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Violence, Memory, and History: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 October 2021
Kazuo Ishiguro has suggested that his work of medieval fantasy, The Buried Giant (2015), draws on a “quasi-historical” King Arthur, in contrast to the Arthur of legend. This article reads Ishiguro’s novel against the medieval work that codified the notion of an historical King Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1139). Geoffrey’s History offered a largely fictive account of the British past that became the most successful historiographical phenomenon of the English Middle Ages. The Buried Giant offers an interrogation of memory that calls such “useful” constructions of history into question. The novel deploys material deriving from Geoffrey’s work while laying bear its methodology; the two texts speak to each other in ways sometimes complementary, sometimes deconstructive. That Ishiguro’s critique can be applied to Geoffrey’s History points to recurrent strategies of history-making, past and present, whereby violence serves as a mechanism for the creation of historical form.
- Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry , Volume 8 , Issue 3 , September 2021 , pp. 323 - 344
- © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press
My sincere thanks to Ato Quayson and Suzanne Akbari for their insightful comments through the revision of this paper, an early version of which was presented at the 2020 virtual meeting of the International Medieval Congress, hosted by the University of Leeds. My thanks as well to Kara Gaston, who allowed me to test out these ideas as a guest lecturer and provided me with early, constructive suggestions.
1 The edition referenced throughout is Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Buried Giant (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2015)Google Scholar. Unless otherwise specified, parenthetical citations throughout the body of the article all come from this text. It is important to note at the outset that Ishiguro has both suggested the relevance of his novel to places like the United States while resisting suggestion that The Buried Giant is “an allegory in the direct sense of A equals X.” See St. John Flynn, “Inprint Presents Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro Tonight,” Houston Public Media, March 23, 2015 (https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/arts-culture/2015/03/23/58734/); cf. Jessica Elgot, “Kazuo Ishiguro: Treatment of African Americans Is a ‘Buried Giant’ for the US,” The Guardian, May 24, 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/24/treatment-african-americans-race-buried-giant-us-kazuo-ishiguro).
2 For the sake of clarity, I stay mostly with one contemporary context for Ishiguro’s novel, namely, the United States. Ishiguro has suggested this reading, as mentioned in a previous footnote. It is not exhaustive, however: the slippage into shadow of England’s early history—a plot-point of the book, discussed later on—resonates in the United Kingdom, for example, as will be discussed in a footnote to follow. Ishiguro counts as formative influences two events at the end of the twentieth century: the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide. See Victoria Ahearn (The Canadian Press), “Kazuo Ishiguro Looks at Role of Memory in History with ‘The Buried Giant,’” 680 News, March 19, 2015 (https://www.680news.com/2015/03/19/kazuo-ishiguro-looks-at-role-of-memory-in-history-with-the-buried-giant/).
3 One of the most striking recent examples is the New York Times’s 2019 publication of “The 1619 Project” and the Trump administration’s response, The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, which yielded The 1776 Report, a forty-one-page document released on January 18, 2021. The former is an ongoing journalistic initiative that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of” the American narrative. See “The 1619 Project,” the New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html). The 1776 Report, meanwhile, aimed to fulfill the commission’s purpose, namely, to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” The Report suggests that this task can only be accomplished by means of an education grounded “on a history of those principles that is ‘accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling’” (1). Internal quotations taken from “[t]he declared purpose” of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, The 1776 Report, special report, January 18, 2021 (https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Presidents-Advisory-1776-Commission-Final-Report.pdf).
4 In the introduction to his 2007 edition of the HKB, Michael D. Reeve persuasively argued that the work was initially called De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), rather than the previously conventional Historia regum Brittaniae. Though it is no longer current among specialists, I have chosen to use the latter here, owing to its persistence among general audiences. See Reeve, Michael D., introduction to Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain: An Edition and Translation of the De gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie), ed. Reeve, trans. Wright, Neil (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), lix.Google Scholar
5 The Buried Giant is distinct in terms of genre, but in its treatment of memory and repression, societal trauma, and in its use of partial/unreliable narration, it is very much in keeping with Ishiguro’s other novels, especially those set in and around World War II, An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1989). The latter will be mentioned briefly in what follows.
