The Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

This book is a sequel to The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I mostly enjoyed when I read it last month. It follows Ayla, a prehistoric young human woman who was raised by “the clan,” a race called the “flatheads” by humans of the day. I think we’d call them Neanderthals today, or some other non homo sapiens hominid. At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is ostracized from the clan, and leaves determined to survive. This narrative is split between Ayla and Jondalar, a human man on a journey, who of course eventually meets up with Ayla and falls in love with her.

My main criticisms of the book are that it is too long and full of too much tedious anthropological detail. It took too long for Jondalar to reach Ayla, too long for them to fall in love, and too long for them to decide to leave the valley together. There are many overly meticulous descriptions of how Ayla and Jondalar make tools, clothes, and medicines. Several Stone-Age innovations are introduced, and the technology is interesting, but it strains credulity to think that the same person first domesticated horses, used flint to start a fire, and invented a spear thrower.

The tribe that Jondalar comes from, the Zelandoni, is a much more positive culture than the clan, especially for women. The clan worships totems, male animal spirits; the Zelandoni worship Donii, an earth mother goddess. The clan doesn’t allow women to hunt, the Zelandoni do. Clan women are submissive; Zelandoni women are respected leaders. The clan has no concept of sexual consent for women, who are expected to always be sexually available for men to “relieve their needs”; for the Zelandoni sex is “sharing pleasure” and showing reverance to the mother goddess. Virginity and first orgasm is such a big deal to the Zelandoni that they ritualize it, while among the clan Ayla’s first time was a rape. (Sex is presented in this book as something that everyone must be taught to do for the first time by an experienced partner. Apparently two virgins couldn’t just figure it out on their own.) Human Ayla doesn’t fit in the clan because she has instincts to do things like talk, sing and laugh, which the clan people never do. It’s pretty obvious which values system is supposed to be better. As oversimplified and black-and-white as this contrast is, I appreciated learning about the enlightened Zelandoni after being stuck so long with Ayla in the claustrophobic, oppressive, misogynistic clan.

I got annoyed with the way Jondalar is presented as a total stud. He’s constantly inundated with women offering themselves to him, including virgins. All the women he meets on his journey want him, but for some plot-convenient reason, he’s unable to fall in love until he meets Ayla.

As the book ends, Ayla and Jondalar have left the valley and met a new tribe of people. I’m interested to see what these people will think of her, and if she’ll ever meet her old clan again. The more the worldviews of these two groups can be brought into conflict, the better.

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7 thoughts on “The Valley of Horses

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