Prehistoric Islanders. Community Life, Nature and Religion in William Golding's 'The Inheritors'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of Contents


1. The People
1.1. Community Life and Image of Nature
1.2. Leadership
1.3. Religion
1.4. The Concept of Guilt

2. The New People
2.1. Community Life and Image of Nature
2.2. Leadership
2.3. Relogion
2.4. The Concept of Guilt

3. Concluding Remarks



William Gerald Golding was born at St Columb, Cornwall, on 19 September 1911. He died on 19 June 1993 in Truro, Cornwall. Golding became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1955 and was awarded the CBE in 1966. In 1980 he received the Booker Prize and in 1983 Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.1 His multiple interests were to a considerable degree present in his writing. His fascination for archaeology is reflected in The Inheritors[2 ] (1955) that Golding referred to as his own favorite among his novels. While digging as an amateur archaeologist, he discovered the remains of an old woman. He expressed his sensations when the skeleton was covered again with earth: “There is a sense in which I share the guilt buried beneath the runway, a sense in which my imagination has locked me to them. I share in what was at the least a callous act – in what at the worst may very well have been prehistoric murder.”3 Evolution and religion, two of the themes, which reappear throughout Golding’s writing, are addressed in The Inheritors.

The most fundamental contribution to the evolutionary insight that man developed from animal, ape-like ancestors in the dim and distant past made Charles Darwin.4 His theory placed man at the top of evolution. Evolution became a synonym for progress. This new era of thinking influenced writers and provoked a strong reaction. One important example is The Outline of History by H.G. Wells, a rational supporter of the Darwinian theory.5 Deliberately prefixed to The Inheritors is the epigraph from The Outline of History. So the reader enters the novel with this passage in mind.

… We know very little of the appearance of the Neanderthal man, but this … seems an extreme hairiness, an ugliness, or a repulsive strangeness in his appearance over and above his low forehead, his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature. … Says Sir Harry Johnston, in a survey of the rise of modern man in his Views and Reviews: ‘The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore. …’ (7)

It served as the initial stimulus for Golding’s work about the clash of two different species – the Neanderthal man and the Cro-Magnon man. The book turned up with high frequency on the lists of The World’s Ten Most Important Books or The Ten Most Important Books in My Life.[6 ] It also became an important work in Golding’s life.

In his Outline Wells followed the opinion of various biological scientists – including Darwin, Sir Harry Johnston, Sir Arthur Keith and Worthington Smith. He traced the development of man through the theoretical stages of ape, Homo neanderthalensis and finally Homo sapiens. These people – according to Wells’ opinion – seem to have buried their dead with respect and perhaps even ceremony. Several items of The Outline resemble those found in The Inheritors: a large horned animal of the kind Tuami draws on the ground, an antlered stag head made of ivory like the totem of the New People and a small round female figure with exaggerated proportions, reminding of pregnancy, resembles the Oa figure of Lok’s People. The climax of this presentation is the clash of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens.[7 ]

But The Outline of History was more than just a source of information about pre-history. Not only the setting of The Inheritors and the physical characteristics of the two species with some modifications derive from H. G. Wells’ contribution but The Outline is also the target of an ironic examination of the nineteenth-century belief in the linear direction of evolution. To Golding “it seemed too neat and too slick”.[8 ] When he re-red it as an adult he was confronted with Wells’ description of Neanderthal man as “gross brutal creatures who were possibly the basis of the mythological bad man … the ogre”[9 ]. This picture was “just absurd”[10 ] to Golding. The importance of Golding’s epigraph lies in the implicit explanation of self-satisfied prejudices and the representation of their bases as humiliating.[11 ] So, as V.V. Subbarao mentions, Wells’s disparaging picture of Neanderthal man “provides Golding with the base from which to attack the illusions held by modern man about himself encouraged by liberal thinkers like Wells”[12 ]. He opposed Wells’ belief in evolution as a similar ethical evolution in man. Recent evidence also suggests that Neanderthal man might have been a gentle being. Remains of flowers were discovered in a pre-historic Neanderthal grave in Iraq. Furthermore, skulls were placed in a cuplike position that might indicate a belief in life after death as well as a concern for the individual.

