In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro takes readers back to England in the years following the death of King Arthur. A mysterious mist created by the breath of Querig, the last dragon, has permeated the land and made nearly everyone forget the past, including the bloody wars King Arthur (a Briton) led against the Saxons. With this forgetfulness comes peace: Saxons and Britons live side by side with no trouble. Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple who are Britons, leave their home in search of their lost son. On the way, they meet Wistan, a Saxon warrior, who wants to slay Querig and who retains a lot of his memories. They also meet Sir Gawain, an Arthurian knight whose secret duty is to protect Querig and, therefore, peace in England. If Wistan slays the dragon, people will gradually regain their memories of the past, including the fact that King Arthur broke the treaty between Britons and Saxons not to kill innocent women and children, and further slaughter will inevitably follow. Through this tenuous balance between upholding peace and unleashing chaos, Ishiguro explores the fragility of peace after civil war and challenges traditional beliefs about the strength of forgiveness to withstand calls for vengeance.
Very few characters in the book retain detailed long-term memories, but most realize that they are forgetting things that they should remember. Although there is peace because of this, the people are still haunted by what they don’t remember, revealing the continued existence of fear and tension even in peacetime. Axl and Beatrice are Britons, which means they belonged to the side that committed the worst of the atrocities during the war. While pondering the cause of their forgetfulness, Beatrice theorizes that “God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget,” indicating that she has some sense that they had done wrong in the past even though she doesn’t remember what it was. Wistan, a Saxon, takes another view: he knows that the Britons did something unforgiveable and believes they are also at the root of the forgetting, saying “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.” This shows that Wistan, and perhaps other Saxons, continue to be suspicious of the Britons. Peace exists in England, but these two divergent opinions on why everyone has forgotten the past (the Britons attributing it to God because He’s ashamed and the Saxons believing King Arthur did something wrong) reveals unresolved tension that threatens to boil over.
Sir Gawain reveals that King Arthur ordered Merlin, a wizard, to cast a spell on Querig’s breath to make everyone in the land forget, thus ensuring both peace and that no one would remember that he broke the treaty with the Saxons and slaughtered innocent women and children. The final argument between Sir Gawain and Wistan highlights how dubious such a peace is. When Sir Gawain finishes his account of what Merlin did to Querig and why, Wistan asks, “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery?” These questions highlight both the insincerity and fragility of the peace that existed between Saxons and Britons: the Saxons’ forgiveness was achieved through fraudulent means, and once the mist is lifted there is little hope that the peace will last. Sir Gawain also agrees that once the Saxons get their memories back there is danger that war will erupt. But he holds out hope that if Querig is allowed to live for “another season or two” then it “may be long enough for old wounds to heal.” Sir Gawain, then, believes that peace—no matter how it was won—will prevail if it’s allowed to exist for long enough, even if it was achieved dishonestly. Despite his desire to reveal the truth, after Wistan has murdered Sir Gawain and slain Querig, he begins to regret his actions and says that “now the hour’s almost upon us, I find my heart trembles like a maid’s.” Although peace was achieved dishonestly, it still exists, and Wistan’s feelings after fulfilling his mission highlight the fact that there is no easy answer as to whether honesty that leads to vengeance is better than dishonesty that leads to peace.
Not only peace, but forgiveness, existed between Britons and Saxons for years before Wistan killed Querig, but that peace was contingent on a collective forgetting that primarily benefitted the Britons, who betrayed the treaty made with the Saxons. The inevitability of war once their collective memories are restored shows that the desire for vengeance can be stronger than existing peace, and forgiveness counts for very little in the face of impending war.
War, Peace, Vengeance, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
War, Peace, Vengeance, and Forgiveness 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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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."