Nicholas Ruddick, The Fire in the Stone

Nicholas Ruddick, The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009). xvii+265 pp. £31.50 hb. ISBN 978-0-8195-6900-4.

The Fire in the Stone is the first comprehensive study in English of what Nicholas Ruddick calls prehistoric fiction or pf, by analogy with science fiction as sf. For Ruddick, pf is not merely a subsection of sf. Instead, it is a sister genre which asks the same overarching questions about what it means to be human but answers them, not by reaching imaginatively into the future or to other worlds, but rather by reaching into the past here at home. Both genres engage with scientific theories and data; both, Ruddick suggests, should be judged less on accuracy than on plausibility; and individual texts may belong to both genres at once.

Ruddick’s newly-defined genre encompasses all fiction that represents prehistoric human beings, whether on their own (defined as pure pf) or through a staged encounter between modern and ancient hominids (prehistoric sf, in Ruddick’s terms). Ruddick insists that by definition ‘fictional descriptions of prehistoric people and events are the result of a fantastic (that is, not realistic) narrative strategy’ because ‘time travel, literal or otherwise, is impossible in the physical universe as currently understood’ (4). Yet the texts he draw on range from adventure stories (Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and satiric comedies (Roy Lewis’s What We Did to Father) to broadly realist courtroom dramas (Vercors’s You Shall Know Them) and works so artful and original that they would seem to defy classification (Golding’s The Inheritors). They include French novels as well as British and American ones, plus films (2001) and even cartoons (The Flintstones). In effect, any narrative text depicting prehistoric humans is eligible. Only poetry is excluded. This is perhaps a pity, as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘In the Neolithic Age’ and William Canton’s ‘Through the Ages’ would complement Ruddick’s discussion of Victorian pf, while Robert Pack and Philip Appleman draw out further some of the concerns of contemporary pf in their poetry. On the other hand, the inclusion of lyric poetry in particular might have detracted from Ruddick’s core thesis: that the unique strength of pf lies in its ability to put forward ‘speculative scenarios of hominization’ (3, Ruddick’s italics). As Ruddick persuasively argues, palaeoanthropology is itself a speculative, narrative genre. Pf is therefore ‘not parasitic and supplementary but parallel and complementary’ to the science with which it engages (107). Indeed, it is a freer device for conducting the same exercise—creating plausible speculative narratives of human evolution—which can in turn suggest new leads to the science from which it derives.

Defined in these terms, pf may sound more like a theme than a genre. In fact, Ruddick makes a compelling case for the generic unity of a large body of narrative fiction, most of it largely ignored by mainstream critics, written in French and English over the last hundred and fifty years. This is the main achievement of the first section of his book. The Fire in the Stone reads somewhat as though it has been written twice, as if Ruddick could not decide whether a narrative or a thematic structure would suit his purposes best and so opted for each in turn. The first section, ‘Generic Evolution’, is a comprehensive history of pf in three chapters, sectioned off from one another somewhat arbitrarily. Chapter 1 covers pf in French to 1875 and in English to 1914; Chapter 2 takes the French up to 1914 as well, then moves on to interwar fiction in both languages; Chapter 3 takes up the story post-war and carries it through to the present day. 1859 is the starting point, on the grounds that before then there was no ‘generally accepted concept of human prehistory’ (5). Two events mark this year out: the endorsement by the respected English geologists Joseph Prestwich and John Evans of the French archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Perthes’s previously dismissed claims for the co-existence of humans and extinct animals, and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The one confirmed the empirical evidence of prehistoric humanity; the other gave a scientific framework for interpreting that evidence.

The strength of Ruddick’s first section is its comprehensiveness. As a survey of fiction about prehistoric humans, with plot summaries and historical cross-references to developments in palaeoanthropology, it is useful and well supported by a helpful chronology. But this strength is also a weakness. It serves Ruddick’s purpose of demonstrating generic coherence, but often at the expense of another of his aims—to establish the worth of his new genre on literary grounds. There are individual cases where Ruddick shows his authors self-consciously reworking specific ideas or devices of their predecessors within the genre, but the overriding impression is of a generic coherence based on the predictable repetition of the same motifs. As Ruddick’s account progresses, these motifs become tiresomely familiar, to the extent that even the books he names as the finest achievements of the genre appear diminished by association.

Fortunately the weaknesses apparent in the first section of The Fire in the Stone are redeemed in the second. Here Ruddick analyses his subject thematically, not chronologically, and he concentrates on fewer examples in more depth. Each of the four chapters of this section explores a key concern within the genre. Chapter 4 concerns human nature, and what distinguishes humanity from the natural world at large. Ruddick argues that pf ‘can enable us to confront more directly than any other kind of literature our human nature viewed as the result of an evolved process’ (104). This chapter focuses on crucial developments which symbolically or actually alienate humankind from nature, including the use of weapons, fire, and the domestication of animals.

Chapter 5 concentrates on sex and gender. Discussing Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear in Chapter 3, Ruddick observes that works which are both original and popular enough to establish genres or sub-genres of their own (in this case prehistoric romance) are ‘significant as much for sociological as for aesthetic reasons’ (84). His excellent discussions in Chapter 5 of feminism in prehistoric romance and of the motif he whimsically but aptly calls ‘Courtship with a Club’ in earlier examples of pf bear this out. At the same time, Ruddick’s account of Vardis Fisher’s exploration of primitive matriarchy and its eclipse by patriarchy across the four prehistoric novels from his ‘Testament of Man’ series bears out his claim that pf can be a highly effective form for speculation about unknown transitions within human evolution.

Chapter 6 is primarily a study of how pf has embodied changing conceptions of race, with different writers at different times using the genre to affirm or to challenge the supremacy of humans over animals or white over black. Chapter 7, on culture, returns to the speculative role of pf, exploring the evolution of language, religion and art. Together Ruddick’s accounts of the distinctions between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon language in The Inheritors and The Clan of the Cave Bear, of the collapse of Magdalenian art in Claude Anet’s The End of a World, and of Neanderthal incomprehension at the New People’s ritual art in The Inheritors again, give a compelling sense of how pf can rise to the challenge of constructing narrative ‘scenarios of hominization’ which answer, albeit provisionally, the question ‘What does it mean to be a member of the human species?’ (3)

The Fire in the Stone is a distinctive, welcome and timely addition to the growing library on the impact of evolutionary theory on literature. The first section is an effective work of reference which convincingly identifies a new genre, provides firm ground for future studies in the field and spares later scholars the ordeal of having to read many of the books Ruddick has dutifully covered. The second section is a perceptive and engaging account of why pf is worth reading, both from a cultural-historical perspective and as a form of speculative narrative that not only reflects but complements and even informs palaeoanthropology itself.

John Holmes, University of Reading