Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Clan of the Cave Bear: Sowing the Seeds For What Is to Come

I was just the right age when I received my induction into the world of Jean Auel: 14 years old.  My mother handed me a second-hand copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear, telling me that a friend of hers recommended it, but not telling me what it was about.  At 14, I was reading "grown up" novels, but not novels that had explicit sex and violence.  I was also still young enough to identify with Ayla, the novel's protagonist.  So I sucked Clan down in just a few days, and quickly grabbed its sequel, The Valley of Horses.  I was fortunate that the first four Earth's Children novels had already been published.

As I mentioned last time, The Clan of the Cave Bear premiered with a splash in 1980* and is still regarded as Jean Auel's best novel.  Unlike its widely panned film version, Clan was regarded as a serious work of fiction, using research available at the time to reconstruct a world that was practically forgotten.  That the author herself was not a professional historian made this accomplishment even more remarkable.  Moreover, the novel's feminist message was fresh and much welcomed in literary circles.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla is one of the "Others," a Cro-Magnon and basically a modern human.  At five years old, she is suddenly orphaned when her parents die in an earthquake.  Naked and without food, she comes perilously close to dying after a cave lion claws her leg, until she is discovered by Iza, a Neanderthal medicine woman.  Iza persuades Brun, her sibling and the leader of their clan, to take Ayla with them so that Iza can heal her.  Brun consents, and Ayla goes to live at the hearth of Iza; Creb, her sibling who is also a powerful shaman known as the "Mog-ur"; and eventually Iza's daughter, Uba.  From there, a clash of not just cultures, but of biology and evolution, is inevitable.

Ayla struggles to conform to the rigidly gendered world of the Neanderthals (collectively known as "the Clan"), where women are largely devalued.  Her greatest enemy is Broud, the son of Brun's mate (not of Brun himself -- an important distinction) who despises her on a deep level that goes beyond mere chauvinism.  The threat of him eventually assuming leadership looms over the book.  Even before then, he changes Ayla's life in a fundamental way when he rapes her, leading her to give birth to her half-Neanderthal, half-Cro-Magnon son Durc.  Broud's cruelty eventually forces Ayla to leave and find her own kind, but not before she uses her innate strengths to rise above the Clan's restrictions on women, winning the respect of her adopted people.

The Good

1.  Structure.  First, The Clan of the Cave Bear is Auel's tightest novel.  Not just in terms of size -- a hair under 500 pages in the paperback -- but also in terms of plotting.  Of the six, Clan is the only one that, to me, feels as though it is building to a specific purpose.  The Valley of Horses has a purpose as well, but the road there does not feel as tense or as satisfying.

Why is that?  Maybe because while Auel had the entire series worked out in her mind (she claims that her first draft encompassed all six novels), the first book was the clearest to her, as is often the case.  Or maybe because Clan was influenced by other fish-out-of-water stories, namely The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes.  In the short story "Mowgli's Brothers," Mowgli is an orphaned human raised by wolves; after rising up to protect the aging leader from Shere Kahn, Mowgli is forced to leave and return to the human world.**  In Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan is an orphaned human raised by African apes who wins the respect of his tribe -- and the wrath of their leader, Kerchak -- by drawing upon his uniquely human skills and weapons for hunting.  He, too, eventually leaves to be with his own kind.    

In both stories, the "foundling" is taken in by a loving mother against tribal custom.  One story features a wise, aging leader (Akela), while the other features a leader with a violent hatred of the human protagonist (Kerchak).  Both stories also feature humans learning how to survive in natural surroundings.

While both stories were likely an influence, The Clan of the Cave Bear has so much that is unique that you could not simply claim that it is a female version of Tarzan of the Apes.

2.  World Building.  To me, Clan succeeds better than any other Earth's Children novel in making me feel as though I am in a completely unfamiliar world.  Auel created a vivid, convincing Neanderthal society, from their daily life to their values and religious beliefs.  From cave bear remains in caves, she created a belief system based on worshipping the cave bear, "Ursus," and on valuing the power of spiritual animal totems.  She created a system of social customs, where each person in the Clan had specific ways of addressing each other, both for formal and informal occasions.  She created elaborate rituals and extensive kin networks.  Auel detailed the Clan's way of life right down to what they ate and the tools they used.    

