Friday, September 25, 2015

Adventure classics: When those who should know best, don’t

Lord of the Flies
by William Golding
The day the child realises that all adults are imperfect,
he becomes an adolescent. . .
Alden Nowlan

Once upon a time, landing on a tropical island with no adults around seemed like a dream come true for the lost boys of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a mere interval of play like the adventure stories they had read, books such as R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, before the grownups arrive to rescue them. But as things fall apart, as the only adult who reaches their island is a dead pilot from the war high overhead, as the boys themselves break into quarreling factions, some yearn for a return of the certainties adults seemed to provide.

Among the group of pre-adolescent boys, 12-year-old Ralph has been elected chief. A second boy, known only by his nickname, Piggy, is a semi-outcast, set apart by his physical weaknesses – poor sight, asthma, and a fatness that persists despite the lean diet of fruit available to most of the group. Despite these physical failings, his greater intelligence and the fire-making technology he possesses in his eyeglasses, have made him Ralph’s ally in attempting to maintain a signal fire to guide rescuers to the island.

Now a third boy, Jack Merridew, threatens the peace of the island. Deserting the signal fire in favor of hunting the island’s native pigs, Jack challenges Ralph for leadership. It is a challenge the more urgent and chilling as Jack’s followers finally manage to kill a pig, and tempt the rest with the promise of meat.

And when the signal fire goes out, those left in darkness long for the return of the grownups.

Grownups, Piggy says, “ain’t afraid of the dark. They’d meet and have tea and discuss. Then things ‘ud be all right. . . .’”

He forgets, like the child he really is, that the catastrophic war ignited by those same grownups is the reason for the boy’ current abandonment. When Jack, to secure his own authority, steals the poor remains of Piggy’s already broken spectacles, Piggy loses his intellectual as well as physical vision.

“‘What’s grownups goin’ to think?’” he asks. “‘I’m going to that Jack Merridew an’ tell him, I am.’”

As Piggy pays for his blind belief in the rule of law, the remainder of Ralph’s followers desert him. Determined to eliminate any challenge to his leadership, Jack incites his faction to hunt Ralph down in a ghastly parody of their pig hunts.

With the remains of Piggy’s eyeglasses, he sets fire to the forest where Ralph hides. The uncontrolled flames threaten to overwhelm the island, just as the probably nuclear holocaust in the outside world threatens all of human civilization. As the hunters close in, a being so strange Ralph doesn’t at first recognize it for what it is, a British naval officer whose cutter has just landed.

As flames engulf the palms by the island’s beach, “the officer grinned cheerfully at Ralph. ‘We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?’. . . Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island.’” And for the first time, Ralph weeps.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins an October of Halloween horror with J.S. LeFanu’s short story, “Carmilla.”)

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