Living in Wales, I’ve become obsessively fond of the ancient Welsh myths set out in The Mabinogion. Through the centuries since those stories were first written down, their wonderfully enigmatic themes have been borrowed time and again to help create other imaginative works.
When I first began to read The Buried Giant, by my favourite author, Kazuo Ishiguro, I was fiercely reminded of the story in Part Three of The Mabinogion. Two heros, returning to their women from a long and bloody war, find the landscape of their homeland altered.
…suddenly there was a clap of thunder and, with such a great clap of thunder, a fall of mist so that no-one could see anyone else. After the mist, everywhere was filled with bright light, And when they looked where before they would have once seen flocks and herds and dwellings, they could see nothing at all: neither house, nor animal, nor smoke, nor fire, nor man, nor dwelling…not-one left except the four of them…
These four central characters wander this enchanted version of Britain until two of them are tempted into an enchanted castle and find themselves struck dumb and unable to move when they touch a golden blow beside a fountain.
One of the major themes and motifs of The Buried Giant is a mysterious mist, and I wondered immediately if Ishiguro had been influenced by ‘the mab’. He wouldn’t have been alone; it is likely that E. E. Nesbit was. In her book The Enchanted Castle, she creates a castle with living statues. Half a century later, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Jadis, the White Witch, fills her castle with statues of Narnians she has turned to stone. Was C.S. Lewis influenced by Nesbit, or The Mabinogion itself?
Using myth to present ideas to today’s readers is not an uncommon one; we are all bound up, whether we know it or not, by the stories that define us, the archetypes that form our understanding of how the world works. With this already in my mind, I couldn’t help wonder if Ishiguro likewise had been likewise influenced. Just as in ‘the mab’, a deep theme of The Buried Giant is symbolized by a mist which has covered Britain and is making the inhabitants forgetful. The people are under an enchantment…and the book itself seems enchanted, for this spellbinding story is an allegory set out as a quest…a quest for a dragon, for family, and for memory itself.
Several decades after the death of King Arthur, the original Britons are sharing their land with Saxons who are threatening to take over. An elderly British couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off to find their son, journeying through a landscape infested by ogres and pixies, and a dragon, Querig, who, it is said, is polluting the country with its breath, causing the mist which has resulted in an epidemic of amnesia. Axl and Beatrice want their memories back, but are fearful. Little glimpses into the past suggest things were different when they were young.
Axl and Beatrice encounter two warriors, a Saxon called Master Wistan, and the aged Sir Gawain, who both declare they are on a quest to slay Querig. They also take up with a young boy who has been inflicted with a strange bite.
Their travel leads them into haphazard and troublesome misadventures, each revealing the human condition and the mysteries of life. One of my favourite moments in the book happens when Axle and Beatrice are sheltering from the rain. They watch an old woman slaughter rabbits to torture the sensitivities of a boatman. The old woman tells them she knows the man; he promised to ferry her and her husband to an island where they would both live. The boatman deceived her, saying he could only manage one passenger at a time. He carried her husband to the island, but never returned for her.
Hearing this story, Beatrice becomes anxious that she might be separated from Axl. Again, I was reminded of The Mabinogion, and of the early Irish myths, in which islands, especially islands surrounded by mist, usually represent the otherworld, or the next world. This ‘story in a story’ affected me on a deep, almost subconscious level, and I became as desperate as Beatrice that she should not be left behind.
As I read deeply into the book, I could see it set up as many questions as it was answering. Are the supernatural creatures real, or just in the minds of the characters? What is it that Axl and Beatrice have forgotten? Who was Axl when he was young? Why does Beatrice not always trust him? Are the two warriors being truthful about their quests? What will happen if the dragon is slain? And, most importantly…what or who is the Buried Giant?
Ishiguro deftly exposes human nature with its weaknesses and strengths through his lyrical and emotive prose. His format is that of allegory, rather than the straightforward historical or fantasy novel, for as the messages are slowly revealed, and the characters face the effects of memory loss and the challenges of their journeys, I found myself examining this in the light of today’s world. The characters show pride, deception, lack of trust, disloyalty and disrespect. They constantly face danger, abandomnent, loss, illness and death, but also find awakening love, compassion and courage.
People have found this book mysterious, provocative and uncomfortably. It is unlike other modern novels, but I think Ishiguro means for it to be unique. He means for us to be challenged – to stop and puzzle the story out. The fact that all his other books are equally distinctive is one of the major reasons I love his work; he is without comparison, in my opinion.
The Buried Giant echoes the strange dream logic of the Mabinogion, where the tales are tangled and broken and yet weave a passionate magic; I recently spent an entire weekend at a symposium on ‘the mab’. It would not have surprised me to learn that Ishiguro might use Welsh myths in this way, as he loves to take difficult themes and try to make some sense of them. In this book, the early confusions finally resolve into significance, but like myths themselves some extremely profound speculations cannot ever be perfectly clear.
All Ishiguro’s books have a certain ‘dream logic’ where things are never really as they appear and core emotions, such as guilt, regret and fear of death lie just under the surface. Check out my review of one of his previous novels, The Unconsoled (1995 Faber & Faber) KTWs reading club
So was this book influenced by ‘the mab’? His answer is revealed in an interview with Guernica magazine, where Ishiguro discloses that he was, in fact drawn to the 14th Century Authurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – and even then, the major impact was that of setting – something I love to use myself. An entire novel can grow out of its setting, if a writer becomes immersed in it.
In the Guernica article, Ishiguro says…What really sparked my imagination as far as The Buried Giant was concerned was [a] tiny little description of the country [Sir Gawain] was crossing. It sounds like such a weird place. Britain in those days was really rough. There weren’t any inns or anything like that where he could stay, so he had to sleep on rocks in the pouring rain—I don’t know why he had to sleep on rocks, he could have slept under a tree, but that’s what it says—and there are a couple of lines that say that he was chased by wolves and wild boar and panting ogres…I thought, “This is a rather interesting landscape.”
The very first and oldest tales of King Arthur are in The Mabinogion, first set down in the twelfth century and written in Middle Welsh. I would love to know if Ishiguro, among many of our great literary writers, has dipped into this fascinating text.