Lord of the Flies offers a variation upon the ever-popular tale of island adventure, and it holds all of the excitements common to that long tradition. Golding’s castaways are faced with the usual struggle for survival, the terrors of isolation, and a desperate out finally successful effort to signal a passing ship which will return them to the world they have lost. This time, however, the story is told against the background of an atomic war. A plane carrying some English boys, aged six to twelve, from the center of conflict is shot down by the enemy and the youths are left without adult company on an unpopulated Pacific island. The environment in which they find themselves actually presents no serious challenge: the island is a paradise of flowers and fruit, fresh water flows from the mountain, and the climate is gentle. In spite of these unusual natural advantages, the children fail miserably and the adventure ends in a reversal of their (and the reader’s) expectations. Within a short time the rule of reason is overthrown and the survivors regress to savagery.
During the first days on the island there is little forewarning of this eventual collapse of order. The boys are delighted with the prospect of some real fun before the adults come to fetch them. With innocent enthusiasm they recall the storybook romances they have read and now expect to enjoy in reality. Among these is The Coral Island, Robert Michael Ballantyne’s heavily moralistic idyll of castaway boys, written in 1858 yet still, in our atomic age, a popular adolescent classic in England. In Ballantyne’s tale everything comes off in exemplary style. For Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin (his charming young imperialists), mastery of the natural environment is an elementary exercise in Anglo-Saxon ingenuity. The fierce pirates who invade the island are defeated by sheer moral force, and the tribe of cannibalistic savages is easily converted and reformed by the example of Christian conduct afforded them. The Cord Island is again mentioned by the naval officer who comes to rescue Golding’s boys from the nightmare they have created, and so the adventure of these enfants terribles is ironically juxtaposed with the spectacular success of the Victorian darlings. The effect is to hold before us two radically different pictures of human nature and society. Ballantyne, no less than Golding, is a fabulist who asks us to believe that the evolution of affairs on his coral island models or reflects the adult world, a world in which men are unfailingly reasonable, cooperative, loving and lovable. We are hardly prepared to accept these optimistic exaggerations, though Ballantyne’s story suggests essentially the same flattering image of civilized man found in so many familiar island fables. In choosing to parody and invert this image Golding posits a reality the tradition has generally denied.
The character of this reality is to be seen in the final episode of Lord of the Flies. When the cruiser appears offshore, the boy Ralph is the one remaining advocate of reason, but he has no more status than the wild pigs of the forest and is being hunted down for the kill. Shocked by their filth, their disorder, and the revelation that there have been real casualties, the officer (with appropriate fatherly indignation) expresses his disappointment in this “pack of British boys.” There is no basis for his surprise, for life on the island has only imitated the larger tragedy in which the adults of the outside world attempted to govern themselves reasonably but ended in the same game of hunt and kill. Thus, according to Golding, the aim of the narrative is “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature”; the moral illustrated is that “the shape of society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.” And since the lost children are the inheritors of the same defects of nature which doomed their fathers, the tragedy on the island is bound to repeat the actual pattern of human history.
The central fact in that pattern is one which we, like the fatuous naval officer, are virtually incapable of perceiving: first, because it is one that constitutes an affront to our ego; second, because it controverts the carefully and elaborately rationalized record of history which sustains the ego of “rational” man. The fact is that regardless of the intelligence we possess—an intelligence which drives us in a tireless effort to impose an order upon our affairs—we are defeated with monotonous regularity by our own irrationality. “History,” said Joyce’s Dedalus, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” But we do not awake. Though we constantly make a heroic attempt to rise to a level ethically superior to nature, our own nature, again and again we suffer a fall—brought low by some outburst of madness because of the limiting defects inherent in our species.
