The narrator notes that the English landscape at the time this story is being told is very different from what it would become famous for in the future. Instead of “winding lane and tranquil meadow,” one finds “miles of desolate, uncultivated land.” Roads that the Romans created have been grown over and ogres still haunt the forests and marshes. The people there, rather than living in constant terror of the ogres, focus on trying to grow food and stop the spread of plague. The people have grown to accept that every once in a while, an ogre will carry a child off.
The narrator provides the first indication that this is a fantasy novel when he introduces ogres and claims they carry off children. He also indicates that the land is experiencing a peaceful period because, aside from the ogres, all anyone is worried about is cultivating land and illness, not fighting with each other.
On the edge of a bog, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, live together in one of many communal warrens in the area, a lot of which are “dug deep into the hillside.” These buildings are connected by underground passages and hallways, but despite having numerous neighbors in the warren, Axl and Beatrice lead “an isolated life” there. The narrator notes that warrens are a primitive habitat and reassures the reader that there are castles to be found in the countryside, though they are very few and far between, and not always hospitable. “I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at [this] time,” the narrator apologizes, “but there you are.”
Axl and Beatrice are “isolated” even in a large warren, indicating that they are not living with or near their children and grandchildren and all they have is each other. This further indicates that they love each other deeply and, in the absence of friends or other family, have only each other to rely on and confide in. The narrator’s apology for his portrayal of the country indicates that he is unwilling to sugarcoat or glaze over the realities of what life was like at the time and will, to the best of his ability, be honest and open in telling the story.
Axl and Beatrice live “on the outer fringes” of their warren, far from the large fire in the Great Chamber and less protected from the cold. Axl believes there was a time when they lived closer to the fire with their children, and this thought would occasionally “gnaw at his heart” and keep him from sleeping. This may be why, on this morning, Axl has left the warmth of his bed to sit outside in the cold. Noticing the sun rising, Axl returns to his room, happy that he has remembered things that had been forgotten long ago. Axl senses that he’s “about to come to some momentous decision” and he is excited about it.
Although he can’t clearly remember having children, the gnawing sadness Axl feels shows that he loves them and the sense that they’re missing from his life is painful. The excitement he feels over his “momentous decision” promises a coming happiness that is closely related to his distant memories of children and the happiness he believes he felt at the time, if they did in fact exist.
Back in their room, Axl sees that Beatrice is still sleeping and is careful not to make too much noise and wake her up, although he is tempted to do so because he’s excited to share his decision with her. Quietly sitting on a stool, Axl wonders if this is how he and Beatrice have always lived, alone “at the periphery of the community,” or if things really had been different once. When he was outside, Axl had received “some fragments of a remembrance” of walking through the warren with his arm around one of his children when he was much younger. However, he can’t be sure this memory is real and not “just an elderly fool’s imaginings.”
Even though Axl is excited, he places Beatrice’s need for rest above his desire to share his thoughts and feelings with her. This is a further indication that he loves her very much and wants to take care of her. His continued thoughts about whether they’ve always lived in such dismal and isolated conditions also shows that he resents the way they’re forced to live now. However, within that is a seed of doubt because he can’t be sure that he actually remembers that happier past and isn’t just a fool.
The narrator notes that the reader may wonder why Axl doesn’t ask someone in the warren for answers as to whether he and Beatrice had had children once. The reason for this is that nobody in the warren speaks of the past. This isn’t because it’s taboo, but because “it ha[s] somehow faded” and never occurs to anyone to discuss it anymore, “even the recent [past].” An example is that Axl remembers a woman with red hair who had been kind to him and Beatrice, and lived in the warren for a time. But one day she disappeared and no matter who he asked, Axl couldn’t find anybody who remembered her ever existing.
The fact that it’s not just Axl’s memory that is unreliable is evidence that there is something bigger and more insidious at play that has made everyone in the warren a victim. This means that nobody can truly be considered a reliable source of information, and it even calls into question the narrator’s reliability.
Recalling the incident of the red-haired woman and how everyone, even Beatrice, had forgotten her, Axl wonders if he’s mistaken about her existing. However, “this instance […] had been merely one of a steady run of such puzzling episodes.” One of these episodes involves a young girl named Marta who was unusually adventurous and had wandered off shortly before nightfall. Fearful that ogres or wolves might find and eat her, the community started to panic until two shepherds came in and started talking about seeing a wren-eagle, which was notable because wren-eagles are capable of scaring wolves away. Everyone stopped looking for Marta to listen to the shepherds talk and debate amongst themselves whether it was an eagle. Suddenly, Marta appeared and only Axl could remember how scared everyone had been for her.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the mysterious forgetfulness that is plaguing the people here is that they can forget their own families and friends just moments after losing sight of them. This has dire implications for those who are forgotten; what if Marta had been cornered by wolves and might have been saved if only her mother hadn’t forgotten her? This means that anyone who leaves the warren, even for just a few hours, is in danger of being forgotten and, if they need help, they can’t trust that anyone will remember them well enough to realize they’re gone.
