The story is a fantasy, but the message is profound.
After being mistreated and taunted by their fellow villagers, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, decide to leave Brittany and set off on a journey to search for their son who has been gone for many years without a trace. They have no idea where he lives or what he looks like, but they are hoping, perhaps, to join him and be invited to stay. They worry about whether or not he will want them as a responsibility. They believe they have forgotten him and where he lives because of a strange mist of forgetfulness that has settled over their village. It has made them forget their past. The time is shortly after the reign of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Merlin has cast a spell on a dragon known as Querig. Its breath creates a mist that causes the loss of memory. The people are pagans with many superstitious beliefs. It is a time of ogres, dragons and knights.
The couple sets off, and after awhile they decide to stop in a town that Beatrice had traveled to before with the village women. There they witness a frightful sight. A man who had been fishing with his brother and nephew returns and tells a terrifying story about being set upon by ogres. They have killed his brother and carried off his nephew. By happenstance, a brave warrior, Master Wistan, on a mission for his king to slay the dragon, Querig, happens to be in the village just at that time. He sets off with two relatives to find the missing boy. When the boy, Edwin, is found, he has a wound on his body inflicted by the fiend that took him. The villagers are in a panic and want to kill the boy because having been bitten, they believe he is no longer safe to be around as he is infected with the fiend’s bad blood and soon will be bewitched.
When Wistan is asked to take the lad with him on his journey, in order to save him from the villagers who want to murder him, he asks the elderly couple to take the boy instead. He offers to travel with them part of the way to be their protector. In fact, he really has other plans and is deceiving them. Both the warrior and the boy are Saxons. Axl and Beatrice are Britons. In the past, the Saxons and the Britons have fought each other, but the mist of forgetfulness seems to have brought a kind of peace to their land.
Wistan has told the boy that he will train him to be a warrior if he goes with him. He recognized that the wound on Edwin is the bite of a dragon, not an ogre’s. He hopes that the spell that the bite casts upon Edwin, will lead him to dragon. He wants to use Edwin so he can slay the creature. Edwin deceives the warrior when he agrees to go with him because he is really searching for his mother, not the dragon. She was taken away during peacetime, by the Britons. The warrior’s mother had also been taken, but during wartime, and he wants vengeance. He asks the boy to promise never to forget his hatred for the Britons or his own desire for vengeance, if Wistan should not survive their journey. The boy agrees, although he does not understand why he should hate the Britons who have been kind to him.
As the four go on their way they meet up with an old Knight, Sir Gawain, who is still serving his King. He has remained loyal to Arthur. He tells them that he is supposed to slay the dragon, as well, but he has not done so yet, even though many years have gone by. However, he is also being deceptive. He has been protecting Querig all these years. Soon the five of them are united in the search for the dragon and/or the elderly couple’s son and the young boy’s mother.
As they travel further, they meet other interesting characters. The adventures are ever more haphazard, frightening and troublesome, but Axl and Beatrice meet all that confronts them with patience and kindness. They meet an elderly woman who has been abandoned by the boatman who ferried her husband off to an island where they were both to go together. He deceived her and said he could only take one at a time and he never returned for her. Beatrice becomes anxious. She does not want to be separated from Axl.
The more they travel on, the clearer some memories become. They begin to remember odd bits and pieces of their past. They wonder why they did not reach out to their son sooner. They wonder if they have hurt each other. They wonder, when their memories resurface when the dragon is slain, will they still love each other as much? Surely there are some bad memories too.
Edwin refers to Beatrice as Princess and she calls him husband. They are endearing terms when they use them and their love for each other is palpable. Much of the story is told through their conversations with each other or with the odd character they happen to chance upon. They often appear in a scene unexpectedly, but then as the tale unfolds, it reels backward and reveals the reason they are there.
After several misadventures, each revealing another human trait, all of their many secrets are exposed. Friends become enemies even though they still respect each other, even as they set upon each other, often with death being the only likely result. In this fable-like tale, the prose is lyrical and emotive; the messages are more profound than they first appear as the characters face danger, loss, disloyalty, disrespect, and sometimes death. As Axl and Beatrice speak endearingly to each other, some of their awakened memories may threaten their relationship. Will they be able to let go of petty disagreements and forgive each other, or will they simply continue to hold grudges once they are again aware of them as so often happens?
I felt as if there were two concurrent stories being told. One is the story of Axl, Beatrice and Edwin. This is a gentle story of love, trust, and compassion, as well as betrayal with the ability to forgive. The other story is that of Sir Gawain, Master Wistan and, again, Edwin. Theirs is a story of a life built on loyalty to a cause, even when they honor a cause that may no longer be just or necessary. It is about devotion to a cause and the inability to forgive transgressions, a behavior pattern which they, in turn, pass on to successive generations perpetuating vengeance and violence.
Edwin, the child, is the pawn, the catalyst for the resolution of their quests in both tales.
The author deftly exposes human nature with its weaknesses and strengths. As he examines the effects of memory loss, the frailties of the aged and the accompanying challenges they face, the danger of foolish pride and sometimes the rush to judgment, the reader is forced to examine their own behavior.
What is the buried giant in the story? The reader will discover the answer, in the end.
The audio narrator, David Horovitch, is excellent, reading with a dreamy quality that emphasizes the characters feelings and creates the atmosphere of fantasy. This is my first Ishiguro book, but it won’t be my last.