An ancient imagination: Ben Okri on The Inheritors by William Golding

Golding’s intuition of Neanderthals’ spirituality is felt, not the result of research

William Golding was fascinated by primal things. He searches beneath the veneer, to what lies below, and exposes it, that it may be subjected to mature scrutiny. He wanted to be a scientist before he became a writer.

His fascination for primal things might have to do with the hold that archaeology had on his childhood imagination. In an essay called Digging for Pictures, he reveals that he encounters the past best through the imagination. When he holds an object from an archaeological dig, he can almost hear voices. It is in this essay, written before he published The Inheritors in 1955, that the remote impulse of the novel first emerges. It is the novel in which he discovered an uncanny gift for entering the ancient imagination through the magic of true details.

Its first draft was written in 29 days in a white heat of imaginative urgency. Like Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, written in 52 days, The Inheritors sprang out with the force of nature, as if its birth were preordained. Golding spent four months rewriting it.

His more famous first novel, Lord of the Flies, had just been published.

The primal imagination asks fundamental questions about humanity. It tends towards existential fables that emerge from trauma in an oblique way. Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s The Trial, Camus’s La Peste and Lord of the Flies are fables backlit with death’s incandescent glare.

It seems that in his early novels Golding needed something to react against. He always went beyond reaction into genuine imaginative discovery. With Lord of the Flies it was Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, with The Inheritors it was HG Wells’s The Grisly Folk and The Outline of History. Creative works occasionally have other works as their starting point. Writers often discover themselves in their creative disagreements with others.

Sometimes a work of art comes out of a great question. But the question takes the form of a literary thought experiment. The questions here are folded into the universe of the novel, dissolved in its cadences. To know who we are, it is important to ask where we have come from. But to understand how we got here, it is important to understand the thinking that has led us here, the deep roots of our nature.

A profound crisis provokes a deep examination. The urge to reach that far back in history is itself a sign of how deep the crisis was that provoked it. The Inheritors, like Lord of the Flies, is the product of a great cultural trauma. Unusual fictions come from unusual circumstances. Significant novels, like significant dreams, come from events that have shattered the psyche’s tranquillity. The Inheritors is perhaps an unconscious response to Bergen-Belsen, to Buchenwald, to Auschwitz, but it is also perhaps an unconscious response to a changing imperial world, to dislocations and earth shocks in our understanding of ourselves.

The novel itself is like a strange dream. To read it is to feel as if a dimension of consciousness were missing. Something has happened to language. It has simplified but become elliptical. It squeezes you into a different state of being. For long stretches you are learning to see the world from that rudimentary, but poeticised, consciousness.

One of the great achievements of the novel is the language in which it is rendered. There is a special quality to the writing. Golding not only invents a world but invests it with a high degree of linguistic intensity. The language owes something to the liberating achievement of Joyce, Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness. But its achievement is wholly Golding’s own.

‘Lok was running as fast as he could . . .’ begins the novel.

The magic of voice happens quietly, giving the underlying worldview, making it possible to enter that universe.

‘Lok’s feet were clever. They saw.’ When feet can see you are in a different mode of being. For us this requires a mental adjustment and a sensual enlargement. That is the quality of immersion that the novel compels. Strange things happen to your sense of reality as you read.

The novel is the seeing of a new world, a transitional moment in the life of the earth. The story is simple but rendered with complexity. In a style that appears to veil events, we encounter a band of Neanderthals, ‘the people’, the last of their race. The turning point of the narration is when Liku and a baby are stolen by ‘the new people’, the Homo sapiens. The attempt to get the child back brings the last remaining members of the race into an awareness of a new superior species, whose presence and rites fill them with wonder and dread. It is a tragic tale about the death of an older species. But it is also an incipient tale about those who survive them, those who inherit the earth. The nature of this inheritance is dual. The Neanderthal baby that is stolen survives in Homo sapiens genes. A hemi-stich from the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo hints at the double inheritance:

We carry in our worlds that flourish Our worlds that have failed.

Is the novel a warning, an injunction or a reminder of what we have forgotten? The most fascinating trait that Golding gives ‘the people’ is telepathy, the ability to convey thoughts and pictures without words. Their sense of smell is so keen that it amounts to an elevated form of reading: ‘He performed miracles of perception in the cavern of his nose.’ Their seeing is keen too. The strange clarity of the description, the crisp outline of that world, comes from the unjudgemental purity of their sight. They live an instinctual life, grouped around rituals, sustained by a mythology of fire, ice and the goddess of the earth. They are not makers. They are. This might be one of their limitations. They do not kill for food but eat what nature provides them. They are not devourers of the environment. Nature speaks to them. In the rare moments when they rest as a group, at night, before the fire, the old man tells them the stories of a paradisiacal time in the past when fruit was plentiful on the trees and when it was always warm. This may be a distant, Arcadian memory of Africa, remembered now as myth.

