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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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Witchblade: Issue # 175

Witchblade_Issue175

This is a special edition and actually contains three stories. The first one, Into the Fire, basically moves the primary story along. Sara has reclaimed the Witchblade and is establishing a new connection with the mystical artifact. She also takes Deputy Rooney into her confidence and sits in the woods with her, ready to share her history with the gauntlet.

The second story, Temple of Shadows, is also written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Laura Braga. It tells the tale of a Japanese woman, Shiori, who was the bearer of the Witchblade during the 17th century. She does battle with an oriental beast that looks like a cross between a man and a dragon. The artwork is very good and it hints at a recurring cycle between stories and events, a concept which I personally find intriguing.

The third tale, 4 for 5, is written by Ashley Robinson and is told from the perspective of Patrick Gleason, Sara’s former partner. I liked this vignette because it explores a male character’s journey to acceptance that he is not as powerful as his strong female partner. I think that some men have difficulty reconciling their masculine roles when in a partnership with a strong woman, whether that be a work relationship or an intimate one. Fortunately, I feel that traditional gender roles are being challenged and that we are moving more toward gender equality. I hope that one day we get there.

The issue concludes with a bonus: draft sketches from Ms. Braga. I found these very interesting, particularly since I am not artistically inclined when it comes to drawing. I enjoyed seeing how the characters and scenes are sketched and outlined. It was enlightening for me.

Overall, this was the best Witchblade issue that I have read in a while. It’s worth picking up if you have not yet done so. Cheers!

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“To Winter” by William Blake

WilliamBlake

O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.

He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms, till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.

This poem is one of Blake’s earlier poetical sketches and was written sometime between 1769 and 1777. I decided to read it because it seemed appropriate, now that we are in December.

I had to do a little research to grasp the deeper meaning of this poem. For me, the key to understanding the poem is in understanding the symbolism of Mount Hecla (or Mount Hekla). Hecla is Iceland’s most active volcano and, according to the article I read on Wikipedia, it was considered to be the gateway to Hell during the time when Blake was writing.

After the eruption of 1104, stories (which were probably spread deliberately through Europe by Cistercian monks) told that Hekla was the gateway to Hell… The Flatey Book Annal wrote of the 1341 eruption that people saw large and small birds flying in the mountain’s fire which were taken to be souls. In the 16th century Caspar Peucer wrote that the Gates of Hell could be found in “the bottomless abyss of Hekla Fell”. The belief that Hekla was the gate to Hell persisted until the 1800s. There is still a legend that witches gather on Hekla for Easter.

Once I understood the mythology surrounding Hecla, the poem made sense. Winter is the dark, cold, desolate time of the year, associated with death. Below the frozen wasteland is the fiery pit, pressing against the unbreakable doors, until the moment when it can burst through with explosive power, raining down fire and brimstone. But in the end, the beast is driven back down into the caves of sulfur, where is will wait until the next time it can break through the adamantine doors.

Mount Hekla: Source - Wikipedia

Mount Hekla: Source – Wikipedia

Maybe it is my anticipation for the release of the second Hobbit film, “The Desolation of Smaug,” but this poem also conjures an image of a dragon living below the volcano in the frozen north. I can picture the monster sleeping in its cave, but at any moment, it can awaken and burst forth in a cloud of fire, smoke, and ash.

This was not what I expected when I opened to the poem. I expected something dealing more with the season and the spiritual aspect of winter. Still, I loved this poem. Blake’s poetry never ceases to inspire me.

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