Jean Auel entered the literary arena with a bang in 1980 with the release of her book, The
Clan of the Cave Bear. She capitalized on her success with the second book in the series,
The Valley of Horses, published in 1982.
The Valley of Horses continues Ayla's saga, describing her life in isolation after having
been exiled from her Neanderthal adoptive family. The book simultaneously follows
Ayla's future husband, Jondalar, on his trek across prehistoric Europe and the Middle
East, and the events which led up to their fateful meeting.
Despite the book's commercial success, proving itself in twenty-two hardback printings
and forty-seven weeks on the bestseller list, many critics cited the book's melodramatic,
somewhat self-consciously archetypal characters. "The brave, inventive Stone Age
woman, Ayla, occasionally sounds like the dopey heroine in a paperback romance...the
author has placed too much weight on these characters' shoulders, their credibility is
strained," (Isaacs, 13).
This sort of criticism of the book is echoed in many of the reviews; however, it clearly
did not detract from the book's popularity. This might best be explained by examining
the side of The Valley of Horses which prompted Ms magazine to crown Ayla "the
world's first feminist," (Ms).
Ayla is consistently characterized as intelligent, resourceful and courageous.
Furthermore, her isolation from both Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons during The Valley
of Horses proves her ability to survive on her own, completely independent of a
patriarchal figure. This aspect of the book strongly appealed to the newly mainstream
feminist movement of the early 1980s, especially to the women and men trying to
balance a career and a family.
Underneath all of the colorful, painstakingly researched passages detailing life in the Ice
Age lays what many critics feel is a strong prehistoric feminist ethic. This, combined
with the fanatical, rabid devotion of the cultish following the Earth's Children series has
engendered, helps explain the enormous popularity of both The Valley of Horses and the
series as a whole.
The Valley of Horses opens after Ayla's exile from the rigid, overtly sexist culture of the
"flatheads," or Neanderthals, but there are numerous flashbacks to her life with them,
particularly in contrast to her new life with Jondalar. In the Neanderthal society, women
were entirely subservient to men: women were compelled to bow down before a man
and be acknowledged before speaking, to acquiesce to any sexual advance any man made
to her, and to remain exclusively confined to the "women's sphere" both socially and in
terms of the work they did in the community. Neanderthal men treated women with fear,
wariness and, in some cases, outright contempt: "Women of the Clan [Ayla's
Neanderthal community] were supposed to avoid men during their menses, and men
totally ignored them. Women suffered this partial ostracism -- the woman's curse --
because men feared the mysterious life force that enable a woman to bring forth life,"
(Auel 429-430). Ayla's ability to escape from this oppressive society with her
independence and spirit intact is part of what endeared her to so many of Auel's readers;
from the outset of the book, Ayla's resiliency helps readers to sympathize with her.
Not every critic, however, saw Auel's portrayal of the Neanderthals as ignorant,
slow-witted and sexist as one of the selling points of the novel. Lindsay Van Gelder
commented that "The equation is rigged so that we automatically identify with the Others
[the Cro-Magnons]. The message that emerges is a kind of post-colonialist chauvinist
liberalism: people ?like us' can be secure enough in our historical destiny to tolerate
?less evolved' cultures," (www.galenet.com). Van Gelder's reading of The Valley of
Horses was anomalous, though, as most critics, and presumable most readers, interpreted
Ayla's break with the "flatheads" as a positive experience, indicative of her strength of
character and self-sufficiency.
In fact, Auel's emphasis on the fact that the Neanderthals were both unwilling and
incapable of changing their ways appeals to a broader audience than those who ascribe to
feminist ideals. Instead, it reinforces Auel's "egalitarian feminism" (Journal of Popular
Culture, Winter 1994), in which men and women alike are equally important. "Auel may
be making a more general point that any society that uses past behavior as an invariable
guide to present decisions will fail. Auel's novel implies that any society that rejects the
innovations of its most creative citizens because of their gender, race or other
characteristics, will ultimately perish," (Wilcox, 64).
Even from the outset, Auel plays on her readers' sensibilities, appealing to their various
situations. The strictly feminist perspective would have been extremely popular at the
time because of the increasing numbers of women entering the corporate infrastructure,
facing the proverbial glass ceiling in many cases. Ayla is striking because of her
remarkable ability to fend for herself and to cultivate her myriad of abilities in the
relatively hostile environment of the Clan; despite the incongruity of her prehistoric
surroundings, she embodied superwoman ideal which was emerging in the 1980s, both
physically and in terms of her abilities. "It is possible to see in Ayla's athletic body the
new feminine ideal of the 1980s with its emphasis on participation in sports and even
bodybuilding," (Wood, 35).