All this is conveyed in a tough, supple, almost revelatory prose – bright in its hard edges – that makes objects shine. It is responsive to weather and light and landscape and the way darkness frames, receptive to mists and half-seen things. There are brief but extraordinary strokes of innovation. Like the moment when Lok is half-asleep in the cave. He hears an unechoed sound:

‘Lok’s ear spoke to Lok. “?”

But Lok was asleep.’

That question mark, standing for a question that the mind asks without words and cannot answer, is a stroke of genius. Joyce would have envied the brevity of the sign. Moments like this, sparingly done, lift this novel to a rare level of articulation.

The Inheritors will perhaps always be seen as a fiction about the fateful encounter between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The perception of Neanderthals has changed since Golding’s time. The current archaeological position is that, contrary to what has been thought, Neanderthals did create art. The cave art of Spain and France has been credited to them. They are now considered almost ‘human’. Four per cent of Homo sapiens genes are Neanderthal. William Golding’s attitude to the archaeological dimension of his novel is ambivalent. In a letter he wrote to his publisher when the book was accepted, he said he had done little research into the subject. But in an interview he gave to an American journalist in 1970, he said he had read everything there was to be found on the subject. Which is it? And does it matter?

Our knowledge about our Neanderthal ancestors will never be definitive. It is wrong to measure a novel against the changing finds of archaeology. It is not the rightness or the wrongness of the science that counts, it is the truth of the world created, the imaginative feat itself. To fashion a story around this encounter so that it radiates forward to our times is the true achievement of this work. There are mythic structures in this novel, archetypes worked into the fabric of its narration. It posits an alternative history that tells us something about ourselves. The author is on the side of the Neanderthals. They are the underdog, the gentle people, destroyed by Homo sapiens. In this vision it is not the meek who inherit the earth. It is ‘the new people’, with their violence, their religion of fear, their cannibalism, their power struggles, their patriarchy. When Fa, watching them from a tree, says, ‘Oa did not bring them out of her belly’ – Oa being the name of their goddess – she suggests that they are unnatural. The new people are us. They are what we inherited. They are what we have come from. They partially explain the recurrence of violence and nastiness in the human story, the projection of evil onto others, the racism, the demonisation, the wars, the concentration camps, colonialism, genocide. It is a way of saying that our distant past is still with us, that beneath the veneer of civilisation lurks unevolved atavism.

Golding writes the past as present. It is the uncanny skill, the tremendous intuition of the writing, that gives the past this urgent sense of the present. There are two lines in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets that say:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate

We have taken from the defeated . . .

The Inheritors is the most perfectly written of Golding’s novels. It is the kind of novel in which the real reading starts with the second reading. Then the work becomes clearer with every sentence and yet not so clear. In the second half, much has to be pieced together in the highly suggestive writing. Readers have to discover for themselves what is meticulously described. This makes us inhabit the restricted comprehension of ‘the people’, sometimes understanding and sometimes not.

This isn’t a novel of easy equivalents. ‘The people’ are ill-equipped for survival, not having the complexity of thought required to manipulate the material world. They are doomed by their lack of innovation, their inability to create. ‘The new people’ are creative, they are makers and have will and guile.

One of the most moving moments in the novel is when Lok discovers simile, not to curse with but to describe what ‘the new people’ are like: ‘They are like a forest fire.’ In the same passage, Lok, finding Fa, says, ‘It is bad to be alone.’ This is no ordinary aloneness. It is the aloneness of the last of a species.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel is the way that Golding intuits the spirituality of Neanderthals at a time when the received wisdom about them was that they were unredeemed savages. This is not the kind of thing research yields. It is felt.

If one thing that myth does is reimagine persuasively, then Golding has fashioned an ambiguous myth of origins, of the fall, of original sin and of tenuous redemption.

It is rare for a writer to find material that enables them to do two diverging things at the same time, to work with the imagination while working with the primal stuff of our origins. It is the fitness of the subject for the intuitions of the writer, coming together in a single work, that makes this book remarkable in the literature of the twentieth century.

I once peered into the sea in Greece. After I had been staring a while I saw splendidly coloured fishes, where I had previously seen just clear water. The more you look, the more you find.

This is the foreword to a new Faber & Faber edition of The Inheritors. Ben Okri is a poet, novelist and playwright. His novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize in 1991. His latest book is Every Leaf a Hallelujah, published by Head of Zeus

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