The Buried Giant The Buried Giant question


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The ending
Meg Newton Meg May 03, 2015 07:54PM
** Spoiler **

What happened? Were they not going to be allowed to be together? Was the boatman lying? Why did Axl just walk off?



I similarly related the boatman to Charon and the water to the river Styx (or the Acheron), particularly since we first meet the boatman in the ruins of a Roman villa, and Charon, although Greek figures heavily in Roman and later Latin literature and poetry.

I got something a little different out of the ending though. When Axl and Beatrice first meet the boatman, Beatrice asked him how it would be possible to tell if two people truly loved each other just by answering a question. The boatman replies "A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred....Abiding love that has endured the years- that we only see rarely. When we do, we're only too glad to ferry the couple together." So it seems possible that two people CAN pass over to the island together. But we have caught glimpses of disharmony in Axl and Beatrice's relationship in the past, and when the boatman questions Axl as they stand on the shore before the island, more details of trouble emerge. Axl had held a grudge. Of the incident, Axl says ' Perhaps it was a craving to punish, sir. I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart that yearned for vengeance. A petty and black thing I did her..." So by his own admission, Axl does not meet the standard which the boatman described as 'abiding love'.

This book is about memory, hidden secrets, consequences and remorse. Beatrice will cross to the island because she is physically dying. Axl has not passed the test to allow him to accompany her. He walks away in anger and remorse as he knows that even though their relationship evolved into deep love over time, his behavior toward Beatrice in the past fell short of this paradigm of 'abiding love', and it has now caught up with him. He will not cross with Beatrice.

But then, in human fallibility, which of us will pass the test?


I am glad to have read other interpretations of the ending. The way I understood it made me cry for quite a while, then made me stop and do some inner work to root out any small dark chambers still left in my own heart regarding my loved ones.

I understood the ending as this: Beatrice is the one with the hidden resentment that causes them to be unable to cross together. We know from Axl's conversation with the boatman that the last of his resentment dissolved when he gazed on her sleeping in the morning light at the beginning of the book. But the one time Beatrice remembers Axl's infidelity (at the goat-feeding children's house), she tells him she doesn't want to walk side by side with him for the time being.

That resentment is never resolved. Yes, her words at the baotman's cottage and in his boat sound like everything is well between them, but, just like Axl tells the boatman about himself over the years, she "spoke and acted [with love], yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in [her] heart".

When Axl comes to persuade his wife not to cross without him, she is adamant that he let her hurry and cross (whereas it was she who greatly dreaded crossing alone through much of the story, before the mist lifted). I don't know whether she is trying to deceive him only, or herself also (probably the latter) when she says everything is alright and they'll see each other on the other side. Just as the mist deluded everyone into forgetting the bad things, now she deludes herself into thinking that the "small chamber [of resentment]" in her heart doesn't even exist, or at least isn't worth mentioning.

It was heartbreaking to me to watch Axl speak to her, trying to persuade her, then realizing her heart is set against it. To watch him say his last farewell to his princess, while she can't wait for him to get out of the boat and let her cross.

(and the change from calling her "princess" to "my one true love" just drove it home; heartbreaking)

With that, what more is there for him to say, to her or to the boatman? He leaves, completely defeated, trudging back to the shore to live out the rest of this life--and the next--alone.

Their relationship is a microcosm of the whole country's wound: that buried giant of past sins (infidelity, in their personal case, and terrible, children-killing betrayal, in the Britons' case) will eventually lead to great pain (heartbreak and utter alone-ness in their personal case, and the outbreak of devastating war in the country's case). In both cases, buried grievances (whether marital or martial) exact a terrible price.


The way I interpreted it, the boatman can only transport people who are about to die to whatever destination lays beyond death. There were many hints that Beatrice was sick from some female problem, and since the boatman will take her across, we can presume she will die from her female problem. It wasn't Axl's time to die yet, so he couldn't accompany his wife. I think that the testing of the couples and the boatman saying that only one passenger can ride in the boat at one time was just a pretense, a way to separate the living from the soon to die. The boatman either tells a couple that they didn't pass his test, or in this case, the boatman says they did pass the test and pretends he will be back for Axl so as not to upset them. But Axl knew the truth and didn't want to stay and witness the boatman's failure to return for him. Also, it must have been painful for him to watch his wife leave, so Axl rushed away.

