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This is an ongoing interest of mine. There is more of it than you might think.


There is a website (www.trussel.com/prehist/prehist1.htm) that lists a total of 1181 titles, but to scroll through this list is like taking a walk through Highgate Cemetery without necessarily knowing where to find Karl Marx, Michael Faraday or George Eliot. Most of the names have long since been forgotten, and there’s no particularly good reason (unless they belong to your family) why they should be remembered.


If you’ve read Franz Heinrich Achermann’s (1920) Kanibalen der Eiszeit (Cannibals of the Ice Age) or Mary Marcy’s (1917) Stories of the Cave People, then you have certainly delved deeper into this topic than I have. It’s more likely that you have read one or more of Jean M. Auel’s best-selling Earth’s Children series, or perhaps William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning The Inheritors.


There is even a recent book dedicated to the subject of prehistory in fiction (Charles de Paolo’s 2003 Human Prehistory in Fiction), but many of the works that it covers (and even more of the 1181 works listed on the website above) I wouldn’t really count as fictional accounts of human prehistory at all.


Works such as H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Lord of the Dynamos and The Time Machine; Pierre Boulle’s The Planet of the Apes; and Jules Verne’s The Village in the Treetops use fantasy and science-fiction devices such as time travel, genetic experiments and parallel universes  to bring “prehistoric” characters into contact and dialogue with modern ones. Whatever their literary merits they offer, in a sense, the equivalent of a visit to the zoo. I’m interested in reading about prehistoric characters in their natural habitat, an environment in which the likes of you and I quite simply don’t belong. Yet fiction can take us there, and that’s the fascination! Indeed, it is only fiction that can fully take us there - the writer begins to fictionalise the moment that he or she gives a name to a prehistoric character, something that the archaeological record can never provide.


In some respects, however, fiction set in prehistory does indeed resemble fantasy writing. Archaeology leaves much to the imagination and successful fiction relies on the imagination of the author to fill the gaps in the archaeological record. The fictional worlds that result may well seem as strange to the modern reader as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Le Guin’s Earthsea. Only the familiar laws of physics and biology need apply, and these not necessarily in the minds and understanding of the characters. Like Tolkien, the author of such fiction can adopt and transform familiar myths, implicitly suggesting an earlier origin for them by carrying them back in time and adapting them to the relevant cultural context.


There are other respects in which such fiction may resemble travel writing. William Dalrymple has written of how he, as a travel writer, co-opted the techniques of the novelist, but I think that there is a potential here for the novelist to return the compliment, transporting readers to worlds that did once exist, but which they cannot actually visit.

  These strands, of course, are inevitably interwoven with the themes that one might expect to find in any other historical fiction: accounts of battles, natural disasters, epic journeys and so on, together with the accompanying human stories of love and loss, of hopes achieved and dashed, of fears real and imagined. As with any historical fiction, research is a crucial underpinning, but it shouldn’t weigh too heavily on the consciousness of the reader. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “if a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

Stone Lord, by J.P. Reedman (2012).

…one of the dead men’s barrows came into view, huge and round, blocking the starlight, circled by a white chalk ditch that kept the spirit of the corpse – if he still lingered on the mortal plain – within its sacred boundaries. A decaying memorial pole loomed on the mound’s summit, facing North-East, where the Sun rose at Midsummer…He was there. The warrior. The grave-wight. He was one of the old ones, one of the first men of tin. He carried a bow, and golden baskets glittered in his hair…” 

J.P. Reedman’s debut novel, like Cornwell’s Stonehenge, takes, for its principal setting, the landscape around the iconic monument. It is a landscape with which, I suspect, she has a greater intimacy than Cornwell has (she lives nearby), and this is an intimacy which shines through in the telling of the story. It is a story that is also closely informed, as Cornwell’s clearly cannot be, by the results of the archaeological researches that have been undertaken within this landscape over the past ten years or so. The result is a setting, both in terms of the physical landscape and of the imagined culture, which is strikingly vivid and believable. As with Elphinstone’s The Gathering Night, or Golding’s The Inheritors, the reader is plunged into the heart of a world that is utterly unfamiliar. 

