Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies (1954), a hugely successful modern classic, provokes critical acclaim and acrimony simultaneously. The story is widely known, it has occupied a place in English Literature syllabuses since the 1960’s that is likely to continue. In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels written between 1923 to 2005. A superficially simple narrative that is easy to pick up is an obvious advantage, but in common with many of the classics, old and new, has layers of complexity.
A group of British public schoolboys are the survivors of an air-crash on an archetypical Pacific island paradise. There they confront the task of organizing survival and rescue. At first, they set up the systems basic to civilization, defined leadership, assigned roles, laws, food supply, shelter and waste disposal.
The original semblance of order imposed by the populist Ralph quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turn idle, their society disintegrating under the pressures of aggression, fear and irrationality. At one point, Jack summons all of the hunters to hunt down a wild pig, including the boys who were supposed to be maintaining the fire. A ship approaches, but passes by because the signal fire has gone out. Although the hunting of the pig turns out to be the hunters’ first successful hunt, Ralph is infuriated that they have missed a potential rescue. Many of the boys begin to believe that the island is inhabited by a monster, referred to as “the beast”..
Those assigned the roles of hunters for food, under the enforced leadership of Jack, become killers of those assigned the task of tending the signal fire. After the deaths of Simon and Piggy, the chosen head of the fire-keepers, Ralph, is the next to be hunted down. He is saved by the timely intervention of a naval officer. We are left with the image of Ralph bewailing the end of innocence, and his friend, the wise Piggy.
The tale is open to a wide range of interpretations, from the religious, with its theme of man’s inhumanity to man, and the paradise lost, to the exploration of totalitarianism implicit in the survival of the fittest.
The society the boys were creating may be thought of as mirroring the attempts of prehistoric men to create a culture, a means to sustain life, but also to control it, with its myths, rituals and taboos, its night terrors, the beast that must be feared.
In 1857, The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne was published. Golding’s naval officer is reminded of it. It was an adventure story for boys, also with main characters called Ralph and Jack, and a third, Peterkin, who has traits discernable in the characters of Peter and Simon. The interesting thing about comparing the novels is this. If Ballantyne is presenting a statement about the Victorian confidence of Britain as a civilizing influence in the furthest corners of the world, what is Golding saying? …”adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?”
Surely Lord of the Flies refutes the notion of civility, or the rational superiority of modern man as epitomised by the educated schoolboys, the achievements of the last six thousand years being illusory, a thin veneer at best, and as self-destructive as the fire that engulfs the island, the boy’s source of sustenance. Whilst valid, this is not the whole picture.
As said Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan 1651), writing of man outside of civilization ; ”(There are) no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Interestingly Jacob Bronowski once related how in Iceland around 900AD, a farmer was outlawed, shunned from society, not for killing a social equal, but rather a slave. This happened at Thingvellir, the subsequent site of the Icelandic parliament, or Allthing. Why was this so remarkable? Justice was seldom so even-handed in slave-owning cultures. Justice is universal to all cultures. It is a tightrope that man walks, between his desire to fulfill his wishes, and his acknowledgement of social responsibility ( The Ascent of Man, p411). The higher qualities of man, namely, love, justice, wisdom and power, must by definition, whilst an intrinsic part of us, come from a higher source.