6 Sian Cain, “Writer’s Indignation: Kazuo Ishiguro Rejects Claims of Genre Snobbery,” The Guardian, March 8, 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/08/kazuo-ishiguro-rebuffs-genre-snobbery). Cf. Ursula K. Le Guin, “Are They Going to Say This Is Fantasy?” Book View Café, March 2, 2015 (http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/03/02/are-they-going-to-say-this-is-fantasy/).
7 For The Buried Giant in conversation with romance, especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, see Vernon, Matthew and Miller, Margaret A., “Navigating Wonder: The Medieval Geographies of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant,” Arthuriana 28.4 (2018): 68–89 Google Scholar; Sylwia Borowska-Szerszun, “The Giants Beneath: Cultural Memory and Literature in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant,” Crossroads: A Journal of English Studies 15.4 (2016): 30–41; and Patrick Moran, “Les vertus de l’oubli: ambivalences du passé arthurien chez Kazuo Ishiguro,” Tangence 110 (2016): 141–60. See also Günter Leypoldt, “Social Dimensions of the Turn to Genre: Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant,” Post45, March 31, 2018 (https://post45.org/2018/03/social-dimensions-of-the-turn-to-genre-junot-diazs-oscar-wao-and-kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant/).
8 Gaby Wood, “Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Most Countries Have Got Big Things They’ve Buried,’” The Telegraph, February 27, 2015: “one day [Ishiguro] was reading an old edition of Gawain and the Green Knight. When Gawain rides from one castle to the other—a matter of two or three stanzas—there is a description of the wild Britain of the time. He travels through swamps and bog lands, he sleeps exposed to the elements, and he fights—as if in passing—dragons, wolves, ogres, bulls and bears. That short passage, Ishiguro says, ‘opened up a whole universe for me. I thought, well, this is rather good. I wonder if this is the place I’ve been looking for all this time?’”
9 Rebecca Rukeyser, “Kazuo Ishiguro: Mythic Retreat,” Guernica, May 1, 2015 (https://www.guernicamag.com/mythic-retreat/). The passage referred to spans three stanzas near the center-point of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s second division or “Fitt” (ll. 691–762). It is a brief but meaningful interlude that draws a contrast between the (artificial?) revelry of courtly life and the desolate isolation of a countryside in winter.
10 This plot point will be discussed in more detail later on, but for now see Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, 232–34, cf. 297–98. A clearer, less consequential example runs 122–33, when a pair of otherwise amicable warriors are forced by their conflicting allegiances to fight to the death, despite one of them confessing that he “doesn’t understand the full part” of what he has been ordered to do (131). The catchword linking this thread is “duty,” as in “I was just doing my duty.”
11 Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, 297–98. Here, Gawain praises King Arthur for replying “gently” to a knight, and in kind words, though the knight had cursed him for his atrocious violence. This, Gawain says, is proof positive of Arthur’s greatness.
12 Thanks to anonymous reviewer A for suggesting I reference Alfred Tennyson in this connection, whose Idylls of the King (1859–1885) couches Arthur as a sort of ideal Victorian man. Cf. Michael Alexander, Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, reprint 2017), 98–117. Alexander notes that works like those of J. R. R. Tolkien “do not rely on historical knowledge; their debt is to romance”; such works “take for granted that courage, fidelity, self-sacrifice and love are virtues, and provide the satisfactions of poetic justice and providential endings” (245–46). He also notes (in different terms) the place of the medieval past in modern constructions of English identity (246). For a general overview of medievalism, see Louise D’Arcens, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
13 In The Remains of the Day, the English butler Stevens’s concern with professionalism, station, and dignity inform his unfaltering loyalty to the Lord Darlington, notwithstanding the latter’s fascist tendencies and collaboration with Nazis in the buildup to World War II. Lord Darlington’s actions are chalked up, in part, to his status as “a true old English gentleman,” manifested in his naive and outdated “instinct to offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe.” See Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day (New York: Vintage, 1988), 223.Google Scholar
14 Rukeyser, “Kazuo Ishiguro.” Brackets are Rukeyser’s. Ishiguro’s framing of the English as “migrants” constitutes a reevaluation of rigid, politically charged categories in light of Britain’s longer and more fluid history of settlement, migration, and invasion. In 2010, for example, during TBG’s writing, then member of the European Parliament and chairman of the far-right British National Party Nick Griffin proclaimed that “the indigenous people of this island are the English, the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish…. We are the aborigines here.” James Mackay and David Stirrup, “There is no such thing as an ‘indigenous’ Briton,” The Guardian, December 20, 2010 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/20/indigenous-britons-far-right). We will soon see that British history has long been subject to manipulation along ethnic lines, as well as useful lapses in its recollection, and that similar uses of history stand at the heart of The Buried Giant’s narrative.
