William Golding: The Inheritors

This year marks the centenary of William Golding’s birth. To mark it, his lifetime publisher Faber & Faber has reissued two of his novels: the ubiquitous debut Lord of the Flies, and his second novel The Inheritors. This is a source of mild frustration to me. In the last fiteen years, there have been three reissues of some of Golding’s novels, but never all of them. In 1997, five of his first six novels were reissued in this style. Between 2005 and 2010, four of his first five (Free Fall never seems to get the treatment) were reissued in this style. Now, in 2011, we have just the first two reissued, with handsome covers and new introductions. All this seems to be a disappointing level of diminishing returns for an author described by Gabriel Josipovici as one of “the two greatest post-war English novelists” (the other was Muriel Spark). And it is a frustration for those of us who like uniform editions. When I carried out a straw poll on Twitter recently, I was surprised that the most praised of Golding’s books was Darkness Visible, which has been languishing in the same jacket for 30 years. (And please nominate your own Golding recommendations in the comments below: I’ve read just Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin.)

The Inheritors (1955) was the novel Golding considered his best. It is a book which both demands and resists literary analysis. Describing it in sufficient detail could sum up the schematics of the book so perfectly that the reader would not expect to gain anything from reading it – other than the invaluable experience of doing so, which, because of the language, can never be adequately described.

It reports the lives of a small group of primitive humans – Neanderthals, the blurb tells us. There are around half a dozen at the beginning of the book, some well differentiated (such as Lok, a clown of low intelligence), others less so. The stuff of their lives is unremarkable. The story is simple, and the telling is simple, so what makes this such an exceptional book? It is to do with Golding’s exemplary use of language as the unit of construction. All books are built of language, but in many cases the language or style is something strapped onto an existing story or idea. Here, the book is built from the language up, so it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise. In other words, it is sui generis.

This requires the reader to rethink, or rather de-think, to the Neanderthals’ level. We see into their minds and discover that they have no insight into their own consciousness, and that their experience of the world is predominantly external, limited to what they experience through their senses. (Their sense of smell is particularly strong.) As a result the book relies heavily on description, emphasising the absence of contemplation and internal reflection by the Neanderthals. They are fearful of water, driven by emotion, but often happy. They have fire but no cultivation or agriculture, so they must find food day by day. “Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.” They see ‘pictures’ in their minds, which seems to be a word that for them covers ideas, memories, mental images, and even a sort of telepathy, suggesting that evolution has resulted in losses as well as gains.

Evolution is the invisible character in the book, driving everything. The challenges facing the Neanderthals – finding food, returning home, getting across the river when the log they normally use goes missing – are amplified because they are not alone. Encroaching on their territory is a group of “new people”, Homo sapiens we presume. We see their activities through the eyes of Lok and his fellow Neanderthals, so we must place our own interpretation on their limited and literal understanding of what they witness. (The effect is similar to that in novels narrated by children, though Golding almost never interferes with the narrative integrity: one measure of his greatness.) It’s impressive just how much information Golding gets across while retaining the walls of his narrative structure: for example, the Neanderthals will not kill animals; they scavenge meat which has died by other means. This is because they view all animal life as equal to theirs (snails are “snail people”); they don’t see themselves as higher beings. That distinction arises as a result of thought.

There is great pathos here, as the mother of all dramatic ironies is upon us: the hopelessness of the Neanderthals’ struggles for survival in the face of the Homo sapiens, with their better tools, better communication and better planning; their habit of playing, a consequence of “leisure [and] incessant wakefulness.” Occasionally, one of the Neanderthals will strain towards an understanding of how to develop skills they don’t have – to gather more food than they need; to hold water in a shell – but it slips agonisingly away. In a sense to review The Inheritors as a ‘normal’ book does it a disservice. Its strength is in how it renders a world without thought as we understand it, and becomes a complete and convincing world. Language is restricted until the reader sees things as the Neanderthals do. This means that it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the their memories and experiences, even though Golding has clearly worked out their world meticulously. However there is no difficulty in the words themselves, as in Riddley Walker or the like. This new edition has a helpful introduction by John Carey (which reads as though it were adapted from his recent biography of Golding). In it he tells us how Golding, insecure as most writers are, submitted The Inheritors to his editor at Faber, Charles Monteith, with a note saying the manuscript was “nowhere near final – hardly begun, in fact.” Monteith published it as it stood.


