Which brings us to William Golding's lovely novel, The Inheritors. Golding [1911-1993] was an English novelist and poet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who is best known for his novel, Lord of the Flies. The Inheritors is a short novel, only 213 pages in my PocketBooks paperback edition, which tells the tragic story of an encounter between a small band of Neanderthal and a group of Cro Magnon, from the point of view of the Neanderthal! The genius of Golding's artistic creation lies in his ability to imagine the world as the Neanderthal experience it.
Golding conceives the Neanderthal thought processes as essentially visual and pictorial, rather than analytic or linear. "There was too much to see and [Lok] became eyes again that registered and perhaps would later remember what now he was not aware of." The Neanderthal share the pictures in their heads by a primitive form of telepathy, which considerably supplements their rudimentary speech. They are able, in effect, to show one another the pictures they imagine, and thus to communicate plans of action or feelings.
The plot is quite simple. The little band of six or seven Neanderthal have just welcomed a "new one," a baby, into the group. The death of an old one or the birth of a new one are terribly important events for the little group, whose survival depends on maintaining some minimum number. The old woman is the keeper of fire -- when the group travel from place to place, she embeds the glowing embers in moist clay, and then blows them into flame when they arrive. [As Golding imagines the Neanderthal, the females are wiser and more responsible than the males, incidentally. Just the opposite is true of the Cro Magnon, as he represents them.] The Neanderthal encounter the Cro Magnon, who steal the new one, the baby. With the Cro Magnon's vastly superior technology -- they use dugout canoes and bows and arrows -- the outcome is never in doubt.
The pleasure of the novel, for me at any rate, lies almost entirely in Golding's ability to conjure a plausible image of the thought processes of the Neanderthal. They experience the world visually, sensorily. They experience surfaces. Thus, when they see the new people, the Cro Magnon, paddling their canoes, Golding's rendering of what they see goes like this: "Someone dug noisily in the water, and the logs bumped." At one point [I cannot find the passage], Lok sees one of the Cro Magnon hold a bent stick with a twig across it [a bow and arrow.] Then a twig suddenly grows out of the tree next to his head. It takes a moment for the reader to understand that the Cro Magnon has shot an arrow that has embedded itself in the tree next to, Lok's head. But that is not the way Lok experiences it.
Much of the central part of the novel is taken up with the desperate and unsuccessful efforts of the Neanderthal to retrieve the stolen new one [who has been taken by a Cro Magnon woman who seems to have lost her own baby.] Then abruptly, seventeen pages before the end of the novel, the narrative perspective shifts, and the remainder of the story is told from the point of view of the Cro Magnon, who load up their canoes and paddle off into the distance, leaving the Neanderthal literally, historically, evolutionarily, and narratively behind.
And there it is. The Inheritors is a simple novel, exquisitely conceived and carried off, that upends our customary expectations and evaluations and suggests what has been lost in the dying out of the Neanderthal and the triumph of modern homo sapiens sapiens. It is a quick read, and I think well worth the effort. I recommend it strongly. In a sense, it can be thought of as a prequel to Golding's much more famous Lord of the Flies.