15 Cf. Moll, Richard J., Before Malory: Reading Arthur in Later Medieval England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 45–63.Google Scholar
16 The poem opens and closes by situating itself within the Galfridian historiographical tradition discussed in this article, through references to Britain’s settlement under Brutus following the fall of Troy.
17 Typically cited as early critics of Geoffrey’s work are William of Newburgh (d. 1198) and Gerald of Wales (d. 1223). The former will be discussed in a footnote to follow.
18 If one were to try to place The Buried Giant in the HKB, it would be in either Book 11 or 12 of 12. By “mnemonic processes” I mean operations of memory and memorialization. For Ishiguro’s interrogation of memory, see the section of this article titled “Amnesia, Conjecture, and Fiction in The Buried Giant.”
19 I will suggest in what follows that Geoffrey’s pseudo-history substitutes for an authentic picture of British history and that it simultaneously implies and suppresses a history of the giants, Great Britain’s first inhabitants.
20 Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 4–5. Translations throughout are my own unless otherwise noted.
21 There has been some debate over whether Geoffrey even possessed the linguistic competency to translate such a book. See Crawford, T. D., “On the Linguistic Competence of Geoffrey of Monmouth,” Medium Aevum 51.2 (1982): 141–52Google Scholar, but also, for example, Ben Guy, “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Welsh Sources,” in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, eds. Georgia Henley and Joshua Byron Smith (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 39–41, esp. 41: “Whatever he claimed about the contents of Walter’s alleged Breton book, it is difficult to believe that Geoffrey would have professed himself to his associates as the translator of a long Breton narrative had he no observable familiarity with the language.” The eminent R. W. Southern believed that Geoffrey’s old British book “really existed.” See R. W. Southern, “Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing, 1: The Classical Tradition from Einhard to Geoffrey of Monmouth,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 20 (December 1970): 194.
22 Gildas, Gildae Sapientis de excidio et conquestu Britanniae, in Chronico Minora Saec. IV.V.VI.VII, ed. Theodor Mommsen, vol. 3, MGH Auct. ant. 13 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1898), 40.
23 The Welsh elegy Y Goddodin praises one of its subjects, Gwawrddur, with the caveat that “he was no Arthur” (ni bai ef Arthur). The poem may date as early as the seventh or as late as the eleventh century. This reference to Arthur might also be the interpolation of a later reader. See Jarman, A. O. H., ed. and trans., Aneirin: Y Gododdin, Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1988), 64–65.Google Scholar
24 (Pseudo-Nennius), Historia Brittonum cum additamentis Nennii, Chronico Minora Saec. IV.V.VI.VII, ed. Theodor Mommsen, vol. 3, MGH Auct. ant. 13 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1898), 199–201. The Historia Brittonum circulated in many manuscripts with an added set of mirabilia, two of which are explained with brief references to Arthur, his dog Cabal, and his son Anir. See Historia Brittonum, 217–18.
25 Annales Cambriae: The A Text, from British Library, Harley MS 3859, ff. 190r–193r, transcribed by Henry W. Gough-Cooper, Welsh Chronicles Research Group, Bangor University, November 2015 (http://croniclau.bangor.ac.uk/documents/AC_A_first_edition.pdf), 3–4.
26 William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum = The History of English Kings, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, completed by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 26: “This is the Arthur about whom British trifles now rave, a man full worthy not to be dreamt of in deceptive fables, but to be praised in true historical accounts” (Hic est Artur de quo Britonum nugae hodieque delirant, dignus plane quem non fallaces somniarent fabulae sed veraces predicarent historiae). William uses “Angli” sometimes to refer to the Angles as a distinct historical group, sometimes to the English collectively. Given this paper’s subject matter, it seems relevant to note that ethno-demonymic slippage of this sort opened the door for a variety of useful anachronism that ascribed homogeneity to a diverse past. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for instance, uses “Saxones” and “Angli” interchangeably. Cf. Marvin, Julia, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle (York: York Medieval Press, 2017), 117 Google Scholar. In this connection, as Catherine E. Karkov notes, the term “Anglo-Saxon was a construct of the leaders and educated elite of the people who lived in England prior to the conquest of 1066 … continued and expanded by the Normans and their successors”; it was not a rigorous description of early England’s inhabitants. The term gained academic purchase in the racializing/nationalizing projects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship. See Catherine E. Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Heterotopia, Dystopia (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2020), 1–2.
