Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Mammoth Hunters: Can't Quite Look Away...

We now come to what is widely regarded as the "last good" Jean Auel novel.  Whether The Mammoth Hunters even qualifies as good in the objective sense is a matter of debate, but I will say that I found it much more readable than The Valley of Horses.

Ayla finally meets a whole group of Others like herself.  A group that just happens to be called the Lion Camp.  And happens to house a shaman who once lived with Ayla's clan, as well as a Clan-Others "mixture" like Durc.  Could it be that Ayla was meant to live with this specific group?  *pregnant pause*

The Lion Camp also features the Earth's Children series first Other of Color, named Ranec.  It is with Ranec that we first get a taste of that dreaded convention: the love triangle.

Happiness makes for dull reading, so it is not surprising that there is no smooth sailing once Ayla and Jondalar reach the Lion Camp.  However, what many fans object to is the extent to which the Love Triangle From Hell eats up the story, overshadowing good and bad plot points alike.  If the Love Triangle were at least honest and coherent, its dominance could be tolerated.  Instead, it requires Ayla, Jondalar, and the Lion Camp to be profoundly stupid.

That said, for whatever reason, this is the Earth's Children novel I have reread the most.  Maybe it's the can't-quite-look-away-from-a-car-crash feel.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla and Jondalar meet the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi tribe as they are leaving Ayla's valley, and are invited to stay by the camp's headman, Talut.  The Mamutoi survive by hunting mammoth in the summer, and the Lion Camp consists of a subterranean dwelling on the open plain that is made from mammoth bones.  Within the dwelling are several hearths, including the Fox Hearth, which is occupied by Ranec.  A young and talented carver, Ranec becomes instantly infatuated with Ayla, spurring Jondalar's jealousy.  Jondalar doesn't know why he should be jealous when he has not known Ayla for too long and his (and the Mamutoi's) culture does not condone possessiveness.  Nonetheless, he can't stop feeling competitive with Ranec.

Finally, Ayla accepts the Mamutoi's offer to become one of their tribe.  Jondalar's jealousy reaches an exploding point when on the night of her induction ceremony, Ayla goes off to sleep with Ranec.  Ayla does so under the (supposed) belief that Ranec has given her the Clan "signal" for sex and that she has no choice.  From that point onward, Jondalar refuses to talk to Ayla, and no one in the Lion Camp will tell Ayla what is going on (even though everyone else seems to know exactly what is happening).  Confused by Jondalar's behavior, Ayla draws closer to Ranec, to the point where she promises to mate with him at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting.    

Meanwhile, with the help of Mamut, the Lion Camp shaman, and Rydag, a mute half-Clan child, Ayla comes to terms with her past and accepts that she will never see Durc again.  Instead, Mamut tells her that she has a much greater purpose.                

The Good

1.  Negotiations.   One thing Auel does really well, as we saw with Brun's councils in The Clan of the Cave Bear, is portray small-scale decision making.  We see the full range of dynamics within a group, and how small decisions can carry great importance beyond the immediate issue at hand.  I thought this was portrayed very effectively in the scene where Frebec demands more space for the Crane Hearth.  The entire camp voices their opinions and then the matter is resolved in as fair a manner as possible.  Yet the result is that Frebec wins more than just a few feet of space.  He also proves that he has enough status to receive more space -- from the headwoman's hearth, no less -- despite his humble beginnings.  Frebec's pride in being accepted by the Lion Camp is something that he uses to a good end later in the novel.

The bride price negotiations are also fascinating, though I mention below why they are also problematic.  They hint at a culture far more layered (and acrimonious) than the "live and let live" Lion Camp attitude would suggest.

2.  Detailed Culture.  Even though the Lion Camp feels to me a bit too much like a bunch of hippies experimenting with a new way of living, Auel does a nice job portraying how such a group might have lived in those times, from day-to-day life to their festivities.  Highlights include Crozie's gambling games, her teaching Ayla how to make white leather, and the costumes and gift giving at Ayla's induction ceremony.

Also, though their characterization never reaches the heights of Brun, Iza, or Creb, Auel does a nice job giving the Lion Camp members distinct personalities.  We learn just about everyone's backstory, from Wymez's travels to the tragedy that brought Fralie, Frebec, and Crozie to the Lion Camp.  Only Manuv and his hearth are too pleasant and well adjusted to receive much character development.         

