Axl and Beatrice, ill-treated inhabitants of a rustic warren in medieval England, awaken on a fine spring day and realize that they have forgotten to do something important: they must take a few days journey to visit their long lost adult son in a nearby village. Why they haven’t seen their son in so long and exactly where he lives is not clear to them. In fact, Beatrice and Axl have a very difficult time remembering almost anything, even visitors to their warren that had stayed only a month before. The reader is immediately moved by their plight as they are both sweet, gentle, and particularly tender toward one another. Sadly, life in the warren has been made more difficult for them as they are deprived of even the simplest creature comforts, such as a candle to light in the dark night, because of their advanced age.
Soon enough, the reader understands that everyone, not just in the warren, but in villages all over the country, is forgetting events both personal and political. Axl and Beatrice call this the ‘mist’ as it seems a fog that keeps the facts of their lives just out of viewing. There is a rumor that the mist is caused by the great dragon Querig. Added to the troubles of the old couple is a dawning understanding, culled from the tales of grieving widows, that they must cross a river with a boatman who tricks couples into journeying separately unless they can prove, by answering his questions, that their lifelong love has been perfect. With the mist over people’s memories, how can they satisfactorily answer the boatman’s questions?
The reader understands that the boatman is crossing over to the island beyond death. Add to this frightening prospect that the lonely, uncharted country is full of highwaymen as well as supernatural dangers from ogres, dragons, and pixies, and it is a very brave pair that takes a journey on a hunch.
As Axl and Beatrice proceed on their adventure, the relationship between the Britons and Saxons after the death of King Arthur is highlighted. Historically, then, this is probably seventh century England. “There were . . . 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 couple stop for the night in a Saxon village where Beatrice has traded goods in the past. She hopes to seek medical advice from a herbalist for a constant pain. The date of their arrival is, coincidentally, the same date when a Saxon hero is returning after saving a local boy from a group of ogres. By the description of the monster’s torn limbs, I thought he was Beowulf. But he is Wistan, on a secret mission from his king. Circumstances and the village’s superstitions combine to cause him to travel with the saved boy, Axl, and Beatrice.
Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Court whom the group meets along the way, also has a quest, and it seems that the two knights—Saxon and Briton—are in competition for glory. However, their purposes are even more secretive—and more dark—that it first appears.
While Axl and Beatrice’s journey involves a good deal of danger, death, and the witness of hand-to-hand combat, their constant concern for one another and their goal to stay together create a sweetly melancholic emotional atmosphere. I didn’t want to part from this couple. Yet, this is a book of reckoning, and there is no avoiding its end. Truthful, loving or not, the world is a difficult place and ultimately does not yield easily to human desire.
High school housekeeping: Don’t let the fact that Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winner scare you off. The Buried Giant is brilliant and beautifully written, a book that will engage you without feeling ‘difficult.’ The medieval setting has popular appeal. Sir Gawain roams the countryside in a suit of armor, which was a later invention, apparently beginning in the thirteenth century. No matter though—with dragons, ogres and pixies dotting the otherwise realistically rough and rustic setting, the combination of realism and fantasy is a smooth one.
The novel is not particularly long (nor too short). I know that many English classes include ‘the hero’s journey’ in their curriculum. If a teacher should ask you to read a novel and discuss elements of the hero’s journey that you find there, you won’t find a better choice. Check this out.