Elements of the plot may be rather more familiar, since Reedman has embroidered, onto the warp of this remote time period (she is deliberately inexact about this in the author’s note, but notes that some of the artefacts which feature prominently in the story date to around 1900 BC, a period in which Stonehenge itself was already ancient), a narrative tapestry from which leap out the figures of Arthurian heroes and heroines whose deeds were first committed to writing 1500 years later. In doing so, she explores the possibility of “…older…substrata in the Arthurian mythos…,” taking artistic license where she has thought it necessary (as she makes clear in the author’s note) in order seamlessly to bring together these two dimensions of her creative project. This artistic licence blurs the boundaries somewhat between “historical fiction” and “historical fantasy:” introducing elements that may unnerve the scholar of the period (direct contact between the peoples of Bronze Age Britain and the Mediterranean world; warriors on horseback; the rabbits and chickens that flit across the pages as unexpectedly as the snakes and centaurs frolicking in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry) whilst avoiding anything that is actually “magic” or “supernatural.” 

Like all “historical novels,” it is, of course, a product of the modern imagination, weaving together diverse threads, much as Gildas and Mallory wove together the concerns of their own age with the dimly remembered traditions of a much earlier period, and the intricately twisted chords of the many and varied imaginings that separated and connected them.          

Reindeer Moon, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (1987).

Clasped hands are the sign for a lodge, for marriage, and for strength, since the fingers are the joined antlers of a roof and also the joined people who live under it. So I will show with my hands about the other people of our lodge and how we lived together. 

The hand palm down with fingers spread is the sign for men. If I count the grown men of the lodge on the backs of my fingers, I find eight. On my right hand I find a man on every finger – Graylag...his two sons, Timu and Elho, his brother’s son, Raven, and his daughter’s husband, Crane... 

The hand palm up with thumb and fingers tight together is the sign for women, water and berries. So I count the grown women on the pads of my fingers and find six, On the first and second fingers of my right hand I find Graylag’s two wives – Ina, who was Father’s sister, and Teal, who was a shaman...


The narrator is Yanan, a woman whose short life was lived out in what is now Siberia, around 20,000 years ago. The entire story is narrated in her first person voice and reads more like a fictionalised autobiography than a conventional novel. As such, it stands in the tradition of Robert Graves’s Claudius novels and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Claudius and Hadrian, however, were world leaders, and the plots of those novels are provided by the events (relatively well known) of their reigns. In Yanan’s story, by contrast, there is no real plot beyond the life events that are common to all women: daily life; puberty; the death of parents; marriage and its attendant difficulties; pregnancy; the petty rivalries and jealousies of an extended family. There is nothing exceptional about Yanan except, of course, for her presence amongst us, which feels startlingly real.


Marshall Thomas’s background is as a social anthropologist. She has lived among hunter-gatherer communities in the Kalahari, and published non-fictional accounts of their lives. She has also published books based on close observations of the behaviour of deer, cats and dogs. Although she is at pains to stress that her Palaeolithic Siberians are not “based on” any living group, her descriptions of hunter-gatherer lives have about them a ring of truth that few other novelists (if any) have been able to match.


Yanan’s narration in the novel continues beyond her own death. In keeping with her people’s beliefs, she becomes a spirit, as is made clear in the prologue:


I was still a young woman when I left the world of the living and became a spirit of the dead.


As a spirit, she can take on the form of an animal (a wolf, a mammoth, a deer) and experience her own familiar world through their unfamiliar eyes. To write convincingly from the point of view of an animal is an extraordinarily difficult task for a novelist, but Marshall Thomas’s hand is unfaltering here, and the result is a joy to read.

 This book may not have enjoyed the commercial success of Jean Auel’s epics (Fontana marketed Reindeer Moon as a book for “everyone who loved The Clan of the Cave Bear) but, for my money, Yanan is a more convincing heroine than Ayla, and the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of her world will remain in my mind for far longer.        

The Inheritors by William Golding (1955).

The onyx marsh water was spread before them, widening into the river. The trail along by the river began again on the other side on ground that rose until it was lost in the trees. Lok, grinning happily, took two paces towards the water and stopped. The grin faded and his mouth opened till the lower lip hung down. Liku slid to his knee then dropped to the ground. She put the little Oa’s head to her mouth and looked over her.Lok laughed uncertainly.‘The log has gone away.’” 

