translated from the French
by Stephen Trussel

The War for Fire
An epic vision of evolution

by Éric Lysøe

Professor, University of Mulhouse

A summary version of this text appeared as the afterword to the Arles, Babel, 1994 edition of La Guerre du feu.

  1. The boom in prehistoric archeology
  2. Prehistory and literature in the second half of the 19th century
  3. An end-of-the-century inspiration
  4. A Collective Dimension
  5. A Plural Universe
  6. Fire: Universal value
  7. Fire: Sexual power
  8. War and Natural Selection
  9. Feline and Mammoth
  10. An Unyielding Law
  11. A Dream of Balance
  12. The Savage Thought


When J.-H. Rosny aîné [1856-1940] presented the first episodes of La Guerre du feu [The War for Fire] to readers of Je sais tout in July 1909, he was far from making his debut in what is called the "prehistoric genre." As early as 1887 his fantasy Les Xipéhuz ["The Shapes"] had provided him the opportunity to tell of "a thousand years before the civilizing assemblage from which emerged Nineveh, Babylonia, and Ecbatana"1. And that was merely a first draft for his "savage age novels". Five years later Vamireh appears, and then, nearly one after another, Eyrimah, Nomaï, amours lacustres and Élem d'Asie2. The vein seems nevertheless to immediately exhaust itself. He abandons the primitive times to interest himself in a less remote antiquity, publishing then, under the name Enacryos, Amour étrusque [Etruscan Love] and Les Femmes de Setnê [The Women of Setne]. But in 1909 he returns to his previous inspiration, to give prehistoric fiction his masterpiece: La Guerre du feu.

The novel is therefore the fruit of a slow maturation. Despite its relatively late publication date, it develops from currents in the midst of which appeared the author's first texts. This is explained by the extraordinary boom in prehistoric sciences during the latter half of the 19th century, and the literary tendencies marked especially by decadentism and naturalism. At the same time however, Rosny overrides these various influences to define a romantic formula in which a powerful epic breath gives a dimension until then unknown...

The boom in prehistoric archeology

In spite of everything, Rosny owes a good part of his love of primitive age themes to currents of the time, for prehistoric archeology constitutes one of the great fields of investigation of the 19th century3. Certainly, there was no lack of interest then in relics of the greatest antiquity. From 1655, the Frenchman Isaac de la Peyrère [1596-1676] had espoused the existence of a "Pre-Adamite" race, and soon, in fact, stratigraphic paleontology, in gestation in the work of the Dane Nicolaus Steno [1638-1686], and then in that of [Georges-Louis] Buffon [1707-1788] and Abbé [Jean-Louis Soulavie dit] Giraud-Soulavie [1752-1813], led to the challenging of the explanation of man's history, until then founded essentially on the biblical narrative.

In 1797, the Englishman John Frere [1740-1807] discovered chipped flints associated with the bones of extinct animals, and concluded the necessity of moving back the dawn of humanity that was reckoned at only several thousand years before Christ4. But his discovery passed unobserved, so that it is necessary to wait until the romantic period to discern real progress in the field.

Prehistoric archeology begins to develop first in the Scandinavian countries, notably with the works of L. S. Vedel Simonsen [1780-1858] and Christian Jürgensen Thomsen [1788-1865] on the three ages of stone, copper and iron. Then comes the turn of the English and the French: around 1825, on both sides of the English Channel, Ami Boué [1794-1881], Paul Tournal [1805-1872], Jules de Christol [1802-1861], John MacEnery [1796-1841] and William Buckland [1784-1856] discover human remains in old layers. The scientific community, represented in particular by [Georges] Cuvier [1769-1832] and his disciples5, pleads however for a traditional interpretation of history, one which would assign these relics to the modern era. From 1833 however, with the Liégeois Philippe-Charles Schmerling [1791-1836], the idea of an "antediluvian" race begins to spread.

Finally, Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes [1788-1868] founds modern prehistory by demonstrating through the three volumes of his Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities (1847-64) that man is contemporary with great mammals today extinct. In spite of certain corollaries at the very least fanciful6, his theses end up being much better accepted than those which arise from the debate following the 1859 publication of the masterly work of Charles Darwin [1809 -1882]: On the Origin of Species.

Two years later, the paleontologist Édouard Lartet [1801-1871] finalizes his first classification of the prehistoric ages, while on his side, Sir John Lubbock [1834-1913] proposes the terms "Neolithic" and "Paleolithic". Quickly, all this research is subsumed into an institutional setting. The Anthrolopogical Society that gathers most prehistorians is founded in 1859. From 1864 appears, under the direction of Gabriel de Mortillet [1821-1898], les Matériaux pour l'histoire de l'homme [Materials for the history of man], the first journal dedicated to prehistoric discoveries. The Saint-Germain Galli-Roman Museum enriches itself with several rooms dedicated to "prehistoric" man. The year 1866 marks the first Convention of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archeology, and one year later Alfred Maury [1817-1892], until then an antediluvian thesis adversary, dedicates, in La Revue des Deux Mondes [The Review of Two Worlds], an important article on the progress recorded by researchers7. Prehistory has just been born, even though, in a work of vulgarization entitled L'Homme primitif [Primitive Man], Louis Figuier [1819-1894] declares peremptorily that he undertakes "to expose a science that doesn't yet exist"8...

During the last two decades of the 19th century, knowledge continues to develop. Gabriel de Mortillet puts out his Musée préhistorique [Prehistoric Museum] in 1881; two years later, Le Préhistorique [The Prehistoric], a veritable treatise on what was then called "paleo-ethnology". In 1886, Marcel de Puydt [1855-1940] and Max Lohest exhume two human skeletons, at Spy, in Belgium, and remove the last doubts that could remain as to the existence of Neanderthal Man9. In a memoir dated 1894, a Dutch military physician, Eugene Dubois [1858-1940], reveals the existence of the Pithecanthropus of Java and marks thus an important stage in the research on man's origin. At the time of La Guerre du feu, prehistoric archeology is still in full bloom. Henri Breuil [1877-1961] reorients considerably the development of the young science by his work on some major sites, such as those at Altamira (1902) or Eyzies (1906). His hypotheses relative to the divisions of the superior Paleolithic even nourished real controversies, leading up to the "Aurignacian battle," in which partisans and adversaries of different chronological systems applicable to the prehistoric periods confronted each other...

Prehistory and literature in the second half of the 19th century

The literary world, however, didn't wait for these last developments to react. Samuel-Henry Berthoud [1804-1891] who, after a career as a romantic author, switched to scientific novels for youth, produced, in 1862, his Aventures des os d'un géant [Adventures of the bones of a giant] inspired by paleontological research. Three years later, in L'Homme depuis cinq mille ans [Man since five thousand years ago], he traces the history of human-kind from the primitive ages into the distant future. Meanwhile, Jules Verne [1828-1905] brought forth his Voyage au centre de la Terre [Journey to the Center of the Earth], wherein he reports the discoveries of Boucher de Perthes10 [1788-1868], evokes Édouard Lartet11, and even the antedeluvian man [Johann Jakob] Scheuchzer [1672-1733] had imagined the existence of from a skeleton of a salamander12. In 1876, Élie Berthet [1818-1891] showed us, in Le Monde inconnu [The Unknown World], "les Parisiens à l'âge de la pierre," the Parisians of the Stone Age. Twelve years later, it was the turn of Ernest d'Hervilly [1839-1911] to relate his Aventures d'un petit garçon préhistorique en France [Adventures of a prehistoric boy in France]...

By interesting himself in the novels of the "savage ages," then, Rosny is not really an innovator. And like his predecessors, he draws extensively on the scientific work of his contemporaries. In fact he follows the research of the prehistorians closely enough to put out an essay, Les Origines [1895]. So it is not surprising to find him constantly worrying about strong documentation. Thus, from the first lines of Vamireh [1892], he is visibly inspired by the chronology defined by Lartet, which made to follow each other, from oldest to most recent, the ages of the Great Bear, the Mammoth, the Reindeer and the Auroch:

It was twenty thousand years ago [...]. On the plains of Europe, the Mammoth was disappearing, the emigration of the great beasts toward the country of Light, the flight of the reindeer toward Septentrion, was ending. The Auroch, the Urus, and the Giant Stag grazed the grasses of the forests and savannas. The Great Bear had long since died out in the depths of his Caves13.

