Lord of the Flies
The Story in Brief
Set on an unnamed tropical island, Lord of the Flies sees the survivors of a plane crash – all of which are children under the age of thirteen – creating a makeshift society for themselves as they await rescue. Initially, a semblance of order is established by Ralph, one of the older boys, and his cerebral cohort, Piggy. They find a conch shell and - at Piggy’s suggestion - they realise that blowing in it creates a commanding noise that summons the rest of the boys, who go on to elect Ralph as leader. However, Jack, the head of the choir, is jealous of the role, and consistently undermines Ralph. Before long, the infant islanders split into two factions: those who want to concentrate on keeping the fire alight, to ensure that smoke attracts any passing ships, and those that are inspired by the more bloodthirsty pursuits of hunting and killing for food. Ralph’s rational and democratic approach eventually gives way to Jack’s savage dictatorship. Anarchy and death follow shortly afterwards.
Lord of the Flies was an unexpected bestseller. Initially rejected by publishers, it was championed by the late Charles Monteith at Faber and Faber, and was not a hit when initially published. However, all this changed within a couple of years. As Monteith recalls, ‘The book began not only to be talked about but to sell and before long we had to order a reprint. In the United States, where we had great difficulty in placing it, it made little impression at first, but after a year or two, a paperback edition began to spread like forest fire through university campuses.’
Lord of the Flies is seen as a companion piece or ‘realist answer’ to Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure novel The Coral Island in which three boys names Ralph, Jack and Peterkin land on a deserted island but have a largely happy and successful experience. But despite consciously using the same character names, and even having a naval officer refer to the novel in the final page of the book, William Golding was working to an altogether different agenda. His novel is a classic fable of democracy and reason (Ralph and Piggy) versus anarchy and dictatorship (Jack and the choir). It sees every schoolboy’s dream of a playground without adults turning into every child's – and adult’s – nightmare. Games turn to war, imagination turns to terrifying hallucination, and reason turns to weakness.
Published only a decade after the end of the Second World War, Lord of the Flies is a savage analysis of what can happen when regimes fall, fear rules and power must be fought for. Golding himself served in the Royal Navy during the war, and was involved in both the pursuit and sinking of Germany’s key battleship, The Bismarck, and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. As such, he was no stranger to the brutality that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.
On a smaller scale, he also worked as a schoolteacher both before and after the war, so he was keenly aware of the way that young boys interact and the power games that they engage in, even on the most innocent level and when under adult supervision.
It is against this backdrop, combined with the aftermath of the holocaust and onset of the Cold War, that Lord of the Flies was written. ‘The Beast’ that comes to terrify the children – and proves to be fear and savagery itself – has been interpreted variously as the fear that drove both the Nazism in 1930s Germany and fuelled the Cold War years.
In addition to these socio-political concerns, it is also worth noting that Golding’s father Alec was a schoolteacher and great believer in rationalism and did not believe that emotional experiences held much sway. His son clearly disagreed.
For more information on Lord of the Flies and William Golding, visit william-golding.co.uk
You can buy a copy of the new centenary edition of Lord of the Flies at faber.co.uk