[Apologies to my Medievalist friends for the liberties I have taken here with history…]
A passer-by might have taken the pair, one with his broad-brimmed hat and sober garments, the other stiff and weathered as a signpost, for some allegorical gatekeeper setting a footsore pilgrim on his road.
‘Aye, master, we’ve our heretics in country parts same as in the city. Take Father Whiting now: as wicked an old sinner as you’d wish to meet in a summer’s day. Not a sentence he lets fall but begins and ends in the foulest heresy. Go you to Father Whiting, master, and you’ll count your pains well bestowed.’
The man in black stared at the peasant with hatred. In these days when heresy was punishable by burning such levity was intolerable. Briefly he wondered whether to sound out the man’s opinions on scripture, knowing that his own long experience could twist the cripple’s answers as vilely as his frame; but there was little to be gained from netting such small fry. Besides, he owed the man a debt of gratitude. This account of Father Whiting tallied in every detail with the intelligence gathered by the church authorities, and the peasant might come in useful at the trial. He dropped a groat into the cripple’s pouch and turned down the lane that had been indicated by the man’s knotty finger. The stranger walked swiftly, despite his limp.
It was a lane whose toils were as devious as an equivocator’s reasoning, he told himself, leading to a garden of paradisal fertility. The presbytery sprouted from the centre like a forbidden tree, concealing no doubt (all gardens held the same association in his mind) its serpent. Such a garden! Bored by botany as he was, the man in black saw in it every variety of flower, tree, herb or shrub he knew and more, flourishing in regulated profusion on either hand. Treading the pebbled path from gate to porch, he heard a burst of high-pitched laughter from an upper window. A patter of feet on a flight of steps, a babble in the hall, and a cascade of children spilled out of the open front door. They converged about his knees as if he were a long-expected visitor and drew him towards the threshold where a tiny woman stood beaming, her arms extended in welcome. Her face was narrow and pointed as that of a mouse; wrinkles radiated from the corners of her mouth like whiskers, and she let out a series of shrill squeaks as she ushered him into the house. In a moment he found himself seated in the kitchen by a blazing summer fire, looking about him in bewilderment (a sensation unfamiliar to the man in black).
The kitchen was dark and spacious, its ceiling criss-crossed by heavy beams, from which hung herbs, onions, pheasants, rabbits, kitchen implements and a large stuffed crow, spreading its tattered wings in simulated flight. A haunch of venison drooped from a metal spike an inch or two from the visitor’s nose. In one corner, a cask lay on its side in a wooden cradle, its vent stopped with a twist of cloth. Dark viscous liquid dripped from the cloth and splashed among the jugs and pots that crowded round the cradle’s feet. Against the wall stood a dresser crammed with pewter, glass and earthenware of every shape and size. A massive cauldron gurgled on the fire; steam gushed from it in gobbets. This was a place congenial to the visitor’s heart, for he loved hot rooms where meat was suspended from hooks.
A tabby cat curled its tail round the woman’s legs as she bustled to fill a jug with ale from the cask. Her hair, a grey mist, betrayed her age, but to the man in black she seemed oddly attractive in the fragrant twilight. ‘And where do you hail from, master?’ she sang out over the bobbing heads of the children. ‘A friend of Father Bernard’s, are you? Or a pilgrim on the road to the Holy Martyr’s tomb? There’s many and many a pilgrim passes through the village once the summer storms are past. Frogspawn and crowsfoot, children, we can’t hear ourselves breathe! Run along into the garden and catch me a dragonfly, won’t you? They haven’t a net,’ she explained as the children trooped out of the kitchen, ‘so that’ll keep them occupied till owl-light.’
When the room was still, the man in black accepted the ale and sipped noisily, shooting his eyes over the household treasures displayed on the dresser. The woman picked up the cat – which looked half as big as herself – and stroked it, her own gaze fixed upon the stranger. When the ale was finished he set the jug on the floor by his chair and stretched his boots across the hearthstone with a satisfied grunt. His cloak was bunched up like wings about his shoulders by the back of his chair. His restless eyes kept wandering to his hostess and darting away again.
‘The children,’ he observed to a fine pewter plate. ‘They belong to Father Whiting?’
‘Gracious, no,’ exclaimed the woman with a needle-sharp laugh. ‘They belong to the Lord. God forbid we should lay claim to the ownership of His children!’
The stranger stared at her a moment, then transferred his stare to a string of onions. ‘That is not what I meant,’ he said. ‘Who gave birth to them? And who is the father?’
The woman laughed again: her laugh was beginning to get on the stranger’s nerves. ‘Bless us, master, I quite mistook! You must think me very dizzy! Let me see now, the father. There’s Molly Wither’s children, the eldest not eight; I wouldn’t care to guess who the father might be. There’s Matty Moon’s daughters I mind when he’s away, and Billy Badger’s three boys; the fourth drowned in the beck. Bless us, Father Bernard has only seven of his own. Only seven, that’s it, with another on the way. Due in the fall, so Fanny Fireside tells me; and she ought to know, for she’s had nine already, and this’ll be the tenth if it lives!’
