The artist, author, and illustrator Shaun Tan has several images of gigantic monstrous beasts in his work, but my favorite is in his picture book The Red Tree, where a little girl with red hair–the story’s protagonist–walks down the street while over her looms a dour grayskinned trout the size of an ocean liner, its mouth agape in what I always imagine to be an extended, engulfing, loathsome moan.
The creature in the scene is a kind of weather, a ceiling on the world, inescapable and impressive in its vastness. By its mere presence, it changes the whole scale of the picture, dwarfs the apparent subject (and the viewer). It acts by being, a character and a setting in one, and it throws anyone who confronts it into sudden definition: do they flee? Fight? Or, like the pictured girl, are they brought under the creature’s influence, their moods and chemistries pulled, like the tides, by the gravity of a distant body, alien and unknowable perhaps, but impossible to ignore?
We see ourselves in the big things of this world–look for faces in clouds and cliffsides, give our human-shaped gods chariots to carry the sun and tridents to style the waves. We picture the arms of great trees throwing apples or raised in a midnight dance. If a monster truly came, some of us would worship it. Others would identify with it to the point of psychic death.
Monstrous beasts exert the same level of influence on the stories that contain them as they do on the fellow inhabitants of those stories and the settings where they occur. If Chekhov demands that the gun on the mantel be fired, then Melville demands that Moby Dick be catalogued, the whole of whaledom surveyed like a country being mapped. When a story’s monster isn’t captured in a net of verbiage, then that absence informs what remains, a shadow cast on the pages from above. No matter what, we will not allow a monstrous beast to roam through narrative unscathed. Symbolism will fly at it from all directions, yet the creature will refuse to collapse into a single explanation. It will acquire meanings, yet remain (somehow) stubbornly itself. When a monstrous beast appears in a story, then it becomes, at least in part, what that story is about.
Two recent novels contain, and are shaped by, monstrous beasts: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Set in immediately post-Arthurian England and a dystopic future hellscape, respectively, they might not have much in common if they didn’t feature behemoths endowed with unearthly powers. But it is only those behemoths that make these novels possible at all.
One might be fooled into thinking that The Buried Giant isn’t about a dragon. The novel, when it begins, is the story of a marriage. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, love each other dearly, but tragedy haunts their past. Perhaps they once had a son and lost him? Their dearth of memory sends them on an ill-conceived quest to find their way to his village. The stakes are high, but limited in scope–personal, not global.
That is, until we discover the dragon at the heart of all this. Instead of smashing huts and castles, the she-dragon Querig has seeped her way through every barricade, insidiously polluting the atmosphere inside of people’s heads. Querig’s special ability is to breathe a Mist of Forgetfulness, fogging minds of the characters, erasing the past–yet strangely, allowing the previously warring Briton and Saxon tribes to live alongside each other in peace. Late in the novel, we learn that Querig’s presence is inextricably tied to King Arthur’s legacy of peace. The dragon was deliberately enchanted by Merlin in order to perform her ordained task, so “the bones [of war would] lie sheltered under a pleasant green carpet… long enough for old wounds to heal forever and an eternal peace to hold.” So long as Querig has “breath left, she does her duty.”
Is the Mist a curse or a blessing? It is a force, and to stop it requires the slaying of a god.
Sir Gawain, Querig’s supposed challenger, has been living a lie for decades. Though he claims that he and his horse Horace “have bided their time,” “have laid careful plans to lure [Querig] out and…seek no assistance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Arthur himself appointed Gawain as Querig’s protector, and Gawain will die before he sees her slain. When a new challenger, this time a real one, arises in the form of the warrior Wistan, Wistan’s persistent doubts and suspicions about Arthur’s peaceful legacy bring the matter to light.
Spoiler: this doesn’t end well for Gawain, or for Querig. But the violence that unfolds takes on the qualities of the creature at its center. In a virtuosic description, Ishiguro renders Querig “emaciated,” “worm-like,” and “dehydrating,” “the remnants of her wings…sagging folds of skin that a careless glance might have taken for dead leaves.” Querig is the forgotten thing at the center of the forgetting she herself generates: impotent, absent, hardly recognizable as a dragon. Beatrice wonders aloud, “Can this really be her, Axl? […] This poor creature no more than a fleshy thread?” There is nothing assertive or combative in Querig. The mechanism of her power is to just keep breathing. She is nothing but a lung: as fragile, as essential. So when death comes to this book, it is without catharsis. It is a mere stopping of that breath.
Sir Gawain falls first. An aged knight, he asks permission to unsheathe his sword before the duel with Wistan commences, to avoid humiliation (Wistan graciously allows it). The clash is brief, and when Gawain succumbs, he “struggle[s] for a moment, like a man in his sleep trying to make himself more comfortable,” then finally seems “content.” Wistan may hate everything Querig stands for, but the killing blow he inflicts resembles her Mist, wiping away all pain and strife and replacing it with an unconsciousness that leaves the affected soothed and stilled.
