I just re-read “Lord of the Flies”. Like all Americans, I read this book first in High School. Re-reading it twenty five years later was enlightening. And reading it after I myself have authored four novels (and am halfway through my fifth), approaching Golding’s work not as an anxious adolescent but as tradesman attempting to improve his own craft was a singularly transcendent experience. But I’ll get to that below.
First the guts. “Lord of the Flies” is of course a classic. It is an archetypal book – a treatise on humanity through the story of a group of British children marooned on a jungle island (presumably in the South Pacific) after the airplane that was evacuating them from a nuclear attack on the British Isles went down. British, I suppose, because that culture is known as the apex of civilization and therefore makes excellent fodder for a dissertation on madness. Granted, Golding was also British so he knew his subject well. “Lord of the Flies” is the story about how easy it is for us all to lose our civilization, to return to the barbarity that we all have just under the surface of our mores and traditions and laws.
The novel is a study in opposites – archetypes, as I mentioned before. Jack embodies madness, tribalism, and violence. Watching his rapid descent from choir leader to murdering tribal chief is instructive. Ralph is civilization, unable to impose itself after it has been abandoned by the minds of men. Piggy is reason, naked and empty before the violence – vulnerable. The conch is tradition, fragile yet holding a place in peoples’ imaginations, until it doesn’t anymore and is shattered. The beastie is fear and madness, necessary for the manufacture of tyranny; the fire is hope and purpose and responsibility. None of this is new – any High School literature class discusses them as part of our process of understanding ourselves. I like archetypal books; I even used archetypes in my own first novel “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”. So why did this second reading of “The Flies” impact me so?
“Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling; and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved further along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out towards the open sea.” Lord of the Flies
We novelists have a secret, well a two-part secret really. The first part is that we disparage our own work. We are told not to even re-read our novels after they are published, lest we collapse in despair and attempt to cleanse their imperfections in flames. But the second part of that secret is that we actually consider ourselves better than others. Many a time I have sat reading books considered ‘classics’, books like “Fahrenheit 451” or “Housekeeping” or anything by Camus and thought to myself ‘Why is this a classic? My stuff is better’. Even good books like “Lord Jim” do not give me a sense of too great an inferiority. I know, we’re not supposed to say that – hence the secret. So here’s goes for Golding; as I read him, I felt like Wyatt Earp as he is about to face Johnny Ringo, “I didn’t really have time to think about it,” he says to Doc Holiday. “But I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. I can’t beat him, can I?” to which Doc Holiday responds “No”.
There it is, William Golding’s prose, his command of the beats and the crescendo of his story is so masterful that he made me want to put down my pen and pick up a crayon. Alas, I said it – read this book; if you are also a novelist read it with awe and surrender knowing, like I know “We can’t beat him.”