The man in black drew in his breath with a hiss and raised his eyes to the haunch of venison. ‘Seven, woman?’ he said between clenched teeth. ‘Did you say seven? Father Whiting is a priest of the Church of Rome!’
‘That he is, master, that he is,’ said the woman. ‘And he dearly loves the little children at his knees, just like our good Lord Jesus.’ She never ceased to stroke the tabby cat.
‘And you?’ inquired the stranger, his eyes now sliding down the poker. ‘What is your position in this household?’
‘The dear preserve us, master,’ cried the woman, her little black pupils drilling into him. ‘What position does any woman stand in to her husband?’
Here the man in black removed his hat, which he had refused to take off in the porch, and mopped his brow with a black silk handkerchief. ‘A husband,’ he repeated. ‘Do you know nothing of priestly vows? Does he?’
The woman smiled. ‘Father Bernard knows only his vows to God, master,’ she said.
The man in black revolved the hat in his hands as if inspecting the brim for dust. The priest, he thought, was clearly some sort of fanatic, one of those lollards who denied the authority of Mother Church. His eyes flicked to the woman and at once flicked back to a nail sticking out of the wall above the fireplace.
‘Tell me about the garden, will you?’ he said, with what he hoped was a friendly grin. ‘Where do the plants come from? They must have cost a pretty penny!’
‘How would a simple wench like me know where the plants come from, master?’ asked the woman, her fingers running through the cat’s fur from tail to neck. ‘I always tell the children that the seeds form wherever the sun weeps, but I don’t know the truth of the matter.’
‘Who tends the garden? Father Whiting? Where is he now?’
‘Baptising Sally Moleskin’s daughter, born out of wedlock Wednesday was a week.’
‘Baptising an illegitimate child without a dispensation? The bishop has expressly forbidden it.’ In his mounting excitement the stranger’s eyes darted from tongs to wood-basket, from wood-basket to kettle then back again to tongs. Here, truly, was a catch to weigh in with the heaviest! Before the judgement throne this priestly lunatic would condemn himself ten times over out of his own blasphemous mouth. The prize-money would be prodigious, the conflagration spectacular! Already he was formulating the indictment in his head, listening to the sentence as the Grand Inquisitor pronounced it, basking in the frightened glances of women and children as he approached the quaking heretic to minister the last rites by the light of the torches…
And the woman! Just a passing mention of her relationship with Father Whiting (the bishop wanted all such scandals smothered), an inventory of the contents of this kitchen, a thumbnail sketch of her appearance… trials for witchcraft always drew the crowds. Two such birds with one stone! Preferment beckoned surely this time. This was his lucky day!
And yet, and yet… she was certainly attractive. Although no youngster himself, he too knew the pangs of the flesh, and he was not ill-looking, he thought, in a gaunt kind of way. His eyes stroked the tabby’s fur along with her fingers. What a crowning achievement it would be if he could share her sheets while plotting her destruction! Finger by finger he pulled off his gloves, then rubbed his palms together.
‘My poor dear woman,’ he mumbled to the butter-churn. ‘You are in a sorry pickle, indeed you are.’
Her puzzled gaze made him squirm somewhat. ‘I, master?’ she said. ‘I’m the one as does the pickling hereabouts!’
He gave a nervous bark of laughter. ‘My poor dear woman, in yourself you are as innocent as the sucking babe. But you are fast becoming corrupted. You have no notion of Father Whiting’s wickedness. I must explain.’
‘Explain, master? I’m sure there’s no need to explain. There’s some things need no explaining.’
Once again his eyes made a bound to hers and away. In his fancy the air between them swam like the atmosphere over a fire. He started to twine one of his gloves round the other till they were locked in an inextricable embrace. His lips peeled back from his gums in another effort at a friendly smile. ‘Poor foolish creature,’ he murmured. ‘It is my wretched duty to shatter your illusions. This Father Whiting you so admire – this hedge-priest, this heretic – is an irredeemable scoundrel.’ The space between them tightened as he leaned towards her. ‘A scoundrel, and more than a scoundrel. He is a devil. He has broken every edict human and divine. He has married and begotten children in violation of his holy profession. He has expended money, time and labour on the cultivation of luxuries, which should have been devoted to the pastoral care of his flock. He has flagrantly disregarded the bishop’s edicts. And it would not surprise me if he were a poacher’ – gesturing at the pheasants and the venison – ‘or a practitioner of the Black Arts’ – with a gesture at the crow. ‘In conclusion, woman, Father Whiting is damned to everlasting torment. But this is not the sum of his malignancy. Alas, woman, his most unpardonable crime is this: that he has drawn your hapless self into the trains of his infernal schemes. He has ensnared your soul with lascivious blandishments, glutted your tender flesh with sensuous drafts and the dishes of venery. Unless you change your ways at once, my child, you will find yourself impaled on a spit by his side in the blackest pit of Purgatory. Do you understand your danger?’
