Seeing like a Neanderthal

Nearly 60 years after it was first published,
William Golding’s <em>The Inheritors</em> retains th

William Golding always thought The Inheritors his best novel. He wrote it very fast at a time when his career was taking off, after years of rejection. In February 1954 Faber & Faber had at last agreed to publish Lord of the Flies, and his editor, Charles Monteith, was eager to know what the next book would be. On 17 October Golding replied that he had written "nearly a quarter" of a new novel. It was "about H sapiens and H Neanderthal", and he was getting on "at a tremendous lick".

Coming after a novel about schoolboys on a desert island, this new subject has been seen, and was seen by Monteith, as wildly erratic. But there are links between the two books. Both are about an encounter between civilisation and savagery, and both suggest new ways of interpreting those terms. Both recount the killing of the innocent.

A note at the end of the manuscript records triumphantly, "First draft finished 13.15 on the 11th November in 29 days." The 11 November in 1954 was a Thursday and the time - a quarter past one - reminds us that Golding wrote this and each of his first four novels during lunch hours, breaks and holidays while earning his living as a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury. The first draft is written in a green Bishop Wordsworth's School exercise book using schoolmasterly red Biro.

As often, Golding's wife, Ann, helped. Insertions in the manuscript read, "Ann thinks Lok's fall too mysterious. People won't get it. I don't say clearly that Lok smelt what the old woman carried" and "Ann says Fa should say, 'We are lucky by the sea. We can drink out of shells there'". This rather gives the lie to a letter Golding wrote explaining that he could not send Monteith the manuscript because his handwriting was illegible "even to my wife". Clearly he wanted time to rethink before submitting The Inheritors to Monteith's scrutiny. He promised to type it out over Christmas and send it then. "I've learnt to compose at the typewriter, which is a help," he added.

It was a help. He rewrote extensively as he typed, and the many differences between manuscript and typescript change the meaning of The Inheritors. At the end of the manuscript he had noted down things he needed to keep in mind for the rewrite. The first is that: "The new people must be forced by circumstances and their own natures to destroy the people. Therefore the people must live on the only line of advance . . . They must come from somewhere (the sea?) and be going to somewhere."

The landscape in the rewrite would have to be adjusted to fit this new idea: "I begin to think of a great waterfall at the mouth of a gorge. Beyond the gorge a bit of river then a vast lake, surrounded by forest and plain." The geography worried Golding and he added a note: "I must ask Jameson about a waterfall out of a gorge. Could the land beyond be a great crater?" John Jameson was the geography master at Bishop Wordsworth's, and Golding's consultation was evidently satisfactory. In the rewrite the waterfall does issue from a gorge, and upstream the river widens into a lake.

The waterfall, he notes at the end of the manuscript, is vital: "The centre symbol is the waterfall, the time stream, the fall, the second law of thermodynamics. It must be vivid." This ties in with what he told the critic Virginia Tiger - that he wrote the first draft as a rebuttal of the 19th-century doctrine of progress but, in the rewrite, stressed on the contrary the evolutionary life force that drives the new people upwards "at a higher level of energy" than the Neanderthals possess. This is symbolised by their ability to haul their canoes up past the waterfall and sail upriver against the current.

Water passing over the fall from a state of high to a state of low organisation is an illustration of the second law. But the new people, defying the current and pushed on by "a new intensity, new vision", are a local contradiction of this. It is almost as if the first version of The Inheritors was written by the religious Golding, who mourns the destruction of innocent Neander­thals, and the revisions by his scientist father who, as a keen believer in Darwinian evolution, might be expected to side with the intellectually superior new people.

Golding sent the typescript to Monteith on 15 February 1955, hedged with apologies. It was "nowhere near final - hardly begun in fact". Such a disclaimer may seem overdone. But it reflects Golding's habitual nervousness about writing. Monteith assured him that he was delighted with The Inheritors: it should be published as it stood.

Golding's immediate reaction was anxiety and he wrote by return to say he was "a bit startled to find The Inheritors is finished". What, he wondered, would an expert think of his depiction of Neanderthals? "I haven't done any research for the book at all," he warned, "just brooded over what I know myself." Should not some "palaeontologist, anthropologist, archaeologist, hard-headed scientist" be consulted before publication? Monteith replied firmly that the book did not need an expert. "If he had any suggestions to make, they would be the wrong sort of suggestions."

That was wise advice, given Golding's fragile self-confidence. But he was less ignorant than he made out. He had been fascinated by archaeology since childhood, had run the school archaeological society and been on local digs. The speed with which he wrote the novel suggests a subject long pondered. What Neander­thals were really like was disputed, but Golding was aware of the contending theories.

His depiction of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens reflects, to an extent, the archaeological evidence. His Neanderthals have no artefacts or containers, whereas the new people have necklaces, paintings, wine-skins and clay pots. Inventing containers (bags, baskets) was an important evolutionary step as it allowed hunter-gatherers to bring back and store foodstuffs. Fa, the brightest Neanderthal, almost hits on the idea of containers when, watching the old woman cook broth in a deer's stomach and dip a stick in it to get it to Mal's mouth, she has an image of seashells full of water.

Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers but Gol­ding's are different. They gather the fruits of the forest but, because they have a sense that killing is "wickedness", they depend for meat on what they can guiltily scavenge from kills made by big carnivores. Their language, which incorp­orates gesture, dance and a kind of telepathy, is another of Golding's innovations - among palaeontologists there is no general agreement that Neanderthals could speak.

The new people practise shamanism, and their shaman, Marlan, is male, but Golding gives his Neanderthals a religion (the worship of a matriarchal goddess, Oa) and this was his widest divergence from received opinion. As he would have known, no traces of Neanderthal religion have been found, nor have any Neanderthal grave goods that would imply a belief in an afterlife. He gets round these possible objections by making his Neanderthals worship "ice women" and place meat and water in the grave for the afterlife, none of which would leave any remnants forarchaeologists to discover.

The greatness of The Inheritors does not depend, however, on Golding imagining what Neanderthals might have been like. It depends on the language he fashions to express it. He accepts the colossal stylistic challenge of seeing everything from a Neanderthal point of view. By feats of language that are at first bewildering, he takes us inside a being whose senses are acute, but who cannot connect sensations into a train of thought. This is a being whose awareness is a stream of metaphors and for whom everything is alive. Intricate verbal manoeuvres force us to share the adventures - and the pathos and the tragedy - of a consciousness that is fearless, harmless, loving, minutely observant and incapable of understanding anything. Though in prose, Golding's achievement is profoundly poetic, exemplifying T S Eliot's observation that the modern poet must become more indirect "in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning".

The Inheritors was published on 16 September 1955, and reviewers instantly recognised its imaginative power and its originality. For Arthur Koestler it was "an earthquake in the petrified forests of the English novel". Half a century later and however many times you have read it, it is still alarming, eye-opening, desolating, mind-invading and unique.

A new edition of William Golding's “The Inheritors", with an introduction by John Carey, is published by Faber & Faber on 4 August (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right