In the same way, when he presents the Kzamms of La Guerre du feu, or ten years later the Chelléens of Le Félin géant, he is thinking presumably of Gabriel de Mortillet's description of the Neanderthal, with his low forehead, long arms and short legs, "like an intermediary between the present man and the ape"14, "not very well built for running"15, very different therefore from the "Laugerien"16, prototype of Homo sapiens sapiens, to which Naoh and most the Oulhamrs seem to come closer. Hardly better off than those strange individuals the novelist calls "Red Dwarfs," possibly also coming from tracts of the time. They correspond in any case to the Anthropopithecus, baptized Homosimians thereafter, and of which paleontologists propose hardly more than that they were generally smaller than man17.

Nevertheless, while benefiting, like Samuel-Henri Berthoud or Jules Verne, from discoveries of a completely new science, Rosny disregards the essentially educational objective of most his predecessors. He prefers cursory allusion to didactic exposition. His intention is not visibly to initiate a young reader to prehistory, but to compose a literary œuvre. And he also doesn't hesitate to take liberties with the knowledge of his time and especially to put into play all the resources of the poetic image. It is thus, for example, that the reference to the flood, which constituted the keystone of prehistoric archeology for so long, is found again in La Guerre du feu, but transposed completely into symbolic terms. When they let the trembling flames they preserve in three cages die, the Oulhamrs are victims of a misfortune that is the inverse, in a way, of that which struck Noah's contemporaries. Because fire and water are obviously twin strengths:

Like Fire, the river's waters seemed [...] a being without limits. Like Fire, water diminished, augmented, surged from an invisible source, lashed out across the earth, devouring beasts and men. (Part II, Ch. 3)18.

To lose one or the other therefore constitutes a terrifying disaster. Furthermore, at the time when he imagined Naoh's quest to return fire to his tribe, Rosny was probably already thinking about a parallel episode. In La Mort de la Terre [The Death of the Earth], which appears a year later, the last man, Targ, is led to a real "war for water," pursuing the last drops of the precious liquid down into the underground depths. A parallel event to the drying up of the planet, the disappearance of fire therefore constitutes a sort of negative of the deluge, an episode not only ante- but also anti-diluvian. One understands this from the moment the character Naoh is presented in the starring role. His very name appears so clearly to mimic the English "Noah," that it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.19

An end-of-the-century inspiration

While playing more with allusion and symbol than scientific rigor, Rosny manifests literary ambitions of which one can easily find other signs. For since the beginning, his prehistoric novels have been written under the banner of an end-of-the-century inspiration of which one recovers traces up through La Guerre du feu, and which connects all his romantic production to two main artistic currents: naturalism and decadentism.

In fact, Rosny has been marked lastingly by the school of Médan [Emile Zola's estate]. If he rejects its models, it is more for sentimental reasons than aesthetic. Zola [1840-1902] dismissed him clumsily enough while refusing to give an opinion on Nell Horn, his first novel [1886], for which the young novelist will bear him a grudge all his life. In Le Figaro of August 18, 1887, appeared the famous Manifesto of the Five against The Earth. Rosny is represented among the signers, alongside Paul Bonnetain [1858-1899], Lucien Descaves [1861-1949], Paul Margueritte [1860-1918] and Gustave Guiches [1860-1935]. With them, he deplored "a filthy note [...] descending so low in the dirt that, for a moment, one would believe himself before a work of scatology," and concludes that "the Master has descended to the pits of the unspeakable"20. He will never fully retreat from this disavowal and will continue to claim — or even to exaggerate — the part that he had played in the affair21. It only retarded his work, for the most part, written under the banner of naturalism, starting with the numerous social novels of which it is comprised. His contemporaries were not deceived, and rare are critics of the time who do not to recognize in the author of Les Xipéhuz a disciple of Zola.

This influence, very appreciable in Vamireh, still exists in La Guerre du feu. One may even think that, in principle, the prehistoric novel proceeds essentially from a desire to extend the field of observation of the Médan school. On the model of Jules Verne, Rosny will have first seen in prehistory just the disorientation of shape necessary to the fantastic, and it is while writing Les Xipéhuz that he would have achieved all that could be extricated from the formula. To put on stage the Néanderthal or Cro-Magnon man, in effect returns to the attempt to resolve "the double question of temperaments and milieux"22 that Zola placed at the center of Les Rougon-Macquart [a long series of novels, the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire]. Vamireh and Naoh are in the end hardly distant from those crude beings that one sees appearing in La Terre and, more extensively, in a good part of the naturalistic production. They are "true" in that they proceed, in most of their acts, from elementary impulses and express fundamental instincts, such as to feed themselves or to reproduce. They reveal, for example, that aggressive behavior can result in unsatisfied desire. So Naoh, when he thinks of Gammla remaining, doesn't find any other outlet for the fever that invades him, than anger. He allows himself the nostalgic memory of the horde, evokes a sensual episode, made of olfactory and tactile impressions, in the course of which the girl's hair, raised by wind, came to hit him in the face. Then, returning to reality, he hunts this picture that makes "to spring into his chest a raucous breath" (III, 2), stands up proudly and leaves to challenge the enemy which surrounds him.

A depiction of an instinctive humanity, the prehistoric novel also affirms itself as a means to apply on a larger scale Zola's thinking concerning heredity. The theme serves not only to connect Rosny to naturalism, but even more extensively to the decadent sensitivity, for the question of "transformism" figures among the main preoccupations of the end of the 19th century. Far from being of interest only to paleontologists, The origin of species enjoyed a considerable following. Everything defined itself in terms of evolution. In 1891, one year before the appearance of Vamireh, Jules Huret [1863-1915] thus published a set of interviews, destined to remain famous and significantly entitled, Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire [Investigation of literary evolution]. Darwin's theories, all the better since they supported fashionable philosophical ideas, overflowed into cultivated surroundings, and it didn't take long to see in the European of that time the degenerate offspring of ancestors better built to survive than they:

Modern man [...] wears in his too-spindly limbs, in the too-expressive physiognomy of his face, the too-sharp look of his eyes, the too-obvious evidence of impoverished blood, decreased muscular energy and an exaggerated nervousness.23

Now savage age novels provide precisely the opportunity to present, in regard to this enfeebled intellectual, other races equally condemned by the implacable "natural selection." Such are the "worm eaters" of Vamireh, disarmed by the crisis during which "the strength of the muscles resolves in exchange for the adaptations to the external world by the brain"24. Such are the Wahs of La Guerre du feu, who "built of stone and wood before other men" and exercised unshared power "for millennia" (III, 5). "Scanty hair," a skull "excessively long and thin" or "weak jaws" (III, 3) testify to the progress that came true in them. They rose above the animal while losing their fleece and while cultivating to the extreme their mental faculties. But, like the European of the 19th century, they have in consequence exhausted their vital strengths. Their little developed hairiness is as much a proof of civilization as a sign of weakened reproductive capacities. In fact, caught by the process of ineluctable degeneration, they have lost this instinct at the basis of so many other human reactions and seen "from generation to generation [...] their faculty to reproduce" decrease. (III, 5) Resigned, they recognize the promise of a slow disappearance and contemplate the world with these eyes, "drab, sad, [...] without regard" (III, 5), which are equally those of the decadent modern.

Largely a tribute to the end-of-the-century inspiration, this feeling of decay is even found in evocations of milieux, which seem sometimes as sick as beings. If Rosny often sets himself out to describe the abundance of a nature still young, he replaces it gladly with a vision of a worn-out world, showing a melancholy quite representative of authors of his generation. The third part of de La Guerre du feu gathers thus in its first pages the most characteristic pictures of the decadent aesthetics. Every element of the decor sends back the idea of ruin, of decrepitude. The summer full of promise, passed in the company of mammoths, ends. It is now fall, the season of decline. The "mushrooms [...] treacherous" (III, 1) let hover over the man a continual threat of death. The whole world seems to have become prey to the same process of destruction. Close to elms "devoured by mosses" or to the shade of the "rusty sycamores" (ibid.), fire just lets rise a "suffocating breath" (ibid.). Light itself seems to increase the morbid character of the picture. Because it is the light of twilight, and reproduces thus, on the scale of the day, the impression of degeneration generated by the fall. The sun takes on "the color of cool blood," "subsides on the declining sea of peat" and "bogs down in pools" (ibid.). Nature, so young, so full of life a few months earlier, is no more henceforth than a sterile, lugubrious, visibly sick extent:

They reached a land of sand, interspersed with granite and basalt. It seemed to block the entire northwest, hoary, miserable and menacing. Sometimes, it produced a little hard grass; some pines pulled from the dunes a laborious life; lichens bit the stone and flapped about in pale fleece; a feverish hare, a shrunken antelope, spun to the flank of hills or in straits of hillocks. Rain became rarer; some sparse clouds rolled by with cranes, geese and woodcocks (ibid.).