If there is any literary precedent for the image of man contained in Gelding’s fable, it is obviously not to be found within the framework of a tradition that embraces Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and includes also those island episodes in Conrad’s novels in which the self-defeating skepticism of a Heyst or a Decoud serves only to illustrate the value of illusions. All of these offer some version of the rationalist orthodoxy we so readily accept, even though the text may not be so boldly simple as Ballantyne’s sermon for innocent Victorians. Quite removed from this tradition, which Golding invariably satirizes, is the directly acknowledged influence of classical Creek literature. Within this designation, though Golding’s critics have ignored it, is an obvious admiration for Euripides. Among the plays of Euripides it is, The Bacchae that Golding, like Mamillius of The Brass Butterfly, knows by heart The tragedy is a bitter allegory on the degeneration of society, and it contains the basic parable which informs so much of Golding’s work. Most of all, Lord of the Flies, for here the point of view is similar to that of the aging Euripides after he was driven into exile from Athens. Before his departure the tragedian brought down upon himself the mockery and disfavor of a mediocre regime like the one which later condemned Socrates. The Bacchae, however, is more than an expression of disillusionment with the failing democracy. Its aim is precisely what Golding has declared to be his own: “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature,” and so account for the failure of reason and the inevitable, blind ritual-hunt in which we seek to kill the “beast” within our own being.
The Bacchae is based on a legend of Dionysus wherein the god (a son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, daughter of Cadmus) descends upon Thebes in great wrath, determined to take revenge upon the young king, Pentheus, who has denied him recognition and prohibited his worship. Dionysus wins as devotees the daughters of Cadmus and through his power of enchantment decrees that Agave, mother of Pentheus, shall lead the band in frenzied celebrations. Pentheus bluntly opposes the god and tries by every means to preserve order against the rising tide of madness in his kingdom. The folly of his proud resistance is shown in the defeat of all that Pentheus represents: the bacchantes trample on his edicts and in wild marches through the land wreck everything in their path. Thus prepared for his vengeance, Dionysus casts a spell over Pentheus. With his judgment weakened and his identity obscured in the dress of a woman, the defeated prince sets out to spy upon the orgies. In the excitement of their rituals the bacchantes live in illusion, and all that falls in their way undergoes a metamorphosis which brings it into accord with the natural images of their worship. When Pentheus is seen he is taken for a lion and, led by Agave, the blind victims of the god tear him limb from limb. The final humiliation of those who deny the godhead is to render them conscious of their crimes and to cast them out from their homeland as guilt-stricken exiles and wanderers upon the earth.
For most modern readers the chief obstacle in the way of proper understanding of The Bacchae, and therefore Golding’s use of it, is the popular notion that Dionysus is nothing more than a charming god of wine. This image descends from “the Alexandrines, and above all the Romans—with their tidy functionalism and their cheerful obtuseness in all matters of the spirit—who departmentalized Dionysus as ‘jolly Bacchus’… with his riotous crew of nymphs and satyrs. As such he was taken over from the Romans by Renaissance painters and poets; and it was they in turn who shaped the image in which the modern world pictures him.” In reality the god was more important and “much more dangerous”: he was “the principle of animal life… the hunted and the hunter—the unrestrained potency which man envies in the beasts and seeks to assimilate.” Thus the intention and chief effect of the bacchanal was “to liberate the instinctive life in man from the bondage imposed upon it by reason and social custom…” In his play Euripides also suggests “a further effect, a merging of the individual consciousness in a group consciousness so that the participant is “at one not only with the Master of Life but his fellow-worshipers… and with the life of the earth.” Dionysus was worshiped in various animal incarnations (snake, bull, lion, boar), whatever form was appropriate to place; and all of these were incarnations of the impulses he evoked in his worshipers. In The Bacchae a leader of the bacchanal summons him with the incantation, “O God, Beast, Mystery, come!” Agave’s attack upon the lion” (her own son) conforms to the codes of Dionysic ritual: like other gods, this one is slain and devoured, his devotees sustained by his flesh and blood. The terrible error of the bacchantes is a punishment brought upon the land by the lord of beasts: “To resist Dionysus is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature; the punishment is the sudden collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through perforce and civilization vanishes.”
