Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978

Peter S. Alterman

Aliens in Golding's The Inheritors

Much critical attention has been given to the literary distinctions which determine the genre of science fiction. A pressing issue in the genre's concern for legitimacy, this question of differentiating mainstream fiction from science fiction has flourished in the wake of the so-called desertions of science fiction by Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, and Robert Silverberg. Yet the issue has had a long life. Questions about the science-fictional identity of such writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley have nagged at the field through much of this century.

In his second novel, The Inheritors (1955), William Golding writes of Neanderthal man. This novel, taking off from Wells's "The Grisly Folk," makes use of science-fiction concepts. Alien creatures, carefully shown to be non-human, meet a monstrous threat which destroys them. The threat is man. The roughest plot-outline certainly sounds like science fiction. And yet Golding has seldom if ever been regarded as a science-fiction writer by reviewers, by critics who have written of his work, or by the SF community at large, although some SF scholars have mentioned Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors in passing and even claimed them for science fiction. Perhaps the novel's sophistication leads critics to ignore its science-fictional nature. Or perhaps it is an issue of focus: the alien is a literary device in The Inheritors, not the subject of an imaginative adventure. Whatever the reason, the science-fiction alien creature is the heart of the novel, and Golding's adaptations of that tool for ironic and didactic purposes is unique within the genre of science fiction.

The Neanderthal men in The Inheritors are different from Homo sapiens in many significant ways. The five senses are expanded in the Neanderthal awareness, and this enhancement allows the Neanderthals to live sensuously in a way that humans cannot. The differences are the measure of their moral superiority and the reason for their failure.

Each sense is augmented, used in a more significant manner. Lok's ears, for example, seem to have a life of their own, a separate consciousness and awareness, which must communicate with Lok by "speaking" to him.

Lok's ears spoke to Lok.


But Lok was asleep. [§1]

This does not mean that his ears are separate entities, though. Their extra sensitivity, their superhuman capacity, can do so much more than human ears that they seem to have independent life. They seem to embody the ideal of "ear-ness" so that for Lok, all of reality at that moment becomes hearing. Golding's choice of words is not casual: Lok's ears are so sensitive that they participate in the outside world even when the brain they communicate with is not itself active. The placing of the question mark in a separate paragraph, above, reinforces this idea.

Another example of this heightened participation in the outside world of experience is Lok's use of his nose.

Delicately he sampled this air, drawing a stream into his nostrils and allowing it to remain there till his blood had warmed it and the scent was accessible. He performed miracles of perception in the cavern of his nose. [§3]

Once again the heightened sensory awareness of the Neanderthals indicates their alienness from human experience. The detail given here suggests a relationship — the blood which symbolizes the essence of a being, with its sense of genetic continuity (blood lines, for example), and the scent from outside.

The awareness intertwines blood and scent, internal and external, self and other, as Lok's communication with his ears blends internal and external. In a way, Golding is here exemplifying Coleridge's definition of the primary imagination. The mingling of blood warmth and air scent in the nose unifies the inner and outer realities, subjective and objective, following the definitions Coleridge gives for the functions of the primary imagination.1

The blood warms the air, making the scent real. Therefore, it seems that the acuity of Lok's nose connects the self (Lok's blood) and the world outside (the scent of honey) in a relationship qualitatively different from human consciousness, where such a synthesis is intellectual, not physical. It shows the Neanderthal self as outgoing rather than indwelling, and again, posits an alien sensibility.

The Neanderthals have further sensory characteristics which differentiate them from Homo sapiens. These traits, while secondary to the major differences of hearing, smelling, and touch, serve to relate them more firmly to the natural landscape, to reveal more fully their difference from the new men. They have excellent night vision, for example, and they can inhibit their scent. As befits creatures who exist almost exclusively in nature, they are furry. To our eyes, they are animal-like.

In discussing the alienness of the Neanderthals, we have so far emphasized the physical. There are also intellectual, psychic, and emotional differences which complete the construction of "true" alien beings.

The most obvious special ability of the Neanderthals is telepathy. This, along with their language, which Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor describe as "only one stage beyond expressive noises,"2 forms their basic mode of communication. It is also the basis of their culture, since they share a communal mind. This telepathic communication is a group experience which does not necessarily involve intellectual data; rather, it is the fact of joined awareness which is of central value. The telepathic relationship forms a group awareness, an interweaving of individual experience, as when they all share the dying Mal's picture of his death, and again where they all meld into one organism on the first night in their cave. The quality of oneness is the same in both experiences, yet there is no communication involved in the latter. There is only a sensation of wholeness, of togetherness. It "seemed so much more natural than speech" (§2). The experience is not an intellectual pursuit, but an "unconscious" one, where no personality at all is created, only a quality of "Neanderthalness."