But The Inheritors has more than one literary influence. At least two more important sources can be mentioned. The plot of another work by H. G. Wells’ – the short story The Grisly Folk – was adapted by Golding to a considerable extent. Also the topic of the encounter between two species – the Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens - is similar. But whereas Wells portrayed the Neanderthals as ugly and evil monsters Golding exchanged the moral natures of the two species and furthermore presents the complex instinctual capabilities of the Neanderthals with great immediacy.[13 ] Furthermore, Bernard S. Oldsey and S. Weintraub refer to a novel of exactly the same title written in 1901 by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Heuffer (Ford). Secondly, the authors mention The Coral Island as a recurring source in Golding’s work. Ballantyne’s scenes of tribal combat with their bloody effects of cannibalism for example are powerful and memorable; as a consequence, their basic elements are reflected in Golding’s picture of opposing tribes in The Inheritors.[14 ]

Golding traced the way back to the past with his knowledge about anthropology and paleontology in mind combined with what he knew of the present. The point for Golding was also that the primitive man is to some extent still our contemporary, we see him in another way through such peoples as the Australoids and various tribes in Africa. Bernard S. Oldsey and S. Weintraub emphasize that “what Golding’s fiction assumes is that the psychic life of the primitive holds peculiar interest for us, since in it we find an early stage of our own”[15 ]. Virginia Tiger refers to early criticism that tended to see The Inheritors as quite exiting pre-history, as pseudo science fiction or as bad anthropology. But opposed to this criticism stands Golding’s comment in Jack Biles’ Talk that he had read everything there was to read on Neanderthal man at that time. Contradictions, which have now emerged, may be the results of new evidence.[16 ] Golding’s work cannot be seen as competing with historical or scientific facts but history and science serve as sources for The Inheritors and are complemented by the book’s literary dimension.

The fields of community life as well as the image of nature are the aspects, which I will interpret in my paper. With regard to community life what are the main components of leadership? Furthermore, I will answer the question how the two tribes – the People and the New Men – differ in the respect of early religion and the concept of guilt.

What makes an analysis more difficult is the fact that events are viewed from the limited perspective of the Neanderthal man whose mind is strongly restricted to senses and is far from rational thought. The reader perceives the world from the perspective of a creature incapable of abstraction and logic and that only possesses a pre-language. Due to their little capacities of understanding, reason and intelligence, they cannot verbalize themselves clearly.[17 ] As readers we are confronted with a world in which ideas and communication are based on images (pictures), language plays only a minor part within this system. When Lok speaks “there was little connection between the quick pictures and the words that came out”. (19) Golding solves the problem innovatively by giving Lok’s People a kind of thought-transference. Much of the communication between the People is non-verbal, nearly telepathic, and mostly in the form of pictures.[18 ] The pictures are visualizations, “snapshots not of an idea but of an entire event”. Words are indefinite, used sometimes at random to express excitement, joy or terror.[19 ] The reader watches from a dead tree through the eyes of Lok and Fa the activities of the New People’s tribe, their rituals, their realization of art and their actions in relation to their religion. We share this limitation as we use the People’s eyes that “gazed without thought” (40) or “looked without seeing” (140). As a consequence, the reader has to derive significance and connect details into meaningful concepts because of the People’s incapability to express themselves by speech. So we have to use our own reasoning powers in order to understand.[20 ] Nevertheless, this point of view adopted by Golding vividly illustrates the Neanderthals’ natural view of existence. Lok’s and Fa’s lack of understanding is transferred to the reader.