He rose several inches in his chair as he spoke, and finally fixed her with a terrible glare, pinning her down as if with red-hot pokers. ‘Oh heavens, master,’ she whispered. ‘Is that so? What shall I do, master? How shall I be saved?’
The stranger held her in his gaze a moment longer, then released her with a shuddering sigh. She was well netted. He reached into the folds of his cloak and drew forth a scroll tied up with red ribbon. ‘You are a good woman at heart,’ he announced as he plucked at the knot with his nails, ‘and you have already taken the first step towards salvation. The second is almost as simple.’ The ribbon dropped to the floor and the scroll flew open in his hands. ‘I have here a precious document entrusted to me by my superiors. It is a simple declaration, nothing to be alarmed at, attesting to my conviction of your innocence. You need only sign along the dotted – but I forget, you do not write. A mark will do, and then I can guarantee your safety.’
He reached the scroll towards her. As her hand closed round it a shudder ran down his spine. She studied the legal script for several minutes with some intensity before he realized she was holding it upside down. He smirked to himself and fumbled once again among his garments.
‘Here is pen and ink. When you have completed the form I must ask you to accompany me to my residence for a short interrogation – you are familiar with church bureaucracy…’ The laughter of children filtered through the leaves at the kitchen window. ‘When the inquisition is over you shall never be troubled again.’
The woman perched on her stool, the scroll in one hand, the pen in the other. The late afternoon sun was screened by a hedge of yew so that the room lay thick with shadows. The cauldron bubbled and belched. A log fell in the fire sending up a flock of sparks. Solitary flames twirled on the tips of twigs, red-hot caverns roared amidst the geology of crumbling wood. A heavy odour clung about the stranger’s nostrils; his forehead glistened with perspiration. Truly the woman had a presence; the air fairly crackled with the electric charges that shot between them.
‘Well, master,’ she said, rising and crossing to the dresser (how catlike every movement!). ‘What a blessing it is that you troubled yourself to visit me in my wickedness! I might never have known I was treading the path to perpetual pain. How can a simple wench repay such kindness?’ A thousand answers jostled at his lips, but before he could speak she had turned to him holding a bowl. ‘Would you care for a drop of stew, sir? Nothing special, but Father Bernard loves it dearly.’
The stranger smirked and smirked. A libation – a thank-offering! And how charming that she should put her life in his hands along with a mess of pottage! ‘With all my heart,’ he said, rising likewise and moving towards the cauldron. As he bent over it, the fire cast shadows like horns from his bushy eyebrows.
‘It is always pleasing to encounter gratitude in my line of work,’ he went on. ‘Too often the instrument is mistaken for the instigator, the slave blamed for the caprices of his master, the effect condemned instead of the cause. You and I and Father Whiting are all of us no more than tools in the hand of that inscrutable craftswoman, Dame Fortune. What a delectable aroma!’ His nostrils dilated. ‘Mine is an unpleasant vocation, certainly, but the job must be done and a strong spirit is needed to do it. Yet to tell the truth, there are moments when it palls on me. Moments when I find myself seized with an irresistible passion for one of those I must betray – be it a frail young monk unable to combat heretical thoughts or a handsome woman like yourself – seized with a passion beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. A strange phenomenon, don’t you think?’ The bubbles bulged, swelled and popped like the turbulence in his stomach. ‘Tell me, woman, what is in the stew?’
At this point the woman, who was standing behind him, dropped the bowl so that it smashed to pieces on the floor. In the same movement she bent, seized the stranger by the heels and tipped him over the lip of the cauldron. Gravy slopped into the flames, hissing venomously. As he kicked, his boots flew off to reveal his cloven hooves, his tail disengaged itself from the sinking cloak. Fingers of steam groped up the chimney, fumbled the woman’s pointed features, poked among the fragments on the floor. She stirred the pottage twice before she replied.
Here’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.
In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:
the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)
Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.
The story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.
The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.
It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).
Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.
The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:
There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)
The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have been supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:
You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)
This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and the book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.
The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.
This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.
There are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?
This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.
The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:
And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)
The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.
Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.
Different readers have had different experiences of The Buried Giant (2015), some finding it too crude an allegory, others enraged by its refusal to tell a straight story, still others engrossed and moved by its account of married love and the slow re-emergence of a half-forgotten atrocity. That, of course, is the point of the novel. It’s not a single story but a set of competing versions of the past, like Kurosawa’s great movie Rashomon (1950), and the great set pieces of the book are ones where all the characters talk at cross purposes, their readings of events utterly and often comically at odds with one another, their belief systems incompatible. Even individuals question their own version of events, thanks to the mist of selective amnesia that provides the novel with its plot and central metaphor: they are unable to be sure whether what they believe now is in any way related to their past commitments, and claim ignorance as to whether or not they have betrayed their comrades, allies, loved ones or ideals at some point in their former lives, however certain they claim to be of their faiths and loyalties here and now. They are not even altogether sure that they have forgotten things – a situation that caused particular anxiety to James Woods, the book’s reviewer for the New Yorker. Woods expressed consternation that their amnesia is itself unreliable, and that at times they seem able to recover with ease memories they claim to have lost for ever only moments previously. But to complain that this situation doesn’t make for what you generally assume to be a satisfactory story is, I think, to fail altogether to understand what Ishiguro is doing to the notions of ‘story’, ‘history’, ‘myth’ and ‘fantasy’ in this most disturbing and touching of narratives.