This state of being is also implied in the remark that "perhaps no mind at all" (§2) was in the cavern during the experience. There is a reduction of telepathic communication to its essence, where the simple fact of the telepathic link is important, for as we can see, the people are social creatures to a degree unknown to humans. They share their minds totally. This union is the ultimate in social relations — a blending of individuals, a group mind.

When the Neanderthals have some powerful experience or concept to share, they can join minds. Or they can join egos with no "intellectual" process required. This is a social activity and clearly obviates the necessity for verbal communication or art. Thus, their culture is a non-symbolic culture in that it needs no language to transmit experience or knowledge.

These telepathic capabilities replace a sophisticated language. The totality of sharing, as well as the nature of that sharing — pictures — are more expressive than the abstractions of human language. Since the people live so deeply in experience, abstraction from experience, which is one function of language, is inappropriate to them. Language, after all, can be conceived of as an aggregate of verbal symbols for various elements of existence. These elements are symbolized so they may be internally arranged and rearranged to yield new information about the external reality. The Neanderthals have little need or equipment for the manipulations of reality which language makes possible, since they are sensuously oriented.

The Neanderthals do not have the abstract reasoning power of the humans, not having the symbols such abstraction requires. Fa, their genius, does come up with concepts of irrigation and farming, but abstract thought is basically alien to them. They have pictures, not ideas, and their pictures invariably are concrete, not abstract. Fa's genius may be the exception, since she puts the abstraction of togetherness between food and cave. Lok, of course, cannot understand Fa. The old woman begins to comprehend, regarding Fa with horror. Fa's thought, however, is still in the realm of the concrete, and even she cannot hold it very long.

The use of language is the major difference between the Neanderthals and the new men. It is Lok, the least intelligent one, who frequently speaks without any purpose, belying the very function of language. He is also prone to shifting from language to noise; his communication is close to the borderline between language and noise. There is a measure here of the Neanderthals' closeness to the animal, as well as their clear superiority to new men in their ability to share experience and life.

Paradoxically, language plays an important role in the structure of the Neanderthal community. Since language is more an ornament for the people than a tool, it acquires ritual importance:

Now the thing was settled the people became restless. They knew in their bodies that something was wrong, yet the word had been said. When the word had been said it was as though the action was already alive in performance and they worried. [§2]

The significance of the word is clear here. It transforms fleeting idea into reality. It is the concreteness of the word which wrenches the vague, too-easily-lost Neanderthal thought into the real world. The leader uses the word to sanctify and ratify his commands, as if the act of speaking gives the command divine approval. No one thinks of challenging him once the words are spoken. The word is both metaphysical and concrete. It is significant and incantatory, having the power to signify and create, to denote and fix.

Although the self-awareness of the Neanderthals is as much communal as individual, an expression of racial identity, at times their uncanny senses also allow them to lose that identity. When, following the dying Mal up to the cave, they unconsciously mimic him, they become sick Mals, ironically unaware that they, too, will be dead shortly. Lok, tracking a human with his nose, becomes a human. Not only is this a joining of telepathic and "super-animal" talents, it is a rejection of self in favor of the external world. When Lok begins to track "other," he is completely taken over by "other," so that he is no longer Lok, but a new being, "Lok-other," and, as such, for the only time in the novel, he snarls.

This loss of self appears in previous experiences Lok has had with saber-toothed tigers (§4). His ability makes Lok, the least human Neanderthal, a skilled hunter. These examples show that the Neanderthals' capacity to lose their selves operates on both "higher" and "lower" creatures, helping to frame them in between, partaking of both the animal and the more intellectually advanced human. Neither the cat nor the human has the capability for otherness which Lok shows: clearly, he is neither an intelligent animal nor a stunted human. In the Neanderthals, the line between self and other is flexible. Human concepts of ego are not appropriate to the Neanderthal aliens.