Auel broadens the appeal of this book in the way she ends it, with Jondalar and Ayla
happily committed to one another and encountering a new social group: "The novel ends
with the meeting of a human group, a signal of Ayla's entry into a new social order. She
manages to have it all -- independence and companionship -- the fantasy of the modern
American woman," (Wood, 37). One might say, in fact, that Ayla
presents the earliest solution to the problem of balancing work (in Ayla's case, hunting
and maintaining a home) and a family or, in this case, a relationship. This type of ending
is appealing to either a man or a woman having to deal with the relatively novel idea of a
two-career family in the same way that a traditional fairy tale is appealing; both offer a
neat, satisfying solution to a difficult and complex problem. Ayla and Jondalar's
relationship can be construed to be an ideal one, as perfect in the context of the Ice Age
as it would be in the 1980s.
Social implications aside, The Valley of Horses was and continues to be enormously
successful in great part because of its plot. Auel uses both the elements of a romance
(many contend that she strays too close to the bodice-ripping variety of romance to be
taken seriously) and an adventure; the presence of both these storylines help broaden the
audience base to whom The Valley of Horses appeals.
Ayla's role as the focus of the actions also provides an interesting twist on the traditional
adventure story, as she "does not seek external validation by men but instead actively
initiates the direction of the narrative without waiting for a man to take charge,"
(Wood, 34). In fact, Ayla actually saves Jondalar's life from a
much-feared cave lion, which she actually adopted and raised from a cub, on two
occasions: "?Ayla don't! O Mother, stop her!' the man cried when she jumped in front
of him, in the path of the charging lion. The woman made a sharp, imperative motion,
and in the guttural language of the Clan, shouted, "Stop!" The huge rofous-maned lion,
with a wrenching twist, pulled his leap short and landed at the woman's feet. Then he
rubbed his massive head against her leg," (Auel, 464). This angle provides novelty in the
traditional structure of the adventure story, as well as playing off the feminist overtones
of the book, drawing in an ever-broadening audience, particularly women.
The scientific and anthropologically accurate details which Auel uses to flesh out the
story reveal the depth and breadth of her research into the society of prehistoric humans.
In the course of the novel, Auel expounds on the various uses of herbs and plants one
might find in prehistoric Europe, the various tools Ayla would have had at her disposal
and the different methods of hunting prehistoric animals that different groups of people
would have used. Although Auel, in many cases, is forced to make inferences and
assumptions about the prehistoric world because of the uncertainty in the scientific
community about what life would have really been like, most find that her writing still
passes muster: "?We can tell you how the paintings were made, but not why,' says
American archaeologist Roy Larick. ?Jean does as good a job at speculating as anyone
else,'" (www.galenet.com). These historical details make the novel all the more
attractive, drawing history and archaeology buffs to the book along with those who read
it strictly for the entertainment value.
The element of romance in the novel is also important in making the book attractive to a
fairly diverse audience, despite the fact that it does not factor significantly into the book
until close to the end, when Jondalar and Ayla finally meet. The way in which Auel
handles the relationship between these two, particularly in her descriptions of their
numerous sexual encounters, is considered by many critics to be by far the weakest part
of the entire novel. Consider, for example, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, entitled
"Primordial Passions of the Pleistocene Times: The Flesh is Willing, But the Diction is
Weak." The reviewer characterizes the book as a "well researched children's story
fleshed out with steamy primordial sex, women's lib, soap opera plots and ?Me, Tarzan,
you, Jane,' dialogue," (Sales, 3).
The abundance of "steamy primordial sex" clearly did not preclude, however, the
successful sales of the book. Ultimately, the romantic aspect of the story rounds out the
stories of Ayla's intrepid and daring exploits to create the perfect literary fast food: sex
and action all rolled together in one relatively interesting, certainly novel, package. The
fact that the book contains such strong feminist ideas and rich scientific and
anthropological details only serves to make the novel more palatable: junk food with a
conscience, the ultimate way to appeal to a broad range of readers. As one critic noted,
"Jondalar is the ultimate civilized Cro-Magnon, a well-muscled, artistic, spear-throwing
Cary Grant. And it is Ayla, and Ayla alone, who invents oral sex, horseback riding, a
new technique for making fire and a better way of dragging the kill back to the cave. But
despite those qualifications, The Valley of Horses is great fun to read. Jean M. Auel has
created ancestors who do us all credit," (Isaacs, 14). Auel's technique has obviously been incredibly successful, having sold 875,000
copies of the hardback version of the book and 4.78 million paperback versions by 1990
(The San Francisco Chronicle).
Isaacs, Susan. "The Valley of Horses." The New York Times Book Review, Sept 26, 1982. p.14.
Ms, Jul 1984.
Sales, Grover. "Primordial Passions of the Pleistocene Times: The Flesh is Willing, But the Diction is Weak." Los Angeles Times Book Review. Sept 12, 1982. p. 3.
The San Francisco Chronicle, Oct 25, 1990.
Wilcox, Clyde. "The Not-so-Failed Feminism of Jean Auel." Journal of Popular Culture, Winter 1994. pp. 63-70.
Wood, Diane. "Female Heroism in the Ice Age: Jean Auel's Earth Children." Extrapolation, Spring 1986. pp. 33-38.