  1. Both a great review – superbly concluded – and a powerful enticement to finally give this a go. I have long had it in mind as both Golding’s best in his own mind and the one book of his incessantly recommended.

  2. I really shouldn’t come here. Just ordered it – just had to after that review. it sounds so great. I loved the Lord of the Flies when I read that years ago, so much so I read his Sea trilogy, and loved that too. Then I read The Spire but wasn’t quite as keen on that. I hadn’t come across this one for some reason, maybe because of the way they’ve been printed, as you said.

    Anyway, thanks John…I think.

  3. A wonderful review! Another Golding to read is ‘The Paper Men’, about a respected writer trying to fend off the attentions of a keen biographer; lots of fun.

    You might also enjoy Alan Moore’s ‘Voice of the Fire’, a collection of stories set in Northampton over 6000 years. The first is set in the Stone Age, and similarly uses language wonderfully to set out the differences in thought and experience between people of that era and “moderns” like ourselves. Some people have found it difficult, but it’s really not–although when asked why he’d put the most “difficult” chapter first in the book, Moore said it was “To keep out the scum!”

    1. Brilliant. I immediately thought of VOTF when I was given the inheritors. Never heard that hilarious Moore quote before, thanks!

  4. Sounds like a very interesting book, John. I think Golding’s an exceptional writer, but I’ve read regrettably few (two, maybe three) of his books. Pincher Martin remains on my shelf unread. I’ll try to remedy this, and I’ll certainly add The Inheritors to the pile.

  5. This is incredibly timely. I posted a comment on my own blog yesterday saying I was thinking about getting this, and today here’s a helpful review which persuades me I was right to be looking at it.

    On covers, I’m not blown away by that one. There’s another version showing what’s essentially a cave painting that I prefer, though this one is probably more faithful to the book.

    I was wondering at how it might compare with Riddley Walker, and I note you referenced that. Riddley Walker is the less accessible then is it or is it just that Walker has some new vocabulary which the reader must learn from context?

    There was an interesting article in the Guardian the other day on the fate of the neanderthals (who may of course still be part of our dna, the jury’s still out I understand on that one): http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jul/28/neanderthals-demise-modern-human-invasion.

    Nice review as ever John.

  6. Thanks for this review. You have made me want to buy this book. I’ve been fascinated, for a while now, by the idea that in becoming civilised human beings left something behind. This novel should fit with that interest perfectly.

    (I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s books over the past year or so — this essay of his may interest you: http://scr.bi/pwbOFj)

    I was about to recommend the first chapter of Alan Moore’s Voice Of The Fire too, which is as a compelling a story as it is a technical accomplishment in restricted writing (I’m from Northampton originally so I’ve seen Moore speak a few times and, if I remember right, he has claimed that he used a vocabulary of no more than 2,000 words for that chapter). But I see JRSM has already made the recommendation so I will have to settle for seconding it!

    When it comes to Golding, I’ve only ever read Lord Of The Flies and even that was well over ten years ago. I have a copy of The Spire too. It may be time to make myself more familiar with his work, beginning with The Inheritors.

    Thanks once again,

  7. I’ve just re-read LotF and found it very disturbing returning to it as a grown-up! After reading your review, I’ve ordered The Inheritors. (I loved Riddley Walker, even if I did have to read everything several times to understand it at first – the language eventually clicked and I got a lot out of reading it).

    I would recommend Rites of Passage and its sequels. Golding captured the trials and tribulations, boredom and cabin fever endured by the passengers and crew on their long sea voyage in perfect detail.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone, and the double-recommendation of Moore’s book, JRSM and Guy. (Ignorance alert: is that a graphic novel then? Or has Moore written prose fiction too?)

