When Lord of the flies was published in 1954 very few people could have predicted that it would go on to become a worldwide success.
In the book we read about the story of a group of children being evacuated from an area at risk from fallout in a nuclear war who are marooned on an idyllic desert island following a plane crash. We watch as the boys make attempts to secure their situation by electing a leader and building a smoke signal. From the very beginning, however, trouble rears its head when the members of a choir group refuse to support the election process and instead form a hunting party to search for food. As time goes on the choir becomes ever more powerful with its leaders playing to the boys’ adolescent delusions about the ‘beast’. This paranoia becomes so powerful that the boys, in a frenzy, turn on one of their own mistaking him for the beast, and kill him.
In the aftermath another child, Piggy is killed and the island set on fire. Fleeing for his life from the murderous choir the leader happens across a Naval Officer who came from a nearby ship alerted to their presence by the raging fire consuming the island.
Over the years the book, with its no holds barred portrayal of the human capacity for savagery that is present even from a very young age shocked and upset readers. Even today, many decades later, the book with its clever intermingling of story and allegory continues to have the power to shock the reader.
10. The book is a reaction to the Coral Island by R M Ballantyne
The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne started the craze for ‘children as heroes’ stories such as Swallows and Amazons. These tales show children in the very best possible light, facing adversity but coming through it with their integrity and dignity intact. The Coral Island tells the tale of three boys Ralph, Jack and Peterkin who are shipwrecked on a Polynesian island. They learn how to survive and even thrive in their environment and battle external problems such as pirates and bloodthirsty natives and even manage to convert a native woman to Christianity.
The book became an instant hit and required reading for children at school both in the UK and the US as well as being translated into lots of other languages. As the 20th Century progressed, however, critics started to view the book as being overly imperialistic with racist undertones. When Golding wrote Lord of the Flies he was inspired by the story of the Coral Island but looked at the premise from a completely different point of view.
The names of the three main characters in the book Ralph, Jack and Piggy, are reminiscent of and in some ways caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes. However, the inspiration is parodied when, instead of acting as an idyllic crucible to forge the ‘British Spirit’ of the boys it causes them to descend into an anarchical savagery so extreme that when the British Naval officer arrives to rescue the boys he is shocked that British children could have ended up like that.
In this respect the book, which appears at first glance to be the epitome of the good old fashioned children’s adventure story turns out, instead, to be its antithesis.
9. The book frequently makes top book lists
When the book was first published it did not give any indication that it would go on to become a bestseller. Its first run in the US sold less than 3,000 copies. Since that time, however, it has gone on to become one of the most celebrated modern books of all time. Perhaps because it is on the required reading lists in many English language schools around the world most people are aware of the book and its story. As a result it is frequently voted onto top book lists.
In 2005 TIME magazine listed it as one of the best English language books published between 1923 (when TIME was first published) and 2005 (when the list was compiled). Random House’s The Modern Library also compiled a list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century and Lord of the Flies made it onto both the editor’s list at number 41 and the reader’s list at number 25. When the Radcliffe Publishing Course published their rival list Lord of the Flies made it to number 8.
The book is also able to hold its own against novels in other languages. In the 2003 BBC survey of Britain’s favorite novels of all time, The Big Read, Lord of the Flies came in at number 70. The book has been successfully adapted for film, stage and radio.
8. Lord of the Flies is one of the most banned books in the US
Despite appearing on required reading lists at grade school and university in the US from around the 1960s Lord of the Flies has been one of the most challenged books in the US with many attempts being made to get it banned from schools. The ground for the challenge range from it being considered ‘demoralizing…implies that man is little more than an animal’ to it being considered as including ‘excessive violence and bad language’. Other complaints focus on the fact that the book is, at times, profane and contains references to ‘niggers’. Other complaints simply said that the book was ‘inappropriate reading’.
Despite the fact that the book tackles distressing and difficult themes its aim is to educate against rather than to glorify in these concepts. It shows us the capacity of the human spirit for the very worst of excesses and the importance of civilization. The lesson may be hard to swallow but it is an important one nevertheless. In addition to this the book has tremendous educational value that stems from the manner in which it is written. It is an allegorical novel that is rich in themes, symbolism and a host of plot and character devices all of which are taught to high school students. This book then, offers them the opportunity to see what they have been taught in action while learning valuable and important lessons on the human character. Added to all that it is a ‘cracking good read’ which will hold students’ attention far longer than a more anodyne book.
