Read from April 24th to May 6th 2015
The Birth of Myths
In one of her short stories, Alice Munro evokes an ancestor who was the last to live at the border of reality and fantasy, for, she said, he was the last known to have encountered fairies and ghosts. It reminded me of another unusual border, imagined by Umberto Eco on an island where you could freely cross the line between yesterday and tomorrow. These are the stories The Buried Giant made me think of, before Tolkien’s mighty goblins and Yourcenar’s re-invention of history some critics compared Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel to. For it finely imagined a third border, this time between history and myth. It seems to me that this is what The Buried Giant is about: a glimpse at that illo tempore imagined by Mircea Eliade, that is at the dawn of time, when man inhabited the sacred as easily as the profane.
In a sharp and crushing review published in New Yorker Magazine (here it is, James Wood accuses the novel, among other things, of being “not a novel of historical amnesia, but an allegory of historical amnesia”. Apart from an doubtful identification of the theme, reducing the book to an allegory is to unjustly oversimplify it. First, because an allegory can be roughly viewed as a translation (an image that has a particular meaning) thus limiting the novel to one valid interpretation if the right key is found and second because it denies its magic realism to banish it to the fabulous realm only. But the historical layer, although discreet, does exist, skilfully reconstructing the image of an England before England, some time in the sixth or seventh century, when Britons and Saxons were still living together in a precarious and awkward peace, when monks were still mixing religion and superstitions, when knights were still roaming the country and King Arthur was still a vivid memory. The following description of a Briton village is a superb example:
In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them. I would say this couple lived an isolated life, but in those days few were “isolated” in any sense we would understand. For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors. Our elderly couple lived within one such sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers.
The novel is full of such images, like old blurred pictures in which you have to imagine what you cannot properly see but at which you cannot help looking with a feeling of wonder and dismay. And wonder and dismay are indeed the feelings you feel all along, reading this wonderful book: a shadow you almost capture, a meaning you almost get, a hope you almost believe it will last. And above all, a longing for mighty times, mighty heroes whose deeds memory purged, gently forgetting the petty and unjust ones, whilst projecting into myth the brave and great ones. For what is the giant but memory, collective and individual, buried for a while but never fully destroyed? And all the characters in the book are heading towards its cairn, even though they are not aware of its true signification and think they seek something else altogether.
It is there where the past will truly begin to unfold, where the characters step out of myth once again to confront a bleak reality that destroys dreams and beliefs, that taints both Arthur’s great victory and Axl and Beatrice’s great love with the memory of the treachery it was based on. It is there where Wistan, the knight of truth, challenges Sir Gawain, the knight of myth and defeats him. Querig, the she-dragon, is therefore killed and the mist of forgetting her breath had cast begins to rise. At least for a while, the time for Axl to say goodbye to his wife whom he is prohibited to accompany on her journey towards death by an inflexible Caron who cannot overlook a past betrayal; and the time for Saxons to slaughter and banish the Britons from their lands in revenge of past killings:
“The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance. For you Britons, it’ll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you. You’ll flee or perish. And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace of your people’s time here than a flock or two of sheep wandering the hills untended.”
However, history has a way of its own to turn into myth and eventually the giant will fall asleep again. Wistan’s voice, the believer in the historical truth, is not permitted to become a narrative voice and will be forced to quieten by the other four, more powerful and all of them on the side of the imaginary. All of them luring the reader towards the realm of myth, a little step out of reality, where their own journeys directed them.
The journey of Edwin, the twelve-year-old boy with a mighty soul, which started after he was saved by Wistan twice, either from the ogres’ hunger and from the villagers’ superstitious anger, is a journey towards maturity, under the guidance of two often contradictory wills: Wistan’s and (what he thinks it is) his mother’s. The part of the story in which he is granted speech suggests which one will prevail, for he speaks wondrously of a magic land where wander great warriors who fought the dragons Merlin had bewitched in order to rob humanity of its right to remember, of its right to forget. One of these warriors might become his father, might become his master but he will never make a true warrior out of him, for he was bitten himself by a dragon that unleashed his imagination, that made him forever hesitate between two promises: to follow the path of vengeance led by Wistan in the real world or the path of love led by the voice of his mother in the imaginary world. His journey has just begun.
On the contrary, the journey of Sir Gawain is at its end. The Arthur’s last knight with his rusty appearance reminds so strongly of don Quixote's that it takes some time to realize he is in fact an opposite of him, but that he borrows his “sad countenance” and hide behind it to better fulfil the role of the keeper of the dragon his king instructed him with. He speaks through reveries that take care that king Arthur’s image shines unblemished, surrounded by his loyal knights, and that his decisions remain noble and never doubted. Black birds or black widows don’t need to be fought like windmills, for they cannot pas to the other side to tarnish his memory with cruelty and iniquity and treachery.
The journey of the boatman is, at first sight, a simple and repetitive one – he is a Charon who helps the souls to cross Styx. But he is more than this: he is a judge of human feelings. He is granted the power to test true love. His voice ambiguously ends the tale with the allusion to another myth – Plato’s androgyne myth (in which human beings were at first spheres, but were halved by the jealous gods and thrown to Earth where, since then, they look for each other to achieve again the lost perfection), and with the promise that true love really is, but only if it never falters. It was not so for Beatrice and Axl, but that does not mean that it cannot be. Love is rare, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist:
“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 glad to ferry the couple together.”
All these voices are dominated by the omniscient narrator’s one, who also speaks from two realms: one of reality, in which he mimics the historian that studies the past and tries to make it intelligible for the modern minds, carefully comparing past and present habits, settlements, landscapes:
I might point out here that navigation in open country was something much more difficult in those days, and not just because of the lack of reliable compasses and maps. We did not yet have the hedgerows that so pleasantly divide the countryside today into field, lane and meadow. A traveller of that time would, often as not, find himself in featureless landscape, the view almost identical whichever way he turned.
P.S. Thank you, Ema, my friend, for your insightful review of this book and for your generous gift. I hope I answered some of your questions at least partially!