishiguro/Facebook

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