A Collective Dimension

Rosny is not content, however, to pursue this theme, already somewhat out of fashion at the time La Guerre du feu appears. As he had already confided to Jules Huret in 1891, he is searching for a "more complex, deeper literature," that he thinks of as like a march toward the broadening of the human spirit, deeper understanding, more analytic and true for the whole universe and the humblest individual, acquired through science and modern philosophy.25

This attraction can be effectively felt in all his prehistoric work. Since Les Xipéhuz, Rosny distinguishes himself by a pronounced taste for crowd scenes, by the desire to stretch his field of vision to the maximum, in order "to understand," in the etymological sense of the term, the world in its totality. And all the works which follow this first attempt are written from a precisely identical perspective.

Even more than his previous novels however, La Guerre du feu imposes on itself this universal dimension. The title, furthermore, marks straightaway a considerable evolution. Unlike Vamireh, Eyrimah, Nomaï or Élem of Asia, named after his characters, he designates a collective adventure. He places the novel in the wake of the Iliad, the archetype of the western epic, and defines it above all as the history of a war. The term is even stronger in that it appears to finally apply painfully to an intrigue punctuated by clashes between clans and so leaves the reader following a narrative that passes extensively beyond simple individual limits.

This characteristic also results in the scope displayed by his various protagonists. Rosny is in effect seeking less to present characters than a new type of collective hero. Even when he abandons the crowds, it is not to linger on a hermit, as could be Vamireh, nor even to imagine, on the model of Don Quixote or Don Juan, a couple in which hero and foil play simultaneously with harmony and contrast. Over the unit or the duality, the novelist prefers the triad: Naoh associates with Gaw and Nam, Aghoo with his two brothers. Each time he defines an elementary group which forms a true plural entity around a character-core. Gaw and Nam are in a way the emanations of Naoh. They constitute with him a cell as elementary as that of Aghoo and his brothers. As for these, "if one of the three wants a man's death, all three want it; whoever wishes death to them must kill them all" (I, 1), and in the same way, Naoh discerns in Gaw and Nam "extensions of his own energy" (I, 2):

... sometimes, when he walked before them, [...] delighting in his stature and broad chest, they quivered a shy and nearly tender exaltation, all their instinct toward their chief in full bloom, as the beech toward light (ibid.).

In that they play on the sonorities of "Naoh" (Na-aw)26, the names Nam and Gaw seem to find their origin in that of the hero, and show thus to what extent the two young Oulhamrs proceed from the same spiritual father. But these names also reveal that those who carry them are more or less interchangeable. In fact, Naoh's mates play the same role, generally that of slowing down the expedition, embroiling them in adventures that will sooner or later require their chief's intervention. So Nam is caught by the claws of the gray bear (I, 3), and then it is Gaw's turn "to collapse" under the paws of a tigress (I, 5). Almost immediately Nam falls a second time, but a little later, it is Gaw, pursued by the Kzamms, who depends on the strength and relentlessness of his chief to escape a stronger adversary than he (II, 6). The two young warriors don't, therefore, differentiate themselves by specific functions. Their coexistence doesn't add anything to the economy of the narrative27. If they are two, it is essentially to make a number, to sketch a process symbolically in terms of which, by fission, the unit becomes infinity. As it says in the Tao-te Ching [of Lao-Tzu]: "One generated Two, Two generated Three, Three generated the ten thousand"28. In the same way, Naoh, the original entity, divides a first time into hero and a foil, which organizes itself in turn into a double image, a promise of infinity. It is therein that the trio recaptures certain of the qualities which characterize the sets of three so common in mythology and folklore. But Naoh, Gaw and Nam are not three to imitate divine trinities or heroic triads. They only reflect these to the extent that they form an incarnation of plurality. Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth are, according to the biblical tradition, the origin of the three races. In the same way, the heroes of La Guerre du feu carry in themselves the germ of number. It is therefore natural that under the effect of a new reduction, they finish by opposing the triad of Aghoo and his brothers.

A Plural Universe

This principle, however, extends extensively beyond the sole conception of the central characters. The entire novel presents a plural universe, its organization giving notable importance to a ternary dynamic. Cut into three parts, the text defines three spaces, delimited by two rivers, and generally sets against each other, whatever the importance, three clans. When Naoh and his two partners are welded into a group, they oppose two adversaries, the tigress and the lion-tiger, or they associate with unexpected allies: the mammoths, the Men-without-shoulders. If they separate, it is inversely to be able to triumph over considerable enemies, at one moment the Kzamms, then the clan of Aghoo. The whole of the text is filled with incessant hunt-crusades that give it all its rhythm, while offering to the narrative many resources to punctuate the action. Pursuits or fights thus take place according to constant rules, of which Chapter 6 of Part II, "The Search for Gaw," undoubtedly provides the best example...

This plural dimension is even found in descriptions of nature, which certainly reveal a world sometimes driven in a movement toward general decay, but nevertheless taken in a process of bursting and proliferation. As much as Rosny lets himself go in the nostalgic evocation of a universe already in decline, he is pleased to fight these nightmares of a decadent writer with the evocation of a young flora and fauna, fed by a "richer oxygen" (I, 2), and by this fact overflowing with life. The natural habitat becomes then a real treasure. With the dawn, light "rolls its waves," "enlarges [...] in lagoons of sulfur, in gulfs of beryl, in streams of pink mother of pearl" (ibid.). And it is less to petrify the universe, as authors of the end of the 19th century29, than to reveal a profusion of colors and precious reflections. Because where nature is at instants sterile, she is at other times fecund. In the first part of the novel, for example, the earth, "again in its strength" (ibid.), nourishes an infinity of plant or animal existence:

Grass followed on grass as waves follow themselves on the sea. The savanna bent under the breeze, cracked under the sun, sowed in space the innumerable soul of perfumes; it was menacing and fertile, monotonous in its mass, varied in its detail, and producing as many beasts as flowers, as many eggs as seeds. Among forests of grasses, islands of brooms, peninsulas of heather, slipped the plantain, St.-John's-wort, sage, buttercup, achillea, catchfly and lady's smock [...]; one saw the leaping of antelopes, hares, saigas, the looming of wolves or dogs, the rise of bustards or partridges, the hovering of pigeons, cranes and ravens (ibid.)30.

Moreover, in a significant way, the writing adopts, in the numerous scenes marking out the path of the narrative, a parallel procedure to the one which applies to the characters. Here again, Rosny tries to widen the perspective visibly. In many cases, as the above excerpt shows in an exemplary manner, the sentence develops itself by successive additions dominated by the ternary formula. Elsewhere, it amplifies itself by a system of reduction which replicates very precisely the numeric expansion effect gotten with Naoh and his two mates. The passage that follows, for example, imitates even in its structure the proliferation of the multitude, by a series of unceasing self-divisions:

According to the whims of adaptation and circumstance, algae were in triumphant abundance; the water sparkled with white and yellow water lilies; iris stood tall, and flowering rushes grew profusely. There were broad gulfs of ranunculus with beds of tufty orpine winding through them and sedge, pink willow herb, cresses, and sundew. Here were jungles of reeds and willows where waterfowl swarmed, sandpipers, teals, plovers, lapwings shimmering like jade. (I, 1)

One sees, indeed, how the structure of the sentence is subject to a continual reduplication. In the first three propositions, the subject groups increase in number as in quantity. They describe a regular progression of 1 to 4 (1 [=20] => 2 [=21] => 4 [=22]) and present themselves successively under the shape of a name ("algae"), composed of nominal groups of current words ("white and yellow water-lilies"), then of all one whole of rare terms ("marshy eurphorbia, yellow loose-strife, etc."). The fourth proposition, visibly more complex, only prolongs this spreading of effects, giving a new breath to the sentence while establishing a new ternary progression. Three topics, constructed from the same grammatical pattern (noun + complement of the noun), describe the more and more developed resonant sequences, as much in volume as in quality. Each whole thus makes a syllable number roughly equivalent to the duplicate of the precedent (14 => 31 => 50)31 and presents an increasing quantity of alliterations and paronomasia ("gulfs [...] beds" => "cresses and sundew" => "of reeds and willows where waterfowl swarmed...").