27 Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum = The History of the English People, ed. and trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 98–01.
28 Edward Donald Kennedy, introduction to King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Kennedy (New York: Routledge, 2002), xv. Kennedy also notes that Henry of Huntingdon’s work had indicated “a significant change in Arthur’s rank” because Arthur is described no longer as dux bellorum (war leader/leader in battles) but as dux militum et regum Britanniae (leader of the knights and kings of Britain). For a translation of Culhwch and Olwen, see Loomis, Richard M., “Culhwch and Olwen,” in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. Wilhelm, James J. (New York: Garland, 1994).Google Scholar
29 For Welsh sources, see Ben Guy, “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Welsh Sources,” 37–ff.; Owain Wyn Jones, “The Most Excellent Princes: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Medieval Welsh Historical Writing,” in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, 262–ff.
30 Guy, “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Welsh Sources,” 40.
31 Flint, V. I. J., “The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and Its Purpose. A Suggestion,” Speculum 54.3 (1979): 447–68.Google Scholar
32 The English throne became vacant upon the death of King Henry I in 1135, owing to the tragic drowning of Henry’s only legitimate heir, William Adelin, some fifteen years earlier. (William drowned upon the accidental sinking of the famous White Ship on November 25, 1120, near Barfleur in Normandy.) Thanks in no small part to his physical proximity to England, Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois seized the crown in December 1135. Prior to his death, however, Henry had nominated his daughter Matilda—erstwhile wife to Henry V, the holy Roman emperor (hence Empress Matilda)—as his successor. The next twenty years of English political history are traditionally (and hyperbolically) referred to as “The Anarchy,” a period of prolonged civil war between Stephen and Matilda’s factions. The Treaty of Wallingford (1154) represents the resolution of the conflict, by the terms of which Stephen recognized Matilda’s son Henry—son of her second husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, the count of Anjou—as his successor.
33 A later adaptation of Geoffrey’s work, a version of the prose Brut continued to 1332, renders this framing explicit via its opening rubric: “Contained in this book are all the battles and betrayals that have happened in Britain and in England” (En ceste livre sount contenuz toutz les batailles et les tresouns q’ount estee en Brutayne et en Engleterre). See Heather Pagan, “The Anglo-Norman Prose Brut to 1332: An Edition,” Order No. NR52746 (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2006), 72 (https://www-proquest-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/docview/304923442). For Geoffrey, and Gildas before him, ecological disasters—famine and plague—are couched as providential effects rather than causes of vicious civil discord. See Gildas, Gildae Sapientis de excidio, 36–38; Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 276–77.
34 Gildas, Gildae Sapientis de excidio, 40.
35 Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 248–49.
36 The HKB circulated with five different dedications: to Robert, earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I and leading partisan of his half-sister, Empress Matilda; to Robert and Waleran de Beaumont, earl of Worcester and partisan of King Stephen; to Robert and King Stephen himself (in a single manuscript); to a nameless individual; and to no one at all. The version dedicated to Robert is the most widely represented (around 130 manuscripts), and Tahkokallio suggests that it was also the earliest version, perhaps presented to Robert in Normandy between 1137 and 1139. See Jaakko Tahkokallio, “Early Manuscript Dissemination,” in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, 158. For manuscripts of the HKB, see Michael D. Reeve, introduction to Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, vii–xi.
38 Dalton himself acknowledges the “multilayered” nature of Geoffrey’s purpose. See Dalton, “The Topical Concerns of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie,” 690. Monika Otter, among others, has meanwhile suggested that the HKB was not written “directly in the service of a single institution or faction” (or even ethnicity, be it Welsh or Anglo-Norman), though Otter also notes the HKB’s topicality and political engagement. In this connection, she asserts that “its most overt political agenda is a warning against disunity.” See Otter, Monika, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996), 75–76.Google Scholar
39 For an overview of modern scientistic historicism, see especially the work of Hayden White, for example, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1973).