Everyone who’s read anything about the novel will know that it had a long and tortuous genesis. Ishiguro came up with the plot, he tells us, at an early stage, but took some time to settle in his mind whether to set it in Japan or Britain; it was a reading of that most ironic of Arthurian romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that helped him make up his mind. He wrote a first draft which was dismissed by his wife as a failure because of its lavish prose style; he then wrote a second in a completely different register. The novel once completed, he was worried that his more serious-minded readers would dismiss it as ‘fantasy’. All these things work in its favour, to my mind. The book imports the traumatic experience of Japanese history – and the way this has been represented in art, especially film – into the Matter of Britain. Everyone knows about the multiple traumas and atrocities buried in Japan’s past, but the British have been more assiduous in burying theirs, from massacres in Ireland and India to the invention of concentration camps in the Boer War. This book invites us to exhume them, by revising that most cherished of British myths, the story of Arthur, who is supposed to have united a divided Britain by humane means – though even Malory ascribed to him an imperialist impulse that took him on the rampage through France and Italy to Rome. The novel ironizes romance and heroism as vigorously as Gawain or Beowulf. Its prose style is deeply strange. And its uneasy deployment of the tropes of fantasy invites its readers, whether or not they are well versed in them, to reconsider their function in literature and culture past and present. I think we’ll look back on it as a major achievement, and one that speaks to the many revisions of myth that have been going on in recent decades.
The book is as full of echoes as Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest. It begins in a grimmer version of a hobbit hole: a village of gloomy burrows, whose apparently genial communitarianism masks a propensity for bullying the weak which turns out to be a trait of just about everyone we meet in the story (the old couple we meet in the first pages have recently been robbed of their only candle, for no apparent reason, so that they have to live for the most part in the dark). A later incident, in which a Saxon warrior kills two ravaging ogres, recalls Beowulf’s killing of Grendel and his mother, while a visit to a monastery summons up the grotesquerie and ingenious misdirections of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. The Greek ferryman of the dead, Charon, crops up repeatedly, and talks about taking passengers across to an island that sounds much like Avalon. One of the most fascinating figures in the book, from the point of view of his literary ancestry, is the knight Sir Gawain. His abnormal height, his advanced age and his thinness might make us think of Don Quixote drawn by Honoré Daumier, as does his apparent confusion over which remarks directed at him he should take offence at and which he should embrace as well-deserved compliments on his outmoded fidelity to a long-lost ideal. His clumsiness, his solitude, his white hair, his initial appearance in a wood of forgetfulness, his bouts of yearning after inaccessible young girls, might bring to mind the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass, who is also a figure of his creator Lewis Carroll. His fighting technique, like that of the Saxon warrior, is pure Samurai – a single well-aimed, deadly stroke is his preferred method of dispatching opponents (think of Kyuzo’s terrifying efficiency in Seven Samurai, or Zatoichi’s in Takeshi Kitano’s version). The mysterious widows who torment him with reminders of his past dark deeds recall the ghostly old women of Japanese tradition, such as the witch in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or the periodic apparitions in Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. Beckett is present in much of the action, as is TheBlair Witch Project, Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Echoes of films, books, poems (the name Beatrice summons up Dante’s Divine Comedy) tug at the reader’s memory at every turn, exacerbating the sense that past and future tragedies are always on the verge of re-emerging from obscurity as the story unfolds. And the overlapping of these different narratives and traditions reinforce too our sense that no story is singular – all are interwoven, and every reader will trace a different set of influences through the novel, all of them subverted by Ishiguro’s ironic tone.
