I first read William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies” at the age of 15 in sophomore English class in 1967. Though a relatively short novel, I found it hard to get through due to its sheer brutality in the portrayal of English schoolboys marooned on a previously uninhabited island in the South Pacific.
I just re-read the book, my interest piqued by a news article that I recently read about the “real Lord of the Flies,” a group of six Tongan boys who were marooned on the uninhabited island of Ata in 1966. My immediate reaction to this news article was why hadn’t this been brought up during our classroom discussions in my sophomore English class. Perhaps it was because global news coverage was spotty back in those days. But what happened in actuality, as in the case of the Tongan castaways, greatly contrasted the hypothesis put forth in Golding’s novel, thankfully.
The award-winning author was an elementary school teacher in Great Britain when he penned “Lord of the Flies” in 1954. He apparently had become quite callous in his view toward his students and society in general as evidenced in the personality changes of the characters in his novel. Golding must have been affected by the catastrophic events that had been unfolding during the early 1950s. The Korean War had just ended in 1953, WWII had been over for nine years, climaxed by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The Cold War had started in 1947, with the threat of more nuclear holocaust on the horizon. Perhaps Golding’s grammar school students had to hide under their desks during atomic bomb drills, as we did in the United States.
Golding opens his novel at the beginning of a nuclear conflict he refers to as WWIII, with an airliner carrying a group of boys being evacuated from a war torn area that is later obliterated by an atomic bomb, according to the pilot. The plane is shot down, crash landing on a remote island in the tropics with only the passengers, all adolescent schoolboys, surviving. The boys are strangers to each other with the exception of a small group that had been members of a choir.
After the plane crash two of the main protagonists, Ralph and Piggy, meet on the island’s beach and chance upon a conch shell they decide to use as a trumpet to gather any remaining survivors. As the boys gather under the mid-day sun, Golding uses the foreboding metaphor of a small shadow being cast by one of the approaching boys as being black and bat shaped. I found this foreshadowing device to be especially poignant considering the situation our civilization finds itself in, today, due to bats.
The gathering picks a leader, Ralph, who decides that the most important chore to be carried out is starting and maintaining a smoke signal fire to hail any passing ship. The boys use Piggy’s eyeglasses as a fire starter with the use of the magnifying lenses to pinpoint the heat from the Sun onto some kindling. Ralph insists that the fire must be maintained twenty four hours a day by alternating guards. But boys being boys, the assigned fire tenders become distracted, by joining a hunt for feral pigs. It happens that the unattended fire dies out just when a passing ship is spotted, and their chance of a rescue is missed. An ensuing argument breaks out between Jack, the leader of the choirboys, who are also the hunters and the initially named chief, Ralph. The struggle begins between the instant gratification of killing pigs for meat to go along with the island’s bounty of fruit and coconuts or the ultimate and slim hope of being rescued, by the continuous fire watches. Soon after the boys split into two tribes, the hunters and a small group of shelter builders.
Bloodlust soon overtakes Jack, the leader of the hunter tribe, along with his minions after a couple of pigs have been mutilated with wooden tipped spears which are then haphazardly butchered. This bloodlust pervades their once playful games and victory of the hunt dance rituals with devastating results.
The title of the book, “Lord of the Flies” has its origins in the New Testament of the Bible. The phrase refers to the term Beelzebub, an ancient Hebrew nickname for Satan, which can also be translated “Lord of the dunghill.” In Luke 11:14, Christ has just cast a demon from a man who was dumb or mute because of the possession. Pharisees who witness this cleansing, accuse Jesus of performing this miracle, magically, by the power of Beelzebub. Christ explains that this accusation makes no sense in that Beelzebub or Satan wouldn’t aid in his own disposal. Jesus goes on to say that “every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” This thought was the premise of Golding’s novel and has significance in American society today.
Next week, I will discuss the Tongan castaways.