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.
This sounds like an interesting novel. I particularly liked your astute reference to the well known Geoffrey of Monmouth Arthurian stories. 😉 However, I am not sure I want to deal with early dementia as a literary device.
This book sounds really interesting and quite a departure from Ishiguro’s other works (many of which I own, but none of which I have read). I think your review was really good, too!
It’s less of a departure when you think of what the Times reviewer said about all of Ishiguro’s novels being driven by the slow revelation of secrets. I’ve read two of his books and they both do this, although of course they do not do this in 450 A.D. I also read a different review that said that Ishiguro is always concerned with “Englishness,” which applies in this case as well.
Excellent point about “Englishness.” As an American I’ve always thought of the English as morally superior beings, more chivalrous; more “godly.” Was the woman taunting the boatman “ungodly”? Was King Arthur the paragon of “virtue”? What is virtue, anyway?
I think the quality most often associated with the English is stoicism, which can come off as moral superiority. I’m an American too, so I don’t claim any inside knowledge.
Great post – I had so many questions when I was reading this but the mist rather cloaked my senses enough that I didn’t really vocalise these questions until I’d finished the book (by which time many of them had become clear). Thanks for a really interesting discussion of a book that warrants such.
My review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Good review, but your point on it having an ambiguous end – I don’t agree. Axl didn’t wade OUT into the water – he waded back to shore, after saying his goodbyes to Beatrice, who was going to her death. the boatman would not yet ferry Axl over to the river. not yet….
I agree with Nigel’s interpretation of the ending, and I had wrongly assumed the first time I read the ending that Axl was wading alongside the boat, to swim to the island with Beatrice, like committing suicide. In any case, the book should probably be read at least twice, in order to catch this and other subtleties. I appreciated reading this review and the comments by people who appreciate Ishiguro’s writing too.
Yes, agreed — I should probably read it again too. The subtleties are part of what makes it such a great read.
Is it possible that Axl was going to join Beatrice when the boatman returned? He promised he would. Is the island a place only the dead go? Then the boatman from the earlier chapter was also taking couples one at a time, to go there.
I *think* that only the dead go to the island, but you raise a good question. Will have to go back to the text and reconsider.
The slaughtering knights didn’t disobey Arthur. Arthur decided to genocidally wipe out the Saxons (at lease to a certain easterly point) to give peace in a kind of “final solution”, erasing the memory of the foul but in his mind necessary deed with the dragon’s mist. Axl was opposed to this. I think this slaughter and the resulting halt on the Saxons’ westward expansion alludes to the semi-mythical Battle of Mount Badon (late 400s), where the Britons were successful. After a time of uneasy peace, the Saxons later resumed their expansion west and conquered most of England from the Britons.
I did find the ending ambiguous in that Axl did not “make peace” with the boatman to ensure he would be with Beatrice when his time to go to the island comes. While she is still heartbreakingly his “one true love”, does he still hold her transgression against her? After all, the boatman determined that this was not an instance where he could take a couple to the island together. The ending I found heartbreaking in several layers.
I just finished the book, and appreciate your review as I am trying to figure out exactly what this book was about and what happened… I have to say I agree with Dan, the ending didn’t feel ambiguous to me, as much as I wanted it to be. Axl relented and gave up and went away, since Beatrice kept telling him to do so, and he seemed to always relent eventually to what princess wanted. So I think they will not be together in eternity, or whatever the island represents, because there is that lingering animosity. It seems like the overall message of the book is that there is both blessing and curse in forgetting/remembering. While Axl and Beatrice forgot all of the details of their marriage, they remained truly and forever committed to each other in their hearts. While the Saxons and Britons forgot the details of their wars and battles, they remained in peace. Once memories flood back, Axl and Beatrice are parted, and war will once again dominate the land. So the question for the reader is do you want the mist in your life, or do you want to remember even the slights and battles that might cause untold pain moving forward? I’m still not sure about Edwin and his mother/the dragon/whatever that was all about. Still feeling like I missed something there…
It’s interesting – I read this book about 3 months ago, and while I remember parts of it very well, the ending is not one of those parts. Sometimes I have to re-read my review to remember how it ended. I’ve gotten many comments to the effect that I misinterpreted the ending, and I have no doubt that may be true. I think you’re right that the ending asks the question you mentioned above: is it better to live in confusion and harmony in the presence of the mist, or is it better to see the world clearly, including its ugliest parts? It’s a variation on the Adam and Eve story in a way: killing the dragon is like eating the apple. When they ate the apple, Adam and Eve gave up the harmony of Eden, but what they gained in return was “everything else”: freedom, adulthood, agency, mortality. Interesting stuff. Thanks for your comment!