Fire: Universal value

This impression of multitude, appreciable even in the writing, is not however the only element to confer to the novel its universal dimension. The central place granted to fire also plays an essential role from this point of view. Once again, the title of the novel is revealing. Because it not only puts the fiery element in the position of the stake — men are going to fight for it — but also in position of agent: the war of which it is question is one which pits light and heat against an enemy of their measure, the murderous shade of night, that the first lines of the novel define straightaway as terrifying and superhuman:

The Oulhamrs fled the terrible night. Mad of suffering and fatigue, all seemed to them vain before the supreme calamity: the Fire had died (I, 1).

Night represents the forces of death, the expulsion of all the horde into the limbo of a history of which they had no concept. "Carnivore" (II, 7), she is a diabolic ogress, with multiple menacing faces (cf. III, 1). That is the point at which their principal adversary assumes a character almost mythological. The main actor, fire, becomes necessarily a symbol. It shows the victory of the human spirit over the forces of darkness, and makes Naoh's adventure a true quest. As a Prometheus stealing flame from the sun, Rosny's hero will bring to the men of his tribe knowledge and culture. So the horde will definitely surmount this fundamental stage of civilization that consists not only of no longer feeding themselves on raw flesh, but of beginning a real industry by which, little by little, intelligence will triumph. The prehistoric inferno that permits hardening "the tips of the spears" or making "hard stones explode" (I, 1), is indeed directly bound to various technical acquirements. During his stay with the Wahs, Naoh didn't only learn to make fire, he also discovered the use of the spear thrower (cf. III, 4). And it is provided with this weapon that he will arrive, as David against Goliath, to triumph over Rouk and Aghoo (cf. III, 10). Fire, corresponding precisely to the principle of truth in which "immense strength" can "spring from weakness" (III, 11), is strictly associated with everything that allows the prehistoric wise man to triumph over brutes and animals. It becomes the symbol of the human spirit, "the glaring Sign of Man" (II, 2), and even, one could say, the Paraclete that the Acts of the Apostles represent in the aspect of the languages of fire. Moreover, since the first pages of the novel, fire is divine. Raised in "three cages, since the origin of the horde" (I, 1), it forms the sign of the trinity reigning over the tribe since its constitution. Naoh imagines it happily as the emanation of an elementary force doubled by a magic strength:

The life of Fire had always fascinated Naoh. As the beasts, it needs prey: it feeds on branches, dry grass, grease; it procreates; every fire is born of other fires; every fire can die. But the stature of a fire is unlimited, and furthermore, it can be cut up without end; and every piece can live (I, 4).

The element of number, as could be, but at a lower level, Naoh and his two companions, fire is seen as almost naturally assimilated to other emblems of divinity. It is the gleam that illuminates the face of Gammla, almost as the sun is reflected by the moon. It thus comes to be placed at the center of a cosmogony whose organization is a mirror of the rapport that man maintains with his home:

In the darkness of the basaltic stones, Naoh, with a soft desire, saw the fire of the camp and the glimmer that played on Gammla's features. The rising moon recalled that faraway flame. What place on the earth does the moon spring from, and why does it never die out like the sun? She diminishes; there are evenings when she is weak, as the flame that runs the length of a twig. But then she resuscitates. Without doubt, the Hidden-Men take care of her, and feed her according to schedule... Tonight, she was in her strength [...]. The Hidden-Men must have given her dry wood in abundance (I, 4).31a

Fire: Sexual power

This relation that Naoh instinctively establishes between Gammla's face, lit by the hearth, and the lunar star, not only made fire a model of a principle replicated throughout nature, but also shows his association of flame with sexual power. While this will be extensively expanded on in literature, the identification awakens in Rosny new resonances which, here again, capture the universal character of the adventure of Naoh.

This sort of transposition allows us to consider once more the path followed since Vamireh. In this first prehistoric novel, the writer already places reproductive instinct as the basis of the intrigue. By abducting Élem32, the disturbing Asian, Vamireh offends the young woman's entire tribe and triggers an interminable set of confrontations. Through battles and the play of alliances that already prefigure La Guerre du feu, Rosny undoubtedly develops an adventure through certain universal aspects, but he is still far from the effects he will achieve in 1909. His prehistoric warrior remains an individual who fights first to satisfy personal desire. In the same way, and although it rises to a more distinctly collective dimension, the intrigue of Eyrimah remains bound to a simple sentimental story. It is necessary to wait for La Guerre du feu to really see the opening of new perspectives. Because then, if love seems no longer to be the motive of the adventure, but a reward offered the hero capable of triumphing over all obstacles, it is because it is the object of a radical transformation. It no longer corresponds to a dual relation, but to an adventure of the entire group. No doubt this appears on the surface under a more traditional aspect in many place of the text. In the elementary form of instinct, it is this strange fever that causes Naoh's "hot skin and the trembling hands" (I, 1). It is again this feeling that, in several nostalgic scenes, permits the hero to again try his courage (cf. I, 4). However, as such, it only plays a secondary function. Before thinking of his own satisfaction, Naoh must, in bringing back fire, restore to the whole of the horde a lost virility and fertility.

Because by letting the flame that "vivifies the structure of things" (II, 2) die out, the Oulhamrs seem to have literally lost all their sexual vigor. Henceforth, they "won't warm their members anymore; the tip of the spear will stay soft" (I, 1), and when Naoh finds them again, at the end of his expedition, he will only meet among them impotent old men "strangely feeble and miserable" (III, 11). Deprived of this "sovereign strength of men" (II, 1) that is fire, Faouhm, once the undisputed chief, uncle of Gammla, and therefore well more than a father33, lost henceforth "the use of his right arm" (III, 11). Castrated symbolically, he is but an invalid incapable of assuming command of the tribe. On the contrary, the one who will restore fire to the tribe will inherit the "staff of command" (I, 1), manifest proof of a recovered virility. And if an Aghoo would have presumably preserved this power for himself only, Naoh, the collective hero, restores a part of it to the fallen patriarch, since he decides to lead the horde in his company (cf. III, 11). He reveals thus that the fire and everything connected with it possesses an essentially collective value. It is therefore finally in all justice that the stake of such heroic actions carries a name that sends back a global representation of motherhood. In fact, if one can recognize in Gammla a transposition of the Arabic [jami:la(t)/gami:la(t), "pretty"], one can recover there the Greek root gam- that leads back directly to the idea of marriage...

The picture of the hearth is even more sexualized, by virtue of its strange relationship to femininity. Rosny captures certain broad features of primitive mentality34 by making fire a symbol much more virile, in being nourished by women. For him, the feminine order is revealed to be both independent and guardian of the flame. Gammla — who, we have seen, was able, like the moon, to reflect the gleams of the inferno — seems to be thus a lot less affected than her uncle by the disappearance of fire. Her abundant hair, like "foliage" (I, 1), which gives her the same image of fertility, even increases, contrary to the rigors of a climate that no hearth can moderate. It is to her that "Fire doesn't seem as indispensable as to others" (III, 11). By this standard, however, as the exemplary incarnation of femininity, she shows qualities that one finds to a lesser degree in the other women of the tribe. Because "in spite of harsher sufferings than those of males", all know to keep, unlike their mates, "a dark confidence" in the future (ibid.). That women can do without fire doesn't imply that they feel indifference. As her sisters, Gammla "desires it passionately" and worries "at nightfall" (ibid.) over who, Aghoo or Naoh, will bring it back. Fire certainly doesn't constitute her element, but it has for her the privileged image of the son or spouse, which she either raises, or which increases her desire. Like her, all women are guardians of the hearth, prehistoric vestal virgins. Faithful, here also, to the primitive mentality, Rosny shows well that it is to them that the task of caring for fire returns. It is from his mother that Nam learned the way to maintain the embers (II, 5). It is thanks to a woman that Naoh discovers the handling of the prehistoric lighter. Even more, the fact that it is the Wahs that transmit to the Oulhamrs the manner of "hiding fire in stones" (III, 5) reveals this subjection of the fiery element by women, and the collective dimension that takes over Rosny's writing. Because the Wahs can be recognized as an essentially feminine tribe. For them, "the difference between the sexes was nearly abolished" (ibid.), so that women's work became nearly identical to that of the warriors, who, reduced to a secondary role, abandoned to their mates the command of the horde. The physiognomy of the race reflects this pre-eminence of what is called the weaker sex. Unlike the Oulhamrs, robust athletes with powerful torsos, the Wahs are merely "Men-without-shoulders". In a way, by transmitting their science to Naoh, they make of the recovered fire the product of cooperation between a feminized tribe and a (once again) virile one. And so the flame offers to seal an alliance not only between individuals, but between peoples, and thus to develop an epic vision of love, of which Vamireh or Eyrimah, with the recurrent theme of "the fusion of the races"35, finally gave but a foretaste.

