William Golding’s dystopian ‘Lord of the Flies’ gets a reality re-write

Many people consider William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. After World War II, it made sense that a group of British schoolboys, if stranded on a desert island, would turn into savage, murderous fascists. It turns out that, in the real world, something quite different could happen – and that the novel probably had more to do with Golding’s twisted psyche than with a deserved indictment of Western culture.

Golding’s book is in the news again because an article in The Guardian looks at “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months.” It turns out that nice boys, raised in a traditional Christian environment, survive surprisingly well.

The article’s author, Rutger Bregman, had read Golding's book as a teen, and wondered, as everyone does, whether we all have a bit of Nazi hiding within us. After all, Golding himself confessed, “I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature.” For most Westerners, the book was a “We have met the enemy, and he is us” sort of read.

Bregman wondered, though, whether this anti-humanist theory had been tested in real life. To his surprise, it had. In 1965, a group of six Catholic schoolboys from Tonga got stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, where they spent 15 months before being rescued.

When Peter Warner, an Australian sea captain, first stumbled upon them, he didn’t find warring, depraved monsters. Instead, he found well-adjusted teens who had taken care of themselves and each other with resolve, kindness, and faith. From the moment of their shipwreck, which saw them drifting for seven days before making landfall, the boys handled things well:

“We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening.

The island on which they were to spend 15 months was just a big rock. The boys, instead of replaying Lord of the Flies, ended up replaying the Swiss Family Robinson, instead:

These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with 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.”

From the beginning, the boys worked together, realizing that disharmony would be dangerous:

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

There’s more in the article, and you’ll enjoy it if you read it. What’s clear is that Golding would have been the odd man out, for he wasn’t kidding when he said that there was a touch of the Nazi in him. Another Guardian article reveals Golding’s private notes, and it’s not pretty:

The Nobel laureate Sir William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies turned notions of childhood innocence on their head, admitted in private papers that he had tried to rape a 15-year-old girl during his teenage years, it emerged today.

[snip]

The attempted rape involved a Marlborough girl, named Dora, who had taken piano lessons with Golding. It happened when he was 18 and on holiday during his first year at Oxford.

Carey quotes the memoir as partially excusing the attempted rape on the grounds that Dora was "depraved by nature" and, at 14, was "already sexy as an ape".

Further revelations are equally grotesque and disturbing. Golding, a schoolteacher, also confessed that he enjoyed dividing his students in gangs and encouraging them to attack each other. His vaunted novel reflected him, not the still-civilized parts of the Western world.

We already know from the Nazi death camps that moral people will hang onto whatever semblance of decency and civility they can, no matter how dire the circumstances. Six Tongan schoolboys merely reinforced that idea.

Many people consider William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. After World War II, it made sense that a group of British schoolboys, if stranded on a desert island, would turn into savage, murderous fascists. It turns out that, in the real world, something quite different could happen – and that the novel probably had more to do with Golding’s twisted psyche than with a deserved indictment of Western culture.

Golding’s book is in the news again because an article in The Guardian looks at “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months.” It turns out that nice boys, raised in a traditional Christian environment, survive surprisingly well.

The article’s author, Rutger Bregman, had read Golding's book as a teen, and wondered, as everyone does, whether we all have a bit of Nazi hiding within us. After all, Golding himself confessed, “I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature.” For most Westerners, the book was a “We have met the enemy, and he is us” sort of read.

Bregman wondered, though, whether this anti-humanist theory had been tested in real life. To his surprise, it had. In 1965, a group of six Catholic schoolboys from Tonga got stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, where they spent 15 months before being rescued.

When Peter Warner, an Australian sea captain, first stumbled upon them, he didn’t find warring, depraved monsters. Instead, he found well-adjusted teens who had taken care of themselves and each other with resolve, kindness, and faith. From the moment of their shipwreck, which saw them drifting for seven days before making landfall, the boys handled things well:

“We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening.

The island on which they were to spend 15 months was just a big rock. The boys, instead of replaying Lord of the Flies, ended up replaying the Swiss Family Robinson, instead:

These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with 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.”

From the beginning, the boys worked together, realizing that disharmony would be dangerous:

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

There’s more in the article, and you’ll enjoy it if you read it. What’s clear is that Golding would have been the odd man out, for he wasn’t kidding when he said that there was a touch of the Nazi in him. Another Guardian article reveals Golding’s private notes, and it’s not pretty:

The Nobel laureate Sir William Golding, whose novel Lord of the Flies turned notions of childhood innocence on their head, admitted in private papers that he had tried to rape a 15-year-old girl during his teenage years, it emerged today.

[snip]

The attempted rape involved a Marlborough girl, named Dora, who had taken piano lessons with Golding. It happened when he was 18 and on holiday during his first year at Oxford.

Carey quotes the memoir as partially excusing the attempted rape on the grounds that Dora was "depraved by nature" and, at 14, was "already sexy as an ape".

Further revelations are equally grotesque and disturbing. Golding, a schoolteacher, also confessed that he enjoyed dividing his students in gangs and encouraging them to attack each other. His vaunted novel reflected him, not the still-civilized parts of the Western world.

We already know from the Nazi death camps that moral people will hang onto whatever semblance of decency and civility they can, no matter how dire the circumstances. Six Tongan schoolboys merely reinforced that idea.