This same humiliation falls upon the innocents of Lord of the Flies. In their childish pride they attempt to impose an order or pattern upon the vital chaos of their own nature, and so they commit the error and “sin” of Pentheus, the “man of many sorrows.” The penalties, as in the play, are bloodshed, guilt, utter defeat of reason. Finally, they stand before the officer, “a semicircle of little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands.” Facing that purblind commander (with his revolver and peaked cap), Ralph cries “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart”; and the tribe of vicious hunters joins him in spontaneous choral lament But even Ralph could not trace the arc of their descent, could not explain why it’s no go, why things are as they are; for in the course of events he was at times among the hunters, one of them, and he grieves in part for the appalling ambiguities he has discovered in his own nature. He remembers those strange, interims of blindness and despair when a “shutter” clicked down over his mind and left him at the mercy of his own dark heart. In Ralph’s experience, then, the essence of the fable is spelled out: he suffers the dialectic we must all endure, and his failure to resolve it as we would wish demonstrates the limitations which have always plagued the species.
In the first hours on the island Ralph sports untroubled in the twilight of childhood and innocence, but after he sounds the conch he must confront the forces he has summoned to the granite platform beside the sunny lagoon. During that first assembly he seems to arbitrate with the grace of a young god (his natural bearing is dignified, princely) and, for the time being, a balance is maintained. The difficulties begin with the dream-revelation of the child distinguished by the birthmark. The boy tells of a snakelike monster prowling the woods by night, and at this moment the seed of fear is planted. Out of it will grow the mythic beast destined to become lord of the island. Rumors of his presence grow. There is a plague of haunting dreams—the first symptom of the irrational fear which is “mankind’s essential illness.”
In the chapter called “Beast from Water” the parliamentary debate becomes a blatant allegory in which each spokesman caricatures the position he defends. Piggy (the voice of reason) leads with the statement that life is scientific,” adds the usual Utopian promises (“when the war’s over they’ll be traveling to Mars and back”), and his assurance that such things will come to pass if only we control the senseless conflicts that impede progress. He is met with laughter and jeers (the crude multitude), and at this juncture a littlun interrupts to declare that the beast (ubiquitous evil) comes out of the sea. Maurice interjects to voice the doubt which curses them all: “I don’t believe in the beast of course. As Piggy says, life’s scientific, but we don’t know, do we? Not certainly…” Then Simon (the inarticulate seer) rises to utter the truth in garbled, ineffective phrases: there is a beast, but “it’s only us.” As always, his saving words are misunderstood, and the prophet shrinks away in confusion. Amid speculation that he means some kind of ghost, there is a silent show of hands for ghosts as Piggy breaks in with angry rhetorical questions: “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”. Taking his cue, Jack (savagery in excelsis) leaps to his feet and leads all but the “three blind mice” (Ralph, Piggy, Simon) into a mad jig of release down the darkening beach. The parliamentarians naively contrast their failure with the supposed efficiency of adults, and Ralph, in despair, asks for a sign from that ruined world.
In “Beast from Air” the sign, a dead man in a parachute, is sent down from the grownups, and the collapse foreshadowed in the allegorical parliament comes on with surprising speed. Ralph himself looks into the face of the enthroned tyrant on the mountain, and from that moment his young intelligence is crippled by fear. He confirms the reality of the beast and his confession of weakness insures Jack’s spectacular rise to power. Yet the ease with which Jack establishes his Dionysian order is hardly unaccountable. In its very first appearance the black-caped choir, vaguely evil in its military esprit, emerged ominously from a mirage and marched down upon the minority forces assembled on the platform. Except for Simon, pressed into service and out of step with the common rhythm, the choir is composed of servitors bound by the ritual and mystery of group consciousness. They share in that communion, and there is no real “conversion” or transfer of allegiance from good to evil when the chorus, ostensibly Christian, becomes the tribe of hunters. The lord they serve inhabits their own being. If they turn with relief from the burdens of the platform, it is because they cannot transcend the limitations of their own nature. Even the parliamentary pool of intelligence must fail in the attempt to explain all that manifests itself in our turbulent hearts, and the assertion that life is ordered, “scientific,” often appears mere bravado. It embodies tile sin of pride and, inevitably, evokes in some form the great god it has denied.
