Friday, September 4, 2015

Adventure classics – Boys on an island: as they really are

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne
First, there were three boys named Ralph and Jack M. and P(eterkin) Gay, marooned on 19th century Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. And they were all very happy.

Then one evening, as William Golding wrote in his collection of essays, Moving Target, “we had just put the children to bed after reading to the elder some adventure story or other. . . but I was tired of these islands with their paper-cutout goodies and baddies and everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I said to my wife, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I wrote a story about boys on an island and let them behave the way they really would?'”

And so he began the story of another Ralph and another Jack M. and a . . . Piggy. They, too, were marooned on an island in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. And they were all very, very unhappy.

Considering how many “island stories” I’ve written about on this site (and if you’re an island fan like me, check out the list at the end of this post) how have I overlooked Ballantyne’s 1858 children’s classic, The Coral Island? For starters, it has overtones of racism, imperialism and classism, and it’s pretty violent to boot. (Cannibalism and child sacrifice, anybody?) But that only made it more appealing to the youthful males who were its intended audience. And as anybody who’s observed boys lately, they’re still avid consumers of violent media.

Surely if Golding had aimed his 1954 masterpiece at, say, the boys he spent years teaching, Lord of the Flies probably would have reached a wider audience than the fewer than 3,000 U.S. readers who bought its initial printing. Maybe it would have spawned a bestselling series. Instead, as a veteran naval officer in World War II, he aimed at an adult audience, fearful of what would happen to their children in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. And Lord of the Flies would become one of the most influential novels of the 20th century as well as becoming one of the most frequently banned books, according to the American Library Association.

I found The Coral Island in the children’s section of my local library, and was so amazed to learn was adapted as a children’s TV series in 2000 that I’m devoting part of Adventure classics September of young adventurers space to it. And to a comparison of it to Lord of the Flies, which in many ways is its parody.

Can we hope (or fear) that there will be child sacrifice? Possibly even cannibalism? In setting up the world of his story, the only large animals Golding allows on his island are a herd of feral pigs. Can it be coincidence that the most intelligent human inhabitant (and virtually the only one with a moral compass) is a despised boy called Piggy? Wait and see. (Right, you’ll have to pretend you haven’t read the book or seen the movie versions.)
Oh, yes, the list of “island adventures” I promised earlier. Here they are, listed in order of posting. Let me know if I’ve overlooked some. “Last woman left standing,” September. 16, 2011 (Island of the Blue Dolphins); “A book made from a map,” August 29, 2012 (Treasure Island); “In the heart of the beast,” July 3, 2013; (The Island of Dr. Moreau); “Merchant, debtor, author, spy,” August 14, 2013 (Robinson Crusoe); “Becoming history’s most famous mutiny,” August 28, 2013 (Mutiny on the Bounty); “Island of refuge for the wild ponies,” February 5, 2014 (Misty of Chincoteague); “The hero who returns from the depths,” August 27, 2014 (The Mysterious Island); “Castaways’ peaceable kingdom,” September 3, 2014 (The Swiss Family Robinson); “Billions of tiny architects of the reefs,” August 28, 2015 (Voyage of HMS Beagle – because Ballantyne made use of Darwin’s descriptions).

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a September of young adventurers with Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island.)

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