Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part One: ‘Lord of the Flies’

‘Lord of the Flies’ is a book so many of us read in high school, and completely misunderstood. But if we spend a little more time with it, it tells us something powerful about our society, and ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to look at my recommended list of books to read to help you understand what is going on in South Africa and the world. All of them are fiction – not because I don’t love non-fiction too, but because I think the most powerful way to understand culture is to know its stories…

‘Lord of the Flies’ was written in the aftermath of World War II and at the beginning of nuclear tension between Russia and America, and the slow fading of Britain as a world and colonial power.

We all think we know what it means: a bunch of schoolboys are stranded on an island and, without civilization, they quickly descend into savagery.

Having crashed on a deserted island full of fruit and wild pig, they begin with sensible ideas to build shelter, elect a leader, hold a parliament with the power of speaking only given to whomever holds ‘the conch’, and set a signal fire.

By the end they are a tribe of painted savages, performing human sacrifice, murder, and acts of terrorism, demonstrating that little boys without adults are evil little critters and thus need supervision to keep them in line.

That’s somewhat true, as far as it goes, but the author, William Golding, was definitely not praising the glories of adult civilization, nor is he trying to communicate some kind of idea about ‘boys being boys’.

The group of boys on the island are not meant to demonstrate a society adrift from civilization – they are meant to demonstrate the true nature of all civilizations.

This is the case for a number of reasons:

First of all, the boys only get to the island because there has been a nuclear attack on Britain. Civilization has already gone to hell. Golding is suggesting that even innocent schoolboys on what is superficially an Edenic paradise away from a world at war cannot escape the basic human condition of cruelty and envy.

Secondly, when one of the boys pleads for some sign from the adult world to help set themselves right, the sign provided by the author is the dead body of a parachutist from the adult world of war, who becomes for the boys the physical emblem of ‘the beast’ haunting their dreams.

And thus, thirdly, the war on the island between the two factions, a war that destroys the island, is a mirror of the world from which the boys have come. This makes it highly ironic that when the boys are rescued by a British naval ship, the captain is ashamed of the boys’ behaviour, as though his world of atomic warfare, the carpet-bombing of civilians, and holocaust is at all superior.

And this is what makes Golding’s fable such an essential book for us.

In the middle of the twentieth century, an old Englishman was able to re-tell the story of Eden set in our own, non-mythical world.

In so doing, he does not berate humanity to the point of utter hopelessness within our ‘original sin’, but he does demonstrate the horrible potential of that ‘original sin’ to lay waste to our humanity and our world.

The key figure in the book is not any of the main characters – such as the flawed but earnest leader, Ralph, or the increasingly cruel chief, Jack, or the rationally-minded but limited ‘Piggy’. The key character is Simon, who alone understands what is truly going on upon the island, and therefore must be put to death by the ‘civilization’ being formed unconsciously by the boys, as a kind of virus or alien within their social structure.

Simon alone among the boys spends time on his own, or with the smallest boys otherwise ignored by the older ones. This already marks him as an outsider. And as an outsider, he is able to work out that ‘the beast’ feared by the boys is neither some kind of animal as imagined by Jack or Ralph, nor a figment of the imagination as deduced by the intellectual Piggy.

The beast is both more and less real than that. The beast is the darkness within each boy, a darkness which when pooled inspires a society of fear and collectivisation, where being a part of the group is the only cure to one’s own despair, and the group is only formed by collective violence against an imagined enemy, who becomes the scapegoat allowing new social bonds to be formed.

Initially, the boys begin to offer the beast sacrifices to leave them alone (a beast they imagine to be the parachutist’s corpse on the top of the island’s mountain) – and then they begin to ritualize their hunting as a kind of ceremony that allows them to form a kind of tribal togetherness.

Simon has a kind of ecstatic conversation with one of the offerings, which is a pig’s head on a stick covered in flies – the ‘Lord of the Flies’ – in which the pig’s head takes on the persona of the beast and tells Simon how foolish it was to think you could hunt and kill the Beast – no, he, the Beast is closer than that: “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?”

Simon climbs the mountain, discovers the body of the adult, and travels down the mountain as a kind of prophetic figure to share the revelation that the beast is not a monster but is within them. Perhaps he can usher in a new way of living together based on self-awareness and kindness, not fear and cruelty? He comes down in the midst of a storm, and the boys are conducting a ritual hunt in the form of a dance and chant, and as Simon appears, they label him the beast, and he himself is killed. It is then the chaos begins in earnest, leading to the destruction of the island.

So how does the book relate to our world?

Golding realised that after the horrors of the twentieth century, unmitigated by the rationalities of science, socialism, and democracy, we needed to explore what was really going on society. And that can only be done in a kind of spiritual or mythical way.

Human beings are creatures who both kill and love, destroy and make art. We are neither wholly brutish animals nor rational angels.

And fundamentally, our civilization does not do away with this basic fact of our nature, it just disguises it. Having parliaments and scientists in our midst does not do away with the darkness within. The only solution to the darkness is to know it, and to venture within, like Simon does.

It may come at great cost, but if we are to avoid organising our societies around sacrificial offerings to the beast, it must be done. And so perhaps the myths and liturgies of an older world had more wisdom to them than we think here in our enlightened age.

As the social critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer realised, the Age of Enlightenment was eventually lit up by the lights of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In such an age, the tragic figure of Simon becomes an emblem of hope for us all. The beast can only be purged by self-awareness and compassion. In this way, despite personal cost, innocence can be restored.

Click below to give this classic another read.