Like most of William Golding’s novels, The Inheritors uses the “alien” in order to talk about the present. A tiny band of people return to their summer cave beside a river, near a large waterfall. The people are based in part on the Neanderthals but are described as physically much more primitive; to themselves, they are simply the people. The first and longest part of the novel is told through the eyes of one of them, the male Lok, and presents the value system of the people.
The cave is a place where they are safe from animals, but its location aggravates their desperate fear of water. Once, they remember, they were many more in number, but their numbers have shrunk to eight. They are both human and animal, capable of speech and ideas like humans but also of knowing the world as an animal does, for example through a keen sense of smell. The eldest, the old man Mal, is their source of knowledge. He falls ill. Ha, the more intelligent of the two remaining males, comes across a being that he scents as related to himself. When he approaches it, it kills him. This “other” is not named but is obviously a member of Homo sapiens.
Mal dies, and Lok, who is not very intelligent, is the only male left. Lok learns that the others are on an island in the river. When Lok and his mate, Fa, are away, the others kill the unnamed old woman, along with the other adult female, Nil, and then kidnap the two children, a young girl named Liku and Nils baby. Lok and Fa try but fail to rescue the children. Hiding in a tree, they observe these others, almost hairless and white skinned, paddle their dugouts to the mainland. There, the others quarrel among themselves, get drunk, fight, and make violent love. They act, in short, as human beings. They also, apparently, sacrifice Liku to their god as a defense against the “devils of the forest,” that is, the people. Fa and Lok try again to rescue the baby, but in the melee Fa is wounded and then swept over the falls to her death.
The point of view shifts to that of a dispassionate observer. Readers see Lok from the outside, as a human would see him. He is a smallish, red-haired animal wandering as though hunting for something. At last he returns to the cave, curls up in a fetal position, and, in actuality or in preparation, dies.
The point of view changes to the mind of one of the others, a modern man, as these others sail and paddle away. They are human, but they fear irrationally, hate, desire, and resent. They feel no true love.
River crossing. The first appearance of a family of Neanderthals occurs during their spring migration when they reach a river crossing and discover that an old fallen tree that long provided a bridge across the river is now gone. Their belief that the tree has somehow decided to go away, provides the first glimpse of the Neanderthal world view. Their ability to move another fallen tree into position to fashion a bridge shows their limited ability to manipulate nature and to learn. At the same time, the fact that old Mal falls into the river and catches a chill that later kills him also demonstrates the dangers of the world in which the Neanderthals live. Later, the moment when Lok returns to the crossing and finds the new bridge is gone provides one of the first inklings of the malign influence of the new race of humans.
Cave. Rudimentary shelter provided by an overhang on a cliff that is a summer home for the Neanderthals. Their sense of coming home when they arrive at the cave is palpable, and each member of the family group has a regular place within the cave. It is here that Mal dies, despite being cared for by the whole group, and he is buried by the fire. This scene demonstrates not only the gentleness of the Neanderthals, but also their sense of ritual and belonging, which they themselves cannot fully articulate.
The moment the newcomers raid the Neanderthal cave, killing two members of the family, not only marks the intrusion of violence into the...
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