Friday, September 11, 2015

Adventure classics – A signal fire for the nuclear age

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
The Coral Island, by R.M. Ballantyne
“Until the grownups come to fetch us we’ll have fun. . . (but) if a ship comes near the island they may not notice us. So we must make smoke on top of the mountain. We must make a fire.”

So spoke Ralph, duly elected leader at age “twelve years and a few months” of the marooned, doomed youngsters in William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies. Golding consciously followed the premise of R. M. Ballantyne’s 1858 boys’ adventure story, The Coral Island, and then stood it on its head.

When Ballantyne marooned three young British sailors – Ralph, Jack and Peterkin – on an uninhabited tropical isle, he was careful to set up a clear hierarchy among them. Jack was the oldest at 18, and already an experienced sailor. Ralph was 15, and on his first voyage, as was 14-year-old Peterkin Gay. The world they came from was an ordered one. Their country was the leader of a worldwide empire, most of whose possessions were at peace and where everyone from Queen Victoria on down knew his or her place. And because Ballantyne’s book was meant to set an uplifting example for its readers, young Ralph and Peterkin accepted Jack’s authority without question.

Almost exactly a century later, in 1954, and in a world so changed Ballantyne would hardly have recognized it, William Golding also marooned a group of British boys on an uninhabited island. Unlike Ballantyne’s castaways, shipwrecked in a storm while on a peaceful voyage, Golding’s were fleeing a world torn by war. Great Britain’s empire was dissolving in the aftermath of the second world war of the century. And over the entire globe hung the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation.

For better or worse, unthinking acceptance of authority was no longer an option for these new castaways. Golding’s Ralph and Jack were closer in age, more nearly balanced in size and experience than Ballantyne’s. And their Peterkin stand-in, the short, fat, asthmatic, lower class boy nicknamed Piggy, has only his glasses and a misplaced faith in rationality to set against their power stalemate.

Right, glasses. Because although Ralph hopes to attract rescuers with a signal fire, and the island has plenty of wood for fuel, the only way the boys have to start a fire is by using Piggy’s spectacles as a burning glass.

In The Coral Island, Peterkin suggested the same experiment, using the lens of a spy glass, a suggestion derided by the others at the time because the sun had set. Ballantyne’s Jack starts the fire by the time honored method of friction, a low-tech suggestion the boys’ in Golding’s book deride.

Ralph tells Piggy to keep track of the youngest boys, age six or so, collectively referred to as the “littluns.” Among the youngsters is one with a mulberry birthmarked face, “a shrimp of a boy.” He is the first to voice fear of a “beastie” in the woods, the first mention of menace on the apparently idyllic island. But the older boys deride his fears and the rest, wildly excited by the prospect of a bonfire, break free of Piggy’s feeble attempts to control them.

As the youngsters pile on fuel, the fire quickly rages as out of the control as Golding feared the nuclear weapons of the age would do to the world. When the first at last burns itself out, the boy with the marked face is not among the group. The genii in the bottle technology of Piggy’s glasses has claimed its first victim.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a September of young adventurers with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island.)

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