War and Natural Selection

At the same time, these curious collective marriages permit the symbolic description of the process of transformation. They show a race doomed to impending disappearance transmitting its technical capital to a race promised a better future. Even more generally, these human connections result, on the whole, in natural selection. In the end, the novel seems a veritable hymn to evolution, which Rosny uses to define man's place with regard to the great powers which surround him and drag him into a logic of destruction...

It is thus clear that the principles focused on by Darwin form the basis of the narrative. The adventures of Naoh deserve the denomination "war of fire" because the transmission processes that illustrate the alliance of the Oulhamrs and the Wahs combine with the laws of kidnapping, flight and rape, equally founded on a reproductive instinct extended to an entire group. For this reason, the heroes repeatedly put themselves directly in the service of natural selection and accomplish symbolically the elimination of a lineage condemned by evolution. At first, Naoh, Nam and Gaw steal fire from the Kzamms, and thus bring upon them the disaster that originally befell the Oulhamrs. The possession of some flaming brands becomes a struggle to the death. Only the winner will endure. The other will disappear into the limbo of history. It is not just a coincidence that the Kzamms are identifiable with the Neanderthals. While trampling their hearth, Naoh, simple tool of evolution, condemns them to impending extinction. In the same way, when he decimates the Red Dwarfs, he eliminates beings whose colors confound themselves with those of the fall (cf. III, 2) and who are by this fact promised irretrievable degeneration. Later, when he attacks Aghoo, it is to satisfy the same rules. Because his rival for Gammla looks more like a "Devourer of Men" than an Oulhamr: exaggeratedly long arms, an anthropophagous mouth, "raw heavy flesh" (I, 1) and an excessively developed fleece make him look like the Kzamms, who are but coarse brutes (cf. II, 2). It is therefore just, under the laws of heredity, that he be deprived simultaneously of fire, woman and future...

So domination of the strongest, best armed, to survive, is regarded as natural, or at least, ordinary. "The law of life" implies "the infinite caution of the weak" (I, 2) who have no resource but flight before a more powerful enemy. Since Vamireh, whose first pages constitute a model for this subject, Rosny likes to imagine series of killings where each hunter ends up meeting a stronger predator than himself. In La Guerre du feu, this deadly cycle is similarly a part of the order of things. Part I, Chapter 4 shows, for example, a tiger, that after having pursued a megaceros and challenged a urus, falls under the claws of a giant lion. All battles support the laws of nature, to the extent that the adversaries respect the ecological balance. The tiger, knowing how to recognize the strength of an adversary and not attacking unrelentlessly, is not wicked. Like him, Naoh, because he possesses this admirable instinct "not to destroy in vain the nutrient flesh" (I, 4), belongs to a race of athletes that forces admiration. He testifies to the youth of humanity (cf. I, 1), fears a future that he conceives of above all as inauspicious (cf. II, 7) and expresses himself with great sweeps of his club (cf. III, 4 and 10) to prove his vigor and his virility at a stroke. He is generous however and is most often reluctant to finish off an enemy (cf. II, 5).

Yet the muscular strength to which he owes his triumph is not always shown to his advantage. Natural selection brings about the progressive disappearance of the weak, but the "law of men" (III, 5) goes further: it assumes the systematic putting to death of adversaries who have been conquered. As old Goûn explains to him, to spare an enemy runs the risk of seeing him come back with reinforcements (cf. III, 2). That primitive man conducts massacres that he sees himself forced into "according to the way of all time, and nearly without ferocity" (III, 5) makes the principle no less odious. Thus Naoh comes to hate his race "more venomous, more destructive than that of the cats, snakes and wolves" (III, 2). Nor does he succeed at distinguishing himself from his counterparts. In terms of his adventure, he too will have to submit to the terrifying fight that pushes the rules of evolution to the extreme, to fight against his own tribe. Because while Aghoo and his brothers may look like Kzamms, they are nonetheless Oulhamrs. While facing them, Naoh doesn't only look for the "triumph, across unmeasurable time, of the race born of Gammla" (III, 10). He seems equally to give the starting signal to those fratricidal wars which will cover humanity with blood, and he is no less the barbarian, this once, in giving the proof of his victory by throwing before the eyes of the horde "three bloody hands" (III, 11), cut from the cadavers of his enemies...

Feline and Mammoth

So the laws of natural selection develop paradoxically. They are based on the one hand on the logic of love and alliance, and on the other of hate and destruction. As such however, they are no less universal, and govern the whole of the living world. To this point, faithful to his epic inspiration, Rosny is not content to limit the adventures of Naoh to the human collectivity. He extends them to include the entire animal kingdom, all the more easily in that each of his protagonists is associated with a totem, already the son of the Leopard, the Bear or the Saiga. Under his pen, the whole of nature is at grips with the dramatic contradictions of evolution. Two paths are thus available to all creatures, one favoring aggressive behavior, the other more compliant to pacific temperaments. Embodied by their emblematic representatives, the feline and the mammoth, they reveal how the same mode of existence can be at once a factor of progress and decadence36.

Thus tigers and lions share the hygiene of warrior life, and form a group which includes the bear, the wolf, and hyena or dog37. The most impressive live alone, in couples or at most in small groups. Like the prehistoric athlete, they are an organism built for battle, reducing the female to only a stake, an outlet for their aggressiveness (cf. I, 4 and 5). They act like the Kzamms or Aghoo and his brothers, who enslave their women, refuse all alliances with their fellows and live apart from the horde (cf. I, 1). The parallelism is revealing: like the Neanderthals or those which resemble them, the felines, their carnivorous habits bind them into a biological cycle that promises their eventual disappearance. The unceasing duels, in which every winner must become prey to another, show to what extent the logic of killing can grant them but temporary triumphs. The giant lion, however indisputably king of the beasts, sees in that way his "species decrease across the millennia" (I, 4). His insatiable appetite pushes him to search for the solitude not only to find sufficient food, but moreover to browse tirelessly a wider and wider, while less and less game-filled hunting ground. (It is on one of these expeditions that he lets escape the so-coveted prey that were Naoh and his companions.) The feline therefore defines a sort of existence condemned to eventual expiration. His needs result in real ecological disaster, in that they end up transforming the earth to desert. Further, when such a hygiene of life transposes itself onto man, notably like Aghoo or the Kzamms, in the exacerbated form of cannibalism or bloodthirsty temperament, it becomes inevitably a symptom of decadence.

Although it may appear at first glance more satisfactory, the second way of evolution, placed under the sign of the alliance, results in consequences no less disastrous. Forming with the previous the only alternative offered to living beings, it is embodied in an as prestigious an animal as the feline: the mammoth. But one can see it again through all its set of associates: the rhinoceros, the auroch or the urus, equivalent to the bear or the wolf in the consideration of the savage beasts. Rosny therefore takes great care to oppose the two fashions of existence. Herbivores are no less important than the lion or the tiger (I, 4), and the mammoth constitutes the only adversary really worthy of the felines:

... once more the mammoths knew themselves masters of the earth. [...] And Naoh, comparing the sovereign beasts to Nam and Gaw [...] recognized the smallness and fragility of man [...]. He also thought of the yellow lions, the giant lions and tigers [...] under the claw of which man or giant stag are as weak as a pigeon in the talons of an eagle (I, 2).

In fact, on a good many points, the mammoth is the exact opposite of the savage beast. Vegetarian, he lives, unlike the feline, in perfect harmony with a milieu that he respects. Portrayals of him emphazise the extent to which he proceeds from nature, for they show him less as an animal than an animated fragment of the scenery — a rock, a hill, a forest in motion:

The mammoths trumpeted [...]: their bodies were hillocks and their feet trees; [...] their trunks seemed black pythons; their heads rocks. They moved in skin thick like old elm bark. Behind followed the herd, the color of clay (ibid.).

