Knopf, 317 pages, $26.95
At first glance “The Buried Giant” is a fantasy elaboration of the legend of King Arthur and his knights. When the book begins, Arthur has been dead for a number of years, and a strange “mist” has grown over a wide part of England. Tribes that Arthur had defeated or diplomatically brought under his charge have been at peace for some years. But the mist has made people forgetful, not only of their own lives but of their area’s history.
Figuratively rubbing the mist from their eyes, Axl and his wife, Beatrice, venture forth on a journey. They are old and their journey is to visit their son who lives in another village, somewhere vaguely “over there.” They have only partially shaken off the forgetfulness that has settled over their cave-dwelling community; they know that they have forgotten significant events in their lives. Their journey, it turns out, is also to reclaim those memories.
On the way they meet other victims of the mist, some kindly and some traitorous. They join forces at various times with Sir Gawain of the Round Table, nephew of King Arthur, and Wistan and Edwin, displaced Saxons, normally enemies of Britons like Axl and Beatrice.
The mist, it appears, is the result of the breath of the great and fearful dragon, Querig. To conquer the dragon would defeat the mist, and memories would return. Surely that would be a good thing. Sir Gawain and Wistan are each on quests to find the dragon.
Axl and Gawain ruminate throughout the book about what the future holds. Each looks back in his own way and sees sadness. Their hope for the future, however, diverges. Should either wake the sleeping giant of the past? Is what the future holds worth more pain and suffering?
Mythological tales underlie “The Buried Giant,” but tales turned to make Kazuo Ishiguro's point about what mankind values or should value. The writing is restrained, the infrequent violent action sudden and brief and often only found in subsequent discussion, and the moral lesson subtly stated and shaded. Although it is slow-moving and sometimes tedious in its descriptions, this is a quietly effective book and a treasure.