Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Valley of Horses: And So the Seeds Take Root...

As I mentioned last time, after sucking down The Clan of the Cave Bear in just a few days, 14-year old me grabbed ahold of its sequel.  I was so excited.  The ending of Clan was so powerful and emotional -- what could Auel possibly have in store for us next?  Would Ayla be reunited with her family?  Would we see how Durc was treated once Ayla was gone?  At this point, anything was possible.

I tore open the novel and read the first chapter. "She was dead.  What did it matter if icy needles of freezing rain flayed her skin raw."  Yes, yes!  I read as Ayla forged ahead alone, haunted by her final moments with the Clan, until she ended up in "cool, green, sheltered valley" where horses were grazing.  Then...

Wait -- who were Jondalar and Thonolan?  I skimmed ahead through their chapter, looking for some connection to Ayla, but there was none.  Next chapter, Ayla was still in the valley.  Next chapter, Jondalar and Thonolan and their not-very-interesting adventures.  Next chapter, still in the valley.  Next chapter...

As with Clan, I finished The Valley of Horses in just a few days, but not for the same reasons.  I don't think I've ever skimmed so much through an Earth's Children novel, not even The Land of Painted Caves.  To this day, there are passages that I have no more than glanced at.  Even now, knowing Jondalar's significance to Ayla, I still find his chapters to be a struggle.  And knowing that Ayla stays in her valley for three years makes her chapters a struggle as well.

Yet that is not to say The Valley of Horses is a bad novel.  In fact, many people like it better than The Clan of the Cave Bear.  We finally get to see the "Others" and their different societies.  We watch Ayla survive under circumstances that would kill anyone else; as her reward, she learns that sex can bring pleasure as well as pain.  Auel's writing seems sharper than in the last novel, from her description of survival scenes to her drawing of characters.

As with Clan, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with The Valley of Horses as long as you look at it in isolation.  Yet if you consider the previous novel and especially if you consider the subsequent novels, you see many problems developing.

Plot Synopsis

After being driven out of the Clan by Broud, Ayla goes out on her own in search of Cro-Magnons like herself.  She finally stumbles upon a cave in a valley and decides to remain there through the winter.  That "winter" lasts three years, during which Ayla raises and bonds with a horse named Whinney and a cave lion named Baby.  Meanwhile, on the other end of the European continent, two Cro-Magnon brothers, Jondalar and Thonolan of the Zelandonii, set out on a long "Journey."  Thonolan is an adventurer who wants to follow the Mother River (the Danube) to its end, while Jondalar just wants to be with his brother and avoid mating with Marona, a woman whom he does not love.

Along the way, they meet other Cro-Magnons from different cultures, as well as some Clan, whom they refer to as "flatheads."  Finally they settle with a river tribe known as the Sharamudoi, until tragedy spurs Jondalar and Thonolan onward.  They wind up in Ayla's valley, where Thonolan is killed and Jondalar badly wounded.  Ayla heals Jondalar up in her cave, and after a series of misunderstandings, romance blooms between them.  Finally they leave the cave together and encounter a tribe called the Mamutoi.  

The Good

1.  Some Interesting New Characters.  And I don't mean Jondalar and Thonolan.  Thonolan is pretty generic, showing no evidence of the wit he supposedly possesses in abundance, and Jondalar is more interesting in The Mammoth Hunters.

No, I'm referring to the Sharamudoi.  I thought Auel did a good job fleshing out multiple personalities in that tribe, better than she did in The Clan of the Cave Bear.  While her characterization of Iza, Brun, and Creb was superb, most of Brun's clan received barely a passing mention.  Here, we meet characters like Roshario, Jetamio, Serenio, and Shamud.  I especially liked reading about Jetamio's and Serenio's backgrounds, how Jetamio lived with a disability while Serenio was raising her son alone.  I even found Serenio to be more interesting than Ayla.  So naturally one dies and the other is never seen again.  

2.  Worshipping the Mother.  It's a nice counter-balance to the misogyny of the previous novel, and a nod and a wink to the idea that more advanced societies promote women rather than knock them down.  Best of all, it's grounded in archeological findings and not just something Auel made up (hello psychic Clan).

3.  Some Good Survival Scenes.  As I mentioned last time, Auel's "action scenes" are some of her strongest writing.  I especially liked reading about Ayla setting the pit trap for her first large kill, and about the timing and precision required to ensure that her meat was preserved.

4.  Sexual Healing.  Before "Pleasures" became hokey and trite, the scene with Ayla and Jondalar having sex for the first time was actually a rather sweet one.  Ayla learns a much-needed lesson that sex is as much about her pleasure as it is about satisfying her partner.

The Bad

1.  Tedious and Bland.  While many people don't mind the structure of The Valley of Horses, to me, it sinks the novel.  The end of The Clan of the Cave Bear creates momentum that should have carried over into the next installment.  Instead, The Valley of Horses forces you to wait until page 347 for information that you have wanted since page one.  It would have been worth it had the journey along the way been even remotely interesting.  But instead, we get Ayla talking to animals and Jondalar and Thonolan's info dumps -- I mean "banter."

And as interesting as some of the Cro-Magnon cultures are, they never come close to displaying the depth and richness of Clan culture in the first novel.  Obviously part of the reason is that we don't get to spend nearly as much time with them.  But even cultures that we do spend a lot of time with, like the Zelandonii, don't have that sort of deep-roots-in-the-soil feel.  Compared to Brun's clan, every Cro-Magnon tribe we meet seems like a group of friendly hippies "experimenting" with different ways of living.  They're like "Hey, cool, whassup, Firstname?"  There's no sitting and waiting to be tapped, no formal "This girl wishes to speak to the Leader," no common speech versus ceremonial.  The Cro-Magnons dress in the ancient clothes and use the tools, but don't quite come across as people who actually live their way of life.