When I say that characters in Ishiguro’s book – like his readers – read each incident differently, it should be stressed that this extends itself to the objects and creatures they see or which they signally fail to notice. Over and over again what they see differs: above all when it involves the supernatural or fantastic. The central characters, Axl and Beatrice, have poor eyesight, and often mistake things seen at a distance. For them the arm of an ogre, yanked off by the Saxon warrior Wistan, looks at first like an eyeless head, something like the Pale Man’s in Pan’s Labyrinth: ‘where the eyes, nose and mouth should have been there was only pimpled flesh, like that of a goose, with a few tufts of down-like hair on its cheeks’ (75-6). Only later does Axl realize that what he is looking at is not a head at all, ‘but a section of the shoulder and upper arm of some abnormally large, human-like creature’. Later, on an underground journey that recalls the visits of epic heroes to the Shades, Axl sees by candlelight the body of a dead bat where Beatrice sees the corpse of an abandoned baby. Axl entirely fails to spot the moment when Gawain slays the monster that lurks in this subterranean maze – he sees it run on after its death stroke but does not notice it has lost its head. Later still, Beatrice sees a distant row of soldiers in the mountains, which Axl takes for birds and the aged knight Sir Gawain for the tormenting widows who follow him everywhere. Looking down into a ditch, it takes Axl several minutes to distinguish the corpse of a goat from the body of the dying ogre that has been eating it: ‘Only then did he see that much of what initially he had taken to be of the dead goat belonged to a second creature entangled with it. That mound there was a shoulder; that a stiffened knee’ (288). Here again an ogre is presented to us as dismembered, but on this occasion its predicament elicits sympathy: Axl calls it ‘some poor ogre […] dying a slow death’ (289). Earlier, the boy Edwin saw three more seemingly dismembered ogres by a pond in a wood, one of them ‘crouching down on its knees and elbows at the water’s very edge, its head completely submerged’, so that ‘To a careless observer, [it] might have been a headless corpse’ (272). He too feels pity for them, as if his earlier abduction by ogres had given him an insight into their perspective, rendering them ‘human-like’ rather than monstrous. Meanwhile the warrior Wistan sees the partly submerged monsters by the pond as ancient trees, attributing Edwin’s view of them to a bout of delirium. Seeing things with distorted vision is, in fact, not just possible but highly likely in Ishiguro’s Britain – partly because of the physical condition of the land’s inhabitants. There are no corrective lenses for Axl’s eyes; Beatrice suffers from some nameless and possibly terminal affliction; Edwin has been wounded (though again, no one has a clear idea what by – a dragon, a cockatrice, an ogre?); Wistan is in a fever from wounds sustained in battle. As in Ishiguro’s previous novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), physical pain is a constant presence in the book’s landscape, serving to locate the appalling damage inflicted by tyranny and random violence in the inner organs of still-living victims. Everyone is journeying to a slow death, carrying mementoes of their mortality in their chests and bellies and sides, no matter how hard they seek to defend their minds from an awareness of its imminent approach.
The land partakes of the body’s sickness. The earth is full of slaughtered corpses, from the buried giant of the title to the remains of Saxon civilians slaughtered by Arthur’s knights in his final battle – no longer the heroic act of self sacrifice it was for Malory but a savage breach of promise, the deliberate violation of a carefully negotiated truce between enemies. Sir Gawain is reluctant to be buried anywhere but on top of a mountain for fear of the vengeful dead he might share the soil with. The Stygian tunnel through which Gawain, Edwin and the elderly couple travel is floored with bones. Christianity is less a religion than a means of distinguishing the Britons from the pagan Saxons; the Christians in the book have little confidence in God’s mercy, subjecting themselves to appalling torment as a means of anticipating the punishment he might mete out after their deaths, and only the pagan afterlife left behind by the departed Romans has any substance, manifesting itself in the ubiquitous figure of the ferryman. The land of chivalric romance is notoriously featureless, unlike the secondary worlds of epic fantasy, which are invariably given shape and substance by an accompanying map. Ishiguro’s Britain is closer to the former, with few names assigned to communities or features of the landscape – there’s a brief mention of Badon Hill at one point, but one cannot imagine a map being drawn of the land where it would feature. Place has come detached from place like the limbs of the ogre emerging from the mud in the ditch, entangled with the limbs of a goat.
Communities, too, have come apart in Ishiguro’s Britain. Families have been separated: Axl and Beatrice set out on their travels in a bid to find a son they may have driven off, or who may never have existed, and on their journey they encounter many more children who have been neglected, forgotten or betrayed. A little girl called Marta causes consternation in her village when she stays out after sunset; but before long the community gets distracted by something else, and by the time she gets safely home they have half forgotten she was ever missing. The boy Edwin seems at first to have a loving family, since his uncles muster the courage to attempt his rescue when he is abducted by ogres, but his relatives quickly turn on him when they think he has been infected by a vampiric bite from one of his abductors. Much later, Axl and Beatrice meet a young girl who has been abandoned by her parents, and who defends her younger brothers against another marauding ogre. The young generation have, in fact, become thoroughly at home in the cruel world they inhabit, and this acclimatization is part of what separates them from their elders. At one point the boy Edwin remembers meeting a teenage girl who has been tied up by her fellow travellers for their gratification. She is not particularly outraged by what has been done to her, and later when Edwin is in turn tied up and used as bait to attract the dragon he too takes it in his stride, expecting nothing better even from Wistan, the man he most admires. The little girl Marta is confident she will not get in trouble when she goes wandering, since she knows full well that her family will soon lose interest in looking for her, and like Edwin she can manage ogres: ‘I know how to hide from them,’ she tells Axl cheerfully (12). She shares, in fact, the attitude of Ishiguro’s narrator to monsters, as expressed in the opening pages: ‘One had to accept that every so often […] an ogre might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages’ (3-4). Ogres are part of her community, like the humans who fear them, and both (as Edwin has learned long before we meet him in the narrative) can be equally deadly.