I just finished listening to The Buried Giant on CD. I enjoyed the story, but was disturbed by the ending. My understanding was that the rare times the Ferryman took couples together on the boat, it was together. After Axl’s confession, he tells Axl that he is only able to take them one at a time. It reminds me of the widows who complain that they were tricked by the Ferryman who assured them that he would be back for them as well and ultimately did not keep his word. This may be why Axl walked away. He remembered the stories and accepted that he wouldn’t be going.
I felt this story was about fixing a great wrong through the power of forgiveness and redemption despite the many obstacles that one has to overcome. Throughout the story, Axl consistently tries to do so, despite his own flaws, It appears then that in the end, there is no forgiveness for him in the Ferryman’s refusal to allow him to make the final journey with his wife. Just as regretfully, Wistan accepts that as much as he’s grown fond of some Britons, he has to continue working on righting the wrong done to the Saxons despite the ramifications for all.
Yes, agreed! While I don’t remember some of the details at the end, I remember thinking that the ferryman was tricking them but that Axl saw through the trick and walked away. Thanks!
From what I understood of the ending, the Boatman had agreed with Beatrice, and genuinely had promised to return for Axl. It was Axl himself that walked resolutely away from the boat one Beatrice was safely inside it, and the Boatman commented that it was a shame, because he had planned to come back. I remember being disappointed in Axl as he refused to do one last thing for his wife in memory of her
The first boatman had told Axle and Beatrice that boatman can tell when a couple are truly one, and if that were the case, they would be happy to ferry them across together… By not letting Axle on the boat, I thought the boatman at the end had made a decision not to let them be together because he knew their love not to be as they assumed it. He lied… just like the first boatman had to the lady with the rabbits…
The mist had lifted, and Axle could remember the first boat man’s story… so he figured.. ain’t gonna happen… he may as well go back to shore and wait til he was a bit more tired…. (closer to death)
Thanks! I found the ending puzzling but intriguing and have learned a lot from many of the others who have posted here. What I really need to do is go back and reread it now that I’ve heard from others. It’s been a while and I’ve forgotten details. Thanks for your comments!
Best review and very helpful following comments.
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REALLY great review. I just picked up the book in the Tokyo airport and could not put it down.
Two minor but major point of discrepancy. 1) Axl does not wade into the water toward the island that his wife is bound for, he wades into the water to return the the shore (there is no dock, one has to wade into the water or be carried to the boat, as was Beatrice). Therefore he is accepting that he will not be joining his wife and the ferry man is taking her away.
This is a metaphor for death and that, although we hope we can travel with the one we love, it is a myth, no mater the degree of your love. I think it is an ultimate tie in for the ‘mist’, the precursors is lie we tell ourselves that if we are ‘good’ or our love is ‘good enough’ than we can go to heaven and go with our loved ones. There is no knowing what lies for us on that island, and though we have heard rumor of it, not even the ferryman knows for sure.
2. King Arthur granted the braking of the peace and killing the women, children, and elderly of the Saxtons, thinking it would help bring a vault to more Saxtons being born into hatred towards Britons and turning to war. This is why Axl left King Arthur in a rage and became a quiet farmer instead.
Thank you! It’s interesting – I remember some books well for years, but this book isn’t one of them, and I’ve already forgotten so many of the details. I need to read it again sometime soon. I definitely think I missed parts of the ending. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Actually… I just read christys post and agree… he was heading to shore.