    Oddly, Gaskella, you remind me that I have in fact read Rites of Passage but not its two sequels. It also reminds me that in my haste to dispatch Lord of the Flies in one word (“ubiquitous”), I forgot that I read it only as a GCSE student, ie more than twenty years ago as a teenager (gulp), and therefore it too might merit a revisit.

    Stan, Pincher Martin is excellent, though I dare not say any more for fear of saying too much (you’ll understand why I say that when you’ve read the book).

    Steve, thanks for what we are contractually obliged to refer to as ‘the heads-up’. As you doubtless know, Carey wrote a biography of Golding which was published last year. Knowing your views on Mr C, I don’t expect you’ve been tempted, though the information around the writing and publication of The Inheritors which he provides in this introduction is interesting. One thing that has put me off reading Carey’s book is its title: William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’. Is that some kind of superevolved joke I just don’t get? Or is it as asinine as it sounds?

    1. Re LotF, it was over 30yrs between reads for me, and knowing a lot more about boys (I knew nothing then), I felt it could so easily happen – it was a totally different book.

    2. Yes, ‘Voice of the Fire’ is prose–a collection of linked short stories. He has a new novel coming out soonish, too, called ‘Jerusalem’, which is apparently some 1000-page monster.

  9. Puncher Martin the was it wasn’t it question is a good hook to this book also think it has inspired some other books life of pi is a distant cousin to this one

  10. No, I haven’t read Carey biography but not just because it’s by him. I’m not especially drawn to Golding (or Spark for that matter). I think in both cases it may be an aversion to the post-war atmosphere of England evoked by their novels. It reminds me too much of where I come from. With Golding, however, I want to persevere. My ex-tutor Stephen Medcalf was a friend of Golding’s and wrote a fascinating essay about him which I quote from here to express the reason why: http://this-space.blogspot.com/2009/08/lord-of-files.html

    The title of the biography was probably at the publisher’s insistence; a need to remind readers and libraries who the subject is.

    1. I’m not sure readers need reminding; Lord of the Flies has been taught at GCSE level for many years, after all.

      I favour another theory for the title, which is that it’s designed for Amazon (and other online bookshops). People might not necessarily search for a biography of William Golding. But they will search for ‘William Golding Lord of the Flies’ (or a variation thereof). As a result, the biography gets a lot more eyeballs than it may have done otherwise.

      Indeed, this theory explains not just this case, but the whole rash of “The Man/Woman Who…” biographies that are out there. Each one looks awful to the human eye, but is sure to turn up in lots of Amazon search results.

  11. thanks for the review John – after being for a long time repulsed by my schooltime instruction of lord of the etc etc, i’ve developed a belated interest in Golding’s works and have gathered up his rites of passage trilogy.

    as for this review, i would ask: have you seen the recently released ‘cave of forgotten dreams’? along with recent articles and books and essays (i would refer you specifically to the part one of Ronald Wright’s Massey Lectures, which are really, really amazing), this has, for me, put a different cast on my understanding of neanderthals – and their intelligence relative to ours. having said that, i wonder whether i could enjoy The Inheritors, or if i would be sceptical about Golding looking down on our predecessors, in light of recent discoveries. is the novel patronising? or does it accommodate our new understanding of their complex and fascinating society?

    1. Well jay, if that new understanding took place in the last 56 years, then it couldn’t be included in the book! Carey in his introduction makes it clear that Golding’s Neanderthals (as I said in the review, it’s only the blurb which refers to them as such: but given that the story is mostly from their point of view, how could it be otherwise?) do not conform to academic understanding of them at the time the book was written. For example, in the book the Neanderthals have a form of religion, which as far as I know has never been established historically.

      More generally, and again by definition as the book is from their viewpoint, if anything the sense is of empathy with the doomed people, rather than a patronising angle. And for one thing, the Neanderthals had a larger brain capacity in their skulls than Homo sapiens…

      1. I should say that my hesitance to read The Inheritors on the basis of what I say in my reply to Jay is admittedly not rational… and really has more to do with the fact that both Pincher Martin and The Spire, though I admired them (esp. the latter), were major struggles for me, for reasons I can’t quite explain. (I have never read Lord of the Flies.)

