Barbara Mertz

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

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.

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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 convenient fictional device. Auel's Neanderthals have a limited spoken vocabulary, amplified by a complex system of gestures. (Her heroine, a Cro-Magnon orphan adopted by a tribe of kindly Neanderthals, has the dickens of a time unlearning her Homo sapiens loquacity in favor of sign language.)…

[This approach is] based on what may well be the most questionable scientific theory in either book—a recent study by Philip Liebermann which attempts to prove that the vocal apparatus of Neanderthal man was incapable of producing the full range of modern sound…. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in his excellent introduction to the Kurtén book, Leibermann's theory is highly suspect but has not been proven wrong, and therefore it may legitimately serve as a model for a writer of fiction. The significant point is how the two authors use the model…. Auel's Neanderthals grunt. They are a good deal more apelike, physically and mentally, than Kurtén's; and Auel's Cro-Magnon heroine is a typical Aryan—blond, blue-eyed, tall and beautiful. (p. 6)

Bear is a prehistoric soap opera—"cave opera" would be an appropriate term. Put the heroine in a bustle instead of a bearskin, and she could walk right into one of the "historical romances" crowding the bookshelves in drugstore and supermarket. Except for a few other stock characters—the motherly wise woman, the surly villain—the rest of the cast is outstandingly undistinguished. The fact that they all have names like Oga and Aga and Uba makes it even harder to tell them apart. As cave operas go it is a good one—slickly written, carefully researched, very sincere. But that is all it is. (pp. 6, 10)

Barbara Mertz, "The Novel Neanderthal," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 28, 1980, pp. 6, 10.∗

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