The 100 best novels: No 74 – Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

Dismissed at first as “rubbish & dull”, Golding’s brilliantly observed dystopian desert island tale has since become a classic

Like all the recent novels in this list (69-73), Lord of the Flies owes much of its dark power and impetus to the second world war, in which Golding served as a young naval officer. His experiences at Walcheren in 1944 nurtured an appetite for quasi-medieval extremes, mixing fiction and philosophy, which is not always a recipe for success in novels. However, Lord of the Flies remains both universal and yet profoundly English, with nods to Defoe, Stevenson and Jack London (2, 24 and 35 in this series).

By the 1950s, now teaching at a boys’ grammar school, Golding was struggling to make his way as a novelist, having had a volume of poems published in 1934. His wife, Ann, who played a crucial role in his creative life, suggested RM Ballantyne’s Coral Island as a source of inspiration. The upshot: a post-apocalyptic, dystopian survivor-fantasy about a bunch of pre-teen and teenage boys on a remote tropical island. But this is a far cry from the world of Robinson Crusoe or Long John Silver.

Lord of the Flies (whose title derives from one transcription of “Beelzebub”) is the work of an English teacher with a taste for big themes, and engages the reader at three levels. First, it’s a brilliantly observed study of adolescents untethered from rules and conventions. The main players – Ralph, Jack and Piggy – represent archetypes of English schoolboy, but Golding gets under their skin and makes them real. He knows how they tick, and draws on his own experience to explore the terrifying breakdown of their community.

Second and third, Lord of the Flies presents a view of humanity unimaginable before the horrors of Nazi Europe, and then plunges into speculations about mankind in the state of nature. Bleak and specific, but universal, fusing rage and grief, Lord of the Flies is both a novel of the 1950s, and for all time. A strange kind of Eden becomes a desolate portrait of life in a post-nuclear world. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it should become a cult classic of the 60s, to be read as avidly as Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird and On the Road.

A Note on the Text

Before completing this novel, William Golding had been “Scruff”, the shy, oddball English teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s school in Salisbury. Lord of the Flies, written during 1952-53, suffered successive rejections before its triumphant publication in 1954. At first titled Strangers from Within, the novel not only endured almost universal disdain, it was also the desperate last throw of an awkward schoolmaster who had struggled for years to find an audience.

His daughter, Judy, born at the end of the war, was too young to remember her father writing Lord of the Flies but she told me in an interview some years ago: “I do remember the parcels [of manuscript] going off and coming back. We lived on a very tight budget, so the postage must have been a significant expense.”

The legend of this iconic postwar novel has become hoary with many tellings. When it first arrived at Faber & Faber (its eventual publisher), it was a dog-eared manuscript that had obviously done the rounds. Its first in-house reader, a certain Miss Perkins, famously dismissed it as an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” However, a newly recruited young Faber editor, Charles Monteith, disagreed. He saw that the first chapter (about the aftermath of the bomb) could be dropped, fought for the book, and then, having persuaded Golding to cut and rewrite, steered it through to publication. Monteith, whom I came to know well, and admire, was doing what Maxwell Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe or Gordon Lish for Raymond Carver. It’s a skill that is rarely found in publishing today.

Eventually, the novel would sell more than 10m copies, but fame and success did not come overnight. The first printing of about 3,000 copies sold slowly. Gradually, the book’s qualities won serious attention. A turning-point occurred when EM Forster chose Lord of the Flies as his “outstanding novel of the year.” Other reviews described it as “not only a first-rate adventure but a parable of our times”. Judy Golding told me it was only “five years later, after the film came out [directed by Peter Brook], that I noticed parents of my friends suddenly becoming interested in Daddy”.

Thereafter, the novel became cult reading. When I worked at Faber in the 1980s, we used to reprint it, 100,000 copies at a time, year after year. I believe this still goes on. That’s one definition of classic, a book which even when we read it for the first time gives us the sense of re-reading something we have read before. In the words of Italo Calvino, “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

Lord of the Flies has had a wide influence on many English and American writers, including Alex Garland, whose The Beach pays homage to Golding’s original. Nigel Williams also adapted Lord of the Flies for the stage in a strikingly powerful version that has helped sustain the novel’s afterlife.

Three more From William Golding

The Inheritors (1955); The Spire (1964); Rites of Passage (1980)

Kate Mosse will be talking to Robert McCrum about the selection process for his 100 best novels series at Kings Place, London on 18 February, 7-8.30pm (£10). See for details. Lord of the Flies is available in paperback from Faber, £7.99. Click here to buy it for £6.39


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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