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In 1953, JRR Tolkien wrote an essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late medieval poem that features the eponymous nephew of King Arthur undertaking a mysterious quest. He praised it for the deep roots it had in the past – a quality he saw it as sharing with both Beowulf and King Lear: “It is made of tales often told before and elsewhere, and of elements that derive from remote times, beyond the vision or awareness of the poet.” The ultimate origins of the poem, as of the entire corpus of Arthurian myth, lay back in the murkiest depths of the dark ages; a time when native Britons and invading Saxons had been fighting over the abandoned Roman province of Britannia. Arthur, the probably fictional war leader who was supposed to have stemmed the Saxon advance, could be located in the period, and enshrined as a great king, precisely because almost nothing was known about it. Only odd fragments of poetry had survived to hint at how natives and immigrants in post-Roman Britain might actually have made sense of the world. It was from these same fragments that Tolkien, committed to restoring to his country the legends he felt had been lost as a result of the Norman conquest, had fashioned The Lord of the Rings.
The genre of fantasy he thereby founded has been one that novelists of the kind who win the Booker prize tend not to touch with a barge-pole. Literary fiction and dragons rarely go together. This, though, has evidently not deterred Kazuo Ishiguro. For all the constancy of his obsession with themes of memory and loss, he has always delighted in taking his fans by surprise. In When We Were Orphans, he made play with the detective novel; in Never Let Me Go, with science fiction. Now, in The Buried Giant, his first novel for 10 years, he has performed his most startling and audacious adaptation of genre yet. “Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes,” Ishiguro writes in the opening paragraph, “serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.” A dragon is not merely present in the novel, but lies at the very heart of its plot.
Nevertheless, the palpable debt Ishiguro owes to the literary tradition established by The Lord of the Rings only makes his adaptation of it stranger and more hallucinatory. The role of Tolkien in The Buried Giant is akin to that of Wodehouse in The Remains of the Day: less a model than a fixed point to be destabilised. Although the first characters we meet live underground, connected “one to another by underground passages and covered corridors”, the village is no Hobbiton. Rather than transmute dark-ages Britain into Middle-earth, Ishiguro gives us what is ostensibly a historical novel – and yet the narrator’s show of objectivity, garnished as it is with seemingly authoritative allusions to the iron age and Roman roads, is itself a deception. At times, it will speak as though from the present day; at other times, as though from an age in which its audience might well have grown up in roundhouses. Geography and details of history are similarly scrambled – and literary influences too. Sir Gawain appears, roaming through a landscape familiar from the medieval poem about the Green Knight; but in Ishiguro’s novel, he has become an old man, Don Quixote-like in battered armour. A warrior who wrestles with ogres and stalks a dragon is recognisably drawn from Beowulf. Echoes of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” repeatedly sound. “Do these trees ail, even as they shelter us?”
In itself, this promiscuous mixing of influences and periods within a fantasy novel is hardly original to Ishiguro. George RR Martin, for instance, has always performed it with particular aplomb, fusing plot lines drawn from the Wars of the Roses with locations that plainly draw on Hadrian’s Wall or the steppes of Genghis Khan. The Buried Giant, though, unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, makes play with the gaps and the seams. They are designed to show. The shimmering of literary influences within Ishiguro’s prose is like that of memories within a fading mind: fragments shored against ruin. Yet always, haunting the novel, lurks the possibility that the memories themselves may be false. The Buried Giant cannot help but exist in the shadow of the near-total oblivion that has claimed the period Ishiguro is writing about. One character worries that God himself may be afflicted by amnesia – “and if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?” Ishiguro is less certain than Tolkien that what has been forgotten can be redeemed.
Nor does he entirely regret this. In The Buried Giant, tendrils of mist curl around villages in which Britons and Saxons live at peace, forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled Arthur to establish his realm, and keep the invaders at bay. What, though, if it should prove possible to exhume buried memories? “How,” demands a Saxon indignant over the slaughter of his people at the hands of Arthur’s knights, “can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?” We know, of course, what is destined to happen: that the Saxons will indeed recover the memory of the wrongs done to them, and that the Britons will be swept amid carnage and fire from the future England. A grievance forgotten, Ishiguro implies, is an atrocity forestalled. That the relevance of this is not confined to dark-ages Britain hardly needs to be pointed out, of course.
Nevertheless, Ishiguro is too subtle and complex a novelist to rest content with such a message. The memory loss that may serve a troubled people as a blessing cannot help but threaten the individual with the dissolution of his or her self. At the heart of The Buried Giant, luminous amid all the dragons and warring knights, is a deeply affecting portrait of marital love, and of how even the most precious memories can end up vulnerable. Axl and Beatrice are an aged couple who, in the grip of the mysterious amnesia that has afflicted the whole of Britain, abruptly decide to visit a son that they had forgotten so much as existed. In the course of their journey, they meet a boatman in the ruins of a Roman villa, whose duty it is to ferry people to an island of the dead. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together. From that moment on, Axl and Beatrice are haunted by a dread that they would fail such a test, and be separated for ever. “Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
If there are rare moments in The Buried Giant when the plot does teeter into pastiche, and the swords and sorcery can seem a tad silly, then these are more than compensated for by a power and a strangeness that are, in the Shakespearean sense of the word, weird. “There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay …” It is surely no coincidence that these words of Beatrice to her husband, displayed prominently on the book’s jacket, should echo the haunting final lines of Kent in King Lear: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. / My master calls me; I must not say no.” Old age and memory loss, suffering, love and war: what Shakespeare explored in the eerie setting of pre-Roman Britain, Ishiguro explores in the context of a period of history barely less mysterious. For all the deconstruction The Buried Giant performs on its manifold sources and inspirations, the ultimate measure of Ishiguro’s achievement is that his novel is more than worthy to take its place alongside them. The quest undertaken by Axl and Beatrice is not merely a search for their son, but one that follows in the footsteps of Sir Gawain, and Tennyson’s King Arthur, and Frodo. The novel’s parting assurance is affecting precisely because it is so hard-won: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how bleak shadows make part of its whole.”
• Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword is published by Abacus.
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Source: The Guardian
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