Review of: The Inheritors
Author: William Golding
Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Company
Early one spring, a family of Neanderthals has its first encounter with strange new people in William Golding’s 1955 novel, The Inheritors. Who are these newcomers who appear on the river running past the Neanderthals’ summer camp in hollow trees, trilling a strange birdlike language, and armed with odd twigs tipped with stone points? They are both fascinating and deadly, and, seeing them through unaccustomed eyes, it is with a start of foreboding that we recognize them.
|William Golding, 1983|
We’ve learned a lot more both about the reality of early modern humans and Neanderthals since The Inheritors was written. Neanderthals didn’t – couldn’t have – run on all fours, they probably weren’t as gentle and naïve as the people Golding depicts, and they were all too familiar with weapons, having fashioned plenty of their own. But the novel isn’t intended to be a historical account. Instead, Golding uses it to explore further a theme he introduced in his first novel, Lord of the Flies – destruction of the innocent by inherent human evil.
Golding never specifically refers to the innocents of The Inheritors as Neanderthals. It was, after all, a name that would not exist until the first fossils of these early humans were discovered and recognized in the mid-19th century. However, a quotation from H.G. Wells’ Outline of History at the book’s beginning references the term, “gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth . . . the germ of the ogre in folklore. . . ”
The newcomers to the Neanderthals’ world simply call them devils.
The story opens with one of the adult Neanderthals, Lok, running through the spring forest as his band makes it way from their winter quarters in a cave by the sea to their summer home on a river island. He carries a delighted little girl, Liku, on his back. The rest of their band – an old man and woman, another younger man, two women, and a baby – follow. Are the old people Lok’s parents? Is Liku his daughter? No family relationships are ever mentioned. There’s simply no word for them in the limited language of the Neanderthals, just as there are no words to name most of what they will observe in their dealings with the newcomers.
Finding the fallen log on which they normally cross the river to their summer island rotted away, the people are at first baffled. Such a thing has never happened in the lifetimes of the younger members of the band.
The old man, Mal, ponders and at last says, “‘I have a picture.’ He freed a hand (from his walking stick) and put it flat on his head as if confining the images that flickered there. ‘Mal is not old but clinging to his mother’s back. There is more water not only here but along the trail where we came. A man is wise. He makes men take a tree that has fallen. . .’”
And so, relying on the laboriously recalled memory, the people find another tree, make another bridge to their island. But this way of dealing with the world will not suffice once the quicker thinking newcomers arrive, terrorizing the Neanderthals in response to their own fears.
Golding’s ability to enter the minds of people with such limited language requires guesswork on the part of readers that is often fascinating but just as often annoying. How much of the newcomers’ activities that Lok and his people observe only in pantomimes mystifying to them do we need to read about before we realize that the group of newcomers are facing internal power struggles, are fearful, greedy, violent and deceitful? In short, that they are us?