“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
Set in Britain, shortly after the death of King Arthur, The Buried Giant follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice as they make a perilous journey through a land plagued with ogres, pixies and dragons to reunite with their beloved son. They can’t remember what it was that has caused their long estrangement, because a strange forgetfulness plagues the land, only that they desperately long to reunite with him in their old age after their own village has deemed them to be unsafe owning a candle, forcing them to spend the long evenings in total darkness. As they travel, a series of chance encounters make them realise that the amnesia has a magical cause, and as flashes of their memories return, Axl and Beatrice begin to wonder whether their marriage truly is as strong as they believe.
Typically understated and immensely powerful though it is, The Buried Giant initially appears to be a departure from Kazuo Ishiguro’s usual terrain, straying as it does into the realm of fantasy, in a post-Roman Britain overrun with the superstitious and supernatural. In reality, human relationships are at the heart of the novel, and it addresses themes such as memory, perception and love which have been keystones of his other works.
With the exception of the bombastic Sir Gawain, who is prone to soliloquising and projection, the characters are understated. The most interesting characters Axl, Beatrice and Wistan often seem to conflicted about their own actions, but for various reasons seem compelled to uncover the truth of the past, though by the end of the novel we are left wondering whether it is best to examine the darkness of the past, or whether it would have been better to embrace the forgetfulness to move forward in peace without true healing or forgiveness. Like many of Ishiguro’s works, it tells a restrained and deceptively simple story which nonetheless leaves you thinking about the implications of small scenes, and what their implications are for understanding the story on a micro- and a macro- level.
Spoilers to follow
The Ending of The Buried Giant
So, you’ve read The Buried Giant and now you’re wondering about the symbolism and that ambiguous ending. Does the boatman come back and take Axl to the island to be with Beatrice?
My feeling is that the boatman is clearly a psychopomp figure, so akin to the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld, and the island is a place inhabited by the souls of the dead and dying, with the fact that this location is an island having clear links with Avalon and the references to Arthurian lore that crop up through the book.
To my mind, there’s no doubt that the boatman intends for Axl and Beatrice to be together on the island- there’s no ambiguity that they will be allowed to be together on the island, the boatman frequently makes reference to their clear devotion- it’s simply a matter of when. Beatrice is clearly dying, the pain, the blood in the urine and the fever that she suffers, coupled with her frailty make this immediately obvious to the reader, and by the end of the novel it’s clear that Beatrice, the boatman and Axl are all aware of her impending death.
The boatman’s questions in this instance, seem to be a form of ritual confession, unburdening the dying and the ones they will leave behind of the unspoken resentments of the past to allow them to move forward. The boatman is preparing Axl for his wife’s death, knowing that he will be left behind to wait for his time, he even shows him barnacles that he can harvest for his dinner.
Maybe I’ve got a tendency to read a happy ending into an ambiguous ending, but for me, The Buried Giant ends with the clear prospect of the couple being reunited, the boatman frequently reassures him that it is only for this crossing, the boatman has to do his duty and take only the dying Beatrice first. Axl’s mistrust is clear as he wades back to shore, but the boatman’s parting words, reminding Axl to wait for him on the shore, nod to the prospect of their reunion.
When they first meet the boatman says, “We boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise 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 glad to ferry the couple together.”
On their last meeting, it’s clear from the questioning that Axl has let go of the resentment and anger over Beatrice’s infidelity, and she that he kept her from his son. The boatman knows that they share an abiding love which has endured the years, “It is beyond question that the two of you will dwell on the island together, going arm in arm as you’ve always done.”