In the years following a bloody civil war between the Britons (led by King Arthur) and the Saxons, peace reigns. However, this peace was achieved by means of a mysterious mist created by the breath of Querig (the last dragon, who had been put under a spell on Arthur’s orders), which makes all who breathe it forget the past. King Arthur did this to make people forget that he broke a promise not to kill Saxon women and children. This forgetting, then, is really a form of denial and an attempt to rewrite history by obscuring it, allowing King Arthur to retain his reputation as wise and just. However, there are those who do remember: Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s knights, is devoted to the protection of Querig and, thus, Arthur’s reputation. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, also knows about Querig’s breath and is sent to slay her, which will end the forgetting and lead to a Saxon uprising. Ishiguro examines the practice of rewriting history by burying the truth and denying reality and proves that, ultimately, the truth will make itself known.
King Arthur betrayed the Saxons by breaking his promise, and he knew this action would destroy his reputation. The use of Querig’s cursed breath is meant rewriting Arthur’s history and casting him as a wise and judicious ruler. When Sir Gawain first meets Wistan (along with Axl and Beatrice), Sir Gawain introduces himself as a knight of “great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice.” This shows how Sir Gawain wants Arthur to be remember and reflects most people’s beliefs about him. As Wistan regains more and more of his memories, however, he refers to Arthur as “hated Arthur,” which represents the opinion that the Saxons will adopt once they remember Arthur’s real history. Even as Sir Gawain sees that the truth will be revealed, he continues to portray Arthur as honorable, angrily saying, “Will you not understand the acts of a great King, sir? We can only watch and wonder.” This statement is meant to discredit negative perceptions of Arthur by insinuating that ordinary people are incapable of understanding the justice of his actions.
Furthermore, Sir Gawain is eager to rewrite his own history, knowing that hatred and vitriol will be levelled at him if the truth is known. When Wistan asserts that Arthur had been treacherous, Gawain tries to convince him that they were actually ordered to “spare the innocents caught in the clatter of war.” Not only would this exonerate Arthur, but it would vindicate Gawain, too. Gawain sees that he must admit the role he played in the slaughter, so he tells Beatrice, “I acted as I thought would please God.” This is meant to send the message that, whatever he did, he did it for good reasons and therefore shouldn’t be treated as a villain. Wistan, however, refuses to let Sir Gawain continue to rewrite history, saying, “I see how devoutly you wish it, for your horrors to crumble as dust.” This reveals that Wistan understands why Sir Gawain is anxious to stop the truth from revealing itself: Sir Gawain is as guilty as King Arthur.
Unfortunately for Gawain, too little has been done to hide history—the truth, although buried, can still be seen all around them. Gawain believed the slaughter of Saxon children and women would help end the cycle of hatred because there would be no more children, either born or unborn, to grow up and avenge their fathers. Axl, who had made the treaty, insists that the “circle of hate is […] forged instead in iron by what’s done today,” meaning Axl knew it would be a lasting hatred that wouldn’t go away. In fact, there’s evidence of violence all around them. This is shown by a statement Wistan makes while they are at a monastery that used to be a Saxon shelter for women and children and which contained traps to kill Britons: “This is today a place of peace and prayer, yet you needn’t gaze so deep to find blood and terror.” After Querig is slain, Wistan notes that, “The giant, once well buried, now stirs.” By this he means that now that people will remember the truth, history (which has been quite literally buried on battlefields and in villages) will become the present and the violent deaths of innocent Saxons will be avenged.
Ishiguro believes that history, no matter how desperate people try to rewrite it, has a way of making itself felt. Furthermore, he advocates his own belief that even the ugly side of history should be shown honestly, as the narrator apologizes to the reader, “I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.”
Denial and Rewriting History ThemeTracker
Denial and Rewriting History Quotes in The Buried Giant
I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to the Britain of those days; that at a time when magnificent civilizations flourished elsewhere in the world, we were not much beyond the Iron Age. Had you been able to roam the countryside at will, you might well have discovered castles containing music, fine food, athletic excellence; or monasteries with inhabitants steeped in learning. But there is no getting around it. Even on a strong horse, in good weather, you could have ridden for days without spotting any castle or monastery looming out of the greenery. […] I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.
“It was just a thought. That perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done. Or maybe he’s not angry, but ashamed.”
“A curious thought, princess. But if it’s as you say, why doesn’t he punish us? Why make us forget like fools even things that happened the hour before?”
“Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And as the stranger told Ivor, when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.”
“Even so, sir, isn’t it a strange thing when a man calls another brother who only yesterday slaughtered his children? And yet this is the very thing Arthur appears to have accomplished.”
