Tag Archives: King Arthur

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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“To an Isle in the Water” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeatsI read this poem twice, even though I gleaned the meaning of it upon the first reading. I just enjoyed it and wanted to read it again.

Shy one, shy one,
Shy one of my heart,
She moves in the firelight
Pensively apart.

 She carries in the dishes,
And lays them in a row.
To an isle in the water
With her would I go.

She carries in the candles,
And lights the curtained room,
Shy in the doorway
And shy in the gloom;

And shy as a rabbit,
Helpful and shy.
To an isle in the water
With her would I fly.

Avalon

Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay to the Isle of Avalon by Frank William Warwick Topham
(source Wikipedia)

I feel confident that the “isle in the water” is a reference to Avalon. Yeats was fascinated with legends, myths, and the occult, so it stands to reason that he would incorporate one of the most recognizable symbols of the mystical realm into his poem.

According to the legend of Arthur, Morgan Le Fey brought King Arthur to Avalon to recover from his wounds. Avalon was also where Excalibur was forged.

The shy woman in the poem appears to be a pagan priestess. She is described as working by firelight, laying out dishes (which might contain various herbs or incense), and of lighting candles in a curtained room. The actions conjure images of preparation for a ritual. The speaker, whom I assume to be Yeats, appears passive, almost an observer or possibly a student. My guess is that he is describing an experience where a priestess is allowing him to participate in a ritual and Yeats is eagerly anticipating his glimpse of the magical island that exists beyond the mists.

As far as a Yeats poem goes, this one is fairly easy to interpret. I suspect that is because he was still young and a novice in the occult arts (the poem was written in 1889, which would have made him about 24 at the time). Certainly, his later poems are more arcane and challenging. Still, I enjoyed this poem a lot. It just goes to prove that a poem does not need to be difficult to understand for it to be good.

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Unpublished Tolkien Work Due Next Year

The Guardian reported that a previously unpublished epic poem by J.R.R. Tolkien will be published in 2013 (click here to read the article). The poem is entitled The Fall of Arthur and is written in alliterative verse. It is approximately 200 pages long and is set during the last days of Arthur’s reign.

As with most things, timing is everything, and this is certainly the case in the publishing industry. With the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the anticipation surrounding his upcoming three-part film adaptation of The Hobbit, what better time to release a “new” Tolkien work. The book should hit the shelves right as fans are eagerly awaiting the second film of The Hobbit trilogy.

While I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I cannot say that I love everything I have read by Tolkien. In fact, I found The Silmarillion to be so boring and tedious I am still amazed that I actually finished the book. I do have hope for The Fall of Arthur, though, mainly because I am fascinated with Arthurian legend and enjoy epic poetry. I will certainly buy a copy when it comes out and see whether it lives up to the hype.

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