In this novel, Golding attempts one of the bravest things that any writer of fiction can ever attempt, to tell a very human story from the point of view of a character (in this case Lok) who is not fully human (he and his band are among the last of the Neanderthals).


The first part of the book follows Lok and his extended family through their daily lives and through the familiar cycles of life. These people come across as very human, doting on their children, caring for their sick and grieving for their dead. Part of the joy of the book is the way in which the reader is left to figure things out for themselves. Who is Liku, for example, and who or what is “the little Oa”? How do they relate to Lok?


The second part of the book traces Lok’s first mystifying and dangerous encounter with “Cro-Magnon” people, biologically and mentally indistinguishable from ourselves. He has no effective means of communicating with them, struggles to understand the realities of their lives and has no idea of their intentions towards him or his family. Through the brilliance of Golding’s “realistic narrative art[1]”, we the readers, walk with Lok into the fearfulness of this encounter, despite the fact that we might, instinctively, find it easier to understand the lives of the newcomers than those of the Neanderthals.


The story touches on the belief systems of the Neanderthals, and on the technological differences between them and the newcomers to their world, but it doesn’t dwell on them. This is fortunate from the point of view of the modern reader. Archaeology and palaeoanthropology have come a long way since 1955, and our understanding of the technology and ecology of Palaeolithic communities has changed profoundly, but this potential gap in understanding does little to mar an appreciation of Golding’s masterful illumination of aspects of the developing human condition.


The Land of Painted Caves, by Jean M. Auel (2011).

“The band of travellers walked along the path between the clear sparkling water of Grass River and the black-streaked white limestone cliff, following the trail that paralleled the right bank. They went single file around the bend where the stone wall jutted out closer to the water’s edge. Ahead a smaller path split off at an angle toward the crossing place, where the flowing water spread out and became shallower, bubbling around exposed rocks. 

Before they reached the fork in the trail, a young woman near the front suddenly stopped, her eyes opening wide as she stood perfectly still, staring ahead. She pointed with her chin, not wanting to move. ‘Look! Over there!’ she said in a hissing whisper of fear. ‘Lions!’ ”


This is the sixth novel in an epic series which traces the journey across Europe of a young woman, Ayla, around 27,000 years ago. In the first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the five year-old Ayla is separated from her own (“Cro-Magnon”) people and adopted by a clan of Neanderthals. In keeping with the archaeological and palaeoanthropological evidence available in the 1980’s, these Neanderthals are more fully “human” than Golding’s, and the hostility that sometimes breaks out between the two groups is portrayed in a similar light to modern racism.


In the subsequent novels, The Valley of Horses (1984), The Mammoth Hunters (1986), The Plains of Passage (1991) and The Shelters of Stone (2002) she leaves her adopted family, having fallen foul of its new leader; meets the love of her life, Jondalar; and travels with him from her own birthplace in what is now the Ukraine to his birth-place in south-western France, via the Danube Valley and the Alps. Finally settled in the community of Jondalar’s birth, Ayla gives birth to a daughter, Jonayla.


Their integration in Ayla’s new community, however, does not come easily. The journey that they have undertaken together, and the skills that they have gained along the way, inspire respect in some people, jealousy in others. Jondalar and Ayla ride horses and have with them an apparently tame wolf. Both horses and wolves were regarded by these people as wild animals. The scale of Ayla’s achievements over the course of her young life (she has, more or less single-handedly, domesticated the horse and the dog, and invented the spear-thrower, the travois and the sewing needle) would surely have inspired apprehension in most of her contemporaries. For me, the attribution of quite so many of the major advances of the Upper Palaeolithic period (30,000-12,000 years ago) to one woman, over a space of less than 35 years, undermines the credibility of the overall story, even though the individual details (descriptions, for example, of hunting mammoth or of making a boat) are both meticulously researched and absolutely convincing.