40 See Otter, Monika, “Functions of Fiction in Historical Writing,” in Writing Medieval History, ed. Partner, Nancy (New York: Hodder Arnold, 2005), esp. 120–22Google Scholar and, inter alia, passim in Writing Medieval History, ed. Partner; Ruth Morse, Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Matthew Kemphsall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400–1500 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).
41 The most widely cited example is found in William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs (c. 1198). I quote only part of William’s critique, which goes on for some time: “Bede, the venerable priest and monk, composed the history of our people, i.e., the English. And to approach his topic in a more fitting way, in a preface set well before [the beginning of the main narrative], he also strung together with subtle brevity the more noteworthy deeds of the Britons, who are known to have been the first inhabitants of our island. Before our Bede, moreover, the British people had their own history-writer, Gildas… . The evidence of [Gildas’s] integrity is not trivial: for in the interest of promoting the truth, he does not spare his own people, and while he speaks quite sparingly of the good deeds of his countrymen, he deplores their many evil deeds. Nor does the Briton fear to write, of the Britons, that they were neither bold in war nor faithful in peace. Nevertheless, on the contrary, a certain writer from our own era has emerged to cleanse these stains [from the Britons’ legacy], weaving together ridiculous fictions about them and lifting them up, with impudent vanity, far above the excellence of the Macedonians and Romans. His name is “Geoffrey,” and he has “Arthur” as a nickname since he has cloaked fables about Arthur—derived from age-old British fictions and personally expanded—with the honorable name of history through the superimposed façade of the Latin language… .” (Hystoriam gentis nostre, id est Anglorum, venerabilis presbiter et monachus Beda conscripsit. Qui nimirum, presumpto altius exordio, ut ad id quod specialiter intendebat competentius accederet, eciam Britonum, qui nostre insule primi incole fuisse noscuntur, celebriora subtili brevitate gesta perstrinxit. Habuit autem gens Britonum ante nostrum Bedam proprium hystoriographum Gildam… . Integritatis tamen eius non leve documentum est, quia in veritate promenda proprie genti non parcit et, cum admodum parce bona de suis loquatur, multa in eis mala deplorat nec veretur, ut verum non taceat, Brito de Britonibus scriber, quod nec in bello fortes fuerint nec in pace fideles. At contra quidam nostris temporibus pro expiandis his Britonum maculis scriptor emersit, ridicula de eisdem figmenta contexens eosque longe supra virtutem Macedonum et Romanorum impudenti vanitate attollens. Gaufridus hic dictus est, agnomen habens Arturi pro eo, quod fabulas de Arturo, ex priscis Britonum figmentis sumpta et ex proprio auctas, per superductum Latini sermonis colorem honesto hystorie nominee palliavit.) See William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs: Book 1, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1988), 28–ff.
41 For Geoffrey’s method in relation to his contemporaries, see Henley, Georgia, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Convention of History Writing in Early 12th-Century England,” in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, eds. Henley, Georgia and Smith, Joshua Byron (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 291–314.Google Scholar
43 At least 225 copies of the History survive, second among works of English historiography only to the ˜250 surviving copies of French, Latin, and English prose Bruts, which as some have pointed out exist more as a genre of writing than as a single, unified work. See Joshua Byron Smith, “Introduction and Biography,” in A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, 2; Heather Pagan, “What Is the Anglo-Norman Brut?” (paper presented at “From the Historia Regum Britannae to the European Bruts, part I: Towards a Typology of the Vernacular Adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth,” Aberystwyth, June 2011, https://www.univ-brest.fr/digitalAssets/36/36991_Heather-Pagan-com.pdf); and Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 2. Marvin frames the prose Brut’s popularity by noting that it comes second among vernacular works in England only to the English Wycliffite Bible.
44 Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 115–21. Marvin notes that the prose Brut’s erasure of ethnic distinction during the latter portions of post-Arthurian British rule casts the violence of that period in moral (“petty jealousy”) rather than national/racial terms. The prose Brut also introduces familial language into the relationship between Cadwan and Elfrid, two late kings of the Britons and Saxons, respectively, whom Geoffrey (and previous adaptors) had simply cast as good friends. See Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 190–91, ll. 2258–60; cf. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 260–61.
