David Matthews is Senior Lecturer in Middle English Literature and Culture in the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and currently Head of the Division of English, American Studies, and Creative Writing.
Not long ago, in the context of a book on medievalism, I confidently pronounced that in Anglophone culture the novel in its highbrow canonical guise just didn’t work with medieval settings. I was looking back to the 1840s, when Edward Bulwer Lytton seemed the obvious heir to the Walter Scott of Ivanhoe (1819) and Quentin Durward (1823), perhaps with a nod to Victor Hugo whose Notre Dame de Paris appeared in English in 1833. But with Eliot, Dickens, Disraeli, Collins and the Brontës coming to prominence thereafter, it was the recent industrialised past which took over in the novelistic appropriation of historical reality. The novel’s medievalist moment was fleeting.
Even when respected novelists turn to the Middle Ages the results are often viewed equivocally: so William Golding's 1964 novel The Spire sits awkwardly in his oeuvre somewhere between the acclaimed Lord of the Flies and the late sea trilogy. Furthermore, and somewhat gallingly for us medievalists, there seems in this regard to be a clear line drawn between medieval and early modern, as the striking success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (2009, 2012) suggests. A wildly acclaimed television adaptation has just ended here in the UK and is currently being shown on PBS in the US. These novels are not just set in early modernity but meditate on the coming to being of that modernity, in the process explicitly founding themselves on a rejection of the Middle Ages. In them Thomas Cromwell, the archetypal Renaissance man, defeats the lingering Middle Ages in the shape of Thomas More. Cromwell was (according to the novels) born on the day of the battle of Bosworth Field, and hence symbolically the last day of the Middle Ages.
There is any amount of pulp fiction based on the medieval period (from Arthur Conan Doyle through to Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell), but where is the medieval Mantel? The problem is in part one of the narrative discourse to adopt. When medieval characters speak, we know at some level that they are being translated. When Thomas Cromwell speaks, there seems to be a working assumption that he spoke proper English, needing little alteration to be comprehensible to us moderns. With the medievalist novel, there is always the suspicion that sooner or later someone will say “forsooth, sirrah” or, even worse, “sire, the peasants are revolting.”
That, anyway, was my working hypothesis. Then along came Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (Unbound Books, 2014), a challenging and uncompromising historical novel set at the time of the Conquest; Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book (HarperCollins, 2014)¹ and, most recently, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Faber, 2015). Of these novels, only Holsinger’s sets itself in a world relatively familiar to medievalists and, I imagine, a general public. Thanks to Chaucer, the late fourteenth century has become perhaps the most recognisable period in the English Middle Ages – which Holsinger then sets out to defamiliarize. In Kingsnorth’s novel the voice is that of a disgruntled and dispossessed Saxon speaking in a language part invented, a kind of imitation of Anglo-Saxon which is at once interpretable by the persistent reader yet deeply strange and unfamiliar. Kingsnorth gets round what we might call the “forsooth” problem by exploding language and starting again, creating something like a high-modernist experiment which reminds us that it was among Pound, Eliot, and Beckett that literary medievalism had its most profound literary outcomes.
Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is the most easily approachable of the three. Here is a respected novelist who is routinely seen among the prize shortlists in the UK, now not just turning novelistically to the Middle Ages but doing so with perhaps the most challenging part of the whole period, the liminal times between the end of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This is told with a flatness of affect in the writing and particularly in the characters’ dialogue, which I think partly arises from the avoidance of forsooth-speak while creating something believable for the period. To those of us who have fallen for the book, it's that very flatness that appeals. Because this is not really a historical novel at all but, as critics have already observed, is straining in the direction of fantasy without quite ever wanting to go there. It's that, I think, which has left the critics puzzled: why is this author, by common consent a literary heavyweight, not just going back to the Middle Ages but doing so with Tolkien’s or William Morris’s spectacles on rather than Bulwer Lytton’s or Victor Hugo’s?
The question itself, or the attitude behind it, points to the problem. If Scott ushered in the novel of the historical past, Ishiguro's turn to the Middle Ages is not really in that lineage at all. It would be easy enough to read an allegory in The Buried Giant, a novel about a Britain divided between Britons and Saxons, races which nevertheless manage to live alongside one another without much conflict at some unspecified point soon after Arthur’s days. But it is also a Britain in which the racial harmony seems to rely on a fog of forgetfulness. Is it better to live in the relative peace of historical ignorance, the novel seems to ask, or, with an honesty which will be devastating, to raise the buried giant of racial conflict? The dragon at the heart of Ishiguro’s narrative is named Querig, a name which perhaps suggests a query or questioning which it is in fact this dragon's role to suppress. Dragons, from Beowulf, to The Hobbit to Game of Thrones, are figures for history. They make it happen, by dispossessing peoples, destroying lineages and laying waste to agriculture and industry. But then, prefiguring late capitalism, they lie engorged on what they have accumulated and refuse to give it up. Ishiguro’s Querig is quite the opposite, a mechanism for holding up history, in a “historical” novel which is actually about whether there are times when history is better held in suspension.
There is just something awkward about the relationship between the novel in English and the Middle Ages. It's a relationship perhaps best negotiated in postmodern fashion, as Holsinger to an extent does, or through the convolutions of modernism, as Kingsnorth does (which is why it’s in poetry rather than the novel that medievalism has its most lively contemporary afterlife). Yet by appearing so completely artless, Ishiguro has in fact issued a major challenge to the reader (and particularly the medievalist reader), which might be characterised as follows: Can you bear to read about the early Middle Ages without significant postmodern props, or without the twists, tweaks and re-engineering that turn it into a game of thrones? So far, critics seem to have been deeply puzzled by the novel, which is consistent with the general attitude provoked by the Middle Ages whenever the period appears on the pages of Anglophone novels. General readers don’t seem to have been put off, however, as Ishiguro holds his place with Harlan Coben, Jo Nesbo and Anne Tyler on the bestseller lists.
What critics have missed about The Buried Giant is that we are now far beyond the comforting nostalgia in which so much medievalist narrative was characteristically invested. We are certainly in a very productive moment for medievalism right now: the buried giant is, finally, the potential of medievalist narrative itself.
¹ And now (although I’ve not yet read it), Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire: A Novel (William Morrow, 2015), set in London in 1386.