by Cailee Davis
With its ogres and giants, magic mists and she-dragons, Kazuo Ishiguro’s representation of knighthood and the chivalric code of honor in The Buried Giant placed the novel within the long-standing tradition of Arthurian literature. Rather than simply adding to the historical, literary discourse, however, Ishiguro’s novel changed the conversation entirely by offering a critique of the previous literature; the deeds of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were richly romanticized and glorified in medieval texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, and Le Morte D’Arthur, creating an unrealistic literary representation of knighthood and chivalry. Ishiguro’s portrayal of Sir Gawain and his invention of Wistan and Axl offered a critique not only on Arthurian literature’s idealization of the knightly code of chivalry, but also on the hypocritical nature of knighthood itself.
In the fifth and sixth centuries following the Roman evacuation of Britain, the Anglo-Saxon pagans and Christian Britons engaged in a brutal, seemingly never-ending war, which gave way to various myths and legends regarding a brave and victorious Christian warrior, now known as King Arthur. While some accounts of Arthur have been traced back to Gildas, a sixth century monk who wrote of an unnamed leader who resisted the Anglo-Saxon invaders, the legendary king was not mentioned by name until Nennius, a ninth century monk and author of Historia Brittonum, writes of “the magnanimous Arthur” (50). It was Nennius’s account of the fierce fighter named Arthur that much of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was attributed. Drawing from Welsh legend and myth, chronicles of his contemporaries like Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, Biblical history, folk-tales, the Carolingian cycle, Gildas’ works, and, especially, Nennius’s Historia, Geoffrey of Monmouth disregarded the (already blurry) line between fact and fiction to cement in Britain’s history a Christ-like savior of a conflicted nation in the form of King Arthur Pendragon. The legend of Arthur, already highly fictionalized and grandiose, became popularized, appealing to contemporary ideals regarding honor, loyalty, and duty, and out of the tales of Arthur and the Round Table arose the ultimate guide for courtly conduct and knighthood: the code of chivalry.
The code of chivalry defined the standards to which knights must hold themselves. Full of ideals regarding honor and bravery, the moral code extended beyond the rules of mortal combat to include guidelines for general behavior and conduct. Knights must have not only been courageous, honest, and merciful, but must have also carried themselves with dignity, loyalty, and gallantry towards women. The chivalric code was rigorous, and to fail to maintain the code meant to lose all honor and forfeit one’s title as knight (Geoffrey; Nennius). In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro explored knighthood and the code of chivalry in the final, peaceful days of the unified Britain brought about by King Arthur’s rule, what Geoffrey called totius insulae (3). Ishiguro rendered two contrasting representations of knighthood and warrior culture in the characters Sir Gawain of Arthurian legend (in this version, he was King Arthur’s nephew) and Wistan, a Saxon soldier. Throughout the novel, these characters remained in conflict with one another, and an examination of their contradictory actions provided Ishiguro’s thesis on knighthood: the code, impossible to maintain in war, was hypocritical and unjust.
With regard to the characters of Wistan and Sir Gawain, it was made evident immediately (and repeatedly) in the novel that one was a knight and the other merely a warrior. Sir Gawain referred constantly to himself (and was indeed referred to by others) as a knight of Arthur. He refused to be known as anything else and demanded that others acknowledge his status:
- “I am a knight and a Briton… This sword and armour I carry only out of duty to my king, the great and beloved Arthur.” (104)
- “I’m Gawain, right enough, nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice.” (107)
- “Sir, let me remind you, I’m a knight of Arthur.” (119)
Further, the very use of his title “Sir” was indicative of his status as a knight. Yet, Wistan, who eventually defeated Sir Gawain in combat, never referred to himself as a knight, only once or twice describing himself as a warrior: “The name is Wistan, sir, from the fenlands in the east, traveling these parts on my king’s errand,” and “I’m Wistan, sir, a warrior from the east” (106; 118). Additionally through Axl’s third person perspective, the reader’s first glimpses of Sir Gawain and Wistan illustrated Ishiguro’s favorable opinion of warriors and critical opposition to knights. Axl first met Wistan in a small Saxon village, the warrior preparing to set out on a mission to rescue the boy Edwin from ogres: “It was the bearing of the man, the way he moved and held himself, that so set him apart from those around him. ‘No matter that he tries to pass himself off as an ordinary Saxon,’ Axl thought, ‘this man is a warrior’” (53). Then, on the road with Wistan, the boy, and his wife Beatrice, Axl came across Sir Gawain, and his initial sighting of the knight revealed “two metal legs stuck out stiffly onto the grass in a childlike way” and attached to them a “whiskery old fool” (103). The contrast between the supposedly noble knight and the brave Saxon warrior was apparent instantaneously both in the men’s designation and physicality.