1. The People

1.1. Community Life and Image of Nature

The family life of Lok’s People is free from fighting and emotional quarrels. Each group member has its function that is precisely defined and limited. The community is determined by respect for the other members of the family.[21 ] The Neanderthals live in a world that is characterized by harmony between their goddess, the People and nature. Lok’s tribe feels as a component of nature, hierarchical thinking is equally unknown to them like property and right. Everything belongs to itself. They do not build any form of dwelling, which is exclusively owned by them. The People do not carry anything around as property. Only the fire travels with them from place to place and Liku’s little Oa. The people know that nature can destroy but on the other hand, it is the source of creation that nurtures all living beings. For this reason they worship the earth. The People do not have an idealized picture of nature, they know that nature can and does destroy. But it is creative and provides for them. Consequently, Lok’s tribe treats all components of nature with respect and awe. What they fear is the water because this element is so foreign to them but simultaneously, it is the water, or better: the ice, of the ice-women that serves as a sanctuary - a place where Oa seems closer than anywhere else, where she is most visibly manifested. This place is both a place of threat as well as a place of beauty and divinity.

The group has a strong sense of belonging to their world, of being an equal part. When they return to their summer camp, the People find everything they are used to know, they are so acquainted with: “The overhang had waited for them. […] Everything had waited for them: Oa had waited for them.” (31) Mal touches gently the rock when he settles himself against it “as Lok or Ha might touch Fa”. (32) The relations within the group can be described as a bond of mutual love.[22 ] The life of the People is characterized by a special code of ethics; their values are values of community, not individual ones. The community shares common emotions and has a deep reference for and awe of life. Virginia Tiger refers in this respect to “a matter of accumulated physical sensation”.[23 ] Lok’s tribe communicates by ‘sharing pictures’ and imagining images of events in the past. As J.S. Boyd calls it is a “gift of sharing ideas or images with one another”[24 ], a feature of their extraordinary closeness and unity. Their minds are open to each other, their consciousness is at times communal: they understand each other. When the People sit around the fire in the overhang, “one of the deep silences fell on them, that seemed much more natural than speech, a timeless silence in which there were at first many minds in the overhang; and then no mind at all”. (34) It suggests togetherness; “peopleness” as Lok’s tribe calls it, a state of harmony between the members. This communal bond is more than a characterization of their way of life but it is its essence. The strings that bind each of the People are the substance of life.[25 ] “If they broke, a man would die.” (78) It becomes absolutely clear that the individual being has no life outside the People. Later when Lok realizes that he is the only one who is left of the group he begins to cry – he is alone in a way that the reader can only begin to understand. This is the reason why he simply lies down to die. He even tries to climb into Mal’s grave to be near a loved family member but Lok is already too weak and fails. His identity has only a meaning within the collective tribal framework.[26 ]

1.2. Leadership

The group is directed both by the Old Man and by the Old Woman. The Old Woman and Mal are referred to as being wise: “Mal was wise” and the priestess “so close to Oa, knowing so incredibly much, [is] the doorkeeper to whom all secrets were open”. (61) Whereas the Old Woman is the spiritual leader, the Old Man governs the People in their everyday life with all its decisions. We can speak of a patriarchal leadership. What he says is obeyed without question: once something is spoken, it is. The others soon realize that Mal in his age weakness had decided to return to their summer camp in the mountains too early. Later he orders the little girl Liku, the mother Nil and her baby to participate in the hunt for food and firewood; this causes the others to worry and they do not understand. But when “it is spoken” it has to be done and the trust in Mal’s superior knowledge gains the upper hand. Never it comes to the community’s mind to question the Old Man’s decision. He is the governor as well as the guardian of tradition.

It is him who often tells the People the story of their genesis and the Eden-like state in the past[27 ]. They share the picture of the time “when it was summer all year round and the flowers and fruit hung on the same branch.” (28) The community shares this vision of a previous paradise, one of their racial memories, which is very different from the colder and more difficult present.

