Good art, Tolstoy said, is of two kinds: either religious or “universal”, which he defines as conveying “the simplest feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world.” I quibble with his use of the term “religious”, although I would accept the broader “spiritual.” About the universal, it’s hard to disagree. The question I ponder here is whether a novel set in Dark Ages Britain, with elements of fantasy including ogres, a dragon, a knight of the Round Table, and a constant mist that causes amnesia, could possibly fall into that category. Against all odds—I usually despise fantasy for its escapism—I must report that it does.
The plot is framed as a quest, as are most epics. An elderly British (i.e. Celtic) couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off on a journey, ostensibly to find their estranged son, but also, and increasingly, to find the dragon which they believe has cast the mist of forgetfulness over everyone’s minds, including their own. Along the way they shelter in a Saxon village—the Saxons are invaders of only a few decades, living in uneasy peace with the Celts since King Arthur’s crushing victory—where they encounter a formidable Saxon warrior, Wistan, who has just rescued a boy, Edwin, from monsters. However, the boy has been bitten by Querig, the she-dragon, the villagers believe, and so they wish to kill him before the magic takes effect and he betrays them. Wistan proposes that the couple help him save the boy by taking him to a British village to live. This ill-assorted band sets off together, and is twice attacked by British warriors, once very dramatically when they are under the protection of monks. They meet Sir Gawain, the last of the Knights of the Round Table, who purports to be seeking to kill Querig, but may be concealing his true motives. There is a memorable climax at the dragon’s lair, and an equally memorable denouement, when Axl and Beatrice reach the seashore and have to negotiate a ferry ride to the mysterious island—unnamed, but presumably Avalon—on which they will find their son.
On one level, like The Lord of the Rings, it is a simple adventure story, and as such a fully satisfying, exciting one, in spite of the lack of any clear protagonist. (The entire group might be considered the protagonist.) On another, again like Tolkien’s novel, it is an epic with mythical resonance, and arguably with more complex themes than the one set in Middle Earth. For if the latter is an allegory of the world war and of the corrupting influence of power upon on all who come into contact with it, the latter is a less idealistic fable about the savagery of war and its effects on everyone who participates in it—including the “good guys”, as some of the more remarkable atrocities have been perpetrated by that very Arthur that legend has taught us to venerate—and besides, there is a subtle subplot involving Axl and Beatrice. In one sense, this is an unusual love story, since the couple are old and utterly unglamorous. In another, it is an exploration, and a very unsentimental one, about fidelity and the possibility of knowing another person really intimately. In both plots, the quest to destroy Querig and the couple’s one to find their son, the memory of shameful deeds has been erased. It may be that supernatural forces have played their part in this, but in a way, of course, the sophisticated reader understands that the magic is inessential. And thus, and also because we know that the people of this time really did believe in monsters and magic, it’s possible to read the novel as a surprisingly realistic narrative.
Told with Ishiguro’s usual plainness, economy and restraint, The Buried Giant lacks lyricism, and yet the imagery and symbolism are so powerful that one is left with an impression of having read an epic on a par with Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings, and without the latter’s excessive verboseness. Ishiguro may not follow Joseph Campbell’s formulae for the Journey of the Hero as Beowulf and the hobbits do—and the ending may leave a bitter taste, as is not unusual in his work—but this complexity and trueness to life are what make it literary fiction of the highest order. And to return to Tolstoy’s dictum: if the novel cannot be construed as a religious work of art, I’d argue that it is a spiritual one, since it deals with the human need to know ourselves, honestly, and to redeem ourselves from the harm we have done others—and it is also a universal one, since it treats of war and revenge, of tribalism and the kindness that may overcome it, and takes a hard, frank look at love and patriotism.
Of Ishiguro’s novels that I have read, this is the most compelling, and it may be his masterpiece, as many critics have claimed. By any standards he must be one of the greatest contemporary novelists writing in English, and one of the few whose work will stand comparison to those of the canon. It is years since I have read anything as good by a living writer.