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Pat Mullarkey I just finished the book and have read a bunch of comments. I haven't seen anyone bring up the first meeting with the boatman and the old woman who wa ...more
Jun 25, 2019 10:46AM · flag

The allusion to the river Styx can't be denied. They even talk of paying the boatman. I also like that the oar was stored in a shallow pool as it is an allusion to the Lady in the Lake. By seeing this, you understand that the boatman is on the side of good regardless of what he is about to do.

The only way they could know of the testing was if the boatman hadn't come back for others before them. On the island you go alone, but couples that really love each other and that past the test, carry each other in their hearts and are therefore traveling with the other person.
We are also told that there are many islands, so I doubt that specific island was Avalon, but adds credence to the idea that the boatman leads you into a spiritual journey. Not everyone goes to a boatman before death, so what does having the opportunity to do so mean? It is possibly reserved for good people only. Gawain talks of the soldier that begged to be taken to a body of water. The soldier was good and was seeking the boatman. He also talks of how he would not do so. How a dry place would be fine enough for him. The interview seems to be a way for people to make peace with each other.
It was a really beautiful ending.


I too was puzzled by Axl's reaction at the end. Was he simply too upset at the impending death of his wife to acknowledge the boatman? He appeared perhaps to be angry, but that too is a common symptom of grief. Or was it that remembering his wife's infidelity allowed a trace of bitterness to seep back into their relationship? He said, 'Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.'
I recognised the boatman reference, but there were many other things that puzzled me and I wonder, if I knew more of medieval mythology and its symbolism, whether I would have understood more. What was the significance of the rabbit held by the elderly widow, for example, and what of the children and their poisoned goat? The skinned rabbits and pixies in the boat? The monastery and the dubious monks? I feel sure that many apparently random meetings and happenings held more meaning than was clear to me. I'd love Ishiguro to explain them!


A lot of people on reviews say that the boatman lied, but I think he actually never says that he will come right away. He just says that Axl has to wait for him. So he comes back when it's Axl's time. And he promises that they will be together when they are both on the island.


I've seen some reference the island to Avalon, and maybe it could be related to the last of Merlin's magic?
Anyway, Beatrice did seem to grow weaker and weaker - (and blind in the end? as she couldn't see the boatman). So I saw it as Axl and Beatrice saying their last goodbye, but I don't get the repeated references to boatmen and couples going/not going together?


I just read it, and while both Joanne's and Susan's reaction seem likely to me, there is another theory I read elsewhere which I think is possible as well. Basically, it states that the whole story they heard about the boatman asking questions and allowing only very few people to go together was actually a hopeful myth, to comfort those who wish to spend the afterlife or death with the person they love. In truth, the boatman will always only allow one person to go at a time, and they will always be just by themselves on that island. The boatman lies or doesn't mention this to make the passing to 'the other side' easier for both lovers.

The idea then is that Axl realizes this by the end and does not wish to wait for the bowman to take him next, but instead gives his last heartfelt goodbye to Beatrice and continues on with his life on land.


With querigs curse lifted the memory of Beatrice past infidelities came back to axl and he welcomed the opportunity to be rid of her.


I also thought Axl went to kill himself. As a good Christian, he would have gone to hell of suicide so he'd never be with Beatrice at all.


It's meant to be ambiguous - is the boatman not letting Axl in the boat only because it's not his time (to die) yet, or because their love isn't strong enough? Given that it's made pretty clear throughout the book that Beatrice is dying, I interpreted the ending to be Axl coming to terms with her death and returning to shore to live the rest of his life. When it's his time, maybe the boatman will take him and maybe him and Beatrice will be reunited on the island. But he's not sure.


I thought that most likely the boatman could only transport dying people, but possibly the boatman's test was not the interview: it was that one partner would leave the other, even on the understanding that the other would follow soon after. This was not like leaving your partner to go to work or go shopping. Beatrice knew the boatman usually did not go back for the other, but she wanted to go to the island so much that she was prepared to take the risk. She could have refused and died with Axl on the mainland. I thought maybe there was some magic affecting her thinking, perhaps owing to her approaching death. Axl knows that the boatman will not take him across, which is why he makes his final farewell to Beatrice and then leaves.


