Many of us were forced to read The Lord of the Flies in high school or college. The story, by Nobel laureate William Golding, was also made into a classic black and white movie in 1963. That movie also was considered de rigueur in lots of lesson plans.
The critics, by and large, raved about the story. Despite the applause, though, the narrative is dreary at best, and by turns maudlin and sadistic. When it was first submitted to Faber & Faber in 1953, it was rejected as “Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” Amen.
It is not surprising that Golding, before he took up his trade as a novelist, taught at three boys’ schools in England. Obviously, he didn’t take his experience well. In his journals that he kept at the time, he admitted to “setting up” his students against each other.
“I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” It was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.
The story dovetails with the popular misanthropic belief that at heart, we are all violent and uncivilized, and that we can’t help “self-sorting” into violent tribes led by savage chiefs. Every tribe has its own exclusive narratives. Every chief is a tyrant who lashes out at perceived enemies.
Thank God, Golding’s depressing tale isn’t as true as he — or modern culture — thought it was. And, maybe, the “self-sorting” belief isn’t all that true either.
Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, recently posted in The Guardian an article about just this question: “Is the myth of The Lord of the Flies true?”
He unearthed a news story from 1966 about six boys who were stranded on a lonely island deep in the south Pacific. In June of 1965, they had taken a fishing boat to escape their Catholic boarding school. On the first night they managed to lose their sail, and by the following morning they broke their rudder. They drifted for seven more days, until finally, they spied a rocky, tiny island on the horizon.
It was the isolated island called ‘Ata. When they reached the shore, they found it deserted (the original inhabitants had been removed by a slaver ship in 1863).
The boys came to an agreement right then at the outset. They made a compact (probably better than the Mayflower Compact) that they would never quarrel. If they got angry, they would separate for a few hours, then come back together. They elected a work leader and a spiritual leader. They divided up work shifts, and they sang Psalms.
And they succeeded for the next fifteen months.
This quite explodes the narrative of the ex-schoolmaster and novelist William Golding. There was never any “Lord of the Flies” on the rocky island of ‘Ata.
The boys were rescued Sept. 11, 1966, by Peter Warner, Australian captain of the fishing boat “Just David.”
“By the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with a food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.”
Rutger Bregman added, in the Guardian article, that “While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.” The boys, even Captain Warner, are alive to this day.
So the myth that we are savages at heart doesn’t have to be. It is not inevitable that we must “self-sort” into exclusive tribes who yell at and denounce other tribes. “Sin is crouching at your door,” the Lord told Cain, before it was too late, “but you may overcome it” (Genesis 4.7).
But still, there is that abiding worry that we humans are doomed to divide. Maybe we actually want to.
Why would we wish this? Is it because this is how we imagine complete freedom, to be able in some mythical island to do exactly what we want — without any grownup structure? To be savage, liberated from any structure or rule?
That sort of freedom, and here Golding is correct, always devolves toward tyranny, even totalitarianism — as Simone Weil pointed out in “Toward the Abolition of Party.”
Written just weeks before her death in 1943, this deeply Christian essayist wrote that people will do things as a party member that they would never do on their own. What is needed, against the dangers of this partisan spirit, is a commitment to independent thought.
“If … one acknowledges that there is one truth,” she wrote, “one cannot think anything but the truth.”
It is only when one stops searching for this one truth, and thinks instead as a partisan, that one falls into what Weil calls “inner darkness.” Party-line thinking that refuses to cooperate and compromise with the opposition erects a terrible wall between the individual and the truth. It stifles the conscience and turns one’s fellow man into the enemy.
She writes that “Mendacity and error are the thoughts of those who do not desire truth, or those who desire truth plus something else … they desire truth, but they also desire conformity with such or such received ideas.”
It is obvious that the boys of ‘Ata desired truth and cooperation and compromise. They chose Peace over the Lord of the Flies.
So should we.