The most broken community in the novel is an isolated monastery in the mountains which occupies the site of a genocidal massacre. Religious communities are places of peace and contemplation, but Ishiguro goes to great pains (the phrase is apt) to show how they are also embedded in the landscape as well as the history of atrocity. His monastery is an elaborate physical and mental trap: Axl and Beatrice go there to get medical help for Beatrice’s ailment, but are betrayed by one of the monks into entering a monster’s lair, where he hopes they will be killed and eaten, and it’s implied that this happens regularly to the monks’ guests. The healer-monk whose advice they seek is himself dying from self-inflicted injuries sustained in penance for Arthur’s massacre of the Saxons. The monastery is an old Saxon fort which has been seized and turned to new uses by its British conquerors. The fort was designed not so much to protect the Saxons as to destroy the Britons in their moment of victory – like the young girl’s poisoned goat which kills the ogre even as the monster devours it. There are left-over booby traps in the repurposed fort, one of which is activated in an act of vengeance by the Saxon warrior Wistan; but the site itself seems to be destructive by virtue of its genocidal history, working on the consciences of its religious inhabitants until they subject themselves to Christ-like excruciations in a desperate bid to save their souls. In fact, as the novel goes on the imagery of sacrifice and betrayal proliferates in it, becoming in the end a pastiche of the Christian sacrifice to which the monks are ostensibly committed. Each sacrifice – of oneself, of one’s enemies, of one’s children, parents or partner – triggers further bloodshed, in a vicious cycle that predicts the continuing cycle of history from the so-called Dark Ages to the present.
My account of the book makes it sound unrelievedly grim, but it really isn’t, and this is largely thanks to the sometimes comic detachment of its style – a detachment that reinforces the sense that its characters can endure the monstrousness of their Dark Age situation precisely because of their wilful removal of themselves from the stark realities of past and present. Axl and Beatrice, Wistan, Gawain and the boy Edwin converse in an awkward succession of stilted politenesses, even when they are drastically at odds with one another; Axl calls his wife ‘princess’, and treats her like one, constantly striving to protect her from the pain and exhaustion their journey brings her, acquiescing to all her proposals even when they distress or hurt him. Wistan expresses unwavering hatred for the Britons who massacred his people and seeks to bequeath this hatred to young Edwin, his fellow Saxon; but he treats the Britons Axl and Beatrice with affection and respect, and behaves with ridiculous courtesy to Gawain even at the point when they’re about to spill each other’s guts. Edwin promises to hate all Britons when Wistan asks him to, but he clearly can’t see the point in it; the elderly British couple are his friends and so must be exempted from the blanket injunction, and if them, how many others? People, like ogres, can be liked and pitied even by those who seek their deaths – the young girl who poisons the ogre with her goat is afterwards sorry for what she has done and claims she didn’t intend it. Even the dragon is a pitiable creature, worn out by its hard life like Axl, Beatrice and Gawain; it must be killed, but it is also a victim, forced into spreading oblivion across the land by Merlin’s spells, and its would-be killers feel no resentment as they approach its ailing body to lop off its head. The elaborate verbal courtesy, then, that people extend to one another in Ishiguro’s Britain is not just a means to cover up their true feelings (whatever these may be – the novel suggests that human feelings are always conflicted). It also serves to manifest their genuine affection for one another despite all the cultural and historical pressures that combine to drive them apart. Courtesy endures even after the stark realities of the past have been unveiled thanks to the dragon’s death, and it’s this courtesy, like the unfailing courtesy of Gawain in the Green Knight, that one remembers afterwards, rendered all the more poignant by the savage setting in which it somehow survives.
The chief characteristic of the book’s style – especially the dialogue – is that it reads like a work in translation. It is clear and spare, stripped of rhetorical flourish and colloquial punchiness, and stripped too of dialectal elements specific to a certain class or locale or historical period – in marked contrast to the language of, say, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Wakefield cycle, or Morris, or Tolkien. I was reminded as I read of the translations of Homer and Ovid I read as a child in the continuous prose of the Penguin Classics series, largely composed by its founder, the poet and scholar E V Rieu: a prose which reminded you at every moment that what you were encountering was at several removes from the original, yet which also miraculously seemed to convey certain crucial elements of that original in heroic defiance of the mists of time. Here is Ishiguro’s version of Rieu, in a passage from near the beginning where the elderly couple are striving to remember their departed son:
‘Some days I remember him clear enough,’ she said. ‘Then the next day it’s as if a veil’s fallen over his memory. But our son’s a fine and good man, I know that for sure.’
‘Why is he not with us here now, princess?’
‘I don’t know, Axel. It could be he quarreled with the elders and had to leave. I’ve asked around and there’s no one here remembers him. But he wouldn’t have done anything to bring shame on himself, I know for sure. Can you remember nothing of it yourself, Axl?’
