At its heart, The Buried Giant is about love and hatred, on both the personal and national levels. Although the breath of the dragon Querig permeates the land, makes everyone forget the past, and establishes peace, old hatreds—which have roots in the time before they began forgetting—still exist. Axl and Beatrice are an old married couple who love each other intensely but can’t remember the history of their marriage and decide to leave their home to find their long-lost son. However, Axl carries with him an unidentifiable sadness and anger at Beatrice, although she professes to love him very much and is determined to find a solution to the mist that makes them forget so they can remember their lives together. On a broader level, England is at peace after a bloody civil war between the Britons, who were led by the treacherous King Arthur, and the Saxons. Although there is peace, hatred bubbles just under the surface; like the sadness and anger Axl carries with him, nobody can identify this hatred because nobody can remember its cause. In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro shows how strong emotions of love and loyalty can obscure underlying conflicts, and questions whether people whose pasts are characterized by hatred can experience genuine love in the present.
Axl and Beatrice have a seemingly happy marriage: Axl often feels a rush of tenderness when he sees Beatrice and refers to her as “princess,” and Beatrice is never happier than when she’s with Axl. As rock-solid as this marriage appears, however, it is gradually revealed that their love is largely an illusion. Axl loves watching over Beatrice, but as the story goes on and they get closer to regaining their memories, he begins to feel “a trace of sadness” and soon he feels “both memory and anger growing firmer” when he looks at her, although he hides this from her. This shows that Axl, at least, knows that his feelings for Beatrice are not as strong as he outwardly professes. As the moment when Wistan will slay Querig and restore everyone’s memories approaches, Beatrice becomes fearful of what Axl will remember about her. She tells him she’s afraid of some “dark things” and she “trembles […] to think they may be returned to us,” which shows that she, too, has reason to doubt the strength of their love.
Like the love between Axl and Beatrice, there is something illusory about the camaraderie between Britons and Saxons. Sir Gawain (a Briton and knight of Arthur) points out to Wistan (a Saxon warrior) that, currently, “old foes” are living “as cousins.” In describing them as “old foes,” Gawain implies that enmity existed in their lifetimes, which indicates a predisposition for mutual hatred. This idea is further supported by Axl’s observation that “custom and suspicion” divided Saxons and Britons. This means that even though they get along, Saxons and Britons have not fully accepted one another. Furthermore, it’s revealed that what peace does exist was forced upon both Britons and Saxons by Arthur, who ordered Merlin to cast a forgetting spell on Querig’s breath. Axl notes that “Arthur’s shadow will fade” in step with Querig’s breath, which means peace will be overturned and the old hatred between Saxons and Britons will be restored, if not intensified.
In the end, hatred and resentment (felt by both Axl and the victimized Saxons) conquer love and the desire for peace (felt by Beatrice and the fearful Britons). Wistan slays Querig knowing that “old hatreds will loosen across the land,” meaning wars will break out once the Saxons remember that they were betrayed, their women and children slaughtered by the Britons during the war. Where friendship and love once existed, hatred will take the day. When Axl’s memories come back, he tells the narrator (a boatman who will decide if Axl and Beatrice can go on to the island and live out their afterlife together), “I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart that yearned for vengeance.” This shows that not only had Axl resented Beatrice for an earlier infidelity, but had long nurtured that resentment, although he claims to love her now. The boatman notes that “a couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred.” This description perfectly captures the reality of both Axl and Beatrice’s marriage and the relationship between Saxons and Britons: outwardly friendly, even loving, but with a past characterized by mutual anger and betrayal.
At the end of the story, the Saxons and Britons are left to fight amongst themselves as their memories are restored, and Axl chooses to send Beatrice with the boatman (presumably to her death) and walk away, even though the boatman tells him to wait. On both levels, the personal and the national, Ishiguro illustrates the power of old hatred to transcend new love even after years of peace.
Love and Hatred ThemeTracker
Love and Hatred Quotes in The Buried Giant
“But isn’t it hard, sir,” Beatrice asked, “to see what truly lies in people’s hearts? Appearances deceive so easily.”
“That’s true, good lady, but then we boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travelers 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.”
“But Axl, we can’t remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us.”
“We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don’t you feel the same, princess?”
“I do, Axl. 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.”
“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.”
What had brought the pair of them to that village that morning? Axl remembered the cries of outrage, children crying, the looks of hatred, and his own fury, not so much at Harvey himself, but at those who had handicapped him with such a companion. Their mission, if accomplished, would surely be an achievement unique and new, one so supreme God himself would judge it a moment when men came a step closer to him. Yet how could Axl hope to do anything tethered to such a brute?
“I speak of people at the end of a brutal road, having seen their children and kin mutilated and ravished. They’ve reached this, their sanctuary, only after long torment, death chasing at their heels. And now comes an invading army of overwhelming size. The fort may hold several days, perhaps even a week or two. But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they’ve seen it already, from whence they fled. They’ve seen the enemy burn and cut, take turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds. They know this is to come, and so must cherish the earlier days of the siege, when the enemy must first pay the price for what they will later do.”
“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.”
“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
“It may be so for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
“Yet the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good. Isn’t that so, mistress?”
“We’ll have the bad ones come back too, even if they make us weep or shake with anger. For isn’t it the life we’ve shared?”
“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.”
“These cursed Saxons. Why fight on this way with only Death to thank them for it?”
“I believe they do so for sheer anger and hatred of us,” he says. “For it must be by now word has reached their ears of what’s been done to their innocents left in their villages. I’m myself just come from them, so why would the news not reach also the Saxon ranks?”
“What news do you speak of, Master Axl?”
“News of their women, children and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them, now all slaughtered by our hands, even the smallest babes. If this were lately done to us, would our hatred exhaust itself? Would we not also fight to the last as they do, each fresh wound given a balm?”
“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.”
“There are Britons who tempt our respect, even our love, I know this only too well. But there are now greater things press on us than what each may feel for another. It was Britons under Arthur slaughtered our kind. It was Britons took your mother and mine. We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again.”
“Axl, tell me. If the she-dragon’s really slain, and the mist starts to clear, Axl, do you ever fear what will then be revealed to us?”
“Didn’t you say it yourself, princess? Our life together’s like a tale with a happy end, no matter what turns it took on the way.”
“I said so before, Axl. Yet now it may even be we’ll slay Querig with our own hands, there’s a part of me fears the mist’s fading.”
“Should Querig really die and the mist begin to clear. Should memories return, and among them of times I disappointed you. Or yet of dark deeds I may once have done to make you look at me and see no longer the man you do now. Promise me this at least. Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory’s returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another? Will you promise me, princess? Promise to keep what you feel for me this moment always in your heart, no matter what you see once the mist’s gone.”
“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.”
“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."
“What did you hope to gain, sir, preventing not just your wife but even yourself grieving at your son’s resting place?”
“Gain? There was nothing to gain, boatman. It was just foolishness and pride. And whatever else lurks in the depths of a man’s heart. Perhaps it was a craving to punish, sir. I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart that yearned for vengeance. A petty and black thing I did her, and my son also.”