[CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS]
There are some books which linger on the brain long after reading like an unanticipated kiss, playing on the mind. The experience raises questions that may never have an answer, but you never want to forget the event itself. You seek to make sense of it, or at least attempt to.
So that’s what I’m doing here, and I’ve never analysed a book before so it’s going to be fairly stream-of-consciousness. Apologies in advance.
The predominant theme of the novel, to me, seemed to be letting go of the past. From the get-go we know that Axl and Beatrice have a son and, though he’s long gone and they’re not sure why amidst the mist of forgetfulness that washes over the land, they haven’t let go of him. Indeed, that is why they set off on their quest.
The first characters they meet on their journey are the boatman and the widow. The boatman ferries passengers over to an island, questioning couples to prove their love and promising to take them over to live together. But he takes the men to the island and doesn’t return for the women. The widow makes it her burden to torment the boatman day after day for this trick which she cannot forgive; she cannot let go.
This experience torments Axl and Beatrice throughout the novel and they allude back to it now and then, fearful that they may suffer a similar fate should they take the boatman’s offer.
Next we have Master Wistan, the enigmatic Saxon warrior embarking on a quest through Briton lands. He appears a noble and wise man at first but later reveals a deep, entrenched loathing for all Britons, and he feels his conflicted warmth for some of them, such as Axl and Beatrice, a weakness. He also encourages Edwin to hate the Britons.
Edwin, the young Saxon boy bitten by a small dragon and taken as an apprentice by Wistan, is also unable to let go. He hears the voice of his mother who was taken from him as a small child and he now, seemingly having conflated two memories, believes her to travel with a bunch of cruel men who tie her up and watch her struggle to escape for sexual pleasure. He has been told he is destined to make a great man, and when Wistan comes begins to believe this. He vows that he will find his mother and rescue her and is so deeply committed to this ideal that he even betrays Wistan at one point.
Edwin’s auditory hallucinations of his mother had me a tad confused. It seemed that this was ultimately a confusion in his mind and that, in actual fact, the voice was that of Querig the she-dragon whom Wistan sought to slay. Even when Edwin sought to deceive Wistan, and lead the warrior to his mother, he still took them toward the dragon. Querig, therefore, was “tied up” by the spell that rendered her asleep and breathing the mist of forgetfulness, and in this unconscious state, after the dragon-bite, was communicating with Edwin to come rescue her – something he confused to be a sign from his mother, for how he could understand that a dragon was calling to him? I’ve literally just worked this out in my head as I’ve typed it, and am pretty happy with that intepretation.
Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, is another unable to let go of the past. He is emphatic that his uncle was a wise king who brought peace to the land, and that the slaughter of innocent Saxons – in effect a sort of attempted-genocide – was a necessary evil to end the ceaseless wars that had ravaged England for so long. He is also adamant that he will be the one to slay Querig, not Wistan. Of course, this turns out to be a deception, maintained as he is actually the one tasked with safe-guarding Querig, her mist of forgetfulness being the only thing that keeps the people from remembering their hatred for each other and descending into war again.
Equally, characters on the very periphery of the story are unable to let go. Lord Brennus is implied to be unable to let go of a childhood rivalry with Wistan and for this reason seeks to have any Saxon soldier in the land killed. King Arthur himself was unable to let go of the events of war, seeking to wipe out the Saxons even after Axl had brokered a peace agreement which guaranteed the safety of Saxon peoples within the kingdom (this being the reason Axl, who has since forgotten, retired to a life with his wife in a village far from the events that took place. His association with Arthur is also the reason that the people of his village hate him and Beatrice, though they cannot remember that this is the reason).
It’s in this context that the ending could be viewed. The final chapter sees the Boatman finding Axl and Beatrice weary at the journey’s end having witnessed the slaying of both Gawain and Querig, the mist of forgetfulness rising from the land, their memories returning, and the fear of war breaking out once more on everyone’s minds. The Boatman carries them to the sea shore by the island mentioned before that the widow mentions early in the novel. Beatrice is trusting of the Boatman but Axl struggles to hide his hostility. He only agrees because of the constant reassurances of Beatrice. The Boatman promises them both that they can live together on the island, where they will never see another soul, but can live out their days together. He must, of course, question them individually to test the strength of their love, but this is a mere formality in their case as their incredible bond is plain to see. The Boatman questions Beatrice, then Axl and they both reveal to the Boatman in turn that, after an act of infidelity by Beatrice and the aftermath of this, their son left them, never to return. Shortly after, the son died of the plague that ravaged the land. The trip they set out on was to see his grave, something Axl had prevented them from doing because of the negative associations. He regrets his actions but is still sure of the strength of his and Beatrice’s love and the Boatman agrees that this doesn’t change things, they still deserve to go together.
Beatrice, now very weak, is carried into the boat by the Boatman and he says he must take them individually due to the weakness of the boat. Axl is adamant that they must be rowed together as he fears the trick that the widow spoke of. He talks to Beatrice and she reassures him once more that he must trust the Boatman. Axl gives in and wishes her one last heartfelt farewell and that he will mend his friendship with the Boatman to ensure safe passage, but instead he walks from the boat through the water to the shore and doesn’t look back.
Beatrice, who has complained of a pain throughout the novel, has only ever grown weaker and has relied more and more on Axl who, in turn has grown more and more protective of her. The Boatman is, somewhat obviously, representative of Death. No matter how much a couple love one another, the Boatman always trick them – they never go over together. The trick seems to be an idea of heaven – a lie that softens the blow of reality. The vengeful widow was unable to let go of her husband and never accepted his death – never accepted that the promised island was a lie. Axl – having seen the widow and her burden, having watched Wistan and Gawain’s incompatible resolve, having lived through Arthur’s inability to let go of the anguishes of war – is the only one to have learned a thing through this novel. When he sees the Boatman is about to trick him as all the widows were he faces a simple choice: become embittered and believe the lie of going to the island with his beloved Beatrice, or let go. He chooses to hold her one last time and says ‘Farewell, my one true love”, then he simply walks away. In this way, he proves his love stronger than that of all the widows who complain of the Boatman, and his resolve stronger than that of all those he met on his journey because he allows himself to accept Beatrice’s death for what it is, and chooses to see through the lie of the Boatman for the sake of Beatrice. But also, in this sense, he has achieved a victory (small consolation for losing one’s true love) – he has chosen freedom from a life of pity and denial like the widows. He has also proven himself and Beatrice the only ones to win the Boatman’s test. Seeing through the lie, accepting Beatrice’s fate and walking away shows that he possessed the courage and saying goodbye to Beatrice is, metaphorically speaking, being with her on the island. They have said their final goodbye, he having her accepted her fate, and in this sense their love remains intact, unlike the shattered love of the widow who’s hatred isn’t for the Boatman, but for herself for not coming to terms with her husband’s death and making peace with him before he died.
It seems to me that Axl and Beatrice are stuck in a world doomed to repeat the same old mistakes. They, through their journey and their recollections, see through the vicious cycle of war and lies and regret and denial, and are able to use this experience to better their own lives. Of course, this is but one interpretation, and I’m sure there are many other spheres within which the novel can be analysed, and many other interpretations as to the strongest themes and the meaning of the ending. But this interpretation is the one that I’ll remember with a certain melancholy fondness whenever the novel springs to mind. And that’s a beautiful thing to take away from a story.