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Last Updated on November 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

The Inheritors by William Golding follows a small band of Neanderthals—known as “the people”—as they attempt to travel to a forest to spend the summer there. The people have clearly spent past summers there, so they know where to find shelter and collect food. The group lives day-to-day, scavenging for...

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The Inheritors by William Golding follows a small band of Neanderthals—known as “the people”—as they attempt to travel to a forest to spend the summer there. The people have clearly spent past summers there, so they know where to find shelter and collect food. The group lives day-to-day, scavenging for food but not actively hunting animals, as they view animals as being on an equal plane with humans. Instead, they seek meat from animals that have already been slaughtered, if they eat meat at all.

The band is made up of eight people, including Lok—an adult man and the narrator of the novel—and an unnamed older woman, who may be Lok’s mother. The older woman is entrusted with carrying a sacred flame from place to place for the people. Although the people are not capable of producing fire, they understand its importance and significance, and so entrust its care to an elder. Ha, another adult man, is also among the band’s members, along with Mal, an elder and the repository of the clan’s knowledge and lore. Fa and Nil are two adult woman characters in the story, and children in the band include a young girl named Liku and Nil’s infant child.

The people, who are incapable of fashioning or utilizing tools, are unable to reason in a sophisticated manner, though they are able to communicate with each other on a basic level. They have also devised ways to learn and use pictures to exchange information without language. In addition to these rudimentary skills, they seem to have a semblance of social structure, including a basic understanding of a higher power.

As the people arrive in the forest and prepare to ford a stream to reach their destination, they discover that the log that spans the water, which they normally use to cross the river, is missing. The clan members are unable to understand what has happened or how the problem might be remedied. Mal finally determines that they must find a replacement log and use that instead. Once they have positioned the log and are crossing, Mal falls into the river. He is rescued, but because he is elderly and the water is very cold, he soon becomes ill. Mal is transported to a secluded cave where he can be cared for as his health declines. When Mal passes away, one of the women offers a simple prayer to an entity referred to as Oa, who is an earth goddess, perhaps related to fertility. The other members of the clan take part in a burial ritual for Mal.

The central conflict of the tale involves the arrival of the “new people,” Homo sapiens, whose appearance spells doom for the Neanderthals. Because these new people have the ability to plan ahead and think abstractly, they are much better equipped to survive. For instance, the new people understand that it is crucial to gather and store food when the opportunity presents itself; the Neanderthals simply do not possess the intellectual ability to think beyond their present needs. Instead, they focus only on daily needs, making them susceptible to severe hunger when food is scarce.

The Neanderthals find the Homo sapiens’ language, scent, method of travel, and weaponry mind-boggling. In fact, the mere fact that the new people exist at all is staggering, as the Neanderthals believed they were the only non-animal beings alive. In addition to the new people’s more advanced reasoning skills, they also have access to technology with which the Neanderthals simply cannot compete. The Neanderthals are warily intrigued by the Homo sapiens and gamely try to keep pace with them, but are simply unable to do so without the sophisticated brains that the new beings possess. Since the Neanderthals have no real concept of war or strife, they also do not immediately comprehend how vulnerable they are.

The Homo sapiens, for their part, are intrigued, though they recognize the Neanderthals as weaker and easily dominated. When Liku meets a young Homo sapiens girl named Tanakil, they take an instant liking to each other. Tanakil is friendly toward Liku, and Liku reciprocates, but when Tanakil tries to lure Liku near the water to show her the canoes, Liku’s fear of water holds her back. Tanakil doesn’t understand Liku’s reluctance and becomes frustrated with her, beating Liku until she howls in fear. This is only one instance in which the Homo sapiens attempt to dominate the Neanderthals.

Because the Neanderthals are so naive and unprotected, the situation devolves; before long, the Homo sapiens murder the Neanderthal elders and kidnap the children. Some of the old people, like Ha, simply vanish, only to be found dead later. Only two Neanderthals, Lok and Fa, survive, and they attempt to free the Neanderthal children from the thieves. Fa is killed, and Lok understands that he is completely alone and that his predicament is hopeless. The grief-stricken Lok dies near the end of the story, devastated by incomprehensible loss.

