Jean M(arie) Auel Essay - Critical Essays

Auel, Jean M(arie)


Jean M(arie) Auel 1936–

American novelist and poet.

Auel's first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), and its sequel, The Valley of Horses (1982), are considered interesting and original attempts to depict early human history. These stories take place in the Middle Paleolithic age when the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon species coexisted. The basic conflict in the first of these novels is between a Neanderthal tribe and the Cro-Magnon girl whom the tribe adopts. The girl, Ayla, performs feats which earn her the respect of all but one member of the tribe, who forces her into exile. The second novel continues her story. While The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses have been faulted for their stereotypical characterizations of the blond, blue-eyed Ayla and her tall, handsome mate, Jondalar, they are also noted for Auel's well-researched and detailed descriptions of survival techniques. The books have been described as "cave operas," since they have some of the characteristics of popular romances and soap operas and have been well received by the public. Auel is planning several more novels with prehistoric settings which will form a series called Earth's Children.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)

John Pfeiffer

["The Clan of the Cave Bear"] tells the tale of a band of prehistoric hunter-gatherers living on the Crimean peninsula near the shores of the Black Sea…. These people, at large some 35,000 years ago, are representatives of a dying breed, among the last of the Neanderthal line.

The band faces new tensions, new troubles, which will ultimately prove its undoing. It has just taken in one of the "Others," a 5-year-old girl foundling named Ayla whose parents have been killed in a recent earthquake…. She is a member of the Cro-Magnon species destined to replace all Neanderthals everywhere. (p. 7)

The Neanderthal people are doomed by the structure of their brains. Intelligent and sensitive, they have prodigious memories, care for their weak and handicapped and bury their dead with grave talismans for use in an afterlife. At the height of secret totemic ceremonies, they can probe deep into the racial past, communicating with one another telepathically. But having only rudimentary frontal lobes, the brain centers responsible for foresight and analysis, they are incapable of adapting to major changes. They have reached an evolutionary dead end, living very much as their ancestors lived 100,000 years ago. Everything they do has been done already. They cannot innovate, and that is where the growing girl of the Others shines.

The people are amazed, one spring day near the inland sea, to see Ayla plunging into a swift...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Barbara Mertz

So few solid facts are known about [the Middle Paleolithic] period that one can hardly criticize an author for filling in the canyon-sized gaps with speculation, particularly when the authorities themselves disagree. Can one, then, reasonably call [Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear and Bjorn Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger] historical (or prehistorical) novels, and demand that they conform to the rules governing that genre? I believe one can and must, if only because both authors have followed the rules to the best of their respective abilities. Known fact is not violated; conjecture is based on reasonable inferences.

The biggest problem facing a historical novelist is how to create the sense of an alien culture without losing the basic humanity of the characters. Most writers go too far in one direction or the other, producing modern men and women in funny clothes, or wax figures who gesticulate and move but never live.

One key element is the handling of language. I myself have a sneaking affection for what Josephine Tey contemptuously referred to as "writing forsoothly." An occasional "forsooth" or "by our Lady" reminds me that I am not listening to contemporaries talking. Auel and Kurtén have taken the only sensible approach, since we have no Neanderthal equivalent of forsooth, or of any other word. Their characters speak colloquial English. However, we are made to realize that this is only a...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Thomas Hopkins

[Despite] an arid narrative style that would have crushed a less audacious story, Auel has fashioned [The Clan of the Cave Bear] … with nuggets of archeology and anthropology. (p. 64)

Auel has created a remarkable, speculative portrait of a preconscious world, different from science fiction because of the constant echoes of human experience found there. The documentary effect is achieved by sprinkled passages of Dick-and-Jane anthropology on topics such as herbs, fire transporting or toolmaking. As a narrative technique it's not new: Arthur Hailey has made fortunes serving up thinly novelized instruction manuals to airports or car factories. Auel's pedagogy is more successful because it illuminates a plausible if melodramatic ancestral world oddly comforting in its richness and diversity. Moreover, it will likely reward its sponsors financially, partially because it adheres to the perennially seductive saga format of The Thorn Birds and Shōgun, or of Dickens for that matter.