In a recent article in The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/06/lying-historical-fiction), James Forrester argued that “too much attention to factual detail” can be “an impediment to literary art,” and many readers have found this to be the case with Auel’s writing, not only in relation to Palaeolithic technologies but also in relation to Ayla’s sexual encounters, some of which are described in a level of detail that would have brought a blush to D.H. Lawrence’s face. For me personally, this tends to undermine the dignity of Hemingway’s metaphorical iceberg, but there’s no denying the popular appeal of these books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide.

The Dance of the Tiger, by Bjorn Kurten (1980).

The mammoths broke cover, soundlessly, at the place foreseen by the human mind. One by one they emerged from the forest, big animals at the head of the line, smaller ones next, and an immense bull bringing up the rear. As if under orders, adults and young alike pointed the tips of their short trunks upward, suspiciously sniffing the lazy airs that wafted across the bog... In seconds, fires crackled into life. After weeks of fair weather the land was dry as tinder, and the bracken and sedge burned with a roar. Yelling figures threw spears. The terrified animals squealed. Shying away from the fire, they stumbled toward the bog.  

This was the climax of days of planning and tracking, from the moment the small band of hunters had known of the mammoth herd. It was early in the year for mammoth, and the Chief was sceptical when the breathless scout panted out his news. Shelk, moose, deer, even bison could be expected. But mammoth?


Set in Scandinavia at a time when “Cro-Magnon” and Neanderthal people co-existed, most of the story is told from the point of view of Tiger, a young Cro-Magnon man who, in the course of his travels, spends time with a Neanderthal group and ultimately marries a Neanderthal woman. Tiger and his friends (both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal) face a constant threat from a rival band led by a man named Shelk, himself a hybrid between the two species, and the plot of the novel is largely based on this conflict (very much a conflict between the two bands, and indeed between the two men, rather than between the two species). This plot, and the interaction between well drawn and believable characters, gives the story a clear dynamic which lasts almost until the end. I say “almost” because the novel has an ending which is certainly unexpected and, to my mind, scarcely believable.

Kurten was a palaeontologist, an expert on fossil bears, and he had an intimate knowledge both of the landscape he was writing about, and of the archaeological evidence on which his story is based. His book carries ringing endorsements from Richard Leakey (“...a vivid account of the life of our ancestors that brings alive the richness of our prehistoric heritage”) and Stephen Jay Gould (“...filled with insight into human character and the ways of nature”).  

Some passages of description and exposition (and there are quite a lot of them for a relatively short book) read more like docudrama than fiction in its purest sense: some fine pictures are painted, but not all of them from the perspectives of the characters. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then this, at least on one level, is academic discourse freed from its usual constraints. Kurten himself makes this point in an opening “challenge to the reader,” in which he states that the “main theme” of the book is a model to explain the disappearance of the Neanderthals, and invites us to “discover” this model from the clues that he has planted, as in an “honest detective story.” Gould is even more explicit about this:


I believe that Kurten’s novel is a more appropriate place than the professional literature itself for discussing many of the truly scientific issues that swirl about the Neanderthal-Cro-Magnon debate...


These two elements of the novel: on the one hand an engaging story based on the interaction of three main characters (Tiger, the Cro-Magnon protaganist, Veyde, his Neanderthal lover/wife and Shelk, his hybrid enemy); and, on the other hand, the use of fiction as a tool to present a scientific “model,” sit a little uneasily together, as though Kurten is speaking to us with two alternating voices, that of the storyteller and that of the scientist.


Kurten himself coined the term “palaeofiction” to describe the genre in which he was trying to write, a genre that has never really taken off, perhaps because it is, in itself, too much of a hybrid. There is surely a lesson to be learned here from science fiction. However much it may be informed by science, the best science fiction writing, from H.G. Wells to Ursula K. Le Guin is, first and foremost, fiction, and has to be written as such, and read as such.


The Gathering Night, by Margaret Elphinstone (2009).

“Haizea said: ‘Bakar’s disappearance was my first loss. It is also where this story begins. If my brother Bakar hadn’t gone, we wouldn’t all be sitting here now. And you two boys – listen to me, both of you! If Bakar hadn’t been lost, you two would never have become brothers. You might never even have known each other. And the lives of all of us – of all the Auk People – would have unfolded differently. But I can’t even begin to think about that. No one can undo the threads of a story once they’re tied together. Not even the spirits can do that.’” 

