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Book review: “The Inheritors” by William Golding

Mal, the leader of the group of six adults, one child and one infant, is dying, and the old woman is doing what she can to keep him alive.

“Be well and strong, old man.  Fa has taken an offering to Oa for you.”   Oa is the goddess source of life and all things.  “Sit up now and eat.”

Lok, a young man, often playful and happy-go-lucky, is agitated now and needs to speak: “Ha is gone.  There are other people in the world.”

This is the cataclysmic event that will change the lives of all the people in the group.

Ha is the mature man who, unlike Lok, has experience and competence.  After Mal and the old woman, Ha is the leader of the group.  There are two other women: Nil and Fa who is younger.  The child is a girl named Liku. The infant is simply called the new one.

But, now, Mal is dying, and Lok can’t find Ha.  And he has discovered these other people.

“Awed, happy, witless”

William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors — a tour de force of imagination and a chilling account of evolutionary collision — is about two groups of people. 

One group is the handful under Mal’s leadership.  They are generally vegetarians who, on occasion, will eat meat if already dead and if the taboo blood has been drained away.  They move from winter to summer quarters and back again, following a path arduously remembered by Mal.  They are afraid of water.

Their minds deal in pictures.  They can talk to each other in simple language and seem to be able to communicate telepathically.  Their emotions are close to the surface.  They aren’t used to concentrated thought.  They don’t plan, and they have difficulty solving problems.

When the log that is the bridge over the creek to their warm-weather cave is missing, Mal is nonplussed.  He eventually figures out that he can have the people drag another log to take its place.

Lok is dazzled by the secret knowledge that Mal and the old woman have.  Realizing this, “he felt awed and happy and witless again.”

“A deer’s rump”

When Ha fails to return to the cave, Lok searches for him, using his highly developed sense of smell.  He tracks Ha’s scent to the cliffs, and, then, suddenly, “There is no Ha.  The Ha scent has ended.”

This is inconceivable.  But there’s more: “There is the scent of another….There is the scent of others.”

This scent, though, is strange: “I cannot see this picture.”

Lok is flabbergasted by this, not just the strangeness of the scent but also the presence of another person.  It would appear from what Lok says that Mal’s group may believe they are the last of their kind.  “How could Ha meet another?  There is no other in the world —” 

Lok goes searching for these others. 

Then the smell of the other came to him from the damp earth and he followed it away from the river toward the slope up the mountain. …. He was beginning to know the other without understanding how it was that he knew.

Finally, he gets glimpses of these other people, people he thinks of as “bone-faced” because of the whiteness of their heads.  In the daylight, “the face looked like the white patch on a deer’s rump.”

“Bird-noises”

Eventually, from a hiding spot, Lok watches them ride in a hollowed-out log, and he can see how strange these new people actually are, particularly the stuff around their eyes:

A piece of white bone was placed under them, fitting close, and where the broad nostrils should have shown were narrow slits and between them the bone was drawn out to a point.

Under that was a slit over the mouth, and their voices came fluttering through it….The eyes of the face that peered through all this bone were dark and busy.

The eyebrows make these people appear “menacing and wasp-like.” Their arms and legs are thin, like sticks, like twigs with joints.

And Lok can see, when their log comes nearer, that their color isn’t bone white and shining, but duller, “more the color of the big fungi, the ears that the people ate, and something like them in texture.” 

Perhaps as startling, when these new people talked, they made “bird-noises of conversation and a number of other unexplained sounds, bumps and creakings.”

First contact

This is a story that could be from the galactic sagas of science fiction — two alien races making first contact. 

A reader who knew nothing about the history of humanity, nonetheless, would find pleasure in the way Golding describes his novel’s action from the point of view of Lok and his group.  The reader experiences the world through the thoughts and actions of these people and understands Lok’s mystification at all the unprecedented things that start to happen.

Mal’s group has a way of living, but these new people not only have a different appearance but seem to act differently.

For Lok, they are strange, exotic man-like creatures who both draw and repel him.  He would give them a wide berth if not for a series of events, including the disappearance of Ha and their capture of Liku.

Different science fiction

Most readers, however, will recognize that this is a different type of science fiction tale. Not one set in space, but one set on Earth in the distant past, an envisioning of an evolutionary collision.

Mal’s group are Neanderthals, the end product of one branch of the humanity tree, and the new people are ones who came to call themselves homo sapiens, a branch of people with a much more varied and efficient and ruthless skill-set.

Golding burst into prominence with his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, about a group of boys stranded alone on an island.  A few weeks after that novel’s publication, he began The Inheritors which came out in 1955.

The Inheritors plunges the reader into the world and mind of Mal’s group, particularly Lok.  Golding provides an intensity of experience that enables the reader to feel what Lok and the others are going through, and results in an identification with these Neanderthals.

The new people, the homo sapiens, are viewed uncertainly by Lok and the others, little understood.  They are simply so strange.  The worst of their actions take place off stage.  Lok doesn’t see these actions and doesn’t have the capacity to imagine them.

Yet, it’s clear that Mal’s group are innocents and that these new people are invaders.

Lok’s inability to understand

Halfway through the second to last chapter, the point of view switches from what Lok is experiencing to what an omniscient narrator is relating. 

In the last chapter, the point of view is from the mind of one of the new people.

The story of The Inheritors is a brutal one, and it’s made even more brutal by the inability of Lok, for nearly the entire time, to understand what is going on.

Patrick T. Reardon

6.7.22

2 Comments

  • Jane Swan Posted June 8, 2022 6:53 am

    My comments were refused on the grounds that it couldn’t be proved I was human so I’m submitting this as Neanderthal

    • Patrick T Reardon Posted June 8, 2022 5:02 pm

      Glad you replied in English as I’m not fluent in Neanderthal-ese. Pat

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