It is Simon who witnesses his coming and hears his words of wrath. In the thick undergrowth of the forest the boy discovers a refuge from the war of words. His shelter of leaves is a place of contemplation, a sequestered temple, scented and lighted by the white flowers of the night-blooming candlenut tree, where, in secret, he meditates on the lucid but somehow over-simple logic of Piggy and Ralph and the venal emotion of Jack’s challenges: There, in the infernal glare of the afternoon sun, he sees the killing of the sow by the hunters and the erection of the pig’s head on the sharpened stick. These acts signify not only the release from the blood taboo but also obeisance to the mystery and god who has come to be lord of the island-world. In the hours of one powerfully symbolic afternoon Simon sees the perennial fall which is the central reality of our history: me defeat of reason and the release of Dionysian madness in souls wounded by fear.
Awed by the hideousness of the dripping head (an image of the hunter’s own nature) the apprentice bacchantes suddenly run away, but Simon’s gaze is “held by that ancient, inescapable recognition”—an incarnation of the beast or devil bom again and again out of the human heart. Before he loses consciousness the epileptic visionary “hears” the truth which is inaccessible to the illusion-bound rationalist and the unconscious or irrational man alike: “‘Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. ‘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 as they are?’”. When Simon recovers from this trauma of revelation he finds on the mountain top that the “beast” is only a man. Like the pig itself, the dead man in the chute is fly-blown, corrupt, an obscene image of the evil that has triumphed in the adult world as well. Tenderly, the boy releases the lines so that the body can descend to earth, but the fallen man does not die. After Simon’s death, when the truth is once more lost, the figure rises, moves over the terrified tribe on the beach, and finally out to sea—a tyrannous ghost (history itself) which haunts and curses every social order.
In his martyrdom Simon meets the fate of all saints. The truth he brings would set us free from the repetitious nightmare of history, but we are, by nature, incapable of receiving that truth. Demented by fears our intelligence cannot control, we are at once “heroic and sick”, ingenious and ingenuous at the same time. Inevitably we gather in tribal union to hunt the molesting “beast,” and always the intolerable frustration of the hunt ends as it must: within the enchanted circle formed by the searchers, the beast materializes in the only form he can possibly assume, the very image of his creator; and once he is visible, projected (once the hunted has become the hunter), the circle closes in an agony of relief. Simon, call him prophet, seer or saint, is blessed and cursed by those intuitions which threaten the ritual of the tribe. In whatever culture the saint appears, he is doomed by his unique insights. There is a vital, if obvious, irony to be observed in the fact that the lost children of Golding’s fable are of Christian heritage, but when they blindly kill their savior they re-enact an ancient tragedy, universal because it has its true source in the defects of the species.
The beast, too, is as old as his maker and has assumed many names, though of course his character must remain quite consistent The particular beast who speaks to Simon is much like his namesake, Beelzebub. A prince of demons of Assyrian or Hebrew descent, but later appropriated by Christians, he is a lord of the flies, an idol for unclean beings. He is what all devils are: an embodiment of the lusts and cruelties which possess his worshipers and of peculiar power among the Philistines, the unenlightened, fearful herd. He shares some kinship with Dionysus, for his powers and effects are much the same. In The Bacchae Dionysus is shown “as the source of ecstasies and disasters, as the enemy of intellect and the defense of man against his isolation, as a power that can make him feel like a god while acting like a beast…” As such, he is “a god whom all can recognize.”