Set in Scotland 8000 years ago, this novel charts the aftermath of a tsunami and its impacts on the hunter-gatherer communities living at either end of the Great Glen. Elphinstone’s characters, unlike Golding’s, are fully modern humans, whose thought processes work exactly as ours do, even though their technology and way of life are profoundly different.

The story is told in the first person, by nine individual narrators, each of whom has a distinctive voice and character. The pretext of the story is that the story is told by these nine characters around a campfire on eight successive nights, but the action covers a period of more than a year. It is meticulously researched and includes beautifully observed details of the landscape (Elphinstone’s research for this book, and for her earlier novel, Voyageurs, set in 19th Century Canada, has included time spent in the wilderness, hunting & gathering, building & travelling in traditional craft). As a reconstruction of life in the distant path, I found it wholly convincing. It has lively characters and a well-defined plot building to a dramatic and terrifying conclusion.

Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver (2004).

Torak awoke with a jolt from a sleep he’d never meant to have. 

The fire had burned low. He crouched in the fragile shell of light and peered into the looming blackness of the forest. He couldn’t see anything. Couldn’t hear anything. Had it come back? Was it out there now, watching him with its hot, murderous eyes? 

...Only yesterday – yesterday – they’d pitched camp in the blue autumn dusk. Torak had made a joke, and his father was laughing. Then the forest exploded. Ravens screamed. Pines cracked. And out of the dark beneath the trees surged a deeper darkness: a huge, rampaging menace in bear form. 

Suddenly death was upon them...


One reviewer in The New Statesman described this book as “...an utterly gripping Bronze Age quest...” but, from the moment I started reading, I felt myself in the Mesolithic and that, indeed, is where we are with this book, the Late Mesolithic of Finland to be more precise.


The fact that this book and its sequels, Spirit Walker (2005), Soul Eater (2006), Outcast (2007), Oath Breaker (2008) and Ghost Hunter (2009), which together make up the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, is intended for children made it more, not less, interesting for me, since I well remember the inspiration that I drew, as a child, on the one hand from Rosemary Sutcliff’s beautifully crafted historical fiction and, on the other, from Sonia Bleeker’s non-fiction accounts of Native American peoples.


Like Margaret Elphinstone’s book, this is meticulously researched and Paver, like Elphinstone, has spent time living in the wilderness, experiencing at first hand (insofar as it is possible) the life lived by the characters she is writing about. A childrens’ writer has to be even more careful than a writer of adult fiction not to bore the reader with too much fine detail, and Paver seems to have found a near-perfect balance between believability on the one hand and the retention of the readers’ interest on the other.


Like Jean Auel’s Ayla, Paver’s Torak “adopts” a wolf-cub, who becomes a close companion. In this case, however, it seems less of an extraordinary feat (and, thereby, more easy to believe), since domestic dogs are already a part of the world in which Torak has grown up. Some parts of the narrative are told from the wolf-cub’s point of view, a brave but challenging device that is, perhaps, more likely to work for child-readers than for adults.


What makes this book truly special, however, is the way in which myth and reality swirl together and become part of one another. A demon stalks its pages, but is it really a supernatural phenomenon or might there be a straightforward material explanation? On one level, the reader is left to make up his or her own mind but, on another level, we come to the realisation that no such distinction could possibly be meaningful or relevant to Torak. The “demon,” whatever it is, is real: it has already torn the heart out of his life; and he must destroy it before it destroys his world.  


