Group of boysThis year, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies," has revived murky misinterpretations of it. An early instance is The Times review quoted inside the front cover of the Faber paperback of 1958. '. . . Mr. Golding,' the reviewer declares, 'knows exactly what boys are like; he has a compelling imagination; and the vivid realism with which he describes the disintegration of their untried and precarious civilization under the pressure of raw nature carries the reader to the bloody climax . . . a most absorbing and instructive tale.'

Other people have gone further, and taken the book as proof of the universality of childish savagery, though how fiction can be proof of anything is difficult to see. There is even talk of a Lord-of-the-Flies syndrome, a supposed tendency among boys to revert to primitive nastiness when they are not under adult control.

The story itself is enthralling, but completely unrealistic. A group of boys are left stranded on a fertile island in the tropics as the result of an attack on an aeroplane. They have arrived there uninjured, having emerged, as far as I can make out, from a tube that was dropped from a damaged plane; the tube was then immediately dragged out to sea by a storm, and it plays no further part in the story. The children have been scattered about the island and gradually assemble. Except for a party from a choir school who all somehow managed to land together, none of them know each other, or even recognise each other from the aeroplane. No one has any baggage except for the members of the choir school, who have their cassocks as well as their school uniforms. No one has any difficulty in finding food or water, and except for those who are killed instantly, no one is seriously hurt. The palms provide shelter from the sun, the rocks have created a perfect swimming pool and wild pigs have made convenient paths through the forest where they can be killed for food without danger.

At first, under the leadership of a boy called Ralph, the boys make some attempt to build shelters and keep a signal fire alight on top of the central hill, but soon they are led into savagery by Jack Merridew, significantly the only boy with a surname, who begins by killing pigs and painting his face with coloured clay, and ends up creating a tribe of his own which he rules with violent discipline. Two boys are actually killed by the tribe, and soon Ralph is the only survivor who does not belong. It is a great adventure story with two forest fires, a dead parachutist, a thunderstorm, the slaughter of animals and children and a tremendous final chase.

The Times' critic says, "Mr. Golding knows exactly what boys are like," and astonishingly commends the book for its vivid realism. As well as being completely unrealistic, the book offers no evidence at all that Mr. Golding knows what boys are like. When the boys first meet they do not discuss the accident or tell each other of their own adventures. They show no anxiety about their position and no concern for the rest of the passengers who must have been dragged out to sea in the tube. Only four boys are clearly characterised: Ralph, the confident, good-looking, athletic leader with a vague awareness that action needs to be taken, Piggy, the inhibited, unhealthy, socially inept intellectual who actually knows what ought to be done, Jack Merridew, the aggressive, arrogant head prefect of the choir school and Simon, a shy, solitary boy who has fits and a sense of the numinous.

The story tells of the victory of Jack Merridew over the other three - the victory of violence over responsibility, intellect and religion. It is plainly a fable, not without relevance to the adult world.

All the boys except Ralph, Piggy, Simon and sometimes the characterless twins, Sam and Eric, prefer swimming and lazing around to exploring or doing anything constructive. Few real children of this age like lazing around; they adapt their environment, they build shelters and furniture, they investigate, they invent, they fish, they organize games, they experiment with cooking, they make plans. William Golding was not writing Robinson Crusoe or Coral Island, he was writing a fable, and for his fable he needed an aimless group of idlers, so that is what he created. It is not a realistic picture of a group of children.

Of his four fully characterised boys, three resist the call of savagery. It is only the uncharacterised mob that follows Jack Merridew. Jack himself is the source of all the drive towards violence and primitivism. And who is Jack Merridew? He is the chapter chorister and head boy. He arrives as the leader of a group of uniformed choirboys. It is he who represents the authority from the world the boys have left behind them, and he does not keep the boys from savagery, he leads them directly into it.

At the end of the book Ralph weeps for " the darkness of man's heart." The darkness of man's heart, not the darkness of children's hearts. It is a pity that the book is generally taken as an exemplification of the latter, and often not merely as an exemplification but as a kind of proof.

The real message of 'The Lord of the Flies' is not that children without adult control are barbarians, it is that the experience of adult control guides them into barbarism.

More articles by David Gribble