But its success will ultimately be due to the affecting character of Ayla, whose life story will bind the Earth's Children series together. A sort of Cro-Magnon Katharine Hepburn, she stoically endures innumerable beatings, a rape and ritual banishment at the hands of oafish and inferior males before finally earning the honorific: The Woman Who Hunts. In Ayla, Auel has an engine both familiar and intriguingly alien enough to drive her next five books. (pp. 64-5)

Thomas Hopkins, "Perils of a Prehistoric Pauline," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 40, October 6, 1980, pp. 64-5.

Grover Sales

"The Valley of Horses," Jean M. Auel's sequel to her blockbuster novel "The Clan of the Cave Bear" set in ice age Ukraine, 30,000 BC, is a well-researched children's story fleshed out with steamy primordial sex, women's lib, soap opera plots and "Me, Tarzan—you, Jane" dialogue.

One must admire the painstaking anthropological research Auel has poured into her proposed trilogy. Even readers turned off by the gimmicky form this novel assumes may find fascination in the technique of human survival in the late Pleistocene Epoch….

[Ayla's] story is entwined with the wanderings of Jondalar, 6-foot-6 superstud making the long trek down the Danube to the Black Sea. Early on, the author telegraphs their cataclysmic coupling, and readers who have stuck it out this far are rewarded with epic copulations.

There may be the sound idea of a novel in all this, but Auel's odd notions of primitive speech are a continual nuisance….

[And] Auel's narrative style seems weirdly at variance with the era she's describing. When Ayla finds she can start fire with flint, "That was the serendipity." Again, when Ayla's cave becomes fetid with the stink of rotting corpses, "She wanted a breath of air untainted by malodorous emanations." This goes on for 500 pages; the pages are large and the type small.

Grover Sales, "Primordial Passions of Pleistocene Times: The Flesh Is Willing, But the Diction Is Weak," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 12, 1982, p. 3.

Susan Isaacs

Mrs. Auel is craftsman enough to weave her facts into the fabric of her book ["The Valley of Horses"], providing texture as well as information. When Ayla sutures a wound, her patient is no anonymous charity case whose injured leg is just a limb on which the author hangs her research. The wounded man is significant. His appearance marks the end of Ayla's horrible loneliness; he is the first human being she has seen in years.

His name is Jondalar, and he is one of the Others, the first Cro-Magnon Ayla can remember seeing. When he lies unconscious on the floor of her cave, her concern, curiosity and enchantment are both understandable and appropriate….

[Jondalar is] 6 feet 6, with charismatic blue eyes and enough sexual finesse to make Masters and Johnson shout hosannas. And that is the main problem with the novel. While the background seems authentic, the characters seem too good—and too modern—to be true….

Of course, this golden couple (their blondness is stressed almost ad nauseam) is no ordinary twosome; they are archetypes. Although Ayla and Jondalar have particular personalities and concerns, they also serve as models of what humanity was capable of 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. But because the author places too much weight on these characters' shoulders, their credibility is strained. They are superhuman and thus not believable. Jondalar is the ultimate civilized Cro-Magnon, a well-muscled, artistic, spear-throwing Cary Grant. And it is Ayla, and Ayla alone, who invents oral sex, horseback riding, a new technique for making fire and a better way of dragging the kill back to the cave.

But despite those qualifications, "The Valley of Horses" is great fun to read. Jean M. Auel has created ancestors who do us all credit. She has gone beyond the cliché of leopard-skin-covered, club-wielding grunters and presented a panorama of human culture in its infancy. Her characters enjoy celebrations, companionship, sex, travel and good cooking. They care for children and animals. They discuss art and religion. They are very much like us, although generally better behaved. And that's the best part of the book, to look back with Mrs. Auel and savor what we might have been.

Susan Isaacs, "Ayla Loves Jondalar," in The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1982, p. 14.