And it's not just a case of her glomming on to whatever was the current research: using mere skeletal remains, she was able to conjure up Creb as a character.  In fact, the holes in existing research seemed to give Auel creative freedom that she would not exercise again.  Take, for example, Ayla's trip into the Mog-ur cave and her "journey" with Creb.  The entire scene has a darkness that Ayla's subsequent "experiments" lack.  Then there are Auel's theories that all Neanderthals were born knowing all that they would ever need to know, and that all Neanderthals were psychically connected.  Okay, that last one is a bit much, but it definitely showed a willingness to test limits.

The result was a world where I understood why the characters acted the way that they did.  It also underscored the depth of Ayla's differences from the Clan, as well as the challenges that she faced.

Also, Clan does not scrimp on its portrayal of what a harsh prehistoric environment would be like, from Ayla's birthing scene (oh God, wish I could wipe that from memory) to blow-by-blow depictions of hunting mammoth.  It is worth mentioning that unlike in the subsequent novels, there is nothing romantic about the sex depicted in The Clan of the Cave Bear.  At best, it is merely servicing; at worst, it is brutal rape.

3.  Appealing Heroine.  Auel made certain that we bonded with Ayla from the get-go by killing off her parents in the first couple of pages.  Then, if that weren't enough, she brought her to the brink of death before Brun's clan even found her.  Auel made Ayla so isolated and vulnerable that not only was she without clothes or any kinship ties, but she couldn't even keep her real name.            

Not so appealing here, though the white
face make up is kind of cool.
And even after she is brought to the loving hearth of Iza and Creb, what does she get?  Told that she should not speak (the Clan used sign language), cry, laugh, or partake of any freedoms whatsoever because she is Only a Woman.  And she is considered to be stupid and ugly to boot.

How could we not root for her?  How could we not sympathize with her from the beginning and hope that she overcomes the sexist obstacles in her path?  How could we not look down upon the misguided Clan customs that keep her bottled up?  It does not hurt that Ayla is at her most human in this book.  She is at turns willful, afraid, envious, and despairing.  She is not yet held up as a Mother-Goddess figure.  In fact, she is an object of scorn for much of the time, until she gradually wins the Clan over.

After seeing how much Ayla has suffered, we want her life story to turn out well.  Long after I had grown tired of her in subsequent novels, I still kept reading based on this initial bond.

The Less Good

The Clan of the Cave Bear merits less criticism than the other novels, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to criticize.  If anything, a reread made me see that many "Auelisms" that I found fault with in later novels were also present in this one.  These include long, dull descriptions of scenery; wooden dialogue; a tendency to lecture; some cringeworthy sentences; and Auel's allergy to the semi colon.  

1.  Tell Not Show.  Despite Auel's impressive job with world building, she has a tendency to lapse into telling but not showing.  For instance, we are constantly told how rigid and unchanging the Clan's views are, how they literally cannot change without great effort, and how they are incapable of creative or abstract thinking.  Yet we repeatedly see the opposite.  Brun might grimace and moan and hold meetings about Ayla's latest impropriety, but within weeks or even days, he alters his views and permits the activity, and soon the rest of the Clan follows.  Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has held onto prohibitions against women for 2,000 years.              

"Tell not show" also includes Auel's constant need to lecture about how Ayla represents the New and Innovative while the Clan represents the Old and Dying.  An example: "His hatred for her was hatred of the old for the new, of the traditional for the innovative, of the dying for the living.  Broud's race was too static, too unchanging.  They had reached the peak of their development; there was no more room to grow.  Ayla was part of nature's new experiment, and though she tried to model herself after the women of the clan, it was only an overlay, a facade only culture-deep, assumed for the sake of survival."  Now imagine that said fifty times.  It will only get worse with subsequent novels.

