This review considers all aspects of this novel, including its ending. Please do not read this review if you want to avoid “spoilers.”
I closed my thoughts on the first half of this novel with a series of questions, and when I next picked the novel up, about half of the questions were answered within just a few pages. The mysterious mist that seems to cause forgetfulness is actually the breath of a she-dragon named Querig. Sir Wistan – the warrior who accompanies Axl and Beatrice on their journey – is on a quest to kill Querig. Sir Gawain, on the other hand, is pledged to protect her. More on Querig in a moment.
Immediately after I wrote my last post on this novel, Axl, Beatrice, Wistan, and Edwin – a boy expelled from his village for bearing a wound that people think is a “fiend” bite, who also travels with Axl and Beatrice and slowly becomes an apprentice to Wistan – are admitted to Father Jonus’s quarters. Father Jonus is a wise, elderly monk with a reputation as a healer. Beatrice has been experiencing pain in her abdomen and side, and she has been advised to visit Father Jonus for a cure. Shortly after they are ushered into his presence, they see that he is on the verge of death himself. He is covered with horrible infected wounds, and his skin and bedding are stained with pus and blood. Wistan and Axl soon surmise that the weird torture contraption Edwin found earlier (one of my questions in my last review was about its purpose) is used by the monks for the purpose of penance or mortification of the flesh. They lock themselves into the contraption, which looks like a cage but has unusually wide bars. They are then chained to a pole inside the cage, and a metal mask is placed over their eyes, and they are wheeled to the top of a cliff, where they are left to be pecked by birds. Father Jonus is dying from the infected wounds all over his body as a result of this treatment.
As one might expect of a novel set in Britain in the year 450 A.D., one of the important elements in this novel is the tension between Christianity and paganism. As Britons, Axl and Beatrice are Christians, although they only have a vague sense of what their Christianity means to them (this is a side effect of the mist). Wistan is a Saxon, and therefore a pagan, but he grew up in a Briton village and therefore understands the Briton language and is conversant with Christianity. Religion is just one of the matters that divide Britons and Saxons, who are traditional enemies – although, again, the mist has made many people forget this animosity. Even people who remember that the animosity exists don’t really feel it in any passionate or personal way.
Reading the second half of this book, I often felt as if I too were affected by the mist. Sometimes the problem was my own faulty memory, since I knew I would be getting more out of the novel if I were more knowledgeable about the Arthurian legends, and about early-medieval English history and mythology in general. Other times, though, I was pretty sure Ishiguro was controlling this mist by withholding information (a review in the New York Times a couple of weekends ago confirmed my suspicion by pointing out that every book Ishiguro has ever written has essentially contained a “buried giant” – i.e. a huge hulking mystery that is slowly, painstakingly, and sometimes incompletely revealed to the reader). One way or another, I spent much of the second half of the novel asking myself, WHAT young girl? and WHAT goat? only to find that Ishiguro introduced these elements into the novel before providing exposition about why they are there. If you’re reading this book and feel as if you might be experiencing some signs of premature dementia, don’t worry. In this novel, premature dementia is a literary device.
I don’t think I mentioned in my last post on this book that the first chapter of the novel is told by an omniscient narrator, one who knows not only everything the characters are thinking but everything that will happen in English history after the novel ends. The narrator even seems to know its readers’ preconceptions about England. “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated,” is the first sentence in the book, which continues as follows: “There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children” (3). The review in the Times astutely pointed out that this novel is not really set in England in 450 A.D.; in fact, it is set in England in 450 A.D. as envisioned by Geoffery of Monmouth, who wrote the Arthurian legends down several centuries later.
Is she going to pretend that she knew the Arthurian legends were written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and that the Times review just provided a handy reminder? you ask. Of course I am.
This omniscient narrator disappears after the first few paragraphs, to be replaced by the more typical kind of omniscient narrator: the kind who can enter the thoughts of any character it chooses but tends to stay for long periods of time with the novel’s central characters – with Axl, mostly – and can almost be mistaken for a third-person-limited narrator. The novel also contains a very odd narrative shift at the end. I’ll tell you about it, but I’ll have to back up quite a bit in order to do so.
Of all the characters in the novel, Beatrice is the one most bothered by the mist. To her, there is just something off-kilter and wrong about not being able to remember things (she’s like Jill and me that way) – so much so that when she finally meets Father Jonus she is much more eager to learn how to get rid of the mist than to have the monk treat her physical pain. She is also the one who drives the journey she is taking with Axl to be reunited with their son. Axl is willing enough, but I get the sense that without Beatrice’s enthusiasm he might not have taken the journey. Early in the novel, they wait out a storm in a partially-destroyed old Roman villa, where they meet a couple of other travelers: a man and an old woman. This episode is eerie and creepy, and when I encountered it early on I had no idea what to make of it. At one point the woman takes out a live rabbit and starts hacking at it with a dull, rusty knife; Axl intervenes and tries either to free the rabbit or to kill it cleanly to end its misery, but then the man starts giving a speech and for a while we’re distracted from the creepy woman and the rabbit.
