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Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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“The Albatross” by Charles Baudelaire

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders on the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.

This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.

The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
Familiar with storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

(Translation by Richard Wilbur)

When I started reading this poem, I was expecting allusions to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Instead, I was thrust in front of a mirror and forced to see myself reflected in Baudelaire’s words.

I confess—I’m a bit of a dork, I’m introverted, and I can be socially awkward. I am certainly more interested in lofty ideas than in team sports or what Kim Kardashian is doing. As a result, I have frequently felt like an outsider, like the albatross flopping on the deck. As a kid, I was subjected to taunting and humiliation. Thankfully, over the years, I have learned to be OK with who I am and not try to play a role just to fit in socially. Also, being a dork is kind of cool now. Strange how paradigms change.

Like the Poet Baudelaire, I revel in the clouds of my thoughts and imagination; I am familiar with the storms of my passions and emotions; I reach for the stars; and I long for high things such as wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual growth. This poem lets me know that I am not alone, that there are others, like me, who share my passions and interests. I know I’m not the only albatross out there.

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Ice Symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Image from Princeton.edu

Image from Princeton.edu

This is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to do something worthy of the milestone. I decided to re-read and write about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poems. The poem is long and rich in symbolism, and I could easily write a dissertation on this one poem. But for brevity’s sake, I will focus on one aspect: the metaphor of ice.

I feel that ice is a key metaphor in this poem, especially since it figures prominently in the title. Rime is defined as “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.” So what make rime so unique is that it is the metamorphosis of gas to solid, bypassing the liquid state. Essentially, this would be symbolic of the transformation of spirit to flesh or matter.

Ice makes it first appearance in the poem at line 51:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

The ice here seems both beautiful and frightening. The crystal structures create a stunning landscape, but also represent a dangerous place. Below the surface, hidden ice waits to tear into the hulls of ships. I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey into unknown regions. The land of ice represents the realm of imagination. I therefore interpret this passage as the mariner’s voyage into the mystic, a wondrous place where the images of the world are reflected and fractured. But a mariner must remain safe within his vessel, otherwise he becomes lost in the labyrinth of ice and cannot return to the realm of reality.

It is while in the land of ice and snow that the albatross appears, guiding the ship through the mists and clouds. I see the albatross as a spirit guide whose purpose is to lead souls safely through the mystical realms of imagination, ensuring they do not get lost. But the mariner, for no apparent reason, kills the albatross. He shows no emotion and has no remorse. Essentially, his soul has been iced over and his heart is frozen. It is a cold and senseless act that displays a complete disregard for all things divine and holy. This begins the ship’s descent into horror and the darker realms of the imagination.

It is only after the mariner begins to feel a sense of remorse that the ship begins to move again and the divine beings return to guide the ship safely to port. The rime that coated the mariner’s heart is melted away when he realizes that his actions have consequence and that all living things, instilled with the divine spirit, are deserving of love and reverence. He reiterates this belief toward the end of the poem.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’

I’ve often wondered why the mariner chose to recount his tale to the wedding guest. After this reading, I’ve come to believe that it is because the wedding guest is displaying the same coldness of heart that was in the mariner. The mariner sees this and chooses the guest. Likewise, the guest recognizes the mariner’s past iciness resides within himself, which adds to the fear that he feels as the mariner unfolds his tale.

Lastly, the mariner knows that unless he relives his experience through the retelling of his tale, he is at risk of returning to his cold, unfeeling state. The rime over one’s heart and soul forms quickly and silently. It is only by exposing the darker regions of one’s memory to the light that one can prevent the icing over of emotion.

I have only scratched the surface of this poem. There are so many images and metaphors which one could explore, it would be easy to write an entire book about this one poem. I encourage you read it, and if you have read it before, read it again. I have no doubt that you will discover things that you missed in your previous readings.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, go to a local bookstore and buy a copy of Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the money and you’ll be supporting your local bookseller.

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