3.  Wolf.  I didn't say much about the animals last time, but though I hate the whole "Ayla is magical because she controls animals" aspect of the series, I do like the animals themselves.  Whinney and Racer, her son, are pretty delightful, and Wolf is a nice addition to the four-legged family.

4.  Jondalar's Pain.  In many respects, Jondalar's possessiveness of Ayla is unearned.  But darned if I don't feel for him during all those chapters where he has to listen to Ayla in bed with Ranec.  Most of us know what it is like to love someone and feel profoundly jealous when he or she is with someone else.  Auel describes Jondalar's suffering in vivid, heart-hurting detail.

The Bad

1.  Ayla's First Night Mishandled.  Ayla's first night with Ranec is one of the most dissected sections in the Earth's Children series.  People have debated endlessly whether Ayla really thought that Ranec was giving her the "signal" after being told that the Others did not compel women to have sex.  I can see both sides.  On the one hand, you could argue that the few months Ayla spent with Jondalar and the Mamutoi were not enough to offset nine years of ingrained Clan teachings.  Sure, the Others could claim that no woman was forced to have sex, but that did not mean the message sank in.  On the other hand, there were many hints that Ranec was attracted to Ayla, and Ayla to Ranec, long before the infamous night.  Their previous interactions even included moments where Ayla semi-sort of refused Ranec -- not quite the behavior of someone who feels compelled to give into a man's desires.

Regardless, I think the night and its after effects were badly handled, but not for the usual reasons.  That Ayla felt compelled to have sex is just sort of glossed over.  Mamut tells her "no one can ever command you" and then moves on.  Yet you would think that such an admission would prompt more than just a nod from a society that respects and honors women.  You would think their reaction would be more along the lines of: "Wait, they made you do what?"  In fairness, I don't think any of the Mamutoi except Mamut learn the exact reason Ayla went with Ranec.  To the rest of the Lion Camp, Ayla had simply drunk a little too much "bouza" and had chosen another partner for the night.  But you would think that even Mamut, who lived with the Clan, would more strongly condemn their gender practices, or at least describe them as "unfortunate."  Instead, he remarks upon how "appealing" it was to have a woman always serving his needs, as if she had a choice!

Also, it's strange that Auel writes Ayla as being so blase about the experience of submitting to another man's desires.  After her experience with Broud, why wasn't Ayla more upset?  Why didn't she think: "I thought that the Others were different.  I thought I wouldn't be forced to do anything here."  It's again as if Ayla -- and Auel -- wants to isolate the forced sex and casual abuse as things that just came from Broud, as opposed to widespread norms in Clan society.  Since one major theme in this novel is The Clan Are Humans Too, it would certainly complicate things if the Others had to also account for the Clan's ingrained misogyny.                

2.  Where Everyone Acts Like a Complete Imbecile.  I will give Auel credit for at least giving Jondalar complex reasons for not confessing his feelings to Ayla.  He feels that his feelings are too powerful and unnatural, and they had led to his exile in the past.  He thinks that Ayla might be better off with someone more in control and more willing to accept her Clan past and her mixed son.  So yes, I can understand why Jondalar would not simply break down and confess his feelings, even if it is a stretch that he would keep them to himself for an entire winter.

What I can't understand is why Ayla never asks him what is wrong, or never seems to notice Jondalar's distress, despite her supposed "heightened senses" from living with the Clan.  But what is really unforgivable is that the Lion Camp never intervenes.  Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- can see how miserable Ayla and Jondalar are.  In both the previous novel and this one, we are told that the Mamutoi are a blunt-spoken people who do not shy away from broaching uncomfortable subject matter.  Moreover, you would think that the Lion Camp would want to make their guest and their newest member comfortable, which meant resolving their differences.  Instead, everyone just talks about it behind their backs, but decides that it is better not to intervene so that Ayla, Jondalar, and Ranec can work out their "destinies."  Not even honest Rydag, I-don't-give-a-shit Frebec, or Deegie, Ayla's supposed best friend.  As many have pointed out, had any one of them spoken up, the initial dispute over Ayla's night with Ranec would have been settled within an hour.  It might not have resolved the underlying disputes, but at least Ayla and Jondalar would be able to talk about them honestly instead of being tortured by the other's behavior.