Those who seek to censor should remember that the dark side of humanity cannot survive when light is shined upon it, a failure to discuss evil does not protect us from it, it makes us more vulnerable to its predations.
7. The conch shell is an allegory for democracy
Immediately following the ‘plane crash that brought the boys to the island two of the children, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell with beautiful, vibrant colors on the beach. Piggy persuades Ralph to blow into the conch to make a sound and attract the attention of all the survivors.
As the children gather they assume that Ralph (who looks the part compared with the overweight, longsighted Piggy) was responsible for bringing them all together and (with the exception of the Choir who already have their own leader) elect him as the leader of all the survivors. All the boys agree that the conch gives the person holding it the right to speak with all other boys obligated to listen.
As the novel progresses its colors fade and the conch starts to lose its power as the boys do what they want. Even towards the climax of the novel, however, it still has the power to command respect, when Piggy holds up the conch the boys all listen. It is only when Roger pushes a boulder down to kill Piggy that the conch is crushed and its power destroyed. From that moment all fetters of ‘normal’ behavior are removed from the children.
The conch therefore is a powerful visual and literary symbol of the democracy which the boys strive to create and which the innate chaos and darkness within them finally overcomes. In the cold war climate in which the book was written democracy was seen as a vital bastion against the communist danger so it is not surprising that in the book the destruction of democracy presages the arrival of anarchy and chaos.
6. Piggy, although physically vulnerable, is the most adult of all the children
Piggy is one of the unlikely heroes of the tragic tale. Along with Ralph he is one of the first characters we meet. He is overweight, has poor sight and suffers from asthma. Nevertheless he is pivotal to the group’s early survival. He knows that the survivors need to band together and tells Ralph to blow the shell. Ralph may be the leader but Piggy is so much more than a side-kick he is the éminence-grise, the advisor who makes Ralph’s rule possible. His glasses are the only means the boys have to make their signal fire. In many ways Piggy should be one of the most powerful boys on the island.
Perhaps the other would be leaders such as Jack realize this because as so often with groups of children they start to bond by lampooning Piggy who becomes almost a legitimate target. He is not completely innocent, however, he participates in the murder of Simon and, the following day, refuses to see his actions for what they are claiming it was all an accident.
As the power of the conch starts to wane and Ralph loses his grip over the other children Piggy does everything he can to defend it. He knows that there is no beast, he knows that the children must maintain their civilization because without it they are nothing and vulnerable individuals such as himself will suffer. Piggy dies defending this ideal when he gives an impassioned speech calling on the boys to uphold the law and look for rescue just as the boulder is sent down to smash him and the conch.
In the entirety of the book, Piggy is the only boy who understands the true nature of the problems that the boys face and, in that regard, he is the closest thing to an adult presence that the children have available to them. When he dies, all is lost.
5. The Beast represents the latent savagery within all humans
When the children land on the island they are hungry, tired, alone and above all, scared. Despite banding together the younger children are still afraid and they give this formless fear a name, the Beast. The older children including Ralph dismiss this fear with Piggy saying emphatically that there is no beast. A short while later, however, after an aerial battle over the island, the pilot of a fighter plane ejects but does not survive. He ends up on the mountain of the island, swaying backwards and forwards as his parachute billows in the wind.
As the novel continues the boys start to leave sacrifices to the Beast and, as their belief in his strengthens so does their own beastly behavior. Only Piggy and another physically challenged boy, Simon, truly understand the essential nature of the beast. Simon says that the beast is ‘us’, he hallucinates a discussion with the dead head of a pig, left as a sacrifice to the Beast who tells him that he is ‘part of you’. Following this discussion Simon resolves to face the Beast. As a result Simon is the one who climbs the mountain to discover that the Beast is nothing more than a dead man.
When he descends to tell the other children the news he happens upon their night time party where they have worked themselves into a frenzy. The children, surprised by Simon staggering from the forest, mistake him for the Beast and murder him. Essentially their sacrifices and frenzied activities have paved the way for the savagery that is latent within all human beings to bubble to the surface. Essentially they bring the Beast into being within their own souls and, once there, he takes over.
4. The Choir is a allegory for the veneer of civilization which overlays our own fundamentally brutal society
Choirboys are often seen as the epitome of innocence so when we first meet them on this idyllic desert island we assume that they are the embodiment of childish innocence. Golding not only smashes this ‘trope’ to smithereens but turns it on its head. Jack, the leader of the choir is almost immediately at odds with the style of leadership and choices made by Ralph. He places himself and his choir in the role of hunters but the first time they come across a pig he hesitates, struck with the enormity of taking another life.