The Old Woman carries the fire, an essential protection and source of warmth – a task Lok holds her in awe for. She guards and uses fire with a sense of its importance and mystery. While she holds it she is set apart. She in a kind of a lamp made of clay transports the fire. Her understanding is based on lifelong experience that is superior to this of most of the other members. “He [Lok] remembered the old woman, so close to Oa, knowing so incredibly much, the doorkeeper to whom all secrets were open. He felt awed and happy and witless again.” (61) But what is most important is the fact that the Old Woman is the priestess of the People’s matriarchal religion, she is not so much mother or wife as Oa’s earthly representative.

Mal and the Old Woman have the basic knowledge of tradition and religion that they transfer with the help of ‘pictures’ to the other members of the community.

1.3. Religion

The People’s pictures give access to the Neanderthal’s past, tradition and religion. Lok’s only picture is about “finding the little Oa” (33) – a natural sculpture of their goddess Oa, the woman-shaped root he found by chance. The People see the root as a miniature of Oa, the spirit of maternal creation incarnated in the wooden shape.[28 ] It is neither an artifact nor a work of art. Lok found it but did not shape it or change its form. The People are not able to create things – for innovation and art we must look at the New People. It serves as a doll for the girl Liku, it is kept and protected, but its religious significance makes the little Oa more than a toy.

This introduces us to the People’s religion. “There was the great Oa. She brought forth the earth from her belly. She gave suck. The earth brought force woman and the woman brought forth the first man out of her belly.” (35) This is the basic idea of life and also of their own creation story: the endless creation out of femininity. Philip Redpath adds a brilliant thought by saying that Oa, their female earth goddess, “can be seen as a reversal of Alpha and Omega (Oa/Ao), the beginning and the end”[29 ], life and death. The earth-mother goddess is not worshipped by fleshly sacrifice but she appears in natural forms: a root shaped like a woman, female shaped hills and ice formations.[30 ]


1 William Golding, The Inheritors (London: Faber and Faber, 1955).

2 Kevin McCarron, William Golding (London: Northcote House for the British Council, 1994) 1-3

3 Ibid. 2.

4 Martin Kuckenburg, Lag Eden im Neandertal? Auf der Suche nach dem frühen Menschen (Düsseldorf, München: Econ, 1997) 28.

5 V.V. Subbarao, William Golding: A Study (London: Oriental University Press, 1987) 37.

6 Bernard S. Oldsey, S. Weintraub, The Art of William Golding (Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, 1968) 46.

7 ibid. 49-50.

8 Virginia Tiger, William Golding. The Dark Fields of Discovery (London: Marion Boyars, 1976) 71.

9 ibid. 71.

10 ibid. 71.

11 Oldsey, Weintraub 47.

12 Subbarao 37.

13 Philip Redpath, William Golding: A Structural Reading of his Fiction ( Totowa, New York: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1986) 82. See also: McCarron 9.

14 Oldsey, Weintraub 44.

15 ibid. 51.

16 Jack Biles, Talk. Conversations with William Golding (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970) 106.

17 Redpath 81. See also: Subbarao 33.

18 Subbarao 33.

19 Kinkead-Weekes, Gregor 67.

20 ibid. 67.

21 James Gindin, William Golding (London: MacMillan, 1988) 32.

22 Subbarao 25.

23 Tiger 81.

24 S. J. Boyd, The Novels of William Golding (New York, London: Harvester, Wheatsheaf, 1988) 36.

25 Subbarao 27.

26 McCarron 13.

27 Kinkead-Weekes, Gregor 76-77.

28 Kinkead-Weekes, Gregor 72.

29 Redpath 91.

30 Oldsey, Weintraub 67

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Prehistoric Islanders. Community Life, Nature and Religion in William Golding's 'The Inheritors'
College  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (Book)
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Prehistoric, Islanders, Community, Life, Nature, Religion, William, Golding, Inheritors
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Christiane Landsiedel (Author), 2003, Prehistoric Islanders. Community Life, Nature and Religion in William Golding's 'The Inheritors', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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