The telepathic capacity of the Neanderthals is linked to their memory, which, unlike our own, seems to be discrete rather than continuous. They usually share pictures in order to remember, or have pictures by themselves. Lok's memory of finding the little Oa is one example. Another is Lok's memory of childhood terror. What these two remembrances suggest is a discrete memory of events, rather than the memory of flow of experience. Lok's memory is triggered by an association, and he lives in the memory for its duration.

Memory also completely takes over Lok's superior awareness of his outside environment. In the episode of Lok's remembering childhood terror at a forest fire, he actually relives the experience, becoming a cub. Instead of being subordinated to a sense of present reality, memory here is equally and actively real, as real as the present. By contrast, the memory of humans is continuous, passive. Human memory is incorporated into the present as a dependent clause clarifies but does not control a sentence. The memories of the Neanderthals are like independent clauses, discrete and equal.

The portrait of the Neanderthals is deeply concerned with the difference between them and humans. As we have seen, there is a difference between the consciousness of Lok and Fa and the consciousness of the humans. This physical and psychic alienness is the major concern of the first four chapters. There are family similarities between men and Neanderthals, but it is the differences that are important, for they create a unique life form which follows the dictates of internal rather than "expected" norms. Neanderthal consciousness in The Inheritors is organic, growing out of the idea of a different consciousness, rather than being the product of a rubber mask or an unreasonable extension of one capacity, as is the case with many other science fiction aliens. Thus, the central concern of The Inheritors, introduced early, is an examination of two themes formerly considered the domain of pulp science fiction: the alien and telepathy, which together Golding uses to develop his observers.

The alienness of the Neanderthals is central to the way point of view is structured in The Inheritors. Much narrator-observer fiction is in the first person, since the narrator's distance from the action provides the desired tone, but here such is not the case. As we have seen, the Neanderthal intelligence and concept of selfhood differ from our own, and since the mind of the Neanderthal as constructed by Golding does not have enough isolated ego to sustain a first person narrative, another technique is required. Golding resolves the problem of presenting the Neanderthal point of view by stylistically reproducing Neanderthal awareness through use of a third person. In the first ten chapters, we perceive only what Neanderthals perceive: the use of the third person speaker, seeing only what Lok sees, shapes the description into a rigidly prescribed pattern.3

A clear example of this mode of perception is Lok's fall in the first chapter. In order to understand what has happened, we must imaginatively reconstruct the action in our own minds. Lok is standing on a ledge. He turns outward, smelling the Old Woman's fire. Then he falls. There is no going outside the character to say, "He fell." We extract that bit of information from analyzing Lok's perceptions. Then he is caught by Fa. We see what Lok sees, with no intellectual structure interposed.

In other areas, the style, while a matter of our seeing literally through Neanderthal eyes, nevertheless does continue to embody the Neanderthal consciousness of the external. The complete lack of intellectual overlay is ideal for the narrator-observer perception, for it allows the humans to be perceived, as far as possible, without human prejudgments. By moving the perspective of the narrator-observer to acknowledge only the totally concrete, the point of view can exclude the reader's biases almost entirely, allowing the superior awareness of the reader to act strictly as ironic commentary. Golding chooses this technique in order to account for the reader's necessary experiencing of the observation through his perceptions, intellectualizing them only after having experienced them.4 Finally, when Lok is in the tree watching the humans, "There was too much to see and he became eyes again that registered and perhaps would later remember what now he was not aware of" (§8). Thus, the last vestiges of an intelligent matrix prearranging reality are dispensed with.

Not only do the alien Neanderthals become an effective narrator-observer point of view by which to discover ourselves, they also embody ethical norms to assist us in judging ourselves. Neanderthals embody most of the saintly, Christian virtues, without imposing them on the perceptions they share with the reader. They are, essentially, Innocents, and we use the ironic detachment from them to see that.

Lok's reaction to the humans is instinctively friendly, and the Neanderthals are nonviolent even under severe provocation. They do not comprehend warfare, as evidenced in the scene where the humans fire poisoned arrows at an uncomprehending Lok. When Lok and Fa run toward the human canoes, they are trying to rescue the new one, not to hurt the humans. When they are offered Tanakil, they do not hurt her, or even understand that they are being offered a sacrifice. Finally, they are not at all concerned with material gain; the gold that Vivani treasures, the people play with and discard.

The Neanderthals, in other words, are selfless, loving, gentle, religious, innocent. They are more than Noble Savages: they are Christ-like. The irony is that these ideal representatives of human goals are senselessly slaughtered by the ancestors of the readers, who, we assume, cherish these ideals. This idealized picture of the Neanderthals also serves to isolate them further from the human objects and further alienate them, to contrast the aliens and reassert their uniqueness.

