Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lord of the Flies: can you judge a book by its cover?

Lord of the Flies, the masterpiece that launched William Golding's career, has never lost its relevance, even as Faber continually updated its image

Lord of the Flies, 1963 film
Peter Brook's 1963 film adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
When I first read Lord of the Flies at school in Tasmania 50 years ago, I thought – as most boys probably do – that it was simply telling me the story of my life. That life had been short, and quite a bit of it was nasty and brutal. An hour in a school playground is an education in the bestiality of young males, who instinctively form packs and taunt those who don't conform or – in a variant of the war-whooping chant repeated by the boys in William Golding's novel as they hunt wild pigs on their desert island – bash them up. As children and adolescents, we have an intimate acquaintance with evil. We spend our days either committing acts of violence or recoiling from them; hatred surges through our undeveloped bodies like an electric current.
I had to make adjustments to the book. In Tasmania, we certainly had the flies, which didn't confine themselves to swarming on putrid meat, as they do when they consume the pig's severed head in the novel. In the sweaty summers we were all flyblown and, like dogs infested with fleas, exhausted ourselves in brushing them off. My island, however, was cool, not tropical, scantily populated but not deserted. Neither was it afloat in the Pacific, like the one on which the planeload of schoolboys was wrecked. All the same, I recognised Golding's terrain, which is a moral wilderness.
Instead of a jungle, we had the messy entanglement of the bush, where starving convicts who escaped from the colonial penitentiary in the early 19th century were supposed to have eaten each other. Marsupial devils snarled in the undergrowth, and Tasmania once had its own species of tiger. Our local mountain was an extinct volcano, higher and more rugged than the one in the novel on which a monster – actually a pilot whose decaying body freakishly twitches back to life when the wind catches his snagged parachute – alights. From the summit of our local peak you could see a literal no man's land: a waste of overgrown valleys and razor-edged escarpments, gashed by tectonic rifts like surgical scars. Beyond that was the indifferent, empty sea, with Antarctica as the next landfall.
In 1954, when Lord of the Flies was published, Golding had a job as a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth's school in Salisbury. The book was his guess about how a posse of privileged louts like those in his classes would behave if released from adult control. Peter Brook, who directed a film version in 1963, thought that his own task was simply to present "evidence", as if in a documentary. The untrained actors hardly needed direction; all that was required was to relieve them of inhibitions and set them loose on an island off Puerto Rico. Brook's only quibble concerned the novel's estimate of how long it might take the little tykes to run wild. Golding allots them three months. Brook believed that, left to their own devices, they would revert to savagery over the course of a long weekend.
Back in Tasmania, we managed this regression without having to be elaborately separated from our elders. We had parents and teachers, but they were hardly a civilising influence, since they relied on fists or sticks to inculcate better manners. Everyone struggled to survive with a Darwinian ferocity, and infantile play was a rehearsal for the warfare of adulthood. Books were my refuge, at least until I discovered from Golding that literature's purpose was to expose the truth, not beguile us with comforting lies.
Lord of the Flies was, and still is, the kind of novel in which you directly participate. Stephen King, reading it for the first time, "identified passionately" with Ralph, the would-be parliamentarian who wields the conch and tries to maintain order, as against the predatory Jack, who bedaubs himself with warpaint and leads the orgies of pig-killing. To me, King's preference sounds a little too high-minded. I always fancied the raffish, dissident Jack, though I'm not sure he would have accepted me in his tribe. Of course my natural avatar was Piggy, the plaintive fat boy who was "no chief" but "had brains". (Let me quickly point out that I was not overweight, and also didn't need to wear glasses; my ailment was eczema, not Piggy's asthma or, as his little mates mockingly put it, "ass-mar".) Returning to the book now, I find that the character who intrigues me most is Simon, the apparently epileptic visionary who goes to visit the monster in its lair and studies the flies as they worship their rotting lord. Jack and Ralph are both politicians, belonging to different parties, and Piggy, detached from a reality that he owlishly studies through his specs, is an intellectual. Simon is the novel's version of the artist, mysteriously gifted with an imagination that maddens him and ultimately causes his death. In his new introduction to Lord of the Flies, King remarks that it rendered the children's books he'd previously read obsolete. I'd say that it cheekily parodied them: Golding took the names of Jack and Ralph from The Coral Island, and the naval officer who rounds up the bloodthirsty kids at the end fondly alludes to RM Ballantyne's colonial fable, wanting to believe that their murderous sprees were hearty, healthy, outdoor fun and games.
Full story at The Guardian.

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