45 “British history” refers here to the history of the Britons (ancestors of the Welsh) in contradistinction to the Germanic groups whose invasions the Britons resisted. English kings and writers could claim spiritual descent from the one even while claiming biological descent from the other. For Edward’s letter (1301), see Rymer, Thomas, ed., Foedera, conventiones, literae, et cujuscunque generis (The Hague: Joannem Neaulme, 1745), 1.4.9–11.Google Scholar
46 See, for example, the anonymous French version of Le débat des hérauts d’armes de France et d’Angleterre, written sometime in the mid-to-late 1450s. In this polemical tract, two heralds debate the relative merits of England and France before Lady Prudence. When the English herald cites glorious ancestors from the Galfridian past—Constantine the Great, Maximianus, and King Arthur—the French herald quickly reasserts the ethnic distinction between Briton and Saxon, pulling on Galfridian history itself as evidence. The English herald, says the French, “mistakes and transgresses greatly against his office” in attributing the deeds of Britons “to the Saxon nation that at present calls itself England” (le herault d’Angleterre mesprent et fourfait grandement en son office, car il … vault attribuer l’onneur des chevaliers dessus nommez, lesquelz furent de la nacion de Bretaigtne, a la nacion de Saxonne, qui a present se nomme Angleterre). See Le débat des hérauts d’armes de France et d’Angleterre, suivi de The debate between the heralds of England and France by John Coke, eds. Léopold Pannier and M. Paul Meyer (Paris: Didot, 1877), 9–11, esp. 11.
47 One is reminded here of Nick Griffin’s more recent framing of English history, referenced in a previous footnote.
48 See the text under the heading “Buried Giants and British History.”
49 Marvin suggests that this was not, at least in the original version of the prose Brut, an exclusionary effort, namely, that the Brut’s uninterrupted lineage provides space for “all of the chronicle’s insular readers” (a telling slippage for “the people of England”) to see themselves as descendants of Brutus. See Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 127. It is difficult, however, to agree that a cosmopolitan view of lineage suggests a relative lack of political impetus, even in this one facet of the text (127, fn 51). We are unsure precisely when the O. V. was written other than that it was written after Edward I’s accession in 1272 and most likely well before 1338. This is a period that sees the endogenous—though official—expression of Welsh distinctiveness around the events of England’s 1284 annexation of Wales, as well as several Anglo-Welsh conflicts thereafter (cfr. 102, fn 36). For the complex question of “Welsh identity” during the period, see Euryn Rhys Roberts, “A Surfeit of Identity? Regional Solidarities, Welsh Identity and the Idea of Britain,” in Imagined Communities: Constructive Collective Identities in Medieval Europe, eds. Andrej Pleszczyński, et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 247–49. The O. V. elsewhere “adjusts elements from its sources to make clear that Scotland and Wales are integral parts of the realm, eternally subject to the ruler of New Troy,” that is, to the king of England (Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 47).
50 The most prolonged example of this is chapter 6 (139–72), which unfolds as a series of flashbacks that Axl has while trying to fall asleep.
51 The choice between “race” and “ethnicity” to describe the difference between Britons and Saxons in Ishiguro’s novel is complicated on several fronts. One of these is the unevenly but more and more widely received reclamation of “race” and “racial thinking” as suitable (if unstable) categories for analysis of the European Middle Ages, a horizon opened through the efforts of Geraldine Heng, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Cord J. Whitaker, among others. Cohen has argued for the suitability of “race” as a category for the analysis of medieval Britain, on the grounds that cultural differences (between, e.g., Welsh and English) were inevitably imagined in bodily terms. See Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, “Race,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Turner, Marion (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 114–15Google Scholar; for Heng and Whitaker, see footnotes to follow. Of course, Ishiguro’s novel is not a medieval text; yet still, as mentioned both previously and in what follows, it functions as an allegory of sorts to contemporary situations that are very much matters of race, with the distinction between Saxon and Briton thus corresponding on some level to modern racial distinctions. This final consideration leads me to use the language of race, so as not to lose sight of the modern allegorical threads.
52 Early in the novel, for instance, Axl and Beatrice come upon Ivor, a fellow Briton living as a man of some authority in a nearby Saxon village. Though this situation speaks to a degree of coexistence, Beatrice is given cause to wonder whether Ivor might not be better off living “with [his] own kind.” Ivor concurs: “You’re right, Mistress Beatrice, I wonder at myself to live among such savages. Better dwell in a pit of rats.” See 80–81.
