I read Lord of the Flies as part of a class assignment on intellectual freedom. We were to choose a book from one of the ALA’s banned and challenged books lists. Discussion of our chosen book and intellectual freedom takes place this week. Until now I had never read Lord of the Flies. I knew what it was about though, boys marooned on a deserted island turn into little savages. That is essentially what the plot is, but leapin’ lizards Batman, this book blew my socks off! (use of superlative, Emerson wouldn’t like it!)

What I liked best about the book is how Golding so skillfully took the story from innocent fun to the horror of murder. Not once did he step into the story to explain what was happening. We see it all through the eyes of Ralph who begins the story doing handstands and ends up being hunted. Golding gives Ralph glimmers of what is going on so that once in awhile he sort of understands. But it is clear to the reader and to Ralph, that he isn’t a really smart boy and that he has difficulty thinking and working things out. What he does work out he often gets assistance on from Piggy, another boy who has “ass-mar,” who can work things out however imperfectly–his desire to belong sometimes occludes his judgment. And so the story ends up being like a horrible accident we can see coming but can do nothing about, nor can we look away. We have to witness it and be a part of it and we have to acknowledge that what the Lord of the Flies tells Simon may be true:

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth labored, brought forth audible words.

“Pig’s head on a stick.”

“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 what they are?”

It doesn’t matter whether the Lord of the Flies is just a pig’s head on a stick covered with flies, a reference to a line from Lear (“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport”), or a reference to Beelzebub, what the Lord of the Flies represents–a descent into primitive savagery–is what does matter.

Ralph and a handful of boys struggle to remain civilized–to follow rules, to build shelters, to keep a watch fire in hope of rescue. While Jack leads the rest of the boys further and further away from civilization. What the Lord of Flies says, that he is part of us, is unsettling. Golding shows us that even Ralph and the others who represent civilization find the moral-free life of Jack attractive at times and even gleefully participate in it. Ralph and Piggy, however suffer remorse afterwards while the others do not.

I wonder then, is that the difference between a moral, civilized world and an immoral, savage one? One feels guilt and the other does not? Is the Beast really so close as he claims? Or does Golding just take a dim view of human nature? Even though it has been over fifty years since the book was published, I’m not certain that we have a clear answer. That’s another reason why this book is so terrifying, Golding might be right.