The Short Version: Some time after the death of Arthur, an elderly couple decide to set out from their village to visit their son, who lives in a village some distance away. But a strange mist has covered the land, making memory & knowledge unreliable, and their journey dovetails with the journey of several others (including a now-aged Sir Gawain) who seek to combat and dispel the mist – at whatever the cost might be, to themselves and to a barely-at-peace England.
The Review: I grew up listening to a lot of Sting. Specifically “Ten Summoner’s Tales” – something about that record is just perfect to me; the storytelling, the 90s production, the overt Englishness of it. And I remember listening to it and getting to track 10 (of 11), a song called “Something the Boy Said”: it’s a tale of several pilgrims (perhaps the ten titular tale-tellers?) and a horrible premonition. A young boy’s vision warns them but they march on and end up “food for a crow”. The storytelling in that song is not John Darnielle storytelling, rather far simpler – but also, I think, equally as effective. If not more so. Because it spurred images in my head: I heard the story and saw it play out and wondered who these pilgrims were, what had happened to them, where they were going, and what power the captain’s son had.
I felt the same way I felt (and still feel) listening to that album as I did while reading this book.
The other (more current and probably stronger) analogy is to Jez Butterworth’s tremendous play Jerusalem. Both of these works see a brilliant, lauded English writer grappling with English mythology and history while also rooting the story in personal conflict. Yet I don’t know anybody who didn’t rave about that play while this book got pretty soundly whipped, especially by the Times and The New Yorker. Even Neil Gaiman’s Times Book Review piece was ultimately critical, although he was careful to write that it was because of a pre-loaded expectation he went in with, not necessarily a failure of the author himself.
I don’t understand the critical response – because I flat-out loved this book.
For me, it operates on two levels. On one, pure story: I can’t remember the last time I read an Arthurian myth – but this book had me thinking I ought to go give The Once and Future King another shot or to put the Sam Neill TV miniseries of Merlin back in my queue. I used to love Arthurian legend and to see a present-day novelist write a wholly original riff on said legends was thrilling. He even opens the novel with some first-person narration, as though this tale is being told by a bard not too long after it happened. He describes England for us, referring to the roads left overgrown after the Romans left and the way the wildness of that country (a wildness Ishiguro seems to mourn) had come back to threaten the edges of civilization.
It gives nothing away to say that Sir Gawain (he of the Green Knight, and Arthur’s nephew) plays a role in the novel – and so, too, do ogres and dragons, pixies and magic. But Ishiguro, quite rightly, sees no need to explain away these things. He does not attempt to hedge on the mystical qualities of a world now lost to us – just like Rooster John Byron. There is room enough in the world for the mystical & mythical to coexist alongside reality – and Ishiguro delivers a heavy dose of reality, too. One of the central questions in the novel is around the things done in war and the cost an individual might be willing to bear in order to do something that would benefit the greater whole of the populace. You don’t really hear about Arthur-as-Briton in the context of defeating the Saxons: the mythical Arthur is a man of peace and prosperity. But, at that time (and Ishiguro does ground this more in an ancient English reality than his ogres and magic might imply), peace only came about through force. Arthur may have been beloved, but what could he do when he was gone? How could peace reign even after his death?
I wasn’t expecting such questions, frankly. I wasn’t expecting a look at the rift between two types of people – Briton and Saxon – in a way that mirrors the ethnic divide in so many states and regions around the world today. You want an allegory, Mr. Gaiman, you could do worse than that one. And the answers that Ishiguro gives are not necessarily satisfactory ones: they are pragmatic and dark as opposed to fantastically hopeful. They are at odds with what we think of as historical-fantasy England and they instead ground that England in reality.
If that’s the macro part of the story, the micro is the relationship between Beatrice and Axl. It’s not clear how old they are, although they are certainly old for the times – it’s safe, I think, to peg them over 60 (at least by a modern understanding). And they love each other fiercely, although the mist threatens their peace: why can’t they remember their son leaving? Where, exactly, did he go? What is the thing that they can’t quite recall about a quarrel in their past?
It is through their devotion to one another that they’re able to get up and leave the village, to go off and find their son. They fight through the mist in that way. And plenty of people took issue with the device of this mist, this mist that makes people forget things, saying that Ishiguro doesn’t ever put any hard-and-fast rules into place for it. This feels like yet another unreasonable demand borne out of a dislike for supposed-respectable-authors dabbling in genre fiction, a way to hide the fact that the critics simply do not like what they perceive to be slumming. The mist is ill-defined because, for one thing, that’s what a mist does – but, too, isn’t that the way of the brain? Of memory? Things alter and shift and change, shrouded one moment and revealed the next.
Memory is what Ishiguro is aiming for here, a target as ethereal as the mist he uses to manifest the issue. If you’ve been married for a long time, or even dreamed of doing so (for I am not married and am only now in a relationship that approaches the “longest-lasting” mark originally made in high school) or watched your parents do so, you might appreciate the subtlety with which Ishiguro examines how that bi-pole relationship can change. How both parties can make a decision for the good of the collective to forget something, to change a memory or an event into something else. Axl’s attentiveness to Beatrice is, it’s quickly revealed (although only just), borne out of a sense that he has done something to trouble her in the past – but that they have forgotten it. And Axl himself has a struggle inside of him, a constant fight to not-recall a terrible thing he has been a part of. Some of this is revealed at the end of the novel – and some of it, not quite. Axl and Beatrice must come to terms with the things they tried to forget about one another in the hopes that their relationship can remain strong. The boatman’s question, a sort of riddle-esque conundrum that Beatrice fears where they are separated because they do not remember the same event together and are separated in the crossing to an Avalon-esque isle, hovers over the whole novel and makes the reader consider their own relationships. Can anyone remember the same event the same way? Should they? The similarities of remembrance (or lack thereof) might be telling about the strength of the relationship… but our lives are fundamentally different. A relationship ought to be an entwining of two strands, not a combination of them – and how do we negotiate that entwining, not as young lovers but as people who’ve already been entwined for some time, is something I don’t think I’ve read so well-wrought before.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Yes, this book has a hold on me that can only be considered at the highest level. It is a beautiful object for starters, with its green and gold jacket, its black-edged pages, the green and marbled-tan hardcover, the beautifully drawn map on the endpapers. It is a high Arthurian fantasy grounded in realistic questions of war and morality. It is a romance between a couple long out of the bloom of youth. There is, indeed, a dragon – and ogres and pixies and so on – but this is a moment where magic is about to hit its final decline in England. We’ve never had that sort of magic here in America (Mr. Gaiman’s choice as reviewer for the Times feels quite apropos, considering his work on the subject) but England’s mythic past fascinates me and always has. And Mr. Ishiguro wrote a novel that somehow combined my childhood with my present while also making me think about my future. What more could you ask for?