The Inheritors, by William Golding

“The new people are like a wolf and honey, rotten honey and the river.”

There are two things it’s useful to remember when you read The Inheritors: one is a fact, one a contention. The first, the fact, is that homo sapiens shares 4% of its genome with the Neanderthal. The second—the contention—is that a large part of what makes us human, and what allowed prehistoric humans to succeed, is the capacity for abstract thought, which often (though not always) takes the form of figurative thought, of metaphor and comparison.

Figuration is precisely what’s lacking among the People, Golding’s locution for a small extended family of Neanderthals. (He never capitalizes “People”, actually; there’s no need, for in the minds of his Neanderthal protagonists, there is no other group from whom they need to differentiate themselves.) There are eight of them to begin with: Fa and Nil, adult women; Lok and Ha, adult men; Liku, a child; “the new one”, Nil’s infant; Mal, the patriarch, and “the old woman”. The old woman doesn’t speak for most of the book’s opening section, but she carries with her a mysterious bundle which turns out to be a hearth flame. She is the locus of mystical, intuitive, female knowledge (Golding has Neanderthals worshiping a fertility goddess named Oa) in the same way as Mal, the oldest man, is the repository of “pictures”, or memories; he is all the people have by way of history.

(A quick note on Golding’s accuracy regarding Neanderthals: there’s no evidence that they had any kind of religion. He knew this, and, as John Carey says in his short but deeply illuminating introduction (in the Faber paperback edition),

gets round these possible objections by making his Neanderthals worship ‘ice women’, and place meat and water in the grave for the afterlife, none of which would leave any remnants for archaeologists to discover.

So, a rather clever novelistic hack, I feel, and one I’m quite happy to let stand.)

The book opens as the people try to cross a river, following a trail that will lead them back to their summer territory. They’re stymied by the fact that the log which usually serves as their bridge across the water has been washed away. Disappearance is more than an inconvenience; it literally incapacitates them. Lok, our protagonist, simply cannot process the idea of absence:

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log. It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting. When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder…So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone.

It takes Mal, the old man and keeper of the people’s memories, to tell them what to do: find a new log and maneuvre it to take the place of the old. But Mal is elderly and weak, and falls into the river as they cross, and although they pull him out, he quickly sickens and dies. Without him, the people have no history, no hope of being able to use their past experiences to inform their present behavior or to help them solve problems. None of them remember, or none of them have the capacity to put their memories together, to make useful connections.

None of them, that is, except for Fa. It becomes clear that Fa is by far the brightest of the people, and although we see things through Lok’s uncomprehending eyes, a reader’s understanding of Fa’s abilities is quicker. It interests me both that Golding makes the most competent and well-equipped member of the people a female character, and also that the tragedy of The Inheritors is, in a certain way, specifically Fa’s tragedy. She comes very close, several times, to articulating ideas that would help her people immeasurably: for instance, when the old woman feeds Mal by repeatedly dipping a stick into some broth and holding it to his mouth, Fa “gets a picture” of seashells filled with water. What the old woman needs—what the people need—is some way of holding things, of containing them, so that they can be put aside and used at leisure, but they don’t have this concept. If the old woman could feed Mal from a bowl, that would be physically easier, and less time-consuming, than feeding him drops from a stick. But Fa never manages to articulate her pictures to the rest of her people. Even if she did, they might not understand her; Lok, although he’s in love with her, almost never does, preferring instead to play pranks and “babble” (Golding’s word). Interestingly, while the old woman is alive, she actively discourages Fa’s pictures by advocating a sort of gender essentialism: “A man for pictures,” she insists; “a woman for Oa.” Fa is for both Oa and pictures, a fact which utterly diminishes Lok’s sense of himself. “Diminishes” is actually, again, the word Golding uses (it’s worth paying attention to the precise wording of this book).

The catalyst of the book’s events is the coming of the new people (again, never capitalized). Ha, the only other adult male of the people, goes missing. There are movements and strange smoke rising from an island below the cave in the cliff where the people are staying. In short order, the old woman and Nil turn up dead; Liku and the new one, the children of the tribe, are taken prisoner by the new people. Fa and Lok spend most of the book trying to rescue them, while also trying to determine who, exactly, these new people are. We know them; they’re us, a prehistoric us, homo sapiens about to be victorious. From the Neanderthal point of view, however, the new people are monstrous and terrifying and addictive: not quite gods, for the new people worship their own gods, but something very like them.

Golding said that he was interested in the concept of the Fall as he wrote this book: he is not religiously dogmatic, but the loss of innocence is very keenly felt. The image of the waterfall, the landmark around which much of the action takes place, is the most blatant of the symbols he introduces, but the really brilliant symbolic linkage takes place when Fa and Lok discover the fermented honey drink of the new people. They become roaringly drunk (none of which is comprehensible to them; Lok keeps thinking that the trees are moving, whereas we know that his vision is blurring) and awake hungover. Not long afterwards,

Lok discovered “Like.” He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it. Fungi on a tree were ears, the word was the same but acquired a distinction by circumstances that could never apply to the sensitive things on the side of his head. Now, in a convulsion of the understanding, Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption.

If the biblical Fall is the knowledge of good and evil, Golding sees it as simile, the Fall as language. (It’s a somewhat Miltonic notion.) Saying that the new people are like something else allows Lok to understand them better, to integrate them into his world instead of having to face them with childlike bewilderment, but the flipside of that understanding is the knowledge of evil. There can be no going back after the sudden recognition of cruelty, or murder, or vice.

The extraordinary thing that the novel does at the end, however, is to switch its point of view suddenly and without warning. Up until now, we’ve been mostly inside Lok’s head; but when he loses Fa, everything changes. It is no coincidence that she is lost by going over the falls. The next thing we know,

The red creature stood on the edge of the terrace and did nothing. The hollow log was a dark spot on the water towards the place where the sun had gone down. The air in the gap was clear and blue and calm…The red creature turned to the right and trotted slowly towards the far end of the terrace.

But he doesn’t stop there. The final chapter is told entirely through the eyes of Tuami, one of the new people, who is paddling his little group away from the “country of the devils”. They’re on the run themselves, from the rest of their tribe, and the future is, at best, uncertain; Tuami is calculating the wind, the currents, the strip of darkness at the edge of the lake, and how long he can go before he stabs the shaman Marlan and assumes the leadership for himself. The last we see of “the red creature”, it is curled, lifeless, in the cave where Mal was buried, struck by grief, identity lost with the loss of its people, come undone, nothing left to live for. To read this and to know that you are reading from the winning side, genetically speaking, creates an extraordinary dissonance; you feel horror and sorrow for the fate of Lok and his people, you feel revulsion for the violence of the new people, but you also see in them the capacity to be interesting and to create interesting new things, to have ideas. If the tragedy of The Inheritors is in Fa’s missed opportunities, its irony is in its title: it wasn’t the meek who inherited the earth—at least not yet—but the bold.

2 thoughts on “The Inheritors, by William Golding

  1. I want to read this now. Love the idea of a book inspired by the Bible that hinges on evolution and survival of the fittest!

    I gather that they have now found more Neanderthal genes, but no definitive figure – one study suggested 20% but unproven apparently (we do share >99% of base pairs with Neanderthals and around 94% with chimps, as distinct from the actual genes though, so in a way we have more in common than that 4% of the genome proper suggests).

    1. Annabel, you’d really like it, I think! It is indeed very clever, and that sort of melding of religious inspiration with a more practical secular view is pretty powerful.

      What’s the difference between sharing base pairs and sharing genes? I did do AP Biology back in high school but it’s been a while…

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