The Nobel- and Man Booker-prize winning Sir William Golding (1911-1993), who was named one of “the 50 best British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008, remains most famous for his disturbing but masterful 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Golding – a Cornwall-based Oxford-educated schoolteacher who served in the second World War as a young naval officer – wrote his controversial and acclaimed novel as a reaction to Scottish writer R. M. Ballantyne’s 1858 novel The Coral Island.
In Lord of the Flies, we meet a group of British schoolboys marooned on an uninhabited island in the aftermath of a plane crash in the midst of an ongoing (possibly nuclear) war. The tale, which opens with the promise of adventure in the manner of older British survival classics like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), quickly (owing to its post-WWII status) transforms into an unsettling dystopian examination of the darkness of human nature. Here’s where it significantly deviates from its source of inspiration The Coral Island. In Ballantyne’s novel, also featuring juvenile survivors of a wreck, religion (Christianity) is a disciplining force that keeps characters from devolving into a primitive state and in fact, helps “civilise” distant, more violent populations into a life of higher morals and manners. Golding’s survivor fantasy contains no such robust doctrinal or philosophical bulwark that can keep savagery at bay. The narrative of the book is an audacious inversion of the ethical and ideological structure found in Ballantyne’s work.
The characters of Lord of the Flies do make an effort to organise themselves by electing a chief, call assemblies by playing a conch and light fires to alert potential rescue ships through smoke signals. Soon, however, rivalries over leadership erupt (between the rational, fair-haired Ralph and the fierce, red-haired Jack) and paranoias (regarding a “beast” that lives somewhere on the island) develop. Bizarre rituals and aggressive hunting follows as boys are untethered from all regulations and conventions. The island, which first appeared to be a peaceful and benign Eden, turns into nature red in tooth and claw – a domain wherein one can only survive by asserting their will to power. By the end, however, as a rescue ship finally lands, not everybody in the tale is infected by the collapse of order. An awake and informed human conscience lingers on the island in Ralph, who “weeps for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air [death] of the true, wise friend called Piggy”.
Lord of the Flies, which has been compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) in its appeal and is included in both the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and Time’s 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005, was largely ignored upon its initial publication. Robert McCrum of The Guardian writes:
When it first arrived at Faber & Faber (its eventual publisher), it was a dog-eared manuscript that had obviously done the rounds. Its first in-house reader, a certain Miss Perkins, famously dismissed it as an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” However, a newly recruited young Faber editor, Charles Monteith, disagreed. He saw that the first chapter (about the aftermath of the bomb) could be dropped, fought for the book, and then, having persuaded Golding to cut and rewrite, steered it through to publication. Monteith, whom I came to know well, and admire, was doing what Maxwell Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe or Gordon Lish for Raymond Carver. It’s a skill that is rarely found in publishing today.
The title of the novel is a literal translation of “Beelzebub”, derived from the Old Testament (1 Kings 1:2-3), generally used as another name for the devil in Christian literature, or more specially in Catholic demonology, considered one of the seven princes of Hell.
In the novel, the eponymous character is a pig head’s that has been cut off by Jack and put on a stick as an offering to “the beast”. The Lord of the Flies appears to the boy Simon, a peaceful and almost mystical figure, in a hallucination, telling him that it is “the beast” and that “it is part of him/them” – implying that the evil on the island does not exist independently of the boys but is wholly dependent on their personal lapses of judgement.
Other (1): Golding by User “Materialscientist”, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, Wikimedia Commons