“You touch the heart of it just there, Master Wistan. Slaughter children, you say. And yet Arthur charged us at all times to spare the innocents caught in the clatter of war. More, sir, he commanded us to rescue and give sanctuary when we could to all women, children and elderly, be they Briton or Saxon. On such actions were bonds of trust built, even as battles raged.”
“How can you describe as penance, sir, the drawing of a veil over the foulest deeds? Is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers? Does he care so little for justice left undone?”
“Our god is a god of mercy, shepherd, whom you, a pagan, may find hard to comprehend. It’s no foolishness to seek forgiveness from such a god, however great the crime. Our god’s mercy is boundless.”
“What use is a god with boundless mercy, sir? You mock me as a pagan, yet the gods of my ancestors pronounce clearly their ways and punish severely when we break their laws. Your Christian god of mercy gives men licence to pursue their greed, their lust for land and blood, knowing a few prayers and a little penance will bring forgiveness and blessing.”
“What are you suggesting, sir? Skulls? I saw no skulls! And what if there are a few old bones here? What of it, is that anything extraordinary? Aren’t we underground? But I saw no bed of bones, I don’t know what you suggest, Master Axl. Were you there, sir? Did you stand beside the great Arthur? I’m proud to say I did, sir, and he was a commander as merciful as he was gallant. Yes, indeed, it was I who came to the abbot to warn of Master Wistan’s identity and intentions, what choice had I? Was I to guess how dark the hearts of holy men could turn? Your suggestions are unwarranted, sir! An insult to all who ever stood alongside the great Arthur! There are no beds of bones here!”
“We need not quarrel, Master Axl. Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it. There an arm, there a leg, but just bones now. An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. Horace and I, we’ve grown weary of it. Weary and we no longer young.”
“What do you suggest, mistress? That I committed this slaughter?” He said this tiredly, with none of the anger he had shown earlier in the tunnel, but there was a peculiar intensity in his voice. “So many skulls, you say. Yet are we not underground? What is it you suggest? Can just one knight of Arthur have killed so many?” He turned back to the gate and ran a finger along one of the bars. “Once, years ago, in a dream, I watched myself killing the enemy. It was in my sleep and long ago. The enemy, in their hundreds, perhaps as many as this. I fought and I fought. Just a foolish dream, but I still recall it.” He sighed, then looked at Beatrice. “I hardly know how to answer you, mistress. I acted as I thought would please God.”
“So many skulls we trod on before coming out to this sweet dawn! So many. No need to look down, one hears their cackle with each tread. How many dead, sir? A hundred? A thousand? Did you count, Master Axl? Or were you not there, sir?”
“Master Axl, what was done in these Saxon towns today my uncle would have commanded only with a heavy heart, knowing of no other way for peace to prevail. Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance! […] Yet with today’s great victory a rare chance comes. We may once and for all sever this evil circle, and a great king must act boldly on it. May this be a famous day, Master Axl, from which our land can be in peace for years to come.”
“I fail to understand you, sir. […] This circle of hate is hardly broken, sir, but forged instead in iron by what’s done today.”
Yet I was a good knight who performed his duty to the end. Let me say so, and he will see I do not lie. I will not mind him. The gentle sunset, his shadow falling over me as he moves from one side of his vessel to the other.
“I accuse you of nothing. That great law you brokered torn down in blood! Yet it held well for a time. Torn down in blood! Who blames us for it now? Do I fear youth? Is it youth alone can defeat an opponent? Let him come, let him come.”
“Will you not understand the acts of a great king, sir? We can only watch and wonder. A great king, like God himself, must perform deeds mortals flinch from! […] Who calls me a coward, sir? Or a slaughterer of babes? Where were you that day? Were you with us?”
“A dark man he may have been, but in this he did God’s will, not only Arthur’s. Without this she-dragon’s breath, would peace ever have come? Look how we live now, sir! Old foes as cousins, village by village. Master Wistan, you fall silent before this sight. […] Her breath isn’t what it was, yet holds the magic even now. Think, sir, once that breath should cease, what might be awoken across this land even after these years! Yes, we slaughtered plenty, I admit it, caring not who was strong and who weak. God may not have smiled at us, but we cleansed the land of war. Leave this place, sir, I beg you.”
“Foolishness, sir. How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery? I see how devoutly you wish it, for your old horrors to crumble as dust. Yet they await in the soil as white bones for men to uncover.”
“You and I longed for Querig’s end, thinking only of our own dear memories. Yet who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”
“How right to fear it, sir,” Wistan said. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs."