Close to home: The Inheritors

This piece was written by Judy Golding Carver to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Inheritors. It was originally published in the Guardian.

‘The two people beneath the tree were making noises fiercely as though they were quarrelling. In particular the fat woman had begun to hoot like an owl and Lok could hear Tuami gasping like a man who fights with an animal and does not think he will win. He looked down at them and saw that Tuami was not only lying with the fat woman but eating her as well for there was black blood running from the lobe of her ear.’

In this passage from The Inheritors, Lok the Neanderthal is watching the New People – that is, Homo sapiens – making love. It is by far the most successful sex scene my father ever wrote. We watch – no hint of voyeurism – through Lok’s innocent eyes, as in so much of this extraordinary novel. The book takes as its premise an encounter, tragic and definitive, between a small group of Neanderthals and a larger group of Homo sapiens. We, the readers, are Homo sapiens and much of the novel is permeated by a kind of species guilt.

My father began the novel in the autumn of 1954, a few weeks after the publication of Lord of the Flies. Many reviews had been good, and the sales were respectable; he was a published writer. But my father – nearly always anxious about his writing – was worried that he wouldn’t be able to write another novel.

Charles Monteith, his editor at Faber & Faber, was aware of the problem. Between him and my mother (always my father’s first reader), confidence was sustained, and the new book completed in draft. Here at once we see a paradox. My father was always full of self-doubt and very dependent on these two trusted critics. But at the same time his writing was vivid, original and – you would have said – fearless. It was also fast – the first draft took him little more than a month, astonishing when you consider that he had a full-time teaching job as well. Faber published it on 16th September 1955, and it remained my father’s favourite among his novels for the rest of his life.

Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of World War II. Post-war austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting.

Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (‘the people’) and the group of Homo sapiens (‘the New People’). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.

He always maintained he could have been a Nazi if he’d been born in Germany – he believed being on the right side was for him a result of geography rather than morality. I’m not sure he was fair to himself here but none of us can know. It is clear that he was hugely relieved by the Allied victory, but he didn’t confuse that victory with absolution. He felt guilt, not only over the people that he himself had killed during the war – and he was completely clear he had done so – but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war. This conviction, in itself a kind of hunger – a consuming guilt – finds expression in the cry from one of the New People at the end of the novel: ‘What else could we have done?’ My father felt the excuse was insufficient, and recognised his own share in it.

Plot and setting

The plot of The Inheritors depends on the novelist creating a sense of family in both groups. Among ‘the New People’ there are quarrels and rivalries. But among ‘the people’, the Neanderthals, the family group is intensely precious; the need and love people have for each other are overwhelming. The reader shares the experience. This is all the more remarkable because the feelings of Lok and his family have to be shown to the reader in a way that demonstrates that they barely have language – even their thought is not sequential or logical. In a tour de force of narrative subtlety, my father uses our language to show the lives of people who don’t really have it.

He set the novel in a beech forest in northern Europe, and he stated quite unequivocally that it was Savernake Forest near Marlborough, the town where he had lived as a child. It is a beautiful place, originally a hunting park, now full of mature beech and oak, a glorious retreat of beauty and peace. My father knew it from his earliest childhood, but one of his earliest and most powerful memories is of a twilight walk there with his parents – he is about four – when they hide behind a tree, leaving him alone. He turns and sees the enormous head of a stag looking at him over the bracken. The forest and the stag are there in The Inheritors, but – I would claim – so are his parents.


Several critics – including Arthur Koestler, who knew my parents – have thought that Lok and Fa, his lover and companion, were my mother and father, and I think they are right. Lok’s love of entertaining, making people laugh, mimicry and clowning — this is very like my father, perhaps surprisingly so to those who know only his novels. Lok’s naiveté is also something that my father saw in himself.

And Lok’s lover Fa is recognisably my mother – bold, wonderfully practical, clever and – it must be admitted – occasionally irritable, especially towards my father when, in Lok-mode, he did something foolish.

The family’s leader is Mal, old and beginning to weaken. His partner is simply known as ‘the old woman’, though there is a hint late in the novel that she may once also have been called Fa. Mal treats her with tremendous respect, referring to her in the third person, rather like the formal mode in many European languages.

I believe that these two people are based on my grandparents. In 1954–55 my grandfather was 78 and beginning to fade. I didn’t notice at the time, still demanding that he play with me and do all he had done for me before. But now I can see in photos that he, like Mal, was growing weaker. He died in 1958, an event which my father described as being like the side of a cliff falling away, a phrase reminiscent of the ice-falls and landslips in the novel.

As for my grandmother, she was 84, and as shrunken and crumpled as the old woman in the book. But she was still capable of sharpness and command. The terror the old woman’s glance of disapproval instils in her son and her granddaughter, Lok’s beloved child Liku, is something I remember from my childhood. Most of the time she was peaceable enough, but she could be withering and unanswerable. And she kept the home and the hearth as her own personal sphere, much as the old woman in the novel carries the ‘sleeping’ fire in a clay ball.

View of the ‘people’

The genius of the book is to take familiar things – the family, the forest, the fascination with and horror of water – and make us see these through the eyes and mind of someone who cannot think like us. Here, for example, my father makes us see what Lok sees: one of the New People as a monstrous, alien apparition.

‘A piece of white bone was placed under [the eyes], fitting close, and where the broad nostrils should have shown were narrow slits and between them the bone was drawn out to a point. Under that was another slit over the mouth, and their voices came fluttering through it … There were eyebrows above [the eyes], thinner than the mouth or the nostrils, black, curving out and up so that the men looked menacing and wasp-like.’

Then he has a revelation:

‘Lok felt the shock of a man who has trusted to a bough that is not there. He understood in a kind of upside-down sensation that there was no Mal face, Fa face, Lok face concealed under the bone. It was skin.’

He sees one of the New People with a bent stick that shortens and lengthens again. As it does so, there is a ‘Clop’ by his ear, and he sees that the tree next to him has grown a twig. The New People have bows and arrows. They are hunters and killers and the twig was an arrow meant to kill Lok. When Lok watches another arrow flying from the New People, he thinks is it a gift. The people, the Neanderthals, are mild and gentle and do not even kill animals – when they come across a doe killed by a large predator they take the meat while saying, ‘There is no blame.’ But the New People are very different. Their thought and their language are modern. They have mastered the water and they sail upon it. They hunt and fight. They deceive each other – this would be unthinkable among the Neanderthals unless, like Fa at a critical juncture in the action, they need to protect those they love.

However, when Lok and Fa consume the dregs of the fermented honey-drink made by the New People, the alcohol distorts them; to Lok it seems as if they become the New People. My father fought a drink problem all his adult life – and here we see his exact evocation of what it is like to be really drunk – how alcohol changes people drastically. Lok and Fa – unthinkably – have a fight, and Lok hits Fa with a stick. Then:

‘He saw her right breast move, her arm come up, her open palm in the air, a palm somehow of importance that any moment now would become a thing he must attend to. Then the side of his face was struck by lightning that dazzled the world, and the earth stood up and hit his right side a thunderous blow.’

Fa’s astonished outrage is clear – such a thing has never happened before. My father commented that they lived ‘before the Fall’ – as innocents in Paradise. But it is not their sin that drives them out. We see the likelihood of their defeat even as we are forced by the author to share their feelings. Towards the end of the book, my father once more allows us to share their mode of seeing. He produces a description which at first reads like a lyrical evocation of a beautiful landscape with caverns and light, and many subtle changes. Gradually, however, we understand what we are seeing. Every reader should have the chance to read this fresh – there should be no spoiling. But I defy anyone to read it unmoved.

My father was always keen to avoid the simple conclusion. He thought that humans, Homo sapiens, were complex and contradictory, and had both good and evil sides. In the novel he, my father, chooses to show two sides of himself – in Lok, almost a holy innocent, and Tuami, the artist among the New People. Tuami is busy much of the time carving an ivory knife, and we see him sharpening the blade. He plans to use the knife to kill Marlan, the leader of the New People, who fails to provide them with their usual food and consequently sets in motion a deed they all acknowledge is dreadful. Tuami is Marlan’s rival both as leader and as lover of ‘the fat woman’, Vivani. He is shortish and powerfully built, fiercely competitive and capable, both on land and as a sailor – all qualities my father had.

Tuami sharpens the blade of the knife, but he also plans also to sculpt its handle. As he steers the boat away from the place of the ‘red devils’ – the Neanderthals – he becomes absorbed in the sight of the voluptuous Vivani and the New One, the baby Neanderthal whom the New People have carried off. The knife-haft will have the combined shape of Vivani and the New One carved in it, or indeed liberated from it — Tuami can see the shapes in the lump of ivory. And the novelist carefully tells us that the sculpted haft is ‘so much more important than the blade’.

I remember how my father lost his temper – very uncharacteristically – with a critic who failed to appreciate that point. In the ivory knife my father portrays his own and his species’ capacity for violence, together with a possibly saving grace – the capacity and desire to create, the awareness of something touching and beautiful. And surely it is no accident that the figures in the ivory combine Tuami’s people and the Neanderthals. The New One joins the New People and lives to share in their future. Current research suggests my father may have been right.


Related Resources

  • Golding’s biographer, John Carey, writes that Savernake Forest, on the outskirts of Marlborough,Wiltshire, was the inspiration…

  • Mal

    In The Inheritors Mal is the oldest member of the Neanderthal group.  At the beginning…