A measure of how far the reader has been seduced from the human point of view is that when the humans are finally described, they are abnormal, almost unrecognizable:

At last they saw the new people face to face and in sunlight. They were incomprehensibly strange. Their hair was black and grew in the most unexpected ways. The bone-face in the front of the log had a pine-tree of hair that stood straight up so that his head, already too long, was drawn out as though something were pulling it upward without mercy. The other bone-face had hair in a huge bush that stood out on all sides like the ivy on the dead tree. [§7]

A phrase such as "already too long" is judgmental — the faces are too long in comparison with our expectations. That is, the reader has come to see with Neanderthal eyes, and the human head is too long to be a Neanderthal head. Thus it is too long. We share the "Neanderthal point of view," and are seeing humans from that perspective.

A further instance of implied contrast is in the kinds of religious ceremonies both peoples experience, and the functions of these experiences. In the Neanderthal ritual, there is an offering of meat to Oa to help Mal recover. This is a supplicatory gesture which shows the relationship the Neanderthals have with their goddess Nature: they obey her, they worship her, they love her. The whole tone of this section of the novel emphasizes the spiritual and transcendental elements of worship, the removal of self to a higher reality.

Note also that religion belongs to the women. It is Fa who speaks to Oa; it is the women who have Oa: "A man for pictures. A woman for Oa" (§6). Nature, Oa, is generative, the prominent characteristic of the little Oa being her distended, pregnant belly. Oa gave birth to the earth, which gave birth to woman, who gave birth to man.

Compared to this picture, the humans' religious rites are cruel magic. In their ceremony, two stags are represented, one drawn, one acted. This is in direct contrast to the Oa worship. The ceremony is performed by the men, rather than the women, and it is designed to help the hunters find food. Here the focus is on controlling power, not on worshipping. The sacrifice of the finger is in contrast to the food offering of Fa. The bellow of the stag is full of pain and desire, worldly things, while the echo of Oa is quite supernatural. Human rites are harsh, and more pragmatic than transcendental.

There is a qualitative difference between the natures worshipped as well as the forms of worship. We can deduce this from the ceremonies. The Neanderthal Nature is female, generative, kind. The human Nature is dark, destructive. It demands painful human sacrifice and is occupied with death and hunting: nature is not praised, but controlled. This is magic, not true religion.

The implied contrast between these forms of worship informs us further about humans. We know not only the specific ritual of magic they use, but, by extension, their view of the world as hostile, and their purpose in the world, to control nature. We also note elements of their culture from the absence of women at the ritual, and the fact that what is of first importance, after erection of the fence, is a magic ceremony for meat. They are like the cat: there is blood, there is blame (§3). Original sin is implied; man has been born evil.

Another example of humans dominating and Neanderthals accommodating is the meeting of Liku and Tanakil. The girls are similar, although Liku is clearly slower. They are both cheerful, inquisitive, willing to communicate. This is another side of the humans, one which both we and the Neanderthals respond to warmly: "Lok saw their faces crease as they laughed at each other and a sudden gush of affection for them pushed the heavy feeling down in his body" (§7). However, when Tanakil tries to take Liku to the water to observe the unloading of the canoes, Liku hesitates. Obviously, the girls have different reactions to water and different levels of curiosity. Liku's curiosity is tempered by her species' aversion to water, and she pulls back. Tanakil's reaction reiterates the emphasis on controlling, asserting power: she wants to go forward, so she imposes her will on Liku. She "explains," judging Liku by her own standards. Then she beats. Liku's reaction is in keeping with what we know of the Neanderthals — she takes no offensive action, but howls.

One thing is clearly consistent about the humans — they judge their world according to their own standards, as shown by their attempts to manipulate nature, first by making themselves into the stags, then by exerting that identity, and then by Tanakil's response to Liku. Neanderthals respond to affection, but not to violence. The humans are violent, they kill, beat, hurt. And they will kill, have killed, Neanderthals.

