Friday, September 18, 2015

Adventure classics – ‘We’ve met the beast and he is us’

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Living without grownups isn’t turning out to be as much fun as the marooned schoolboys of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies had first imagined. After crash landing on an uninhabited tropical island, 12-year-old Ralph at first turns cartwheels as the “delight of a realized ambition” overcomes him: the ambition of being free of adult supervision.

But as the weeks pass, and no ship arrives to rescue the boys, delight turns to horror. Ralph is elected chief of the boys, but he has a vicious rival in Jack Merridew, who’s more interested in trying to hunt the island’s wild pigs than in tending a signal fire. The youngsters are homesick, and often physically ill as well from their diet of fruit from the island’s trees. Ralph’s best friend Piggy’s glasses have been broken in a squabble over relighting the neglected signal fire. And then there’s the strange being the youngest boys believe haunts the island, the Beast. Because although the older boys, Ralph and Piggy and Jack, deride the fears of the “littluns,” they secretly fear the island’s dark loneliness. Can the Beast be the reason things are falling apart in their microcosm of society?

And the boys begin to long for the return of the grownups.

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

“If only (the grownups) could get a message to us,” Ralph “If only they could send us. . . a sign or something.”

That same night, while Ralph and his friends sleep, a sign does come. “There was a sudden bright explosion and corkscrew trail across the sky; then darkness again and stars,” Golding writes. “There was a speck above the island, a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limbs.”

This sign, a dead pilot from an air battle fought high over the island, crashes onto the mountainous island. His parachute tangles in the trees whose movements in the wind give him a false semblance of life, a sign of the “beast” the boys try to propitiate with an offering from their first successful hunt – the head of a pig.

Only shy, epileptic Simon realizes the true nature of this “beast” – that it is only a pathetic corpse whose presence belies all their trust in the wisdom and infallibility of “grownups.” But before he can convey his epiphany to the rest, he encounters the fly-encrusted head of the dead pig, and meets the true Beast, the Lord of the Flies.

“‘Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head. . . . ‘You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are. . . so don’t try to escape!”

Simon arrives back at the boys’ camp at night, during a sudden storm. In his absence, Jack has instigated a blood-based cult to cement his coup over Ralph’s leadership and as the boys scream “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” Simon stumbles unrecognized into their midst.

“The beast was on its knees in the center, its arms folded over its face. It was crying out against the abominable noise something about a body on the hill.” And in the small post-apocalyptic world of the island, the voice of reason dies, the boys fall in a spiritual decay as certain as the physical decay of the pilot’s body, and the Lord of the Flies claims his own.

(Can things possibly get any worse? Next Friday Adventure classics concludes a September of young adventures with the final chapter of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.)

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