Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2018

The Inheritors (1955), by William Golding

The Inheritors is an astonishing novel.  I picked it up from the library shelves on the strength of William Golding’s name because Lord of the Flies is unforgettable and Pincher Martin took my breath away.  But even so, the imaginative power of The Inheritors floored me.  I’ve never read anything like it.

This is the blurb:

When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. Seen through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals whose world is hanging in the balance, The Inheritors explores the emergence of a new race — ourselves, Homo sapiens — whose growing dominance threatens an entire way of life.

I had thought that this was going to be a kind of First Contact book, and in some ways it is. But what I had not expected was that Golding tells the story through beings so like and yet unlike ourselves, that the narration is like reading not just a language that I only poorly understand but of a being who does not think as we do.  Golding has not just imagined a language which, as John Carey says in the Introduction, incorporates gesture, dance and a kind of telepathy, but also a different way of thinking.  The small, fragile band of Neanderthals think in pictures which they can share; they scent like animals do; but they can’t connect thoughts or sequence ideas.  Carey explains it better than I can:

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, especially smell and hearing, 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.  (John Carey, Introduction, p xi)

This, in Chapter One, shows the reaction to a log bridge rotting in the middle and floating away:

The onyx marsh water was spread before them, widening into the river.  The trail along by the river began again on the other side on ground that rose until it was lost in the trees.  Lok, grinning happily, took two paces towards the water and stopped.  The grin faded and his mouth opened till the lower lip hung down. Liku slid to his knee then dropped to the ground.  She put the little Oa’s head to her mouth and looked over her.

Lok laughed uncertainly.

“The log has gone away.”

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log.  It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting.  When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder.  The water was not awake like the river or the fall but asleep, spreading there to the river and waking up, stretching on the right into wildernesses of impassable swamp and thicket and bog.  So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone. (p.2)

Ha is more thoughtful than Lok, the man for an emergency, but when Fa and Nil share a picture of what Ha is thinking, it was this:

He had thought that he must make sure the log was still in position because if the water had taken the log or if the log had crawled off on business of its own then the people would have to trek a day’s journey round the swamp and that meant danger or even more discomfort than usual. (p.4)

Only the elderly shaman Mal has a solution, retrieving a childhood picture from his mind.  It is not like remembering: it is just an image of a ‘wise man’ who ‘makes men take a tree that has fallen.’ But he cannot convey this image to the others.  They follow his instructions blindly.

So you can just imagine their bewilderment and admiration when they encounter Homo Sapiens with his paraphernalia of trinkets and tools.  The Neanderthals have not made the evolutionary steps towards inventing containers so they can’t carry or store food and water.  They can’t make fire, only carry it and protect it when lightning strikes start it.  They have no tools, except a stick to convey food to Mal’s mouth when he is so ill he must be fed.  But the new people not only have pots for food and water, and fire to cook with, they also have clothes, and necklaces to confer status, and they can make paintings on the rock walls.  And — unfortunately for the Neanderthals — they also have spears, bows and arrows for hunting.

And as we saw in Golding’s merciless depiction of savagery in Lord of the Flies, these new people already have no compunction about taking what they want and killing the innocent…

William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Author: William Golding
Title: The Inheritors
Introduction by John Carey
Cover illustration by Neil Gower
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2011, 223 pages, first published 1955,
ISBN: 9780571273584
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Hi Lisa

    You’ve probably noticed this already, but it’s Lord of teh Fk=lies, not of the rings!

    Happy Christmas




  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. This is a remarkable novel. I read it before my blogging days after falling in love with The Spire. I must read more Golding soon, it’s been a long while.


    • And I have to find a copy of The Spire. Everything I’ve read by Golding has been brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It came out after The Inheritors and was poorly received at first, much to Goldings’ dismay. It has a challenging protagonist and, as in this book, a very tight third person narrative, but I think it is masterful.


        • That recommendation is good enough for me!


  4. It looks like the writing is brilliant, but I’m not a fan of Lord of the Flies and while I’m happy to applaud Golding’s imagination in visualising how neanderthals might have communicated, I can’t imagine why he included telepathy.


    • LOL Bill, he might have been genre-bending SF and historical fiction, like Clare Coleman!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Inspired by Lisa from ANZLitLovers […]


  6. […] imagines our prehistoric forebears in a more successful and thought-provoking way, find a copy of William Golding’s The Inheritors. I can’t speak for its scientific accuracy, but it’s an authentic depiction of the […]


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