53 As an example, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre was not incorporated into even the Oklahoma state curriculum until February 2020. See, for example, Christina Maxouris, “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Will Soon Be a Part of the Curriculum for Oklahoma Schools,” CNN.com, February 20, 2020 (https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/us/oklahoma-schools-1921-race-massacre-trnd/index.html).
54 It is also worth mentioning that Ishiguro’s novel streamlines things somewhat by avoiding calling the Saxons invaders. The “Saxons” are traditionally said to have come to Britain initially as foederati, soldiers invited to the island to defend its Briton inhabitants following the withdrawal of Rome, who then turned on their host. For complications to this picture, see Crabtree, Pam. J., Early Medieval Britain: The Rebirth of Towns in the Post-Roman West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 50–ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
55 See previous references to Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle, 127.
56 Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, 154–55: “I speak of people at the end of a brutal road, having seen their children and kin mutilated and ravished. They’ve reached this their sanctuary, only after long torment, death chasing at their heels. And now comes an invading army of overwhelming size. The fort may hold several days, perhaps even a week or two. But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they’ve seen it already, from whence they came… . That’s why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been.”
57 Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, 232–33.
58 The novel’s ambivalence reflects Ishiguro’s own public statements. He has suggested, for example, that “[t]here are perhaps times when a nation should forget and when you can cover things up and leave things unresolved because it would stir up all kinds of trouble." Sean Matthews, “‘I’m Sorry I Can’t Say More’: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” in Kazuo Ishiguro: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, eds. Sean Matthews and Sebastian Groes (New York: Continuum), 118. In a lecture delivered upon his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2017), Ishiguro recalled his desire to explore similar questions: “Are there times when forgetting is the only way to stop cycles of violence, or to stop a society disintegrating into chaos or war? On the other hand, can stable, free nations really be built on foundations of wilful amnesia and frustrated justice?” Kazuo Ishiguro, “Nobel Lecture: My Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs,” December 7, 2017, Grand Hall of the Swedish Academy, Stockholm, Sweden, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2017/ishiguro/25124-kazuo-ishiguro-nobel-lecture-2017/.
59 Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, 33.
60 Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 17: “Unum petendum est, licentia videlicet eundi, si vobis posterisque vestris aeternam pacem habere desideraveritis. Nam si eo pacto vitam concesseritis Pandraso ut per eum partem Graeciae adepti inter Danaos manere velitis, nunquam diuturna pace fruemini dum fratres et filii et nepotes eorum quibus hesternam intulistis stragem vobis vel inmixti vel vicini fuerint. Semper enim necis parentum suorum memores, aeterno vos habebunt odio; quibusque etiam nugis incitati, vindictam sumere nitentur.”
61 Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 21: “Brutus, to the west, across the Gallic kingdoms, there is an island, enclosed on every side by the sea. The island was once inhabited by giants; now, indeed, it lies deserted, ready for your people. Seek this island, for it will be your everlasting home. A second Troy will be made there for your progeny; there kings will be born from your offspring, and the entire world will be submitted to their power.” (Brute, sub occasu solis trans Gallica regna / insula in occeano est undique clause mari; / insula in occeano est habitata gigantibus olim, / nunc deserta quidem, gentibus apta tuis. / Hanc pete; namque tibi sedes erit illa perhennis. / Hic fiet natis altera Troia tuis. / Hic de prole tua reges nascentur, et ipsis / tocius terrae subditus orbis erit.)
62 There is only one other giant in the HKB after this point, the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, on the Continent, whom Arthur slays. See Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 224–27. The memory of insular giants lives on, however, in phenomena like Stonehenge, called “the Giants’ Dance,” which Merlin is said to have stolen over to Britain from Ireland; see pages 172–75.
63 Geoffrey was not the first to conceive of British history as a series of invasions. Henry of Huntingdon, for example, had cast the Anglo-British past as a series of “plagues” (plagas) wrought upon the island by divine retribution (divina ultio) as a result of communal sin: the invasions of 1) the Romans, 2) the Scots and Picts, 3) the English, 4) the Danes, and 5) the Normans. See Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, 14–15.
