I read the very poetic The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, a few months ago, and only recently realised a few interesting things about it.
Spoilers will obviously follow.
In The Buried Giant, Britain is covered by a mysterious fog which causes the people to forget most of their lives. At some point, they remember, there was a conflict between Britons and Saxons, but the fighting seems to be over. An old married couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out from a small village to find their son in the neighbouring town.
They discover that the fog is the result of a dragon’s breath, the beast enchanted by Merlin after a terrible battle between the Britons and Saxons, for the purpose of ending the constant bloodshed in Britain.
I read a huge chunk of the text expecting there to be a literal giant at some point. This expectation was thwarted, however, because unlike me Ishiguro’s actually clever.
Rather, the ‘buried giant’ is explicitly said to be the submerged memories of the disputes between Britons and Saxons that result in virulent ethnic hatred, and thus, conflict. Interestingly, Ishiguro bothers to specify that it’s hundreds of relatively tiny conflicts, not some unrealistic, giant ideological mismatching, that create the problems. He seems to understand the country mindset.
A minor point about historiography:
In the Byzantine Empire, along the fringes of the border between Rome and Persia, there would have existed hundreds of tiny farms. They wouldn’t have been in open war with one another based off the official positions of their governments – they were too busy trying to stay alive. At most there would have been a wary attitude to the neighbours. Most of history is peaceful, really – it’s just that historians have no choice but to write about events most of the time because events are what leave traces. And so modern readers of history are convinced by the overwhelming amount of evidence that human history is a history of constant conflict, and periods of peace are an occasional hope spot between wars.
It’s the evidence that’s the problem, or rather the prioritising of some evidence (i.e. written) over archaeological. People don’t write about ordinary periods, so many of the written sources describe conflicts. An ordinary day of farming leaves plenty of evidence, but it’s ignored in favour of the dramatic, state-changing stuff. Swathes of the planet which most people assume were ravaged by famous wars were probably left mostly untouched, actually. If a citizen in an occupied city killed another citizen of a different ethnicity, it’s not always certain that the reason was the difference in culture or race. It’s far more likely to have been a personal affront. Most people living in a given society just aren’t always concerned so much with ideology generally; I live in Australia. Most of the people I talk to couldn’t give less of a damn about the current gay marriage ‘debate.’ If you study history properly, you’ll find millions of people who just wanted to get on with their lives, and a relatively tiny number of passionate ideologues.
Ishiguro is probably aware of this. His society under the fog is reminiscent of it – no one cares or remembers whether they’re Briton or Saxon. When that buffer dissipates, then they’ll remember that the cobbler across the road killed their ancestor, or stole their land, or some personal affront, not any sort of higher ideological casus belli, and that will be the reason for conflict. Similar stories will be spread out across the nation.
But the main reason I wanted to discuss The Buried Giant is because of its archetypal nature: not only does it contain all the classic elements of a heroic story in Arthurian Britain (Sir Gawain, Merlin, a dragon, witches and mysterious demons and so on) but it is also a direct reflection, in fact a retelling, of the story of Adam and Eve.
I’ve drawn on this before, sourced from Dr Peterson’s Biblical lectures, so I’ll keep it short. Before eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are essentially unconscious. They’re not conscious beings in the sense that they don’t have empathy, memory, or an understanding of pain, life, or death. They’re like animals.
The inhabitants of Britain under the fog in The Buried Giant are the same. Like Adam and Eve, they exist in a kind of mythical prehistorical state where time has no meaning and conflict is impossible because any desires slip and fade in and out of memory randomly.
When the dragon is killed, and people’s memories start to return, this is the same as Adam and Eve becoming aware of their nakedness – of their vulnerability – and being hurled from the Garden of Eden into what we think of as physical, measurable history. And given that slaying the dragon was a conscious choice, rather than giving in to a mysterious malevolent snake in the Garden, the characters of The Buried Giant are engaging in the oldest debate of all time: is it good for us to exist, or would humanity rather have never been?
So the killing of the dragon is actually the beginning of consciousness, or rather the restarting of consciousness. In that manner, I’m actually not as accurate as I could have been earlier. The killing of the dragon is more like God’s call to Abram in the desert than it is the Fall. Because between the Fall and the rise of the Sumerian kingdoms people were awake, and then began living life in the Sumerian style.
The Sumerians placed little importance on individual memories, and simply tried to endlessly re-enact the divine rituals they saw played out constantly in the sky. Abram was the first recorded deviant from that culture – a wily Sumerian businessman who, at the behest of a wild, strange, personal god who spoke to him and seemed (unlike other Sumerian gods) to have no embodied physical form. When he left his homeland, he essentially ‘woke up’ again, and restarted the linear passage of time. What we’d call history.
So The Buried Giant might seem like a relatively simple book, but there’s a great deal of archetypal play going on underneath the surface, and it’s worth a read. It’s also quite a beautiful work, by the way.