“Evening was come, not with calm beauty but with the threat of violence.”
Lord of the Flies, 1954
William Golding (1911-1993)
It behooves us all, from time to time, to re-read those books we read when young, to see if they still hold our attention as they once did, to discover if their words still have their power, if lessons garnered today are different from ones learned as adolescents. An additional benefit, for those with children and grandchildren, is that doing so allows a connection with youth, for many of these books are included on summer reading lists. Over the past five years I have read, or rather re-read, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and two of the Narnia Novels, along with half a dozen Dickens’ and other classics, like Lewis Carroll and A.A. Milne. Golding’s 1954 novel is another such example.
The story is disturbing, but apt at a time when bullying has become, if not more frequent, at least more discussed and when children are coddled, delaying the rigors and rules of adulthood. “Safe places” protect youths from uncomfortable words, but they leave them ill-prepared for the harshness and reality of adulthood. And we have all known children like Piggy who are teased without remorse; the quiet and illusive Simon; Ralph, who commands respect, and bullies like Jack. We have all been witness – adult and adolescent alike – to emotions that devolve into mass hatred. It is a sense of “there, but for the grace of God, go I” that makes this story so personally compelling.
William Golding – born in England in 1911 and Oxford educated – is the anti Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th Century French philosopher who believed that a child was born with an immaculate spirit, untouched by culture and society. He was mankind before tempted in the Garden of Eden. Golding wanted to correct that image – to show how young boys would behave when alone, without the influence of adults or any societal guidance. He based the story on an unsentimental understanding of what he had been like at the age of twelve or thirteen – that he could be kind and decent, but that he could also be monstrous: That evil is not learned, it is inherent – that devilish traits remain hidden behind a façade of rules necessary to live in civilized company. In his book, 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson wrote: “Bullying at the sheer and often terrible intensity of the schoolyard rarely manifests itself in grown-up society. William Golding’s dark and anachronistic Lord of the Flies is a classic for a reason.”
Lord of the Flies is the story of boys surviving alone, amidst chaos, division and friendship, for a few weeks on an uninhabited island in the south Pacific. The plane, which had carried the boys, crashed. No adults survived, only a few dozen boys aged six to about thirteen. Ralph and Jack became leaders, reflecting opposing and conflicting traits: “Ralph,” as Stephen King wrote in the introduction of my copy, “embodied the values of civilization and Jack’s embrace of savagery and sacrifice represented the ease with which those values could be swept away.” Jack asks: “Who cares about rules?” Ralph responds he does: “Because rules are the only thing we’ve got.” A conch shell is used to assemble the boys. But a conch cannot substitute for the discipline of adults. While most young readers identify with Ralph, Piggy is the most memorable. Perhaps, because his character is more fully developed. Perhaps because the reader understands his physical vulnerability, despite his intelligence, condemns him to a tragic end.
The boys are eventually found. Smoke from an out-of-control fire alerts a passing British naval cruiser. Golding leaves us with these words: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
World War II, which had concluded less than a decade earlier, had shown the brutality of totalitarianism. Its opposite, anarchy, is also barbaric, which is what Golding wanted readers to understand. Civilization depends upon navigating the straits between the Scylla of the former and the Charybdis of the latter. What is wanted is a society that relies on common-sensical rules (laws), ones that reflect the will of the people, are binding and judiciously enforced, so that liberty is ensured and chaos avoided. What the boys learned (and hopefully what readers will as well) was what James Madison wrote in “Federalist 51”: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But they are not, so it is.
This article was first puplished on Thoughts of the Day.