The man introduces himself as a boatman. His job is to ferry people from the mainland to an island off the coast. He works all day and all night long in all weather, and when he has his occasional time off, he comes to the ruined villa to relax. Lately, whenever he arrives at the villa, this old woman follows him and harasses him. “Friends, I beg you, do what you can to make her leave. Persuade her that her behavior is ungodly” (37), he pleads.
Axl, who is almost preternaturally reasonable (more on this later), hears the man out but then reminds everyone that it is important for the woman to have her say too. She tells her story (there’s something almost Canterbury Tales-ish or Divine Comedy-like about this section of the novel) and reveals that she and her husband approached the boatman and asked for a ride. The boatman could only fit one person in his boat at a time, so he took the woman’s husband to the island and promised to come back for her. When he returned, he refused to take the woman to the island to join her husband – and this is why she has been following him around and harassing him never since. The boatman tells Axl and Beatrice that “the island this old woman speaks of is no ordinary one. We boatman have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods. But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul. Occasionally on a moonlit night or when a storm’s ready to break, he may sense the presence of his fellow inhabitants. But most days, for each traveler, it’s as though he’s the island’s only resident” (39-40). Again with the mystical forgetfulness.
The boatman later tells Beatrice and Axl that he is occasionally allowed to allow couples to travel to the island together. “It is… my duty to question all who wish to cross to the island,” he says. “If it’s such a couple as you speak of, who claim their bond is so strong, then I must ask them to put their cherished memories before me. I’ll ask one, then the other, to do this. Each must speak separately. In this way, the real nature of their bond is revealed… We boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travelers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to hide the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too happy to ferry the couple together” (43-44).
Is it relevant that throughout their journey Beatrice is always asking Axl, “Are you still there?” – and that Axl always answers, “Still here, princess”? Of course it is. This call and response forms the background static of the novel.
I promise I am still telling you about the strange point-of-view shift that happens at the end of the novel. The last chapter – chapter 17 – is told in the first person. Two other chapters are told in the first person too, but these chapters are not numbered but are instead labelled “Gawain’s Reverie,” and the first-person narrator of these chapters is Sir Gawain. This final chapter is numbered and contains no reference to Gawain. The narrator of this chapter is, of all people, the freaking boatman, and the story tells is of Axl and Beatrice’s arrival at the shore to be ferried to the island. As he described earlier, the boatman separates Axl and Beatrice and asks them to share their most cherished memories of one another. By this time, Querig the she-dragon is dead, so the mist no longer blocks their memories, and they are aware now that their long marriage has contained moments of bitterness, anger, and even hatred. They still cling to each other, though, and when the boatman tries to trick them they refuse to be separated. The novel ends somewhat ambiguously, with the boatman watching Axl wade out into the water, not glancing back.
It seems clear that the boatman is some version of capital-D Death – which of course is characterized as a ferryman in the mythology of various cultures. At some point late in the novel, we learn that Axl and Beatrice’s son – the ostensible purpose of their journey – died many years ago, and the “reunion” they will have with him will take place in the land of the dead. With Querig dead and her breath no longer causing the mist of forgetfulness, Axl and Beatrice remember that one of their worst fights concerned whether they should visit his grave. Beatrice was unfaithful to Axl, and when their son learned of her adultery he stormed away to join another village, where he later died in a plague. Beatrice wanted to go with Axl to visit his grave, but Axl refused to take the trip. The journey that provides most of the plot of this novel is, of course, a conciliatory version of this initial trip that never happened. Neither Axl nor Beatrice knows exactly why the trip is so important, but they trust their instincts and cling to one another anyway.
Other secrets are revealed at the end too. Remember how Axl is known for being preternaturally reasonable? It turns out that he was King Arthur’s highest-ranking diplomat. During the wars between Arthur’s Britons and their enemies, the Saxons, it was Axl who negotiated a treaty in which the Briton soldiers swore that they would never kill Saxon women and children. For a while Axl was a hero to both the Britons and the Saxons. But then some Briton soldiers disobeyed Arthur and violated the treaty, leveling two villages and killing every last person who lived there. Arthur and Axl knew that this violation would lead to horrible animosity between the Britons and the Saxons for countless generations, so Arthur ordered Merlin to cast a spell on Querig the she-dragon, enchanting her breath so everyone in England would forget what had happened. The England of this novel is perpetually half-asleep. Axl and Beatrice are ostracized by their community, but no one knows why, and even the emotions on both sides are muted. Everyone walks around as if they are sleepwalking. When Querig dies at the end (she is killed by Wistan the Saxon, who wants the Saxons to remember the Britons’ attacks on them and hopes to rev up their fighting spirit to get revenge), their cultural amnesia is about to end – as are the decades of peace that have accompanied Querig’s tenure in the region.
I’m not going to go on at length about the metaphorical significance of the mist – but it’s there, of course. Every culture makes the tacit decision to forget certain things. There is no question that this novel is about more than just a few frightened people from a couple of isolated medieval English villages – and I enjoyed considering the historical implications of this novel as they became clear in the last few chapters. How silly of me to think early on that the mist was a metaphor for the “dark ages.” Of all people who shouldn’t be running around pointing fingers and calling other eras “dark” – a child of the twentieth century like me should certainly know better.