    2. This is an interesting question. One thing that I find off-putting about Golding is his apparently exceedingly negative take on human nature, based as it seems to be on unsupportable Hobbesian nonsense easily dispatched through the reading of some anthropology and working class history. Though I admire his books for being so completely what they are, this has bothered me, and made me particularly reluctant to wade into The Inheritors (especially since I’ve also struggled with his actual prose itself).

  12. The New Statesman review indicated that Golding underplayed his knowledge of the neanderthals, and that actually he was pretty up to date on then current theories.

    There was an interesting book a few years back about the history of perceptions of neanderthals, with interpretations of them often saying more of the observer than the evidence. To the Victorians they were brutal savages ousted by the more sophisticated Cro-Magnon. In the 60s they were peaceful and pastoral and ousted by Cro-Magnons out of touch with nature. Each period interpreted the frankly fairly scanty evidence in its own way.

    Golding’s interpretation was as I say apparently fair for its day, but it’s also a novel. How accurate it is scientifically is ultimately irrelevant. The real question is whether it’s good, whether it does something interesting with language, to which the answer apparently is yes.

    Howcome no quotes John?

  13. Richard, if Golding’s “negative take” on humanity is based on “unsupportable Hobbesian nonsense” then perhaps it can be supported by his experience in the Royal Navy during the war where, so I understand, as an officer he was responsible among other things for sending men to their inevitable deaths. Perhaps this influence explains why he became the writer Josipovici regards as part of Modernism along with the more obvious Europeans, and why so few post-war English authors maintain the same kind of intensity. Towards the end of his career, when success and establishment recognition had been won, he churned out entertainments to the delight of the Booker Prize jury.

    1. Yes, this is fair enough. I’m not suggesting Golding should have had my understanding of things in order for me to appreciate him as a writer. Only suggesting one of the reasons why I’ve struggled with his writing, while having some admiration for it.

  14. I read just about everything I could find by Golding when I was a teenager, and remember the standout one for me at the time was Pincher Martin.

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  16. John, I since read Pincher Martin (you might’ve noticed a tweet or two) and found it quite amazing. Thanks again for the prod. I don’t know why I put it off so long – maybe for so shallow a reason as the uninspiring title. From beginning to end I was gripped. It’s an intense and worrying story told with great control and economy.

    A few days after finishing it, I was still thinking about it quite a lot, and when I went looking for a review I came across the suggestion that the story is set here, which seems to tally with Golding’s description and makes his imaginative tale even more eerie and desolate. (Potential readers probably shouldn’t click that unless they don’t mind sort-of spoilers.)

    I also found my unread copy of Free Fall and have moved it to a shelf where it’s more likely to be read.

  17. Thanks Stan. It’s such a long time since I’ve read Pincher Martin that now I’m going to have to read it again! It was the first Golding I read other than Lord of the Flies, which we did for GCSE in school (so that’s, erk, twenty-something years ago now). Oddly, I have tended to overlook Lord of the Flies since, presuming that its fame and my own study of it in school mean it can’t be worth revisiting. I must now visit the copies of The Spire and (possibly, haven’t seen it in a while) The Pyramid which are about my shelves somewhere.

    Incidentally, there’s a nice piece on Golding in Rick Gekoski’s book Tolkein’s Gown. Gekoski, in his capacity as a rare book dealer, knew Golding in his old age when he was crippled with financial anxiety (this after having cleared a cool million or so for the Nobel). Golding viewed the manuscript for Lord of the Flies as his nest egg:

    “If you can find a nice rich American or Japanese,” he said, with an attempt at worldly offhandedness utterly foreign to his nature, “I would take a million for it.”

    “A million what?” I asked, maybe a little puckishly.

    “Pounds, of course!” (As if I had insulted the Queen.)