Once all of the Neanderthals (save one infant) die, the novel shifts to the perspective of the Homo sapiens—in particular, a man called Tuami. Tuami is a member of a large clan, but he is planning to murder Marlan, the chief and shaman of his group, in order to assert his power and take control. The new people—for better or for worse—have become the true inheritors of the land.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

Each spring, Mal leads his small tribe, the last of their kind, from their winter quarters by the sea to a terrace and overhang above a waterfall, which is their summer home. The way to their summer homeland leads over a river that divides around a rocky island. The people fear water and never consider going to the island. When they discover that the log by which they always cross the river disappeared, they are confused until Mal imagines, in the form of a picture, a past time when wise members of the group took the original log and used it to bridge the water. These pictures of the imagination are an embryonic thought process: They serve as memories and ideas. The pictures are rarely consecutive and fade as soon as the need for them passes because they are an instinctual and not a rational function. The people can share their pictures without words or express them in simple sentences.

The people retain the strong senses of animals, but they also develop their own human rituals concerned with food, fire, and burial. The old woman always carries the fire from the winter to the summer home. When women arrive and the smell of smoke comes to Lok from the island, he is bemused and, tricked by his senses into following the familiar scent, he almost falls into the river. The rest of the people do not catch the faint scent, so Lok cannot communicate his picture. This second indication that something is changed is forgotten in the people’s eager journey to the security of the overhang. Lok almost recaptures his experience while guarding the people that night, but the picture fades before he can fully recapture it.

The people’s failure to retain ideas not relevant to day-to-day life makes their survival impossible when faced with the challenge of the others. Their lack of the knowledge of evil also makes them powerless to combat it. This is one of the main themes of the novel. When Ha disappears, although the people can tell by the scent that he encountered another, their emotions are grief at the loss rather than abiding fear. What happens next reveals Golding’s grim assertion that the meek do not inherit the earth.

After Mal’s death and Ha’s disappearance, Lok is the only surviving adult male; it is his task to seek out the others. These others are true Homo sapiens, with the power of reason. Their senses are weaker and their artifacts far more sophisticated than the people’s. They use animal skins for covering, and they have bows and arrows, canoes, and crude alcohol. They also know sexual jealousy. They are near famine because they cannot eat the bulbs, slugs, and fungi that sustain the people (who never kill for food) and because hunting is poor.

When the others capture Liku and the New One on the people’s side of the river, Lok hears Liku’s screams and tries to reach her. He thus exposes himself to the others’ arrows. These weapons merely interest him, although he senses danger when he smells the poison on the barbed heads. Lok’s apprehensions of danger are lulled at various times by the others’ obvious hunger and by his sympathy for them.

Finally, only Lok and Fa remain; the old woman is drowned and Nil is slain. Lok rejects Fa’s suggestion that they escape and survive. Lok insists on trying to rescue Liku and the New One. The others move their camp from the island to the people’s side of the river to hunt for deer. The new camp is made by a hollow tree, where Lok and Fa hide from the others. From this tree, the two Neanderthals witness an incomprehensible day of ritual and night of debauchery that includes, while Lok sleeps, the killing of Liku. The only communication between the people and the others was Liku’s growing friendship with Tanakil, a girl of her own age. They were able to exchange names, and Liku fed Tanakil fungus when Tanakil was hungry. This deed, together with the others’ need for a sacrifice to make their hunting successful, causes them to kill her.

In an attempt to snatch the New One from the camp, Lok becomes separated from Fa and, believing that she is dead, he mourns for her. Although he believes that he is the last of his people, his hope is still sustained by the presence of the others, and at that moment he reaches his furthest point of comprehension, which he does not have the power to retain. Fa finds Lok again, but during a last effort to recover the New One before the others can take him upstream with them, she is stunned and swept away in the falls. After the final disappearance of Fa and the departure of the others, Lok is alone; his humanity leaves him.

Solitary, Lok reverts to an anthropoid state. In a coda passage before the reversal of viewpoint in the last chapter, the first complete physical description of one of the people partly explains the others’ destructive terror. The only human aspect remaining to Lok is the tears on his face as he lies down to die on Mal’s grave.

In the final chapter, in a reversal of point of view, the others are named. Tuami is the younger leader. The old man is Marlan; the most important woman, who suckles the New One, is Vivani. As Tuami steers the boat toward the open plains, away from “the devils,” he and all the others are overcome by grief and bitterness. Tuami cries out to ask what else they could have done. The people are quite human and understandable; their murderous actions against the Neanderthals are dictated by the twin evils of fear and ignorance. Some grace, however, goes out of their lives forever; their slow-moving boat is a point of darkness between the light of the sky and the water as they flee what they perceive to be devil-infected mountains.

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