“Civilization is skin-thin: scratch it and savagery bleeds out.” [Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations]
Nobel laureate William Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), tells the story of a group of school boys plane-wrecked on an uninhabited island. The leadership of the democratic and sensitive Ralph is soon usurped by the savage Jack, and childhood innocence soon gives way to uncanny cruelty on the island. The novel is the story of evil in the human being and his society.
Seeing that there are no adults to restrain them, the children are initially excited. But Ralph emerges as a leader reminding them of their responsibility to find ways of returning home. Ralph is a moral character in the novel. His is a cultivated morality, the product of human civilisation. Jack, on the other hand, is the uncultivated savage. He soon wrenches the leadership from Ralph and becomes a dictator who imposes both his will and his savagery on the group. Most of the children abandon Ralph’s benign leadership and become the followers of the bullying Jack. Jack provides them “fun and games” like hunting and mimicking hunting with one of the younger boys playing the role of a boar.
Simon is one of the few boys who do not follow Jack. He is a saint of sorts to whom goodness comes naturally. People like Simon do good and only good not because of any external moral obligations but merely because goodness comes to them naturally from within. Such people may not last in the world of normal human beings. Simon is killed eventually mistaken for the mysterious beast that was dreaded by most of the boys though none had really seen it.
There really was no mysterious beast on the island. But Jack finds the myth of the beast useful for establishing his reign on the island. He becomes the saviour of the boys from the mythical beast. He sets up the head of a wild boar that they had hunted on a stump as a ritualistic symbol for propitiating the mythical beast. A cult is born on the island. Thus Jack is now not only a political ruler but also a religious leader. He is a tyrant, in fact.
In a world where the beast is perceived as real, where fear is a dominating emotion, rules and morals are ineffectual and they may even totally vanish. Rules and morals work when there is a feeling of security. Where survival itself is in danger, power becomes the significant virtue. Jack provides the security of that power. He assures the boys that he will save them from the mysterious beast. He constructs a religious cult with its own weird rituals.
Ralph and Piggy refuse to join Jack and his gang. Piggy is soon killed though it was Ralph who was the real target. Ralph flees in order to save himself.
Piggy is the intellectual, scientific thinker in the group. The intellectual has no place where myths and cults reign supreme, having created an environment of smouldering fear. Jack’s boys steal Piggy’s spectacles whose lenses were the only means for making fire on the island. Science is stolen from the scientist and is misused by antisocial elements.
There really is no safe place on the island where Ralph can take shelter from Jack’s gang. He is fortunate that a soldier, having seen the fire set ablaze with the intention of killing him, lands on the island with his parachute. The boys are saved.
Golding believed that evil was an integral part of human beings. Civilisation helps to keep it under control. Morality, ethics and the various rules and regulations keep the wild beast in man under chains and whips. The beast resides within every individual – with some exceptions like Simon who may not last long. Left totally free, the child too will reveal fangs and claws. There is really nothing like childhood innocence. Such innocence is a transient dream. The reality within the human being is a protean beast which can become various myths and assume numerous shapes.