64 In this connection, it is worth mentioning that the name and biography of one of the novel’s characters—Edwin, an orphaned Saxon boy whom Wistan, Axl, and Beatrice take under their charge—seems also to allude to this broader framework. At the end of The Buried Giant, Wistan takes Edwin back to the east, suggesting that the boy shows so much promise that he might one day be to the Saxons something like Arthur was to the Britons (305). In Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain, the Saxon king Edwin temporarily drives the Britons’ king, Cadwalla, from Great Britain some generations after the Arthurian era and is noteworthy for the cruelty (saeviciae) with which he treats the island’s inhabitants. This is a chilling connection in light of Wistan’s prediction at the end of TBG that the Britons will soon face a violent reckoning at Saxon hands (322–25). Also germane is the representation of Edwin in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There, Edwin of Northumbria spends some of his early life “hiding in divers places and kingdoms” from the persecution of his predecessor, thus obscure in a way that resonates (albeit weakly) with Edwin’s life in an obscure village when we first see him in TBG. Perhaps more noteworthy is Bede’s characterization of Edwin as a ruler of great power, the first Saxon king to control territories both north and south of the Humber River, which resonates with Wistan’s prediction of Edwin’s potential greatness. See Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. A. M. Sellar (London: George Bell and Sons, 1907), 94 (2.5) and 112–ff. (2.12). See also Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 264–65.
65 Medieval writers had recognized this, in a sense, in that they seized upon the hole in Geoffrey’s narrative to create a prehistory for Albion’s giants. This poetic composition, known as Des grantz geanz, would soon after its creation be prosified and affixed to certain versions of the prose Brut, and thus subsumed into the teleological framework of that text. See, for example, Marcia Lusk Maxwell, “The Anglo-Norman Prose ‘Brut’: An Edition of British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra D.III,” Order No. 9619865 (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 1995) 14–17, 319–22 (https://www-proquest-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/docview/304204420).
66 For the language of “recurrence,” see Geraldine Heng, “Reinventing Race, Colonization, and Globalisms across Deep Time: Lessons from the Longue Durée,” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 360–61 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/44015717); cf. Strohm, Paul, Theory and the Premodern Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000), 211.Google Scholar
67 See, for example, Michael Crowley, “Trump Calls for ‘Patriotic Education’ to Defend American History from the Left,” New York Time, September 17, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/us/politics/trump-patriotic-education.html). See also contemporary English discourse, referenced in previous footnotes.
68 Schultz and Harvey noted a decade ago that religion is “nowhere” in mainstream academic historiography, yet everywhere in American history. Polling, meanwhile, had indicated a rise in American religiosity between 1865 and 2008. See Kevin M. Schultz and Paul Harvey, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Recent Trends in American Religious History and Historiography,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.1 (2010): 129–30. Cf. Joel A. Brown, “The 1776 Report: Mind the (Religion) Gap,” The University of Chicago Divinity School: Sightings, February 25, 2021 (https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/articles/1776-report-mind-religion-gap). Religious adherence has declined somewhat over the past ten years; still, recent polling indicates majority belief in at least some form of providential determinism. Pew Research Center, “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?” April 25, 2018 (https://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean). Answering questions at the White House Conference on American History in September 2020, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said of the US Constitution, “I believe that’s a divinely inspired document, and something that need not be tampered with.” L. D. Burnett, “Trump’s Vision for American History Education Is a Nightmare,” Slate, September 18, 2020 (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/white-house-history-conference-curriculum.html). The 1776 Report ends with a citation of providence in the Declaration of Independence that must be read in light of the report’s overarching call for a history of unity: “So we proclaim, in the words our forefathers used two and a half centuries ago, ‘for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor’” (20). The Report makes use, too, of formal anachronism: it frames the abolition of slavery as one of the Declaration’s end goals, citing Abraham Lincoln as a retrospective authority (34–35). Cf. previous footnotes on the anachronistic slippage of Angli and Saxones in medieval historiography.
69 Cf. Heng, “Reinventing Race, Colonization, and Globalisms across Deep Time,” 360–61: “The study of racial emergence à la longue durée is then one means to understand if the configurations of power that produce race in modernity are, in fact, genuinely novel.” See too Heng, Geraldine, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Whitaker, Cord J., Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).Google Scholar
70 Specialists are acutely aware of the way that the violence of the medieval period is often used to constitute the modern, despite this period’s own brutalities. It is by a similar mechanism that the 1776 Report treats that date, and the founding of the country, as an epochal moment. See page 11: “It was the Western world’s repudiation of slavery, only just beginning to build at the time of the American Revolution, which marked a dramatic sea change in moral sensibilities. The American founders were living on the cusp of this change, in a manner that straddled two worlds.”