2.  One Note.  One thing that struck me upon rereading was how one-note Broud's character was.  He is resentful and angry... and resentful and angry... and resentful, violent, and angry... and so on.  Had Auel made Broud a more nuanced character, someone who had a very positive side and struggled to suppress his darker nature, the final outcome might have been more suspenseful.  Instead, I wonder why Ayla didn't make contingency plans prior to Broud assuming leadership, since his pattern of cruelty was only likely to intensify.  I guess I can see why... this was the only family she knew and she had a small son... but it gives the final scene a sad inevitability.

3.  Bad Prose.  Despite Auel's skills for world building and characterization, her prose is often... prosaic.  While she does write decently compelling action sequences (like Broud and other hunters chasing down a mammoth), many of her descriptions are dull and are best scanned over.  Then there is her allergy to proper punctuation.  But what marks her as a fiction writer without much experience is a sentence like this: "It was patently obvious that her behavior was shockingly indecent."  Shudder.

4.  Who's Your Daddy?  In Clan, Auel sets it up so that men and women are unaware of how procreation works.  The Clan think that when a woman gets pregnant, a man's totem defeats hers, and that sexual activity has nothing to do with it.  Therefore, Clan men have sex with whomever they want, believing it has no consequences.  This creates an interesting situation in Clan, in that Broud does not realize Durc is his son, but becomes a big pain in the neck when it is extended to the rest of the Earth's Children universe.  Yes, apparently Ayla is the only one in Ice Age Europe to know where babies come from.

5.  Boxing Herself In.  The fundamental dichotomy between Ayla and the Clan does not invite further scrutiny as long as it is confined to this novel.  In Clan, Auel would present characters who, while bound by tradition, were hardly simple.  Yet when she had to present the Others in the subsequent novels, she ran into trouble.  She had to actually show them being innovative, creative, all of the wonderful qualities that she ascribed to Ayla as a representative of her kind.  But we all know that not every modern human is so creative and amazing.  What to do?  How could Auel present the Others realistically, including the malcontents and sticks-in-the-mud, without blurring the lines between the Others and Clan?   

First, Auel's explanation for Brun's remarkable flexibility in Clan was that he and his people represent the very best of what the Clan has to offer.  So he and his clan are not typical Clan.  In fact, we never find out what is "typical Clan," or how Ayla would fair with a clan that was less special.

On second thought, that's not true.  We do have a baseline for Clan behavior, or at least Clan values -- Broud.  How do I know?  Because of this passage: "The men were convinced that [Ayla's docility] was brought about by [Broud's] tightening discipline.  They nodded their heads knowingly.  She was living proof of what they had always maintained: if men were too lenient, women became lazy and insolent.  Women needed the firm guidance of a strong hand.  They were weak, willful creatures, unable to exert the self-control of men.  They wanted men to command them, to keep them under control, so they would be productive members of the clan and contribute to its survival." (p. 179 paperback)

So while Broud's temper may not have been the norm, his values certainly were.  Brun was the one who was out of step.  Yet in subsequent books, Auel would try to isolate Broud as the exception to the rule, rather than the norm.  Most Clan men were kind, decent providers except for that horrible Broud.  Lost would be the fact that Broud was acting according to the standards of his society.

Second, Auel would make it so that Ayla was not merely a representative of her people, but exceptional.  She would become Saint Ayla of the Others.

Finally, after liberating Neanderthals from the "Ug-ug stoopid" box, presenting them as full beings, Auel would stuff them back in -- at least part of the way.  Other than an unsatisfying episode in The Plains of Passage, we would never see things from the Clan's point of view again. 

While The Clan of the Cave Bear deserves praise for its characters and innovation, it sows the seeds for problems to come.

Next Week: The Valley of Horses.  Ayla finally meets the fabulous Others... eventually.   
* To my ever-lasting shame, I erred initially in stating the date of The Clan of the Cave Bear's release.  It was 1980, not 1981.  That would have been a very impressive feat for Auel to produce The Valley of Horses just one year later!

** Believe it or not, I've never sat through Disney's The Jungle Book in its entirety.

Both images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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