The mammoth is thus in narrow accord with the cosmos and so with cycles disproportionate to human scale. Derived from his strength, his customs permit him to most often ignore the fratricidal struggles that ravage the remainder of the beasts. Naturally peaceful38, he doesn't enter into battle unless he feels menaced. He will defend himself, and even take vengeance, but it is always while recognizing instinctively the boundary that felines, and even more so men, cross too quickly. He doesn't pursue an enemy that he has put to flight (ibid.), and it takes a man's ruse to push him to massacre: Naoh, besieged by the Kzamms, must force them to reveal themselves to get the herd of pachyderms to charge (II, 7). This restful temperament allows the mammoth to lead a calm existence and to enjoy a superior longevity to that of the "vertical beast". The great experience that he develops during this disproportionate life and "an older social instinct than that of men" (ibid.) permits him therefore to acquire surprising knowledge. His heavy constitution, far from indicating any heaviness of mind, binds him obscurely, like the oriental Ganesha, to the universe of knowledge. Nor does he have the fear the feline shows before fire. Putting to work a sharpness of deduction that confounds hero and narrator with the same admiration, he seems, on the contrary, to seize the principles that govern the life of the flame, and the necessity of maintaining the hearth with care.

An Unyielding Law

So there is little in which the mammoth is not the embodiment of the ideal. His existence appears "happy, sure and magnificent" (II, 3). If his trunk resembles both "the tree and the snake" (ibid.), it is probably to connect it better to the original paradise, so clearly do he and his counterparts lead the life of Eden:

Perfectly adapted to their grazing, strength fills their heavy flanks; abundant food offers itself at every turn of the stream, in the marshy silt, the humus of the plains, the venerable old copses (II, 7).

Yet this path is hardly practicable for man. Though the mammoth becomes his ally, man cannot resolve to conform entirely to his model. Mysteriously, evolution plays against the friendship between the pachyderm and the human. The end of the second part thus shows in a revealing way, Naoh and the mammoths descending "the Great River" together (ibid.), an almost transparent image of time... But it is necessary to think of the horde, of Gammla, and the Oulhamr must bid adieu to the giants. The road of man and pachyderm separates. After a poignant farewell, each leaves toward his destiny. Separated from the mammoth by a greater law, the hero will return "beneath the autumn rains, in the forest of the beasts, on the immense rotting prairie" (ibid.).

In so doing, Naoh seems to realize instinctively that the path taken by the mammoth is possibly more dangerous than that of the feline. Life in a herd, from the moment it applies to organisms other than the great pachyderms, always seems degrading. Wolves, dogs or hyenas are much more repugnant since they developed a social instinct unworthy of their original temperament (cf. I, 4 and III, 9). And for men, the consequences might be still worse. So the Wahs are doomed by natural selection because they present themselves as the equivalent humans of the mammoth.

Among them reigns a relative equality; each, in solidarity with the others, experiences the "simple and profound pleasure of feeling close to him the same structures, the same instincts, the same gestures" (II, 7). In this sense the Wahs have developed a sense of equity and sociability. They like "to sit down in groups, tight against each other, as if their individuality were weakened when reimmersed in the feeling of the race" (III, 6). All distinction between individuals dims. The difference between the sexes itself is abolished. Yet this feeling of community, visibly exaggerated, leads to some gregarious behavior liable to provoke worse disasters:

These shy beings showed imprudence and foolhardiness on only one point: they would risk everything to save one of their number who had been taken, either surrounded or fallen into a trap. This solidarity, comparable to that of peccaries, [...] drove them sometimes into disastrous situationss (III, 5).38a

Again like the mammoth, the Wahs enjoy if not an intelligence more elevated, at least knowledge quite superior to that of the Oulhamrs. They know how to make fire and to use the spear thrower. But, there again, the consequences of this technical development are a "weak life," with their actions "pliant and belated" (ibid.).

A Dream of Balance

So none of the developmental models offered by the mammoth or the feline are fully satisfactory. The apparent favoring by natural selection of the carnivorous path would certainly lead to man's eventual disappearance before a more bloodthirsty race than his own39. But following the example of the pachyderm would lead the Wahs to no better end. Even attempting to escape evolution doesn't constitute a solution. The fate of the Blue-skinned-Men, who remained like monkeys, "knowing not war [...], eating not of flesh and living without traditions" (III, 7) is no more enviable... It would be difficult to imagine a more pessimistic image of human history, had not Rosny qualified it with the ultimate extension of his field of vision, the dream of a final alliance — most likely transient, but nevertheless exultant. For the writer makes of prehistoric man a compromise that achieves, at a stroke, both evolutionary paths, the product of a universe that shares the apparently incompatible values of masculine and feminine: in a word, the offspring of the feline and the mammoth,.

Indeed, the adventure of Naoh, where it permits the association of more or less virile races, is not the only element to introduce a sexual symbolism into the novel. So while the night certainly represents the darkness of ignorance, it is also the raw material of life, the primordial matrix that will come to impregnate the fire40. In the beginning of the second part, it combines with water and the light of the moon, to become all at once the emblem of a mysterious and exultant femininity. It prepares for the appearance of the mammoth, not only as the animal of the alliance, but again as an unexpected representative of all maternal values41. Because the pachyderm, intimately bound to nature, constitutes well a kind of feminine totem. Its name42 evokes at once the nutrient breast ("mamma") and the nicknames that the child gives to his mother ("mom", "mummy", etc.). And it reveals to Naoh's consideration behavior filled with care, or even tenderness, and find its equivalent on the human scale in the tribe of the Wahs, which can be seen as essentially female.

As much as the feline is virile, so is the mammoth, therefore, maternal. The two paths of evolution that the one and the other represent are in this way absolutely complementary. Instead of fighting each other, they should form a fabulous marriage... And Naoh embodies precisely this miraculous instant when humanity hasn't yet opted definitely for a determined way, and can still combine the one with the other. Certainly he ends up leaving the mammoths, but it is to shortly find those pachyderm-men, the Wahs, and to seal a new pact with them. In fact, the last two parts of the novel testify clearly to this desire to maintain a status quo between the two paths of evolution. Unlike the first, written under the sign of the feline and carnage, they replicate the same combination of battle and alliance. Certainly, the third part allows us to feel a clean shift. The struggle against Aghoo is more terrifying than that against the Kzamms, the company of the Wahs less exultant than that of the mammoths. Nevertheless, the decline that begins is perhaps not absolutely irreversible. Consider the Oulhamrs! When Naoh recovers his band at the end of the novel, they have reached an advanced stage of decay. But it requires hardly anything, a "small red gleam", of "humble life [...] that a child could have crushed with a stroke of flint" (III, 11) for the future to be born again. So this third part is only written in the dark and morbid tonalities of late fall to better bring them back to life in the final pages, revealing how much the great, inhuman laws of evolution can be subject to chance.

Naoh and his companions constitute by all logic the best representation of this humanity for which everything still seems possible. For them, the wisdom of the mammoth and the strength of the feline are not definitively separated, for they enjoy a kind of muscular intelligence that lets them participate in the material and the spiritual at the same time. That which favors guile over force (cf. I, 2), the faculty for speed that allows the Oulhamrs to triumph over the Kzamms and for Homo sapiens sapiens to supersede the Neanderthal, reconciles the mechanics of evolution with the dream of balance between body and intellect, masculine and feminine, the savage beast and the pachyderm. But this is not the most obvious sign of cooperation between the senses and reason, for a hero whose organism knows how to seize the multiple signals of nature marvelously — better, to understand them, this time again according to the etymological meaning of the term:

All his being inhaled the night. He was a marvelous form, which all the subtleties of the universe penetrated: by his sight, he captured luminosities, pale shapes, displacements of shade, and he rose among the stars; by his hearing, he untangled the voices of the breeze, the murmuring of plants, the flight of insects and birds of prey, the steps and crawling of beasts; he distinguished the yelping of the jackal, the laughter of the hyena, the howling of the wolves, the cry of the white-tailed eagle, the creaking of far-away locusts; by his nostrils penetrated the breath of the passion flower, the fresh scent of the grass, the stink of the savage beast, the insipid, musky odor of reptiles. His skin quivered to a thousand fine variations of cold and heat, humidity and dryness, to all nuances of the breeze. So he lived of all that filled Time and Space (I, 2).42a

For Naoh, whose intelligence is still "new" (I, 4) appears so distant from the decadent modern that he seems to be still in a position to change the destiny of humanity and to escape the processes of degeneration. His "blood boils with hope", and if his "thinking is short", his "instinct is prodigious" (III, 9). He is full of a dynamism that appears even in his dreams, which, far from being reduced to the passive contemplation of marvelous phenomena, are "full of acts, full of energy, full of efficient movement" (II, 1).

