What at first glance might appear to be a conventional fantasy novel set in sub-Roman Britain turns out to be a more complex one anchored by the themes of memories and time, as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant” traces the intertwining narratives of elderly Briton married couple Axl and Beatrice, of Saxon warrior Wistan and rescued boy Edwin, as well as of Sir Gawain, who was tasked by his late uncle King Arthur, to slay the “she-dragon” Querig. While it is hinted at in the beginning, it eventually becomes clear that the population in Britain is afflicted by forgetfulness, and it is later revealed that this affliction is caused by the “mist” of the dragon’s breath.
There are, I think, two layers to the theme of memories. While I am not familiar with the historical context, the novel paints a history of violent conflict and bloodshed between the Britons and the Saxons, though as a result of Querig’s breath memories of war have disappeared, and in fact a generation has grown up without experiencing its horrors. The first layer to this theme, therefore, is a broader one, on whether the slaying of the dragon – which will result in the lifting of the “mist” – is justified. This is played out in the exchanges between Wistan and Sir Gawain, and even more so when Wistan speaks of his training plans for Edwin. The second layer, played out between Axl and Beatrice, is more personal, and revolves around how the recovery of their memories might affect their marriage.
“The Buried Giant”, in this vein, is perhaps a broader metaphor for these bad memories. And whether it is – or they are – worth digging up. The second theme of time, besides references to history and to the past, is most noticeable in the third-person narrative style, through which the story jumps from the present to the past and vice versa, and as the characters too express a mix of conversations, memories, and personal thoughts. Readers expecting a clear-cut resolution are likely to be disappointed, but it seems meaningful to instead have them think about these dichotomies in their own lives.