I just recently finished reading The Plains of Passage, the fourth book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series. I read the first three – The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters while I was in high-school and was completely entranced with the story of Ayla, Jondular and the hypothetical history of early humans.
If you are unfamiliar with the stories, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia…
Failing that link – here is my own rough outline of the life of our heroine, Ayla
Age 3 – her entire Cro-Magnon family is destroyed in an earth quake. Ayla alone survives. She wanders lost for days, barely escaping the clutches of a cave lion. The scars of that attack are forever present upon Ayla’s leg. A group of Neanderthals discovers Ayla and the present medicine woman adopts Ayla as her own. Ayla grows up with ‘The Clan’ a group of cave dwelling Neanderthals.
Late adolescence – Ayla’s adoptive mother dies and her adoptive father who is The Clan shaman loses power. A sociopathic new leader arises – one who has a history of abusing Ayla both sexually and physically. Ayla bears this new leader’s child. When the child is three years old, Ayla is forced to leave The Clan and her child, Durc behind.
Early adulthood – Ayla spends a year living on her own. She wanders around until she finds a beautiful valley far from The Clan. During this time Ayla is extremely innovative. She develops new tools and ways of making fire. She domesticates a horse and believe it or not a lion. The same lion drags the half alive body of Jondular to her (sort of) and Ayla saves Jondular’s life.
Early adulthood continued – Ayla and Jondular make their way to a group of Cro Magnon people called the Mamutoi. Ayla learns a brand new culture and is often reviled for her upbringing among the ‘flatheads’ or Neanderthals. Romantic crises arise. There are break-ups and getting back togethers. There is much sex. There is even more sex. And then there is also more sex.
Early adulthood part 3 – Ayla and Jondular leave the Mamutoi and journey through an amazing pre-historic landscape filled with woolly mammoth, mythical horse beasts, other fantastical critters, volcanoes, floods, floating islands, glaciers, and finally arrive at Jondular’s people the Zelandonii.
Over the past twenty years, I had never forgotten about Ayla and have often wanted to read the rest of the books. In fact, I think that Auel’s books probably planted the first early seeds of doubt in my mind about the accuracy of the literal biblical interpretation of Christianity that I was raised with. Although it is clear the stories are fiction, they are very well researched and reference many things I was always interested in such as herbs, plants, natural types of medicine, religion, anthropology, etc… I also was extremely fascinated by the sex in the books. There is a lot of it and as an ‘awakening teen’ I couldn’t get enough of Auel’s steamy descriptions of Ayla and Jondular and Ayla and Ranec and Ayla as a red-footed sex tutor to the newly matured young men of the Mamutoi. And then there is the much touted detail of Jondular’s “length” and the equally exclaimed upon detail of “Ayla’s depth” which are amazingly enough a perfect match as if they were physically designed for each other!
But the biggest question that the books presented to me as a literal bible believing young adult was the concept of a time when people were clearly not worshiping a Jehovah type God figure. These books are set in a time BEFORE the old Testament – a time when Noah, Moses and Abraham were not even a twinkle in God’s own eye. The neanderthal clan, which are the people who find Ayla as a small child and raise her as one of their own, worship a bear god who they mimic in many of their habits, by wearing fur garments and living in caves. The Cro-Magnon people or ‘The Others’ as they are referred to by members of The Clan, worship an earth mother type of goddess and express their devotion through frequent fertility rituals. Auel can be credited for being far ahead of her time by hypothesizing inter-breeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as a story line in her books. The resulting children are referred to as having ‘mixed spirits’ and often struggle to find acceptance in either the clan or the others. Non-African human DNA has recently been revealed to contain between one and four percent neadrethal gene fragments.
What is most interesting to me as I read the fourth book in the series is not how strangely UN-Christian Ayla is – but how fundamentalist Christian she behaves! In fact, I wonder if my fervent acceptance of the books during my devout early years of Christianity had more to do with Ayla’s submissive behavior to both men and her elders as well as her constant religio-centric behavior (crediting spirits and mysticism for everything that happens to her). I may not have been able to truly digest the idea of a ‘time before Jehovah’, but I could certainly relate to a culture with strict gender rules as dictated by their religion. In the fourth book The Plains of Passage which I just finished, Ayla is slavishly devoted to Jondular. Over and over again, she leaves behind groups of people whom she loves to journey back to Jondular’s home. Because of her Clan up-bringing she is completely unable to turn down Jondular’s sexual advances insisting that if he is interested, she is. She always follows his lead – even though she is incredibly smart, creative, strong and innovative and has survived on her own for long periods of time and is perfectly able to do so again.
By the end of the book, I was tired of Ayla’s docility. I wanted her to make some demands. I wanted her to refuse to go along with Jondular at least once, but she never did. Throughout the book, Ayla’s submissive behavior is often attributed to how the Neanderthal clan she was raised in treated the women in their groups. Women had no power, they could not refuse sex, they could not hunt nor even touch a weapon. They were second class citizens in every way unless they were medicine women.
So in some ways – Auel’s books absolutely refute the archetypal Jehovah God/monotheism of the Judeo/Christian myth. But on the other hand – they maintain many of the worst aspects of Christianity in terms of denying rights to women and empowering a priesthood of men to control the entire group. I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that although I deeply respect the immense work and creativity that Auel displays in her books, the huge scope of her research and how she brought to life what it might have been like for early man – her writing at times did not exactly hold me spell-bound. I had to work to get through parts of the fourth book and I skimmed huge portions. I was not the same enthralled adolescent that I was in high-school. These days I prefer a more lyrical bent and a lighter touch in my fiction. I also like the occasional gimlet eyed observation, and Auel’s characters are extraordinarily earnest – which wears me out after a while. But I am going to read the rest of the series. For Ayla’s sake – in the hopes she is able to finally abandon the ingrained submission she learned from her clan, find her own self and start issuing the orders for a change. I think she’s earned a bit of a power trip after all she’s been through.