The sun is rising higher and lighting up Axl and Beatrice’s room. Watching her sleep, Axl notes that she looks peaceful and he experiences a “sudden rush of happiness” as he watches her. Rather than waking her, Axl quietly sits on his stool and waits for the sun to wake her up. As he sits, he wonders how the talk of him and Beatrice taking a journey had begun. He decides the talks must have started when a strange woman had entered the village last November. Although others believed this stranger was a demon, Beatrice had insisted on bringing her food and Axl was sent to talk to her.
Beatrice chose to go to the strange woman even though everyone else was afraid the woman was a demon, which shows that Beatrice is not as susceptible to the kinds of superstitions and fears that most of their neighbors entertain. This further sets them apart from their neighbors and makes them stand out, which helps explain why they are treated as poorly as they are.
Beatrice was with the stranger at a tree called “the old thorn,” but she ran down to meet Axl before he could come up and talk to the stranger himself. Axl agreed with Beatrice that the stranger was safe and simply in need of food. Beatrice sent Axl away, saying she wanted to talk to the stranger a while longer. Later, after finishing his day’s work, Axl hurried back to the old thorn and found Beatrice alone there. Beatrice was deep in thought, but Axl noticed that she was walking differently, as if she was “nursing some secret pain somewhere.” Beatrice assured him the stranger hadn’t upset her, although Axl noted that she was in “a strange mood.”
Axl knows Beatrice well enough to tell just by the way she walks whether or not she is in some kind of pain. This “secret pain” of Beatrice’s began after her conversation with the stranger, which indicates that it is not something physical but emotional and mental. Beatrice shows her love for Axl by trying to spare him whatever pain she is harboring and not telling him what happened to upset her; she is willing to carry the pain herself rather than burden Axl with it.
Suddenly, Beatrice told Axl that she was beginning to agree with his belief that it’s “queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things” and compared it to a sickness. Beatrice worried about what else they weren’t remembering and Axl saw that her eyes were full of sadness. Beatrice said that even though Axl was against it, she though it was time for them to take a journey to their son’s village. Axl wondered why Beatrice thought he was the one against it, but she said she couldn’t remember why she thought that, she just did. Axl agreed that they might be able to go in the spring, but insisted that they talk about it later because they had to help with some more work around the warren.
Beatrice tells Axl that he was against them going to see their son in the past, which means that this is something they have fought about before. Axl doesn’t remember ever being against the idea, which calls into question which (if either) of them is remembering correctly. If Beatrice remembers correctly, then it would mean that Axl had been very cruel in the past, although it is unclear why. If it’s true that Axl was never against the idea, then it begs the question of why Beatrice would accuse him of something like that.
Despite their promise to talk about the trip, Beatrice and Axl have rarely brought it up again. They become “oddly uncomfortable” whenever it is brought up, and their conversation typically ends in “evasiveness or bad temper.” So, talks of a journey have dropped, but Axl has now decided that he wants to take the trip after all. Part of why he’s willing to leave the warren is because just a couple of weeks prior, a young girl had made a candle for Beatrice and Axl, who had long been prohibited from having candles because of their age and the likelihood of them inadvertently burning the warren down. Beatrice was excited to get the candle, but then everyone else surrounded her and tried to take it back. This sent Beatrice into hysterics until Axl found her and held her to him. The pastor, a leader in the community, broke up the group, but demanded that Beatrice return the candle.
By taking Beatrice away from the warren to find their son, Axl is also trying to protect his wife from being mistreated and forced to live in the dark by the neighbors in the warren. He is willing to do this at the expense of his own possible comfort and happiness there, which is a testament to how much he loves her and how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the possibility of giving her a better life even in their old age.
Walking away from the scene of the incident, Beatrice told Axl that all she could think about was their son and how Axl had refused to let her go to him. Axl was astonished, believing he never would have done such a thing, but Beatrice insisted that it was him. Rather than talk about it further, Axl and Beatrice went back to their room for the rest of the day.
By avoiding a serious talk about whether or not Axl had prevented Beatrice from going to see their son, they are also deliberately avoiding having to seriously consider some of the negative elements of their past that their forgetfulness has saved them from having to think about too seriously. By avoiding these serious discussions about the bad parts of their past, they are also trying to rewrite their relationship in accordance with their current happiness together.
As more people wake up around the warren, Axl notices Beatrice starting to move. He leaves his stool to go sit on the edge of their bed. When she finally wakes up, Axl immediately tells her that he thinks it’s time for them to start their journey to their son’s village. Beatrice is happy, although she admits that sometimes she struggles to remember their son at all, and nobody else in the warren remembers him either. Axl also says he has a hard time remembering their son or why he left, but Beatrice says she knows that their son a good man and can “feel things about him.” Axl and Beatrice agree that their son will be excited to see them, and the journey will only take a few days. Although they don’t remember the way, Beatrice believes it will come back to them once they start. The begin preparing for the journey immediately.
Both Beatrice and Axl are relying on their deep internal instincts as parents to guide them towards their son, even though their minds struggle to remember him. They are choosing to put all of their faith in the power of love—specifically the love parents have for their children, no matter how old they are and how long they’ve been apart—to guide them to their son. Furthermore, they are trusting that their son, even if he was sent away and Axl prevented Beatrice from going to him, will feel the same amount of love for them and any past resentment will have dissipated.