The Buried Giant

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Set in the British dark ages one generation after Arthur, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant mostly follows the adventures of an elderly couple on a journey to visit their son. A mist of forgetfulness blankets the land, so the story unfolds shudderingly as if through a clouded or scorched lens. This both evokes a wonderful mood and allows Ishiguro to narrate without explaining too much too quickly. Though there are several underlying ideas, the novel is rewarding even if read as a straightforward fantasy, so I will not burden you with my thematic interpretation.

The depiction of myth-historical Britain and the way combat is described are worth focusing on in particular. The ogres and monsters and fairies and dragons are none of them cliches, and this is particularly impressive because Ishiguro describes them all in detail rather than resorting to the common strategy of leaving the imagination to the reader. For one example that I think does not risk spoiling anything overly much:

They might have been gazing at a large skinned animal: an opaque membrane, like the lining of a sheep’s stomach, was stretched tightly over the sinews and joints. Swathed as it was now in moonshadow, the beast appeared roughly the size and shape of a bull, but its head was distinctly wolf-like and of a darker hue—though even here the impression was of blackening by flames rather than of naturally dark fur or flesh. The jaws were massive, the eyes reptilian.

And the warrens that the Britons live in would be a great backstory for a series of mega-dungeons. It would not stretch the imagination to have many of these connected together in one great subterranean sprawl, partially taken over by restless dead, ogres, and other haunts while being active “towns” in other areas.

For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors. Our elderly couple lived within one such sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers. If you came out of their warren and walked for twenty minutes around the hill, you would have reached the next settlement, and to your eyes, this one would have seemed identical to the first. But to the inhabitants themselves, there would have been many distinguishing details of which they would have been proud or ashamed.

The technique used to describe combat is singularly effective, with many paragraphs of positioning and perhaps some exchange of words prior to any actual attacks. The closest thing I can think of is the high noon contest of nerves in the wild west, but this is not quite that. Finally, the conflict is concluded swiftly with decisive action, with the loving detail focused on the slow buildup rather than a balletic interplay of punches, stabs, and blocks as is usually done in cinematic or adventurous combats. It is probably unlikely that any game would be able to capture this sense of combat, but it might be worth trying. A single scene ends up having many paragraphs like this:

Then the two men became fixed in their new positions, and to an innocent spectator, they may have looked, in relation to one another, practically unchanged from before. Yet Axl could sense that these new positions had a different significance. It had been a long time since he had had to consider combat in such detail, and there remained a frustrating sense that he was failing to see half of what was unfolding before him. But he knew somehow the contest had reached a critical point; that things could not be held like this for long without one or the other combatant being forced to commit himself.

Ishiguro’s Gawain is also perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have read in a long while. Here is a taste.

What do you say, sir? I’m a mortal man, I don’t deny it, but I’m a knight well trained and nurtured for long years of my youth by the great Arthur, who taught me to face all manner of challenge with gladness, even when fear seeps to the marrow, for if we’re mortal let us at least shine handsomely in God’s eyes while we walk this earth! Like all who stood with Arthur, sir, I’ve faced beelzebubs and monsters as well as the darkest intents of men, and always upheld my great king’s example even in the midst of ferocious conflict. What is it you suggest, sir? How dare you? Were you there? I was there, sir, and saw all with these same eyes that fix you now! But what of it, what of it, friends, this is a discussion for some other time. Forgive me, we have other matters to attend to, of course we have. What is it you asked, sir? Ah yes, this beast, yes, I understand it’s monstrous fierce but no demon or spirit and this sword is good enough to slay it.

A successful writer of literary fiction can afford to dedicate five or more years to the writing of a single novel, and the level of resulting craft is clear. Though doing so is a career risk, I hope that more serious writers experiment in this way, because The Buried Giant is a masterpiece. I devoured it over the course of a few days despite my current huge grad school workload, and I plan to read it a second time soon. Recommended without reservations. Apologies for the long quotes, but I felt like I needed to let the novel speak with its own voice.

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