Lok and Fa are perfect observers. Not comprehending the humans, they make excellent eyes. They see everything that goes on below them, and thus are capable of allowing us to see the humans more or less directly, without our having to contend with interpretation. There is a more or less objective perception of the sex act, seen by one who does not really understand all the implications. We are allowed enough awareness to comprehend the basics (a comparison) and enough to support a contrast (the fighting, the violence of the act). From this distinctive point of view, we get a clear statement of what the humans are:

There was no animal on the mountain or the plain, no lithe and able creature of the bushes or forest that had the subtlety and imagination to invent games like these, nor the leisure and incessant wakefulness to play them. They hunted down pleasure as the wolves will follow and run down horses; they seemed to follow the tracks of the invisible prey, to listen, head tilted, faces concentrated and withdrawn in the pale light for the first steps of its secret approach. They sported with their pleasure when they had it fast, as a fox will play with the fat bird she has caught, postponing the death because she has the will to put off and enjoy twice over the pleasure of eating. They were silent now except for little grunts and gasps and an occasional gurgle of secret laughter from the fat woman. [§9]

This, again, is an external view, as shown particularly in the phrase "head tilted, faces concentrated and withdrawn..." and it places the humans outside nature at one end ("There was no animal on the mountain or the plain...") and very much inside it on the other ("They hunted down pleasure as the wolves...") Here there is no explicit or implicit contrast with the Neanderthals, for they have none of this capacity. The reader is given a specific perception of the humans, which, using the Neanderthal mind, goes right through the Neanderthal eye to the reader, giving him two distinct perceptions, his and Lok's.

This observation presents a technical problem, for the author speaks directly to the reader, steering his sight and thought in a certain way. Coming out from behind the mask this way can be damaging. It may distract the reader, shocking him out of the character, and not producing the desired effect. In order to direct opinion, or to emphasize a point (here, the wonderful strangeness of the humans), the author must direct without snapping the reader out of the Neanderthal perception, the Neanderthal world.

This direction is arranged for by the alien nature of the Neanderthals, which is so totally sensory that it can be only eyes, or only ears; so that Golding can use them and not use the "mind" behind them. If Lok's ears speak to Lok, and he does not hear, then Lok's eyes can see without comprehending, while we, the observers, can comprehend and judge. The mind bypassed, the only caveat required is that Golding stay in character. He does, comparing humans to animals of different sorts who embody a certain clever, cunning, cruel intelligence, as well as imposing their uniqueness on us. The human is not described internally, but only by what the Neanderthals see or know of nature.

The careful construction of the Neanderthals, both through descriptive technique and ascribed qualities, serves primarily to create alien beings. As previously noted, aliens can be human, and share many human characteristics. However, the living through the senses and the telepathy of the Neanderthals go beyond more primitive human concepts to define an alien awareness. In turn, this awareness is brought into contact with truly human awareness. The effect is to point up not only the differences, but, as in the Liku-Tanakil conversation, the shared traits as well. The purpose served by the alien beings in The Inheritors is, then, to comment upon the very nature of human modes of thought, perception, and behavior. The implied function of the alien Neanderthals is actually to define what is human and what is not, by contrast and comparison.

The science fiction device of the aliens, with their telepathy and their remarkable differences from humans, serves a larger purpose. The Neanderthals stand as bases for further investigation of the real subjects of the novel, the inheritors — us. Aliens, telepaths, sensory redefinition, all are tools from the science fiction writer's bag. Perhaps when they are used for purposes greater than adventure, science fiction can no longer be differentiated from other forms of fiction.


1. J.R. de J. Jackson, Method and Imagination in Coleridge's Criticism (US 1955), p 43.

2. Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor, William Golding: A Critical Study (US 1967), p 72.

3. M. Adriaens, "Style in William Golding's The Inheritors," English Studies 51(1970):25.

4. Ibid., p 27.


In his second novel, The Inheritors (1955), William Golding writes of Neanderthal man. This novel, taking off from Wells’s "The Grisly Folk," makes use of science fiction concepts. Alien creatures, carefully shown to be non-human, meet a monstrous threat which destroys them. The threat is man. The roughest plot-outline certainly sounds like science fiction. And yet Golding has seldom if ever been regarded as a science fiction writer by reviewers, by critics who have written of his work, or by the SF community at large, although some SF scholars have mentioned Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors in passing and even claimed them for science fiction. Perhaps the novel’s sophistication leads critics to ignore its science fictional nature. Or perhaps it is an issue of focus: the alien is a literary device in The Inheritors, not the subject of an imaginative adventure. Whatever the reason, the science-fiction alien creature is the heart of the novel, and Golding’s adaptations of that tool for ironic and didactic purposes is unique within the genre of science fiction.

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