3.  Stereotypes Ahoy!  It is easy to let the Love Triangle From Hell overwhelm everything -- not just what is good about The Mammoth Hunters, but also what else is bad about the novel.  One of the other issues I have is its abundance of stereotypical characters.  There is jolly giant, Talut (rhymes with galoot!); Mamut, the prototypical wise and enigmatic shaman; and smooth-talking, sexy Ranec.

Despite the fact that Mamut is portrayed as wise, all-knowing, and gentle, he is a problematic character.  Besides finding the appeal in letting a Clan woman serve him, he also keeps his Clan life a secret until Ayla comes.  As many have noted, that means Mamut could have taught the Lion Camp years ago that Rydag and the Clan were human.  But why have their trusted shaman do it when he could leave it to a stranger?

Meanwhile, Auel tries very hard to make Ranec the inverse of all the negative black stereotypes.  Ranec isn't the one who sticks out negatively.  Everyone thinks that he is a beautiful specimen of a man, especially his color.  At the same time, he is also smooth and easy going, with a strong sex drive.  Hmm, well... A for effort?      

But the worst stereotyping may be of Rydag, the "magical cripple."  Six years old and mute due to inheriting the Clan's inability to verbalize, Rydag also has a fatal heart ailment.  He is a sweet character, but he is introduced solely to serve as a lesson and then to die.  Rydag is always kind and patient, never resentful or rebellious, and he often speaks words of wisdom (like No. 6 on this list).  He is more like a small, incredibly wise adult than a child.  Knowing that Auel introduced him in order to kill him off, I had trouble getting attached to Rydag, and did not cry when his end finally came, though I'm sure I was in the minority.      

4.  Lingering Sexism in Utopia.  Auel takes great pains to present Mamutoi society as egalitarian.  The leaders are a headman and a headwoman.  Women are allowed to hunt.  Women bring the hearth and the hearth name.  Women are negotiators and craftsmen.  Yet some familiar sexism still peeps through.  Although Talut's sister Tulie is a co-leader, Talut seems to be the one people turn to, and it is from his hearth that the Lion Camp gets its name.  (Which doesn't make sense.  Nezzie, Talut's mate, is the younger sister of Wymez, keeper of the Fox Hearth.  If Nezzie brought the hearth, shouldn't Talut's hearth also be the Fox Hearth?  Or Wymez's hearth the Lion Hearth?  Wouldn't it have just been easier to make Tulie's hearth the Lion Hearth?)

Meanwhile, Nezzie admits to Ayla that while Talut likes to sleep around at Summer Meetings, she doesn't think he'd like it if she did it.  And Jondalar's possessiveness is seen as normal, if not necessarily desirable.  Then there is the bride price, which dehumanizes women in a way, making them prizes to be won rather than equals entering into a hearth.

5.  Losing Her Humanity.  Despite her profoundly stupid behavior during the Love Triangle, Ayla's near divinity is driven to new heights.  Not only is she lauded for controlling animals, but she is constantly built up by Mamut as having a great "destiny" and purpose.  In fact, we can thank Mamut for building Ayla up to heights that she would never reach in the later books, even if the writing were better.

Other Points Worth Mentioning

1.  Ayla and Jondalar Invent Everything.  There was some of that in the last novel, but The Mammoth Hunters really runs with this thread.

2.  Yes, the Sex Scenes Are Still There.  Read the Ayla and Ranec scene if you want a good laugh.  Or cry.

3.  Ayla Still Does Not Know How to Name Things.  For such a creative, inventive person, one would think she could come up with a better name than Wolf.  But I guess every Mary Sue needs one flaw.

Conclusion

There is much to recommend about The Mammoth Hunters.  It is probably my second-favorite book of the Earth's Children series, though that isn't saying much.  If you have a hunger for knowing how ancient societies lived and can ignore the Love Triangle, you will find a lot of good material about tools, weapons, clothing, and burial conventions.  Despite the stereotypes, the character interactions are still enjoyable to read and are mostly believable.  It is the Love Triangle that weighs The Mammoth Hunters down the most, turning a decent novel into borderline trash.  However, I have to confess that it is also the Love Triangle that also keeps bringing me back.  There's just something about it that compels me to read with one hand covering my eyes.


Next Week:  The Plains of Passage, where Jondalar (with Ayla) crosses the Continent.  Again.

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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