The Savage Thought

One of the great strengths of La Guerre du feu consists, moreover, in curiously rejuvenating the modern reader by having him share the vision of this primitive overflowing with resources. For Rosny tries visibly to penetrate into savage thought. He invents ways of counting by "fingers" or "branches" (I, 1 and II, 1). He retraces the awakening of religious feeling, imagining dark rituals to the moon or detailing ideas supporting his heroes through nature or animals. At every point, a freely indirect style, hardly noticeable, or simply recourse to the historical present, permits the blurring of barriers built by the threads of centuries, between the humanity of yesterday and that of today:

Gathered in council for the hunt, [the wolves] exchanged rumors, gestures [...]. The old were paid attention, especially a great wolf with pale fur and ocher teeth: they listened to him, looked at him, sniffed him with deference. Naoh didn't doubt that they had a language (I, 4).42b

However, the Sun and the Water mingle their brilliant life. The Water is immense, one can't see its end, and the Sun is but a great fire like the leaf of the white water lily. But the light of the Sun is greater than the Water herself [...]. In his fever, Naoh [...] was astonished by light so vast coming from so small a fire (III, 2).42b

Elsewhere, antique turns of phrase give a singular patina to the speech and, there again, bring the reader closer to the protagonists. The biblical superlatives — "centuries of centuries" (I, 2), "the chief of chiefs" (ibid.) — follow formulations that obviously aim to echo a millennial voice:

In these times, the Mammoth circulated invincibly [...]
It happened that the chief of the aurochs and those of mammoths approached the edge of the water at the same time (ibid.).

But most surprising is perhaps the way that Rosny has of diverting the artistic writing dear to the disciples of the Goncourts. Indeed, in La Guerre du feu, the novelist has not yet entirely rid himself of the stylistic processes in vogue at the end of the 19th century. If they are less numerous than in Vamireh or Eyrimah, the rare terms, the affected circumlocutions have not, however, entirely disappeared. Here a bear "coerces his energy" (I, 3), there stones stand "opposite the wind" (I, 4). As a rule however, these effects allow the author to introduce into the narrative a fuzzy referential, which returns a perception of a coarser world than that of modern man, and so gives the illusion of a "prehistoric" style. Twilight becomes "the red hour" (ibid.) and the moon "the crescent" that "bleaches the bottom of the sky" (II, 2). From then on, the reader is necessarily led to identify his reflections with those of the character, especially when several of the above-mentioned processes are combined:

Now, the sun bloodied itself in the vast West, then lit the magnificent clouds. It was an evening red as the canna flower, yellow like a prairie of buttercups, lilac as the dusky light on an autumn bank, and its fires searched the depths of the stream: it was one of the beautiful evenings of the mortal earth. It didn't enter deeply into immeasurable regions as summer twilight; but there were lakes, islands and caves kneaded of the gleam of magnolias, gladioli and eglantine, whose burst touched Naoh's wild soul. He wondered therefore who lit these innumerable extents, what men and what beasts lived behind the mountain of the Sky (II, 7).42b


*         *

Further, it is perhaps through this dimension that Rosny's great epic fresco continues to fascinate the contemporary reader. Certainly, although it finds its origin in the decadent inspiration, the reverie that follows the author around the implacable principles of evolution probably explains La Guerre du feu's success. Indeed it foreshadows some of the questions of the end of this 20th century, where developed societies have little by little distanced themselves from the myth of progress. But the echo that is met with at the end of the novel is much stronger in that it awakens in us strange resonances. For by the strength of its style and the wealth of its imagery, the adventure of Naoh addresses itself above all to the soul of the child in us. The prehistoric world of Rosny is probably less that of paleontologists and archaeologists than "the verdant paradise of childish love" of Baudelaire. It is the opportunity to relive the terrors and triumphs of childhood, to follow a hero who, in spite of his stature, is more David than Goliath, and must face all the ogres of the night, all the giants of the primeval forest: the bears and warrior cats, the tenderly maternal mammoths.

The medal has, however, its obverse. This aspect of the work leads also, indeed, to surrounding La Guerre du feu with a curious burden: the grouping the novel with juvenile literature. This confusion, appreciable from the beginning, as the novel first appeared serialized in Je sais tout, is all the more easily spread since in France the prehistoric vein has been especially exploited by writers specializing in publications for children. Samuel-Henry Berthoud, Jules Verne and Ernest d'Hervilly precede the author of Vamireh, and in the period between the two world wars, it is in La Semaine de Suzette [Suzette's Week] or in Pierrot, that the numerous prehistoric tales and serials of Léon Lambry appear. Rosny himself, after having confided Vamireh and Eyrimah to La Revue hebdomadaire [The weekly Revue], will often be driven to share between the juvenile press and popular editions. At the juncture of the 19th and the 20th centuries, the more prestigious world of French publishing was hardly open to the prehistoric novel. In consequence, primitive man attracted little attention from novelists of renown. Only two stories provide exception to the rule, "La Mort d'Odjigh" [The Death of Odjigh] brought out by Marcel Schwob [1867-1905] in 1896 in Le Roi au masque d'or [The King in the Golden Mask], and "Le Brouillard du 26 octobre" [The Fog of October 26], by Maurice Renard [1875-1939], published in 1913 in Monsieur d'Outremort. Further, the second of these texts does not really belong strictly to the prehistoric vein. Relating the sudden meeting of modern man and the primitive, it develops rather the theme of lost civilizations, as Jules Verne, in his Journey to the center of the Earth, or the author of La Guerre du feu himself in several novels or stories43. Limited to contemporaries of Rosny, the crop is not therefore particularly abundant in France. And it is not much larger in Great Britain, where, with the exception of some poorly known authors, Austin Bierbower [1844-1913] or Stanley Waterloo [1846-1913], the prehistoric vein hardly tempted anyone but H.G. Wells [1866-1946], and he only in two stories, his 1897 "A Story of the Stone Age"44, and 1921, "The Grisly Folk"45. Curiously, it is in Belgium that are finally met greater numbers of disciples and direct imitators of Rosny: Ray Nyst first of all with Notre-Père-des-Bois [Our Father of the Woods]46 from 1899, then soon after La Forêt nuptiale [The Nuptial Forest]47 and La Caverne [The Cave]48, Jean Tousseul [pseudonym for Olivier Degée, 1890-1944], a little later, with "Rooh"49 and "L'Exode" [Exodus]50, and especially Pierre Goemaere [1894-1975] with Le Pèlerin du soleil [The Pilgrim of the sun]51 and Henri-Jacques Proumen [1879-1962] with Ève, proie des hommes [Eve, prey of men]52.

Without having to invoke the outdated "theory of climates", it seems that one can better understand at once this confusion maintained around the work and this particular attention to Belgian authors in the light of a biographical element that dictionaries, while presenting the author of La Guerre du feu like a "French writer born in Brussels," generally tend to ignore. That is that the novelist, before perfectly integrating into Parisian literary society, had passed some thirty years outside the capital. He was thus able to cultivate a difference which seems to have prevented, certainly to various degrees, but nevertheless appreciably, his fitting perfectly into the molds and categories of French letters.

It is in any case clear that he belongs fully to Belgium. If he willingly claims the status of a father from Lille in his autobiographical texts, it is for essentially strategic reasons: a member of the Goncourt jury, distinguished all the more by the Legion of Honor, had little interest, at the time, in putting forward some foreign origins, and even less when they were colored with some scandal. However, not only was Rosny's father, Joseph Constant Adrien Boex, Belgian, but moreover he owed this nationality to his status as a natural child. The son of a young Dutch girl, Constancy Victory Boex, from Bréda, he was born of an unknown father. Registered by the obstetrician, he was never formally recognized by his mother, which made him in the eyes of the law a Belgian citizen53. The sons that he had with his wife Irmine Tubicx, also from Brussels, can therefore be but Belgian. And it is probably not the least merit of a country of which one too often speaks with a smile to have, with Joseph Henri and Seraph Justin Boex, given the day to the Rosny brothers, who invented modern science-fiction and raised the prehistoric novel to the level of a universal epic...