Peace and love covered with maggots ( that is, choose to forget and not to face the wound) are not the true peace and love. Only after facing the wounds with each other, and you still can treat each other with forgiveness and love, that is the true love and peace. The old couple gradually recover their memory and recall the wounds and maggots ( wife’s infidelity and husband’s revenge) in their marriage. Through the boatman’s interview, Axl is guilty and feels sorry about his cruelness. He still treats Beatrice with love and acquiescence. Beatrice also feels sorry about her infidelity and would forgive her husband’s revenge. However, she still eagers to visit their son’s cemetery. When she knows the boatman can make her dream come true, she decides to go to the island, even they will be separated ( she always doesn’t want to be separated from Her husband). But she still articulate with Axl their future will be a wonderful life on that island. They will hold their hands each other and talk their memories from the past time. Meanwhile, they reface their wounds. Axl chooses respect, and Beatrice chooses fulfillment to heal their wounds. Although they can’t go to the island together, they still can meet each other there due to their love bond between them, as the boatman promised.


I thought that everyone was dead, all along. Especially with everyone so obviously dealing with the results of a battle in the not so distant past, I think the landscape they travel through is a sort of purgatory. The victims from the old battle have to struggle against the memory stealing magic to work through the problems left over from their lifetimes. Saxon vs Briton, marriage problems, etc. The memory problems also reminded me of the River Lethe, a step necessary for final resting because the spirit has to leave behind its worldly weight and memory. The boatman is the one to take people who are ready to the Isle (Avalon, heaven, final resting place, peace)


A wonderful ending much like the book itself that raises questions about the nature of humanity, in humanity, commitment to others, and responsibility...but does not seek to answer them. We get to do that ourselves. We do not know at tje end whether Axl leaves or just ignores the boatman and then goes to sit on a rock and wait his return. And we don't know whose remembrance of the past is correct, or even what exactly happened in the past. We do expect that tje past will not be forgotten and that will reverberate in the future, but we're not sure how. From history, we know the Saxons dribw tje Britons out of England. But much more is at stake in this book. The future, just like the ending of this novel, is unclear.


I just finished this amazing book and read your theories with great interest. I'm not to sure what would be my idea but I think it's worth to mention one possible version:

What if not Axl but Beatrice failed the test?

The boatman said everything was alright with her answers but he says the same about Axl's. (I think that is a bit cheap on the author's end who changes his format of storytelling throughout the book). So we just know for sure that Axl remembers and that he condemns his behaviour from the past. But we don't know if Beatrice is actually doing the same.


Yes, Axl's response was a surprise, sort of. He seemed to be a defeated sort of man and this last defeat to the boatman reinforced that. He had acquiesced to Beatrice's wishes and intuition during the journey and did again with her sense that the boatman was trustworthy.
The boatman had a criteria to meet for his transports that he could not or would not set aside. His earlier appearance showed the consequences as he was subjected to the torment from the old woman.
Did Axl miss his chance to join his wife by his reaction? Probably. Did that unearth his buried giant? A peaceful passage did not seem to be the sense that I got from the ending, but a rekindling of old hatreds for him.


Markus (last edited Jul 05, 2018 08:23AM ) Jul 05, 2018 08:22AM   0 votes
The ending seems to be somehow open regarding the metaphysical question of sharing a common experience after death. It is never clearly denied, but it is not fulfilled either. The ferryman doesn't really make it clear whether he is lying or not, instead he remains vague about his motivation. (Personally, I don't think that the novel would have benefitted from a clear decision about this cause, be it positive or negative.)

Axl doesn't seem to trust him, his walking away from the shore might express that he has lost hope to be with Beatrice on the island. As it is explained earlier in the book, Beatrice is generally seen as a much more confident and trusting person compared to Axl, so that seems to be quite consistent.

However, by the positive judgement of the ferryman regarding the relationship of Beatrice and Axl one might conclude that the fading mist allows for the judgement that they at least deserve sharing their passage to the island, and maybe that is just as far as one can go within this specific kind of literary conception.


Was Their dead son the buried giant or could it hint at anglo Japanese enmity of the 2nd world war and prison camps?


I agree with Donna that the boatman was like the grim reaper and Beatrice died but it was not yet Axl's time. I also wonder how the earlier meeting with the boatman in the cave and the grief stricken women who sacrifices rabbits is connected?
That was also the same lady that nearly made Axl lose Beatrice in the river due to the pixies. Another spirit?
I thought the ending was sad but apt for an artistic interpretation of how hard it must be to go on living after a loved one dies. Beatrice was eager to go in the end and shooed Axl away.


I'm very surprised no one brought up that Axl effectively drowned himself by wading into the water past the boatman. He only left Beatrice to go to the island first after she pointed it out to him.

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Puck Fraser For me, the Buried Giant is resentment - that lack of love - that EGO that makes us hang onto old grudges and want to punish someone else. It's the da ...more
Jun 08, 2021 03:01PM · flag

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