When Querig dies, it is anticlimax upon anticlimax; she puts up less of a fight than Gawain. Motionless but for her rhythmic breathing and the steady blinking of her eye–“hooded in the manner of a turtle’s”–she lies on the floor of her pit while Wistain walks up to her and with “a swift, low arc in passing,” effortlessly decapitates her.
At the time of The Buried Giant’s publication, Ursula K. Le Guin responded to a comment Ishiguro made about the book (“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”) by writing, “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’ ” Genre squabbling aside, Le Guin’s statement has lingered with me because of what it perhaps unintentionally captures about the peculiar nature of this book. Because, in a sense, Ishiguro does create a scenario like the one Le Guin proposes. He sets the stage for spectacle at dazzling heights, then presents us with players too ancient, too confused, to perform their chosen roles–to do anything but hand themselves over to merciless gravity and time. A man plummeting to his death, no longer certain about who he once was or how he’ll be remembered, is a man fallen victim to Querig…a man not unlike Querig herself.
Just as Querig’s age and forgetfulness infuse the whole of The Buried Giant, the exact opposite qualities–youth, curiosity, hunger, and enthusiasm–underscore so much of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s no coincidence these are the very qualities possessed by the titular character.
Borne begins life “dark purple and about the size of [a] fist…like a half-closed stranded sea anemone,” but under the tutelage of Rachel, a scavenging human who adopts him, this shapeshifting organism learns and grows rapidly. Like some strange hybrid of all that lives, he is eager to take nourishment of any kind – compost worms, pebbles, scraps of wood– into his gelatinous core. But he is unique among living beings in that nothing comes out of him: no waste, no emissions.
This literally all-consuming tendency would be terrifying if he weren’t just so cute. The first time Borne does something violent, it is to eat a team of young home-invaders who have been torturing his mom. Using the voice of one of these ingested assailants, he says, “I am Borne. I talking talking talking.” He also tells Rachel not to be afraid.
As he continues to get bigger, his hunger for multi-celled lifeforms shrinks in comparison to his hunger for knowledge, which gets played out in whimsical, absurdist dialogues with his ersatz parent. “Borne didn’t know what serious was,” Rachel observes. Even when he ultimately begins ingesting other humans, Borne explains that he tries “to only kill evil people,” but more importantly, he doesn’t concede Rachel’s version of events: “I killed them but they’re not dead…I don’t think they will ever die.”
Borne is alien, unknowable, but the very limits of his knowability exclude the possibility of human guile. He operates like nature unspoiled, a pristine wilderness incarnate in the form of a creature: a walking, talking web of life in which much is gained but nothing is lost. The result is a novel that feels weirdly innocent–weirdly being the key word. Because there is true darkness in this book too, and it comes from the novel’s other monstrous beast: the flying bear Mord.
Mord is a destructive flying bear the size of a zeppelin. Foul-breathed, encrusted with refuse, he is beyond reason: madness has overcome the “toxic waste dump of his mind.” This is his punishment and his curse; once “curious about so many things,” he compromised himself irrevocably by working for the Company, a menacing entity that churned out irresponsible biotech, leading inevitably to the ruined state of the novel’s world. Now he has proxies that look like him and obey the commands of his blinding, incoherent rage. He is corrupted, contaminated, and though pitiable, he cannot be saved.
As a result, the book’s final showdown between Borne and Mord functions like a battle between nature and pollution, creation and destruction. “There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos,” Rachel comments, and she’s not overselling the drama. Towering over the burning city, the creatures clash, until, like the compost worms Borne himself once consumed, Borne at last engulfs Mord, swallowing the beast entire–and causing both of them to vanish spontaneously.
Because Borne is a child, the story that contains him takes on childlike qualities. It’s simple, brightly colored, a fable that could be performed brilliantly with stop-motion toys or puppets. I say that not as criticism but as high praise. Iconic, but also breathtakingly, astoundingly, bizarrely new, Borne is a rare book that delivers the surprise of true wonder that’s at the heart of seeing the world with fresh eyes. In fact, it’s no coincidence that one vaguely human feature the shapeshifting Borne decides to adopt is a ring of eyes, which encircle his body like a belt–“blue, black, brown, green pupils, and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them.” Though the Mad Hatter claims that “I see what I eat” isn’t the same as “I eat what I see,” the two kinds of voraciousness–abstract curiosity and physical hunger – feed on each other in Borne until he at last outgrows the story he’s in.
By conjuring monstrous beasts in the pages their novels, Ishiguro and VanderMeer endow their stories with vast scope. Each creature also gives its story’s world an aesthetic center around which other elements can orbit. Though the two novels couldn’t be more different, they’re united in this… and also in the humility that comes with placing the lives of human characters in perspective against larger forces. Like the little girl in The Red Tree, these novels’ human characters walk in the shadow of the incomprehensible–as do we all.