January, 1994

  1. L'Immolation, Paris, Savine, 1887. Reference edition: J.-H. Rosny aîné, Romans préhistoriques, Paris, Laffont, coll. «Bouquins», 1985, p. 629.
  2. See the "Bibliographical Selections" for a more detailed description of these works
  3. A notable reference on this subject: Bruce G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge-New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989; Annette Laming-Emperaire, Les Origines de l'archéologie préhistorique en France, Paris, Picard, 1964.
  4. Calculations based on holy books do not generally result in much agreement. As reported by Édouard Lartet, "There are over 140 opinions on the date of creation, and [...] between the extreme variants there is a disagreement of 3194 years, only for the period between the beginning of the world and Christ's birth (cited by Louis Figuier, L'Homme primitif, Paris, Hachette, 1870, p. 2).
  5. Thus Cuvier based his monumental Histoire des sciences naturelles on Genesis. (see Annette Laming-Emperaire, Les Origines de l'archéologie préhistorique en France, pp. 142-3).
  6. Boucher de Perthes came to consider prints of fossils observed on flints as a form of hieroglyphic writing. In addition, he wound up presenting the scientific community with the discovery at Moulin-Quignon of a human jaw, actually modern, but introduced into an old layer by an unscrupulous worker.
  7. "L'Homme préhistorique. Des lumières que les découvertes paléontologiques récentes ont jeté sur son histoire" ["Prehistoric Man: The light shed on his origins by recent paleontological discoveries"], Revue des Deux Mondes, 1er avril 1867, pp. 637-63.
  8. An extract of this work can be found in the appended documents.
  9. Exhumed by Fuhlrott in 1856, in the valley of Neander, remains of this distant ancestor, with an elongated skull and prominent brow ridges, were considered by the objectors to the evolutionist theses as those of a congenital idiot.
  10. Reference edition: Paris, Livre de poche, 1984, pp. 306-7.
  11. Ibid., p. 321. -- see appended documents.
  12. Ibid., p. 311.
  13. Reference edition: J.-H. Rosny aîné, Romans préhistoriques, p. 19.
  14. Le Préhistorique, 3ème édition (edited and corrected by Adrien de Mortillet), Paris, Schleicher Frères, 1900, p. 302.
  15. Ibid., p. 339.
  16. Ibid., p. 315 et s. -- The appended documents provide a larger extract of Préhistorique. The reader will be able to see illustrations showing how Rosny utilised the available documentation of the era...
  17. Ibid., p. 37.
  18. In the references to La Guerre du feu which follow, the Roman numeral is the Part, the Arab numeral the chapter.
  19. Before settling in France, Rosny lived ten years in London and married an Englishwoman, Gertrude Holmes. In 1892, though he had resided seven years in Paris, he did not forget the culture from across the Channel and even less English language literature, since he published, with Le Scarabée d'or, a translation of the American, Edgar Allan Poe. It is not therefore surprising to see here or there resurgences of linguistic elements of English origin.
  20. Manifeste des cinq, reference edition: in Émile Zola, Les Rougon-Macquart, presentation and notes by Pierre Cogny, Paris, Seuil, coll. «L'Intégrale», 1970, Vol. VI, p. 661.
  21. Cf. Éric Lysøe, Les Kermesses de l'Étrange, Paris, Nizet, 1993, pp. 368-9.
  22. Émile Zola, Les Rougon-Macquart, Vol. I, p. 57.
  23. Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine [Essays on contemporary psychology] 4th edition, Paris, Lemerre, 1885, cited by Jean Pierrot, L'Imaginaire décadent [Decadent imagination], Paris, P.U.F., 1977, p. 24.
  24. Op. cit., p. 79.
  25. Cited by Jules Huret, Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire, [Investigation of literary evolution], reference edition: Paris, Thot, 1982, p. 203.
  26. The linguistic realization of "aw," near that of "ao," once more recalls the English. "Naoh," in this way brings to mind the adverb "now". In fact, our hero belongs to a juvenile humanity. He is a Noah living in an eternal present, little accustomed to projecting himself into the future.
  27. The only time when the fact of having two partners proves useful to Naoh is when he entrusts the fire to Nam while going to the aid of Gaw. But this is obviously not the only reason for the existence of Nam and Gaw.
  28. Lao-Tseu, Tao Tö King, translated by Conradin Von Lauer, Paris, Jean de Bonnot, 1990, p. 91.
  29. Cf. Jean Pierrot, L'Imaginaire décadent, pp. 271-92.
  30. See also: I, 4 and 5; II, 3 and passim.
  31. The calculation is based here on the rules of classic prosody, notably for the counting of the mute "e". [translator's note: this section, naturally, doesn't succeed in English]

    31a. tr. note: from "...played on Gammla's features.", this section and the next 3-4 pages of the French are not included in the Talbott translation, which takes up again at "The moon was halfway to the zenith..."

  32. Should we see in this name a variation of that of Helen? If that is the case, the Homeric model of the Iliad could well be seen already in Vamireh, before discovering its full strength in La Guerre du feu...
  33. Rosny reproduces here matrilinear domestic structures, where the maternal uncle plays a fundamental role.
  34. The reader may refer to documents in the Appendix where representative texts of Frazer and Bachelard illustrate the traditional character of this sexualisation of fire.
  35. The title of Part III, Chapter 5, of Eyrimah (Romans préhistoriques, p. 194).
  36. For more on this point, refer to my Kermesses de l'Étrange [Bazaars of the strange], pp. 435-81.
  37. The bear is less representative of the warrior way to the extent that he is "herbivorous, finding in the soil that to appease, peacefully, his voracity" (I, 4). Going further, the wolf, the hyena or the dog, because they live in packs, very often constitute a degenerate class of beasts.
  38. So the bellicose auroch, on its side, represents a degenerate double.

    38a. tr. note: not included in the Talbott translation.

  39. This is precisely what occurs in La Mort de la Terre [The Death of the Earth].
  40. The marsh assumes the same contradictory character. It is the place where one sinks in, where one dies, but also the principle of life, the place of origin (cf. III, 9).
  41. The mammoth already appears in the first part, but especially for his qualities as a fighter. The beginning of the novel is indeed completely subsumed under the sign of the feline. The real nature of the pachyderm doesn't appear until later.
  42. That the word is of Siberian origin and meant "underground animal" is of no consequence in this regard.

    42a. tr. note: abridged in the Talbott translation: "He breathed the night with his whole being. His nostrils perceived the breath of flowers, the pleasant scent of grass, the stench of wild beasts, the stale or musky odour of reptiles. His skin responded to a thousand changes from cold to hot, from dampness to dryness."

    42b. tr. note: not included in the Talbott translation.

  43. See, among others, "La Grande énigme" [The Great Mystery], Le Trésor dans la neige [The Treasure in the Snow], Les Hommes sangliers [The Wild Boar Men] or La Sauvage Aventure [The Savage Adventure].
  44. The Idler, May, 1897, and in vol: Tales of space and Time, London, Harper and Brother, 1899. An extract from the text appears in the supplementary documents.
  45. Storyteller Magazine, April, 1921, and in vol.: The Short Stories of H. G. Wells, London, Benn, 1927.
  46. Brussels, Balat, 1899. An extract from the text appears in the supplementary documents.
  47. Brussels, Balat, 1900
  48. Brussels, the author; Paris, Baillière et fils, 1909.
  49. La Mélancolique Aventure [The Melancholy Adventure]. Huy, Imprimerie coopérative, 1920. An extract from the text appears in the supplementary documents.
  50. La Parabole du franciscain [The Parable of the Franciscan], Brussels, La Renaissance du livre, 1928.
  51. La Revue belge, 15 February -15 April 1927, and in vol.: Paris, Albin Michel, 1927. An extract from the text appears in the supplementary documents.
  52. Brussels, Labor, 1934. An extract from the text appears in the supplementary documents.
  53. Among the illustrations in [the Arles, Babel, 1994] edition are reproductions of the birth certificates of Rosny aîné and his father.