The tension between Wistan and Sir Gawain manifested not only when Wistan’s quest to kill the dragon Querig, whom Sir Gawain protected, was revealed, but also in their contradictory behaviors. Sir Gawain, great knight of Arthur that he was, boasted consistently of his exploits: “I’m a knight well trained…by the great Arthur, who taught me to face all manner of challenge with gladness…. Like all who stood with Arthur, sir, I’ve faced beezlebubs and monsters as well as the darkest intents of men, and always upheld my great king’s example even in the midst of ferocious conflict” (165-166). He wished for all to know of his heroic deeds, thus proving himself and validating his honor as a knight, whereas Wistan maintained an air of humility, allowing his actions to speak for themselves. When he returned to the Saxon village, having defeated the ogres and rescued Edwin, the warrior was greeted by Axl, who exclaimed, “My wife and I are honoured to meet a man of such courage, generosity and skill. Your deeds last night were remarkable” (71). But Wistan respectfully declined the praise: “‘My deeds were nothing extraordinary, sir, no more my skill.’ The warrior’s voice, as before, was gentle and a smile hovered about his eyes. ‘I had good fortune last night, and besides, was ably helped by brave comrades’” (71). The warrior was modest in the face of praise while the honorable knight demanded it. Sir Gawain’s and Wistan’s conflicting natures became further evident with regard to their respective receptions of Axl.
It was revealed that both Sir Gawain and Wistan knew Axl, who did not recognize either as his memories had faded from the mist. When Wistan first realized that Axl was familiar to him, he apologized for his staring and assumed that he must be mistaken: “Forgive me, mistress. This country awakens so many memories… Your husband’s face has all day promised me an important remembrance” (108). Wistan was truthful and forthright about his suspicions that Axl was a man whom he had met as a child, and later when Axl’s memories began to return, Wistan’s theory was confirmed. However, Sir Gawain, who knew Axl intimately as brothers-in-arms, blatantly lied about their past relationship: “as he gazed into Axl’s face, his expression changed to one of surprise—even of shock… ‘I don’t believe this gentleman and I met till today’” (108). In accordance with the code of knighthood, there was no honor in lying, yet Gawain had no qualms about doing so and did not attest to the truth until he was forced to do so just before the memory-defying mist was lifted.
Ishiguro painted Wistan and Gawain as polar opposites. Whereas Gawain held the title of knight, it was Wistan who was, ironically, the nobler of the two. Ishiguro’s condemnation of Gawain as a knight of Arthur stemmed from the irreconcilable nature of war and the code of chivalry. The realities of the war between the Saxons and Britons were such that there was no honor involved. At the monastery, which was once a Saxon hillfort, Wistan revealed to Axl the hidden traps and defenses which were once used against the invading Britons. There were two gates, and “[t]hrough this watergate would be let past, quite deliberately, a measured number of the enemy. Then the watergate would close on those following. Now those isolated between the two fates, in that space just there, would find themselves outnumbered, and once against, attacked from above. They would be slaughtered” (141). Wistan informed Axl that the Saxon villagers, having fled their homes, would have watched the British slaughter with delight, for they had suffered gravely at the hands of Arthur and his men. The Saxons had witnessed “their children and kin mutilated and ravished,” their infants “bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles” by the Britons who took “turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds” (141). These horrible actions—all performed by knights and soldiers of Arthur’s court—exposed the hypocritical nature of knighthood. There was no honor or mercy in the massacre of innocents, no bravery in fighting those who could not defend themselves. Moreover, it was later unveiled that Axl, as a knight of Arthur, had sworn a truce with the Saxons to spare their innocents on the legendary king’s behalf—a truce which Arthur and Gawain knowingly violated.