Maybe Auel couldn't quite figure out how to convert a goddess-worshipping culture from idea to reality.  Maybe she had an easier time with the Clan because the Clan view of women is so grimly familiar to us.  It's almost as if the Others represent a past that is largely forgotten, while the Clan represent the present -- or at least the more recent past.  Even when Auel attempts to portray a gender-equal society, a lot of familiar gender typing shows through.  

Ayla hunting... or something.
What I wish is that Auel had chosen to do with a tribe of Others what she did with the Clan.  After a few weeks of stumbling around on her own, Ayla encounters people of her own kind and slowly learns about them through years of interaction.  Sure there would be some retread -- Ayla must prove herself worthy of her new people -- but since when is that unusual?  Maybe Ayla would only have average abilities on her new tribe.  Maybe she would end up in the Mammoth Camp with Vincavec.  If Jondalar had to be involved, he could be the Mysterious Stranger from far away.  A different combination of events could have made for worthy follow-up instead of the blandness we got.      

2.  Imprinting.  No matter how perfect Auel made him, no lover of Ayla's was going to escape criticism.  And I really don't mind Jondalar -- he seems like a nice guy who knows how to make Ayla happy, at least in one aspect of her life.  Rather, my problem is that their romance is set up as practically inevitable.  Jondalar is the first Cro-Magnon Ayla has met since she lost her parents.  She will always remember him as the one who taught her how to speak properly, about other cultures, and how to enjoy sex.  After that, who could come close to filling that same place in her heart?  Maybe it's just me, but I think that even if Jondalar had been a lot less exceptional, the result would have been the same.

It seems unfair to Ayla -- not to mention her other would-be suitors -- that Auel never really gives her a choice.  Again, imagine if Ayla had first stumbled upon a band of Mamutoi.  Then an entire group would have informed her views of the Others, and she would have been able to make a real choice as to which person was best suited to her.  Some claim that Ayla had that choice in The Mammoth Hunters, but I don't think so.  Once Jondalar had been "imprinted" in Ayla's mind as the representative of her kind, no other man -- not Ranec or Vincavec -- was going to measure up. 

3.  Blond Like Us.  I didn't mention it in my last post, but this problem has been pointed out by numerous people, and it just gets compounded when Jondalar appears on the scene.  Both Ayla and Jondalar are tall with blond hair and blue eyes.  The Clan are short with brown hair and dark eyes.

Notably, the authors of The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes seemed to believe in white supremacy.  Rudyard Kipling of The Jungle Book wrote "The White Man's Burden," which some consider to be a parody of imperialist attitudes, but other evidence suggests that it expressed Kipling's true feelings.  In Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs portrayed the white Tarzan as superior to both the apes of his tribe and to the tribe of (black) humans in the vicinity.

Should we assume that Auel felt the same way?  Somehow I doubt it -- I suspect the racist connection was completely unconscious on her part.  However, you'd think that she would have some inkling of the connections that could be drawn from her two main characters being white and beautiful and better at everything.  Maybe her portrayal of Ranec in The Mammoth Hunters was an attempt to correct this.  If not, Auel showed remarkable blindness to the way her characters could be viewed -- a blindness that would be evident in other aspects of her series.      

4.  Silence of the Clan.  Except for an episode in The Plains of Passage, we will never again see the Clan through their own eyes.  Instead, they will always be portrayed through the eyes of Ayla or other Cro-Magnons.  Here, despite Jondalar's sense that they are not quite animals, that's mainly how they come across: silent and brutish, without personality.  It will be up to Ayla to teach the Others that the Clan are actually human, but her teachings will be selective.

Seeing how much the Others look down upon the Clan, and with a rose-colored view of her own family, Ayla will leave out some of the harsher realities of Clan living, particularly that men had license to physically abuse women.  In Ayla's alternative portrayal, only Broud was physically abusive, and he was an aberration.

Meanwhile, she treats the Others, who come from cultures that seem to respect -- if not revere -- women, like they are the brutish tyrants based on one or two episodes of bad behavior.  That is not to say the bad behavior should be glossed over just because, on the whole, the Others are peaceful.  Nor does that mean Clan culture should be completely reviled based on its worst aspects.  But there should at least be a conversation about them, a serious debate about the good and the bad of both societies.  Instead all that happens is that Ayla shames Jondalar for thinking that the Clan are animals -- even though based on his own cultural beliefs, some of his views would be justified.

One reason this is significant is because from this novel onward, many people anticipated a clash between the Clan and the Others, or at least between Ayla and the Zelandonii over her Clan background.  The Earth's Children series seemed to be moving in that direction. Yet already in The Valley of Horses, we see Auel seeking to avoid dealing with messy, difficult truths -- something that would unfortunately become a pattern.  So the Clan never again appear before us as human beings, warts and all.  

5.  The Distancing of Ayla.  Even while Ayla's struggles to survive seem so immediate in this novel, the groundwork is being laid for her to become less and less relatable.  Her ability to tame animals -- done to fill the lonely void in this novel -- will be seen as an example of her specialness, and we will increasingly view her through the eyes of others.  In many ways, it is already happening: Jondalar worships her perfect body and dreams about her being the Mother incarnate.  

Other Points Worth Mentioning

In this novel, the stakes are established for the rest of the series.  Specifically, we learn that Jondalar's tribe, the Zelandonii, are highly prejudiced toward the Clan.  As Jondalar cares deeply about returning to his people, he will face the difficult choice between staying with Ayla, who refuses to lie about her Clan upbringing, and his loved ones.  Remember this.

On second thought, don't.  It's not very important.

Next Week:  The Mammoth Hunters, where Ayla finally meets an entire tribe of people like herself.  And Ranec... sigh.

Both images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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