Nor is it difficult to recognize the island on which Golding’s innocents are set down as a natural paradise, an un-corrupted Eden offering all the lush abundance of the primal earth. But it is lost with the first rumors of the “snake-thing,” because he is the ancient, inescapable presence who insures a repetition of the fall. If this fall from grace is indeed the “perennial myth” that Golding explores in all his work, it does not seem that he has found in Genesis a metaphor capable of illuminating the full range of his theme. In The Bacchae Golding the classicist found another version of the fall of man, and it is clearly more useful to him than its Biblical counterpart. For one thing, it makes it possible to avoid the comparatively narrow moral connotations most of us are inclined to read into the warfare between Satan (unqualifiedly evil) and God (unqualifiedly good). Satan is a fallen angel seeking vengeance on the godhead, and we therefore think of him as an autonomous entity, a being in his own right and prince of his own domain. Dionysus, on the other hand, is a son of God (Zeus) and thus a manifestation or agent of the godhead or mystery with whom man seeks communion, or, perverse in his pride, denies at his own peril. To resist Dionysus is to resist nature itself, and this attempt to transcend the laws of creation brings down upon us the punishment of the god. Further, the ritual-hunt of The Bacchae provides something else not found in the Biblical account. The hunt on Golding’s island emerges spontaneously out of childish play, but it comes to serve as a key to psychology underlying human conflict and, of course, an effective symbol for the bloody game we have played throughout our history. This is not to say that Biblical metaphor is unimportant in Lord of the Flies, or in the later works, but it forms only a part of the larger mythic frame in which Golding sees the nature and destiny of man.
Unfortunately, the critics have concentrated all too much on Golding’s debt to Christian sources, with the result that he is popularly regarded as a rigid Christian moralist Yet the fact is that he does not reject one orthodoxy only to fall into another. The emphasis of his critics has obscured Gold-ing’s fundamental realism and made it difficult to recognize that he satirizes the Christian as well as the rationalist point of view. In Lord of the Flies, for example, the much discussed last chapter offers none of the traditional comforts. A fable, by virtue of its far-reaching suggestions, touches upon a dimension that most fiction does not—the dimension of prophecy. With the appearance of the naval officer it is no longer possible to accept the evolution of the island society as an isolated failure. The events we have witnessed constitute a picture of realities which obtain in the world at large. There, too, a legendary beast has emerged from the dark wood, come from the sea, or fallen from the sky; and men have gathered for the communion of the hunt. In retrospect, the entire fable suggests a grim parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse. According to that vision the weary repetition of human failure is assured by the birth of new devils for each generation of men. The first demon, who fathers all the others, falls from the heavens; the second is summoned from the sea to make war upon the saints and overcome them; the third, emerging from the earth itself, induces man to make and worship an image of the beast. It also decrees that this image “should both speak and cause that as many as should not worship” the beast should be killed. Each devil in turn lords over the earth for an era, and then the long nightmare of history is broken by the second coming and the divine millennium. In Lord of the Flies (note some of the chapter tides) we see much the same sequence, but it occurs in a highly accelerated evolution. The parallel ends, however, with the irony of Golding’s climactic revelation. The childish hope of rescue perishes as the beast-man comes to the shore, for he bears in his nature the bitter promise that things will remain as they are, and as they have been since his first appearance ages and ages ago.
The rebirth of evil is made certain by the fatal defects inherent in human nature, and the haunted island we occupy must always be a fortress on which enchanted hunters pursue the beast. There is no rescue. The making of history and the making of myth are finally the selfsame process—an old process in which the soul makes its own place, its own reality.
In spite of its rich and varied metaphor Lord of the Flies is not a bookish fable, and Golding has warned that he will concede little or nothing to The Golden Bough. There are real dangers in ignoring this disclaimer. To do so obscures the contemporary relevance of his art and its experiential sources. During the period of World War II he observed first hand the expenditure of human ingenuity in the old ritual of war. As the illusions of his early rationalism and humanism fell away, new images emerged, and, as for Simon, a picture of “a human at once heroic and sick” formed in his mind. When the war ended, Golding was ready to write (as he had not been before), and it was natural to find in the traditions he knew the metaphors which could define the continuity of the soul’s flaws. In one sense, the “fable” was already written. One had but to trace over the words upon the scroll and so collaborate with history.
James R. Baker