Ghost Hunter completed the series, and Paver has gone on to publish an adult ghost story, Dark Matter (2010). Apparently she now has a contract with Puffin Books to write a new series of childrens’ books set in the Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Bending the Boyne, by J.S. Dunn (2011)

The flaming head of the ancient one tipped above the horizon. The rising sun took Boann into its warm, golden embrace. She stayed until the rays hid the glittering void, ending her vigil of the stars…She saw it then, a speck out on the vast ocean. With her hand shading her eyes she could see the large boat, crammed black. Sparks of light glinted from metal: the fearsome long knives. Boann scrambled down the mountain slope to warn the Dagda. She soon found him, a dignified figure herding sheep and lambs on the grassy plain.“’You’re sure that it is an intruder boat?’ He cast a wary look to the east.She nodded. ‘I am sure that I’m sure’

J.S. Dunn’s Bending the Boyne weaves together historical fiction (based, essentially, on archaeological evidence) with Irish myth to create an engaging human story set in 2000 BC. At its heart is a conflict between two groups of people: the native Irish “Starwatchers,” a peace-loving Stone Age culture led by astronomer-priests, both male and female; and an invading group of copper/bronze using people with a strongly developed warrior culture, an insatiable demand for copper & gold, and a well-established network of trade routes extending the full length of Europe’s Atlantic coast. It is told, very much, from the point of view of the “Starwatchers,” with two characters in particular taking centre stage: Boann, a young woman in training to be an astronomer priestess, and Cian, the young man who loves her, and is loved by her. They are torn apart when Cian takes the decision to live, for a time, with the invaders, and falls under suspicion: is he a traitor to his own people, or is he really spying for them? He undertakes a long voyage of discovery, taking him to Brittany, the Loire Valley and the Basque country. It is certainly a page-turner and is, in many respects, meticulously researched (the description of Copper/Bronze Age mining activities, in particular, is based very closely on archaeological evidence from sites such as Mount Gabriel, in Co.Cork).

Dunn’s inclusion, in the book, of flesh-and-blood characters who later go on to be regarded, in Irish myth, as superhuman heroes, even as gods, challenges us to question just how far back in time the oral traditions that gave rise to later myth might go. She writes in a specifically Irish tradition of storytelling reminiscent of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and, in our own time, Frank Delaney. If I have a criticism, from a historical point of view, it is the same criticism I have of Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge. The novel is ostensibly set in 2000 BC, but the society described (large numbers of “invaders” with a warrior culture, industrial-scale mining, sea-crossings directly from Ireland to Brittany) seems more like that of 1800 or 1700 BC. That, however, need not mar anyone’s enjoyment of the book as a work of fiction.

Stonehenge (a novel of 2000 BC), by Bernard Cornwell (1999). 

The gods talk by signs. It may be a leaf falling in summer, the cry of a dying beast or the ripple of wind on calm water. It might be smoke lying close to the ground, a rift in the clouds or the flight of a bird. 

But on that day the gods sent a storm. It was a great storm, a storm that would be remembered, though folk did not name the year by that storm. Instead they called it the Year the Stranger Came. 

For a stranger came to Ratharryn on the day of the storm. It was a summer’s day, the same day that Saban was almost murdered by his half-brother.  

The gods were not talking that day. They were screaming.


Better known for his novels featuring the Napoleonic rifleman, Richard Sharpe, one of the most popular writers of historical fiction in English here turns his attention to Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument.


With action set between Ratharryn (Durrington Walls – the likely settlement of the builders of Stonehenge), Cathallo (Avebury, here credibly portrayed as Ratharryn’s traditional enemy) and Sarmennyn (west Wales, from which the bluestones are transported for the building of the monument itself). At its heart (again, very credibly to my mind) is the conflict between three brothers, each of whom has a hand in the Stonehenge story: Saban, the protaganist, a man of peace; Lengar, a murderous warlord; and Camaban, a half-crazed religious fundamentalist.


As one would expect from a writer of Cornwell’s reputation and experience, it is skilfully paced and makes for compelling reading. The problem, to my mind, is with the research. The Stonehenge bluestones appear to have been put in place at around 2400 BC. In the novel, however, it happens a full four centuries later, with artefacts described in some detail (including the gold plaques and stone mace discovered at Bush Barrow) to match this date. The rival armies of Ratharryn and Cathallo fight one another with bronze-tipped spears, which didn’t appear in Southern Britain until around 1500 BC, and the social system which underpins everything (militaristic chiefdoms with slavery and something approaching a market economy) is more redolent of this Middle Bronze Age date than it is of the age of Stonehenge, even if the religion is credibly that of Stonehenge itself.

[1] From the citation for Golding’s Nobel Prize, which was “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art, and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.


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