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?
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.
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.