‘When I was outside just now, doing my best to remember all I could in the stillness, many things came back to me. But I can’t remember our son, neither his face nor his voice, though sometimes I think I can see him when he was a small boy, and I’m leading him by the hand beside the riverbank, or when he was weeping one time and I was reaching out to comfort him. But what he looks like today, where he’s living, if he has a son of his own, I don’t remember at all. I was hoping you’d remember more, princess.’
‘He’s our son,’ Beatrice said. ‘So I can feel things about him, even when I don’t remember clearly. And I know he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection.’ (28-9)
The language here is formal, for all its occasional gestures towards the demotic (the contraction of ‘has’ in ‘as if a veil’s fallen across his memory’ is a classic bit of rather stiff translator’s colloquialism). There is no attempt at a lyrical rhythm. The vocabulary is simple and clear, as if selected by an adherent of the Campaign for Plain English – or deployed in a classroom by a teacher keen to ensure her charges can readily follow her words. Beatrice speaks of her son in platitudes: ‘our son’s a fine and good man, I know that for sure’, she tells Axl, awkwardly but confidently combining a claim to certainty (‘for sure’) with the vaguest of epithets (‘a fine and good man’), and she does the same twice more in this short passage: ‘he wouldn’t have done anything to bring shame on himself, I know for sure’; ‘He’s our son […] so I can feel things about him […] And I know he longs for us to leave this place’. Axl, meanwhile, remembers only gestures, detached from the markers of individuality, face and voice – the ‘things’ Beatrice repeatedly refers to. Both of them, then, represent their son in what are effectively verbal fragments, like the fragments of the ogre in the ditch. The most translation-like feature of the passage, perhaps, is its frequent use of the present continuous – a tense not so very often used in colloquial English: ‘sometimes […] I’m leading him by the hand […] or when he was weeping one time and I was reaching out to comfort him […] he longs for us to […] be living with him under his protection’. The overall effect is to suggest that Axl and Beatrice are constructing their son not from memories or instincts – however tenuous – but from what their culture generally assumes a good parent would think about his or her offspring: that he is ‘fine and good’, that he would never misbehave, that he wants them to be with him as a good son should. The continuous present indicates that their thoughts about him are not bound by time, as memories are, but permanent features of their mental landscape. Their courteous attitude to one another’s perspective (‘Can you remember nothing of it yourself, Axl?’ […] ‘I was hoping you’d remember more, princess’), suggests that they are keener to achieve consensus than to draw attention to some striking recollection of their own that might clash with their spouse’s. Axl and Beatrice are dedicated to holding things together, and the strange translator’s English they speak, treading a tightrope walker’s path between abysses of contention and contradiction, is their sole defence against the imminent collapse of all agreements among the inhabitants of the damaged Britain they wander.
At various points in the book the consensual translator’s language shows clear signs of the intense strain to which it’s being subjected by the old enmities, buried atrocities and conflicting emotions and loyalties it conceals. Sir Gawain, in particular, sometimes lapses into incoherence as he seeks to sustain his image as the solitary warrior dedicated to preserving his idealized monarch’s vision of universal peace at the cost of personal relationships:
I had a duty. Ha! And do I fear him now? Never, sir, never. I accuse you of nothing. That great law you brokered torn down in blood! Yet it held well for a time. Torn down in blood! Who blames us for it now? Do I fear youth? Is it youth alone can defeat an opponent? Let him come, let him come. Remember it, sir! (309)
The collapse of distinctions here – it’s hard to tell which ‘him’ or ‘you’ or ‘us’ is referred to in successive sentences – has the effect of conflating all the characters in the book, making them all equally the guilty parties and the victims of the cycle of violence in which they are caught. In this it replicates the way implements make their way from one person’s hands to another in Ishiguro’s novel. One hoe in particular – a farming tool consisting of a long pole with a downturned blade at one end – is at one point to be found in the hands of a young girl, who uses it to exact an appalling vengeance on the man who raped or murdered her mother and sisters (241): a vengeance so terrible that it shocks Sir Gawain and violates his sense of the girl as an innocent victim. Later in the book an identical hoe is seized by Axl as he fights to defend Beatrice against a swarm of pixies, tiny malevolent beings whose disturbing resemblance to young children serves utterly to compromise Axl’s apparent act of chivalry (263). The hoe, like the plain language used by Ishiguro’s characters, is no more than a tool, but the second time we encounter it this instrument has been contaminated by the previous encounter – hoes have become instruments of appalling sadism, and this association is impossible to shake off as Axl attacks the swarm of creatures whose ‘collective voices seemed to him to resemble the sound of children playing in the distance’ (263). At this point Axl, like the girl, is no longer identifiable as simply criminal or victim, aggressor or defender against aggression. The language of Gawain’s speech extends this moral confusion to everyone else in the novel – Wistan, Axl, Gawain, Edwin, the long-dead Arthur, and the young people (like the hoe-wielding girl) who can so readily accommodate themselves to the violent world King Arthur bequeathed to them. All have been cross-infected by association with atrocities, just as the boy Edwin was deemed to have been rendered ogreish by the bite he sustained from an ogre. I, you, we, he, she, they – all pronouns are in a similar position, interchangeable in any given sentence relating to guilt, shame, pain or sudden aggression.