Ishiguro explored Gawain’s complicity in and guilt of the Saxon massacres through a series of deranged, stream-of-conscious monologues. As Wistan was tasked to kill the Sir Gawain’s dragon charge, Gawain called on British soldiers to kill the Saxon warrior. Seeking out another to slay one’s enemy was a grave act of cowardice according to the code of knighthood (Gawain attempted to deflect his cowardly behavior, providing the weak claim that the British Lord Brennus had past transgressions with Wistan which took precedent over his quarrels with the Saxon). Further, by drawing the British soldiers to the monastery, Gawain put Wistan’s companions—Axl and Beatrice—in harm’s way. Realizing his error, Gawain assisted in their escape at the last moment. While fleeing through a secret tunnel, the group discovered the lair of a great beast filled with the bones of his many victims. Beatrice’s and Axl’s startled reactions to the mountains of bones caused Gawain to see only suspicion and threat. He began to ramble against the perceived accusations: “What are you suggesting, sir? Skulls? I saw no skulls! …Your suggestions are unwarranted, sir! An insult to all who ever stood alongside the great Arthur! And am I not here now to save you?” (169). His guilt-ridden monologues continued for several moments before he exclaimed, “What do you suggest, mistress? That I commited this slaughter?” (172). Looking at the dozens of corpses, he confessed his culpability: “Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. Horace and I, we’ve grown weary or it. Weary and we no longer young” (171) and aimed to repay his dishonor by rescuing the couple, “Did I not lead you to safety?” (180).
Sir Gawain’s monologues laid bare a man who was deeply disturbed by his past and by his own actions. He was defensive because, though he boasted of the honor of his position as a knight of Arthur, his actions were disgraceful. Gawain’s knowledge of this disgrace and shame were evident in that he protected the she-dragon whose breath erased the memory of their horrible actions from the lands. This in itself was a further act of cowardice as Arthur and his men refused to face responsibility for their deeds; they chose, instead, to hide what they had done not only from the Saxons, but from their fellow Britons, as well. This dishonor, the savage massacres of Saxon innocents, and Sir Gawain’s guilt and shame all illustrated the contemporary faults of the code of chivalry. The realities of war where such that maintaining such a code was impossible. Yet the knights who failed to do so could not face their disgrace and chose to falsely retain the status and air of a noble knight, in spite of their dishonorable actions. Over all, the code of chivalry, Ishiguro claimed, was not a code of honor, but rather a code of hypocrisy and deceit.
In his novel The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro added to and contradicted the literary tradition of Arthurian legend. Through his historical novel, Ishiguro offered a critique not only on Arthurian literature’s idealization of the knightly code of honor, but also on knighthood itself, that unattainable epitome of honor in war. By highlighting the impossible standards of the knighthood code of chivalry in the face of the savage realities of war, Ishiguro critiqued knighthood as richly romanticized and glorified in other Arthurian texts. His representation of Sir Gawain as a hypocritical knight contrasted with Wistan, the humble warrior who maintained honor but understood and acknowledged the limits of chivalry in wartime.
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Geoffrey of Monmouth. Historia Regum Britanniae. Michael Reeve, ed. London, Dent: 1912.
Gildas. Works (c.501-570), in Six Old English Chronicles. J. A. Giles, ed. London, G. Bell
& Sons: 1891.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York, Random House: 2015.
Nennius. Historia Brittonum, in Six Old English Chronicles. J. A. Giles, ed London, G. Bell
& Sons: 1891.