Why We Should Read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: An Animated Video Makes the Case

Like many of you, I was assigned to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in junior high. (Raise your hand if you had the one with this cov­er). Look­ing back, was there a sub­con­scious rea­son our teacher gave us this famous tale of a group of ship­wrecked chil­dren and young teens turn­ing into mur­der­ous sav­ages? Were we real­ly that bad?

Per­haps you’ve nev­er read the book and got assigned To Kill a Mock­ing­bird or Kes instead. Is Golding’s book still worth pick­ing up as an adult?

For sure, yes, and this ani­mat­ed explain­er from Jill Dash of TED-Ed hope­ful­ly will entice you do so. What it pro­vides is what we didn’t get in school: con­text.

Gold­ing had been a lieu­tenant in the Roy­al Navy dur­ing the war, and had returned to find a post-war world where nuclear anni­hi­la­tion felt pal­pa­ble. He was also teach­ing at a pri­vate school for boys. He got to won­der­ing: are we doomed as a species to sav­agery? Is war inevitable?

Gold­ing was also think­ing about the pop­u­lar Young Adult nov­els (as we now call them) of his day, because he read them to his own chil­dren. A pop­u­lar trope fea­tured young boys as cast­aways on a desert island who get up to all sorts of fun adven­tures, with a dash of British colo­nial­ism thrown in for good mea­sure. All were riffs on Daniel Defoe’s Robin­son Cru­soe.

Lord of the Flies, then, is a bru­tal satire, reduc­ing angel­ic British school­boys to a blood­thirsty mob in very lit­tle time, while in the greater world of the nov­el nuclear war rages. (Hav­ing read this dur­ing the ‘80s, the nuclear back­ground was nev­er impressed on us stu­dents. I think I would have found the nov­el even more ter­ri­fy­ing.)

It took Gold­ing ten years to find an inter­est­ed pub­lish­er, and even then it was a flop on ini­tial release. But its rep­u­ta­tion soon grew, helped by Peter Brook’s black-and-white film adap­ta­tion, and its ped­a­gog­i­cal use as an alle­gor­i­cal tale dur­ing the Cold War. It also influ­enced a gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers. Stephen King named his fic­tion­al town Cas­tle Rock after the kids’ fort in the nov­el. It also opened the door for any num­ber of Young Adult authors to deal with dark and trou­bling themes.

There were also real-world exam­ples to draw from. In the same year, 1954, as Golding’s nov­el appeared, Muzafer Sher­if’s The Rob­bers Cave Exper­i­ment was pub­lished. This was non-fic­tion, how­ev­er, detail­ing an exper­i­ment in which 22 mid­dle-class white boys were set up in two groups at a desert­ed Okla­homa sum­mer camp. With sci­en­tists pos­ing as coun­selors, they let the groups–the Rat­tlers and the Eagles–sort out their own hier­ar­chies, then set up com­pe­ti­tions.

The psy­chol­o­gists watched the arms race esca­late over the fol­low­ing days. Final­ly, one vio­lent mob brawl became so sus­tained that the researchers were forced to step in, drag the boys apart and remove them to sep­a­rate loca­tions.

How long did it take for mere fric­tion to esca­late into a juve­nile war, in an idyl­lic set­ting where every­one had plen­ty of food? Phase two last­ed just six days from the first insult (“Fat­ty!”) to the final all-out brawl. Gold­ing would have loved it.

We can see Golding’s warn­ing every­where in pop­u­lar cul­ture, from the back-bit­ing and betray­als in real­i­ty shows like Sur­vivor to hor­ror movies like The Purge. We’ve also seen the ter­rors that chil­dren can inflict on each oth­er, Columbine school shoot­ing onward. In Golding’s nov­el, the chil­dren are res­cued and revert back to a sob­bing, depen­dent state. In the real world, alas, nobody’s com­ing to save us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why You Should Read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude: An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

How to Mem­o­rize an Entire Chap­ter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing

Why Should We Read William Shake­speare? Four Ani­mat­ed Videos Make the Case

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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