Lost memories and the fight to get them back is the most pervasive theme in The Buried Giant. In the novel, only a handful of people know that Merlin cursed the breath of Querig to create a mysterious mist which make everyone forget the past—namely the fact that King Arthur broke his treaty with the Saxons. While this creates peace, it also makes people forget the details of their personal histories. Axl and Beatrice have been married for many years and yearn to remember what their life together was like in the past. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, accepts their company and help on his quest to slay Querig, which will restore everyone’s memories. As Axl and Beatrice find out, however, not all memories are good, and some even have the power to reintroduce war and slaughter to a peaceful land. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses the question of whether the past and its wrongs are best left forgotten in the interest of peace, or if it’s better to rediscover bad memories to uncover the truth and achieve justice.
Axl and Beatrice know that having their memories restored means they will remember all the bad parts of their marriage as well as the good, but they’re confident that their love is strong enough to survive remembering the bad. Without their memories, Axl and Beatrice only know what they feel for each other from one moment to the next, and because that love is strong, they want to remember everything else they’ve shared. Beatrice says, “Axl and I would remember our lives together, whatever its shape, for it’s been a thing dear to us,” which shows her willingness to accept the bad memories along with the good. Furthermore, Axl accepts that there will be bad memories, but for him those bad memories are made beautiful by being part of the greater good, shown by his assertion that “black shadows make part of its whole.” Even so, Axl insists that Beatrice make him a promise: “keep what you feel for me this moment always in your heart.” Although they both accept that not everything will have been perfect between them in the past, what they most value and fear losing is the present.
Despite their confidence in the strength of their love to withstand regaining all of their memories, Axl and Beatrice worry about what restoring memories will mean for the positive relationship between the Saxons and Britons. Speaking of England’s landscape, Sir Gawain tells Axl it’s a “fine green valley,” but that “not far beneath the daisies and buttercups […] lie the remains of old slaughter.” Similarly, one need not dig far into the pasts of the Saxons and Britons to find treachery, hatred, and violence, even though they now live in peace. However, that peace was only achieved by forcing forgetfulness on the people. When Sir Gawain pleads with Wistan to “Leave this country to rest in forgetfulness,” he also means that Wistan should not bring back memories because forgetfulness is the only way to ensure continued peace. Wistan, however, scorns “the drawing of a veil over the foulest deeds,” meaning achieving peace only by forcing forgetfulness and allowing wrongdoers to go unpunished after committing “the foulest deeds.” For Wistan, memory is the surest road to winning justice for the slaughtered.
In the end, Axl and Beatrice’s worst fears regarding the Britons and Saxons seem likely to come true. Unfortunately, their one chance for happiness seems to have been reliant on forgetting the past despite their belief that their love would stand strong. As Axl and Beatrice prepare to help Wistan slay Querig and restore their memories, Axl becomes hesitant and wonders “what good’s a memory’s returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?” This reveals his growing fear that bad memories of the past will obscure their current happiness. Furthermore, Beatrice has already begun to experience “remembrances to make [her] shrink from [Axl].” Although she still has no definite idea of what their past lives were like, this indicates that some of those bad memories are worse and more powerful than they previously imagined. Ultimately, it is Axl who reveals, and seemingly succumbs to, the intensity of his past anger and resentment at Beatrice. After revealing his long-held resentment of Beatrice for having an affair, Axl initially holds out hope that they can go to the island together, but is soon persuaded to leave Beatrice to be taken to the island (which represents the afterlife) alone.
Remembering has different results for everyone in this book: Axl and Beatrice split up, the Saxons get justice, and the Britons are held accountable for their wrongs. The variety and complexity of these outcomes leaves the question of whether some things are best left forgotten, and Ishiguro leaves this unanswered for the reader to form his or her own opinion.
Memory, Truth and Justice ThemeTracker
Memory, Truth and Justice 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.”
“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.”
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?
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”