Sir William Golding (1911-1993) was winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Literature. Upon completion of his Oxford education he became a schoolmaster before serving in the Royal Navy in World War II. Although he published poems as early as 1934, it was not until twenty years later with the appearance of his first novel Lord of the Flies that Golding established himself as one of the most notable of contemporary British writers. His later works include The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956), Free Fall (1959), The Spire (1964), The Pyramid (1967), Darkness Visible (1979), and the "To the Ends of the Earth" trilogy consisting of Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989). Written in a similar vein to Lord of the Flies, these stories too are generally parables about the human condition.
Lord of the Flies is a modern English classic with a tropical island setting similar to that of two other traditional boyhood adventures, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and, more especially, R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island (1858), upon which the story is modeled, albeit in reverse. Whereas the three young English castaways in Coral Island — Ralph, Jack and Peterkin — go about their business in an orderly manner as representatives of western civilization seeking to educate the natives out of their savagery, cannibalism and primitive lifestyles, the Pacific island depicted in Lord of the Flies is devoid of barbarians until the arrival of thirty or so typical English schoolboys.
The two leading characters in Lord of the Flies are Ralph and Jack, names borrowed from Ballantyne. The omniscient author chooses merely to hint at the precise circumstances surrounding the boys' presence on the island, but apparently a nuclear war has broken out and the airplane they were on was brought down. It crash-landed on a beach and because they had been seated at the rear of the plane they were miraculous sole survivors.
That momentous moment sees the birth of a society in which all the values, constraints and conventions of civilization — normally imparted to youngsters by grown-ups — have suddenly been removed. The story develops into a struggle between two factions: the bad, represented by the self-opinionated former head chorister Jack Merridew and his almost militarily drilled band of choir-boys, and the not so bad — those with at least an inkling of how to behave — represented by the born leader and organizer Ralph, the intellectual laughingstock Piggy, and the innocent Simon.
At first there is comparative unity among them. They all share a common desire to be rescued and there is a genuine sense of adventure and fellowship in the best boy scout tradition. Making rules is good fun and a large conch or shell acquires the status of a parliamentary symbol. By blowing on it like a horn, Ralph, the elected leader, calls all the boys to a decision-making assembly. To ensure the debate is orderly, only the boy holding the conch in his hands is permitted to speak at any one time.
Of paramount importance to Ralph is the maintenance of a smoking fire on the mountaintop to attract the attention of any passing ship. So when Jack and his choirboy hunters let the fire go out just as a ship actually sails past it marks a turning point in the story. From now on the slaughtering of pigs is all that matters to Jack, and he uses the promise of meat to entice the overwhelming majority away from Ralph to the natural fortress of Castle Rock at the other end of the island. Here under warlord Jack the hunting down and killing of living creatures is worshipped and made into a ritual. Concealing themselves with paint provides "liberation into savagery."
The lord of the flies turns out to be the head of a rotting carcass on the end of a stake in the ground — a symbol of the devil and the embodiment of evil. When innocent Simon, a symbol of Christ, comes strolling into the tumultuous proceedings down at Castle Rock, he is greeted by cries of "Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!" And so the murderous depravity takes on a new, human dimension. Simon becomes the sacrificial offering of a delirious dance. The nearsighted Piggy is later knocked down and killed by a heavy boulder launched at him from Castle Rock after he demands the return of his stolen eyeglasses. The precious conch he is protecting, the very symbol of law and order, is smashed to smithereens. And finally the savagery is aimed at Ralph himself who, betrayed by his last surviving companions, is almost hounded to death through a forest first bombarded with rocks and then set alight to trap him.
Ironically, it is this blaze which brings about the long-awaited rescue. In a state of total exhaustion, Ralph meets up with a naval officer who can hardly disguise his disgust: "I should have thought that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that." And so the story ends: "With filthy body, matted hair and unwiped nose, 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."
This horrifying, symbolic portrayal of evil as man's latent natural state, and its surfacing when he is deprived of the backbone of an organized society, leaves the reader uncomfortable to say the least. Some might say we should see Lord of the Flies in the light of the era in which it was conceived. In 1954 the full extent of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis were still being digested by world opinion, the Cold War was at its height, and the implications of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only just being fully comprehended. But isn't man's cruelty to man still being manifested on a global scale? I for my part would like to believe that, in spite of everything, there has at least been some sort of improvement and that we more often than not have learned from our past mistakes. For this reason it is difficult for me to fully share Golding’s pessimism.
The author's experiences as a schoolmaster must have taught him virtually all there is to know about boys, and that is presumably why he was able to portray this particular bunch of 6–12-year-olds so convincingly. We also get to know the island in intimate detail, with its high mountain, pink rocks, sleepy lagoon, coral reef, dense green jungle, mirages and angry-eyed vertical sun. And Golding the poet manifests himself in the skilful use of alliteration. In my humble opinion, this beautiful and exciting story is literature of high caliber.