Since Jonathan Swift’s political satire Gulliver’s Travels, fantasy has often been used a means to an end, an imaginary stage with an unlikely cast of characters relied upon to obliquely transmit a very real and powerful contemporary message. Kazuo Ishiguro’s post-Arthurian epic The Buried Giant (2015) employs fantasy tropes in order to muse on the subjects of love and memory. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice embark on a long and treacherous journey to visit their lost son, while struggling to overcome the fog of collective amnesia that has been inflicted on the land as a curse. Ishiguro, who himself is trying to find a way to cope with old age and gradual slowing down of intellectual faculties, emphasizes the value of memories. As Beatrice says: ‘If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.’ At the end of the day, it is the memories that make us who we are.
The novel is set in a remarkably described England of some 1,500 years ago. A pastiche of British history, mythology, and legends is bound tightly together by a mist of magic. On their journey, Axl and Beatrice come across the aged Sir Gawain and his faithful yet now already geriatric horse, who is on his own quixotic quest and who takes on the role of their protector from a number of common and supernatural threats. The novel is full of ogres, dragons, warriors, mystic rivers and islands. Axl and Beatrice share a very deep and loving relationship, however, the threat of the mist and memory looms large above their heads. The narrative tone is dreamlike and the atmosphere highly melancholic, reminiscent of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989). All the adventures, sword fights, and slayings of monsters are narrated in a slow and measured pace muffled by the fog and paralleling the elderly couple’s own perspective.
The philosophical conundrum, the lingering threat at the heart of the novel, is expressed by an old woman whose husband crossed a mystic river that might be allegorically identified as the River of Death, before her leaving her alone and miserable to torture the boatman who had taken him across the river. Only those couples who can prove their perfect love for each other, without bitterness or jealousy get to cross the river together. The overarching question is, are Axl and Beatrice such a couple? It is only in the final chapter, when the fog of forgetfulness finally lifts, that Ishiguro reveals who these two people really are, where their son is, and whether their love survives the burden of the returning memories.