reading can seriously damage your ignorance
“If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for or against ogres and pixies appearing in books I’m on the side of the ogres and pixies”, said Kazuo Ishiguro in an interview concerning the The Buried Giant. The recent novel by the Booker-winning novelist has stirred some argument whether he would be against fantasy. Although this argument distracts from the more interesting ideas in The Buried Giant, it also invigorated an old question that I’ve been asking myself since I was sixteen: why has fantasy never become an established genre in literature?
I can ensure you, no one at university could give me any clear, satisfying argument why The Lord of the Rings is often not considered literature. I wasn’t really hoping for Tolkien to be accepted by the literary elite, I just wanted to know what made The Lord of the Rings not a widely recognized work of literature. The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) initiated me into reading. I wasn’t much of reader before and I think John Mullan puts the transformation best when he says “for many who go on to relish sophisticated literary novels, it is an early, formative experience of fiction’s power to absorb us.” But should that be fantasy’s only role? Doesn’t it have more to offer? It seems The Buried Giant crosses interesting borders, and by doing that, exposing the workings of fantasy in literature.
Ishiguro states in the same interview from the introduction that genres should be porous if not, non-existent: “I don’t like people who fortify the walls between genres.” Often the works of Tolkien are criticized on the fantastic elements alone (true enough, the plot has some flaws as well), but rarely on ideas. Yet, fantasy offers tropes which would be difficult to represent in a novel in any other way:
“All these things we have talked about: societal memory, the role of shared memories in the long marriage, when it is better to remember and when it is better to forget and just all these things we have talked about…I needed to create a situation where this kind of oddly controlled amnesia had spread over the whole community. So how was I going to do that? … I tried various things. I could have come up with some sci-fi solution. We can kind of dream such things up, but in this particular case I felt it was better to be kind of mythic, old worldly. It should be some sort of mist… It is a bit of a spoiler but the dragon is the source of the mist… I needed a plot situation where you have this question is it a good thing to get rid of this dragon or is it better to leave this dragon alone?
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Guardian Live
I think most people have difficulty with the fantasy genre, because if done incorrectly it becomes silly, childish, cliché, or too violent. I too am very critical of fantastic elements in a novel. I accept Tolkien’s world because it breathes history and myth, layer upon layer of generations existing before Sam and Frodo met each other in Cirith Ungol. The fantastic elements absorb me rather than presenting awkward scenes. One of my best books of literature ever is still The Silmarillion, though not really a novel but more a collection ofvarious myths.
This is perhaps the difficulty I have with the ogres, pixies and dragons in The Buried Giant: they are clearly used by Ishiguro to tell his idea of memory, choice and loss. They don’t absorb me, but have an explanatory purpose. Maybe I need to get used to this mixture of genres, for I found Ishiguro’s England empty (yes, partly intended by the novelist, I know), but scenes happen haphazardly and felt like Monty Python’s The Holy Grail without its humour: sketches connected by travelling people. The scene with the pixies for example, felt for me unnecessary, even with Ishiguro’s explanation:
“The scene when the pixies turn up, and the near death experience, is about watching somebody very dear to you nearly die and all the kind of emotions you go through. And you try and fight these pixies off this person and they just keep coming, because they are weird pixies. They are maybe putting a spell on you saying: ‘try not to get too emotionally attached to this person because they gonna go anyway. Why don’t you just go away and leave this person to us. And you’re saying ‘no, no, no, go away, go away.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Guardian Live
But as Ishiguro also says himself, the presence fantastic elements are limited and that makes the deeper meaning of the novel much more visible than the ogres, pixies or dragons. For the one theme that stands out almost immediately from the beginning is memory and the loss of it. There is this mist which makes people forget the past, whether this is a good thing or a bad one, is the big question throughout the novel.
I like Ishiguro’s descriptions of decline. We are in a post-Arthurian, post-Roman, world, even the youngest knight of the round table, sir Gawain, is old and waning. The world of the Britons is disappearing, like the sunken lane from Roman days and the ruined villa which Beatrice and Axl find at the start of their journey. It is not by accident they encounter a Saxon boy rather than a British one. The new generation is Saxon, not British. Their own son, a Brit, actually resembled Beatrice and Axl’s own fate. The old couple also witnesses a lot of scenes in which they don’t actively participate. Story-wise because they are old, thematically because the Britons as a people are disappearing and having less influence on the things happening around them.
We should also not forget the title, The Buried Giant, refers, apart from a grave, to a big hidden secret. Should we delve for the hidden memory and face destruction, or keep in the peaceful forgetfulness? “A grievance forgotten, Ishiguro implies, is an atrocity forestalled,” as Tom Holland beautifully puts it. At a certain point in time secrets will be known, but are we ready to face them?
The Buried Giant deserves more than a shallow discussion on the value of fantasy. Whether ogres, pixies or dragons were needed to tell this story depends on your approach to the imagination. Yet, the novel builds up to a masterful ending with one central question: is it better to remember, or is it better to forget? Ishiguro couldn’t have delivered a better novel.
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Buried Giant (2015)
The Guardian – Kazuo Ishiguro on The Buried Giant – books podcast
The Guardian – The Buried Giant review – Kazuo Ishiguro ventures into Tolkien territory
The Guardian – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – review: ‘Game of Thrones with a conscience’
The Guardian – Kazuo Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy
The Guardian – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – digested read