Serious Spoiler Alert: do not continue reading if you want to read the novel!
In The Buried Giant the realm of long deceased Arthur is covered in fog. Britons and Saxons live apart together in their own villages, they do not remember things that happened in the past, they do not fight. Little do they know that they have been living under a spell for years. Arthur asked Merlin to cast a spell on a dragon: her breath causes the fog and oblivion in this way ensuring that Saxons and Britons live together peacefully in the realm. The cost is high however. Not only do people not remember the brutal fighting, more importantly, they do not remember personal things. Merlin’s spell is in it’s own way as brutal as the fighting. Gawain, one of Arthur’s most loyal knights, has been asked to defend the dragon with his life. Even at the price of being laughed at by all the people who believe he set out to kill the dragon, a task he apparently fails to accomplish.
At the start of the novel the dragon’s breath is less effective; she is becoming old. An old couple vaguely remembers having a son and sets out to visit him. On their journey they encounter Edwin, a young Saxon boy who has been bitten by a young dragon and who is now drawn to the old one, and Winstan, an experienced knight whose king has ordered him to kill the dragon. He sees fighting potential in Edwin and decides to take him away from the village where his people fear his bite mark. Axl and Beatrice, who is very sick and is in all likelyhood slowly dying, accompany the men. On their way they encounter fighting, strange creatures and Gawain. In the meantime memories come back to all of them: Axl and Beatrice remembering personal things, both Gawain and Winstan recognizing Axl for the brave and noble knight he used to be. Axl himself has no recollection whatsoever of being that person who got angry at Arthur for having the spell cast. In the end Winstan kills first Gawain and the dragon next. Axl and Beatrice who wanted the dragon killed, because they longed for their memories realize that they have to face the bad ones as well: Beatrice’s adultery and the death of their son. Axl comes to understand that through the years his anger has diminished, he has come to love Beatrice even more. Nevertheless, Ishiguro ends the novel with the old couple parting ways, whether for ever or for just a few hours, we do not know.
I loved The Buried Giant because I loved it’s style: slow, delicate and introspective. It made me think of medieval Arthurian romances; dragons, ogres and pixies adding to the mythical sphere. I am a sucker for anything Arthurian and in my book this is definitely an Arthurian novel with Gawain being one of it’s main protagonists. I can understand readers not getting the atmosphere though, the mystical elements, the many questions asked and not answered. I absolutely admire the subtle way Ishiguro has woven the essential question ‘to remember or not to remember?’ into the novel. Yes, Saxons and Britons do no longer fight, yes, Winstan is a fine example of what will happen when the spell fails, but Arthur and Merlin, despite all their good intentions, have deprived people of a right: the right to remember, to think for themselves and to make their own decisions. Gawain died in a noble way, one might question whether he died for a noble cause.