The one exception may be Axl’s wife Beatrice – though even she is to some extent compromised in Axl’s mind by one highly unreliable memory that surfaces towards the end of the narrative. Beatrice’s mission throughout is to recover the memories obscured by the mist, first by visiting her lost son and later by helping slay the dragon who gave rise to the mist of forgetfulness. Her conviction that Axl and she have nothing to fear from the return of memory is always touching, but the trajectory of the story tends to expose it as a comforting dream or fantasy, sprung from the fund of comforting fantasies by which people preserve their sense of order, love and justice. I suspect this is one of the reasons Ishiguro turned to fantasy in this novel: as a means of exploring the quotidian fantasies we cling to – chief of all, perhaps, the fantasy that we live in a civilized epoch, firmly founded on previous epochs of civilization – which are aided and abetted by the patterns of our everyday discourse.
The final chapter draws out this theme with consummate skill. Throughout the novel points of view have shifted from time to time – we see things successively from Axl’s, Edwin’s and Sir Gawain’s perspectives – but this is the first time we have been invited to see an episode from the perspective of a fourth individual – one of the Charon-like boatmen who have cropped up periodically since soon after the beginning of the narrative. It’s also the first time we have been given a first person narrator – apart from the anonymous first person narrator of the first chapter (are we meant to believe, then, that this is the boatman, that we are being addressed throughout the book by the ferryman of the dead?). In the last chapter, the elderly couple finally seem to be approaching the moment of their journey that Beatrice, in particular, has anticipated from the beginning, when they will be reunited with their long lost son. Beatrice is convinced the happy ending will soon take place and that the three of them will be permitted to cross to the island where her son lives and inhabit it for ever in blissful unity. The boatman’s perspective, however, gives us access to his intentions, which increasingly suggest that her hopes are misguided. His narrative is filled with expressions of pity for the couple, as if he is convinced they will soon be permanently parted – and that there’s nothing he can do about it, in spite of his agency in parting them. ‘I cannot lie and I have my duty’, he says at one point (348) as he directs them to the shack where their passage to the island on his boat will be arranged (in this book the island is a topographical emblem of isolation, as in Donne’s celebrate sermon – though Beatrice sees it as a site of recovery like the Avalon of Arthurian legend). The word ‘duty’ used here by the boatman has by this time been contaminated by Sir Gawain’s repeated use of it to denote the dubious responsibilities he was assigned by Ishiguro’s demythologized Arthur.
Axl, meanwhile, becomes increasingly – and as the reader know, rightly – suspicious of the boatman’s intentions, but continues to sustain Beatrice in her fantasy of a joyful conclusion to their adventures. Beatrice speaks of the boatman’s kindness with conviction, as she did of her son in the earlier passage: ‘He’s a good man and won’t let us down’ (360). Axl does not believe it – he has caught the boatman in one lie at least and is certain all his other promises too are lies; yet he chooses not to puncture his exhausted wife’s last dream; and to the last moment they spend together he sustains her fantasy, although he does not share it. The book ends with the old woman happy in her conviction that her future will be a loving one, and the old man wandering away from her, lonely in the dark.
The reader is left wondering which condition is better: Beatrice’s knowledge, which is really ignorance, or Axl’s, which the reader knows to be well founded. The question is not an easy one to answer. Beatrice leaves with the boatman, certain she will be reunited with Axl and her on on the other side. Axl leaves alone, certain that he has given his wife – at least for a time – the happy ending she longed for, in the only way available to him. His own unhappiness is assured – but so too is her happiness, however long it lasts. Axl asks a similar question of Beatrice not long before they part: ‘Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal’ (361). In the end he believes, as he has done since the beginning, that it is best to leave the mist of illusion in place – ironically enough, since it was the ignorant Beatrice who always insisted that it is better to remember every detail of a relationship than to lose even a single memory to time, however painful. Ishiguro leaves us to judge for ourselves which of these two perspectives we share. One thing, however, he leaves his sympathetic readers with little doubt of: the capacity of fantasy to represent the pain involved both in sustaining and dissipating the mists of illusion.
He also leaves us with a memory: that of the only true act of self-sacrifice in the novel. I said earlier that every sacrifice in the book triggers further bloodshed. From what we can see, this is not true of Axl’s – though it’s also not clear how far he had a choice in making his sacrifice, since the sense of its having been somehow predestined has been implanted in the reader by our earlier encounters with the boatman. Then again, the one event in all our lives which is predestined is the fact of death, and the parting with loved ones this entails – a parting considered in many religions to extend into the afterlife, where there will be no marriage or giving in marriage, as the Bible tells us. Axl’s parting from his wife, then, is both the most painful moment in the book and the most movingly memorable.
For me this makes it a moment of light in Ishiguro’s meditation on Dark Age darkness; though it’s a fading light, like the ‘low sun on the cove’ to which Axl moves in the final sentence. We should be grateful for it.