Shamed that his moment of what he perceives to be a weakness was witnessed by the rest of the choir Jack becomes ever more bloodthirsty and consumed with the idea of the hunt to the exclusion of everything else, even rescue. Jack dons face paint with the overt intention to mask his humanity from the pigs he is hunting. This simple act causes Jack and his choir to lose their connection with the strictures of civilization. By masking their human nature they are, in effect, denying its existence.
The choir is, then, an allegory for the veneer of civilization which we impose upon ourselves and which is so terribly vulnerable.
3. The Naval Officer is disgusted by the state of the children but does not see the parallels with the adult war being fought at the same time
Towards the end of the book chaos has come to the island. With Piggy and Simon dead Ralph is completely isolated. All the other children have moved over to the Choir to become hunters and wear the ‘war paint’ of that tribe. Ralph tries to make peace with them but to no avail, instead the boys set off on a ‘manhunt’ chasing Ralph across the island. As he hides in thickets and tries to keep away from them he is forced to injure some of the hunters.
During his escape Ralph runs onto the beach and falls at the feet of a British naval officer whose ship noticed the fire on the island. The choir run onto the beach but the officer does not see the reality of the manhunt. Instead he sees ‘fun and games’ and likens the experiences the boys have had to The Coral Island. He is disgusted that the children allowed their society to become chaotic enough to result in the deaths of some of the children, saying that he thought British children could ‘put up a better show’.
He is not only blind to the real nature of the problems that the boys have experienced but also fails to understand the parallels with the chaotic and devastating adult war in which he himself is a participant.
2. When the children encounter the Naval Officer they immediately revert to their previous child-like state
Just before the Naval Officer arrives on the beach the children are engaged in a chase to the death with Jack and his choir hunting the hapless Ralph. Everything changes in the instant they realize that they are once again in the presence of adults. When the Naval Officer asks who is in charge Jack moves to claim responsibility but just as quickly holds his tongue, knowing that life has changed for ever and the normal rules that he refused to abide by and took steps to destroy are about to reassert themselves. Instead it is Ralph, the boy originally elected under the democratic principles they were brought up with and which are considered normal in the adult world who claims responsibility.
As the Naval Officer dismisses their activities as ‘Like Coral Island’ the enormity of what has happened to them and what they have become sinks in and Ralph begins to sob for the loss of innocence and the death of Piggy, the realization slowly spreads to the other boys and they turn, once more, from the savages they had become, to lost little boys.
1. The name Lord of the Flies is a translation from Beelzebub
In the book the ‘Lord of the Flies’ is the pigs head which is cut off and left on a stake as an offering to the Beast. It is this head which speaks to Simon in his hallucinations and tells him that the beast is in them all. Golding got the inspiration for the name ‘Lord of the Flies’ from the literal translation of the name Beelzebub.
In the Bible (Gospel of Matthew), Beelzebub is named the prince of the devils. Beelzebub was, initially, one of the Seraphim but he followed Satan when he rebelled against God and became one of the devils of Hell. There is some confusion as to whether he is superior or junior to Satan but he is, by all accounts, an extremely powerful individual. His power was to tempt men by pride and he appeared to humans in the form of a fly.
The pride of the boys in believing that they could do away with the trappings of normal society and the spread of the disease of corruption through their souls shows that Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies has infected the island, summoned into being through the actions of the boys.
Love it or hate it Lord of the Flies is a book like no other. It is not an easy read, indeed travelling through the pages of the book is a harrowing and difficult experience. It deals with some of the most depraved instincts of society and shows us that even the most seemingly innocent of us are only a step or two away from total corruption.
It is perhaps a desire to protect children from this realization that is behind the many attempts to ban the book but banning is never the answer. It is not pleasant to think of young children learning the sinister importance of the stick sharpened at both ends (to impale Ralph’s head and offer it as a sacrifice to the Beast) or the chilling chant of ‘kill the pig, slit its throat, drink its blood’ and the knowledge that the blood they are drinking will soon be human. That said, knowledge is power and it is only through reasoned debate and discussion of the themes explored by this book that we will be able to learn the lessons that Piggy, Ralph, Jack and Simon offer us.