Friday, 29 July 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 2)

If Golding’s Nobel Prize winning masterpiece is the literary “form” of the genre, it is Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series (starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear and culminating, more than thirty years later, with The Land of Painted Caves) that has set the tone in commercial terms, selling more than 45 million copies.

Language, in Auel’s text, is less prominent than plot and characterisation, both of which are a good deal more complex than they are in Golding’s. Auel’s central character, Ayla, is a fully modern human, separated from her parents at an early stage and raised by Neanderthals. The language that she learns from them (described in some detail in The Clan of the Cave Bear) is more nuanced than that of Golding’s Neanderthals, a mixture of words and an elaborate system of signs. Ayla is eventually forced to leave her adopted family, and it is only after she encounters an injured man, Jondalar, and nurses him back to health, that she learns from him a language that more closely resembles our own. Later, in The Mammoth Hunters, she travels with Jondalar among peoples whose languages he can speak, but she cannot. Here, the distinction between her rudimentary dialogue, as she struggles to master a strange language, contrasts with the sophisticated verbal reasoning of her internal thoughts (presumably, though not explicitly, in the language she has only recently learned from Jondalar).

You like touch horse?” Ayla asks a child, amazed by the fact that she (Ayla) has a tame animal.

Yet only a few pages later, Ayla is musing about the relationship between sex and reproduction:

Ayla was puzzled again about a question that had bothered her since Durc was born. How did life begin?...Jondalar thought the Great Earth Mother mixed the spirits of a man and a woman together and put them inside the woman when she became pregnant. But Ayla had formed her own opinion. When she noticed that her son had some of her characteristics, and some of the Clan’s, she realised that no life started to grow inside her until after Broud forced his penetration into her...” (The Mammoth Hunters, Chapter 1).

There is little attempt here to imagine the language in which Ayla and Jondalar speak and think. It would surely be difficult to sustain such a linguistic experiment through all the twists and turns of a plot that fills eighteen times as many pages (taking the six volumes of Earth’s Children as a whole) as Golding’s short novel. Instead, Ayla and Jondalar speak, and think, much as we do. A novel succeeds, perhaps, as much because of what it does not attempt to do as of what it does. A novel that tries to do too many things at the same time will place too heavy a burden on the reader.

Auel’s story is not told from a single viewpoint. Instead, the third person narration alternates between Ayla’s and Jondalar’s perspective (a device introduced in The Valley of the Horses,” in which Ayla’s and Jondalar’s stories are told separately up until the point at which they meet), but takes in, also, the viewpoints of the strangers that they encounter along the way. The reader is shown Ayla’s world in quite some detail, but never really enters it. Then again, we never truly enter Lok’s world, either, because the dialogue passages are interspersed with Golding’s third person narration, very much in the literary register of the mid-twentieth century.

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