    “But Bill,” I said, as reasonably as I could, “the only twentieth century manuscript to have fetched anything remotely like that sort of figure is Kafka’s The Trial.”

    He nodded his head, as if this confirmed his view.

    “Anyway,” I said, “there is no buyer out there at that sort of price.”

    “Surely there’s got to be some super-rich collector who would be dying to have it!”

    “In my experience you don’t get to be super-rich by not caring what you pay for things. Value for money is the only way the rich can protect themselves.”

    He glared at me. Clearly I was a rotten dealer.

    “Get me a million,” he said, “and you can have 5 per cent.”

  18. Thanks for sharing that, John. There’s a new edition of LotF out, or due out, with an introduction by Stephen King which you probably read (it appeared in the Telegraph, though it seems to have been removed). Though we didn’t study the book in school, I read it once in my teens and once in my 20s, and there’s a fair chance I’ll return to it again – but not before I’ve read a few other Goldings!

  19. Thanks Stan, I have that copy of Lord of the Flies (Faber sent it to me along with the new Inheritors). I haven’t read the intro by Stephen King – not a writer I’ve ever rushed to. I’ve tried only his collection Different Seasons (containing ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Stand By Me’ among others) and didn’t think much of it. He’s a big name though, which doubtless influenced Faber’s decision to use him – introducing the book to readers who might not have thought it was for them – and now I think of it, the most interesting part of Different Seasons was King’s afterword, so maybe I should pull out his intro after all…

  20. I’d be curious to hear what you think of his introduction, if you do read it, though I don’t remember it being anything special. I read a lot of King in my teens. He tells a good yarn, with a smart ear for dialect and an astute sense of horror. (His non-fiction Danse Macabre was an eye-opener, as was On Writing.) But if Different Seasons didn’t appeal, then there’s a fair chance he won’t win you over with much else. Sometimes he annoyed me so much I would stop reading him for years; I remember this happening with both It and The Stand. In both cases it was more the plot than the style. Then I would grudgingly read something else and enjoy it! The last one I tried, after a King-free decade or thereabouts, was Dolores Claiborne, and I liked it a lot. I agree that he was a good choice on Faber’s part, for the reasons you say.

  21. Hi John,
    It has been years since I last read Golding, but I distinctly remember being awed by “Darkness Visible”. To this day, I still think of it as one of the most powerful literary experiences I have ever had–perhaps because I devoured it almost whole, in one long reading frenzy. I think I know better now what Golding was trying to accomplish and will likely give him another going over soon.
    In second place, I’d recommend “Pincher Martin” for the harrowingly sharp-focused account of psychological regression (or dissolution). It is a fascinating reading experience which leaves an after-taste of heart-break.
    I think the reputation of “Lord of the Flies” has been hurt by its classroom success. It is assumed to be merely a kids’ book about a world without adults. Regrettable, I guess, but not immutable.
    Golding is due for a revival. I hope the centennial editions do him justice.

  22. Thanks Kevin. I second your second place recommendation of Pincher Martin. You are also now the nth person to recommend Darkness Visible to me, so I will definitely get hold of a copy as soon as I can and get to reading it (probably not as soon as I can). It’s extraordinary how one book of Golding’s can be so ubiquitous while the others languish half out of print (ie still in jackets that were designed 30 years ago).

  23. Great review, John. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It might have been challenging at some parts, as it demands readers to understand what “the pictures” mean, but it was definitely a most rewarding read. Golding’s ability to get inside his characters is uncanny.
    This was my second Golding after Lord of the Flies, which I’ve read ages ago, and I currently have The Spire on my TBR pile.

  24. Had to read this book for school. Never again. I can appreciate it and the literary skill but really….never again…. I actually had to push myself to read the book. Never have I wanted to skip paragraphs at a time reading any book. Well anyways I thought it was a good review and this is just my opinion.

  25. My favourite is Rites of Passage – I studied it at A level and loved every minute reading it. It got pipped to the Booker of Booker’s post by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

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