This is a guest article by Grace Ridley.
The Sound of The Shell
The heat of the day echoed that of the island. Although those meeting at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution had a little more decorum than the boys of the book, perhaps, the excitement for the event about to unfold was tangible.
Professor Ian Gadd began the evening by offering a kindly introduction to the work and aims of the institute as well as to the speakers. Dr Nicola Presley (Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Bath Spa University) and Judy Golding (CEO of William Golding Limited) were to speak.
Those gathered to hear only about Lord of the Flies were to learn about William Golding’s other works. We discovered how these books too talk directly to the context of the 21st century and deserve a place in our homes and in conversation.
Shadows and Tall Trees
Nicola Presley took the first half of the talk. She began in a light-hearted manner by discussing the importance of September in the Golding calendar. September marks what would be his 112th birthday, his wedding anniversary, the birth of his first child David and of course the month in which Lord of the Flies was published.
It is well discussed in scholarly articles and in GCSE essays that although published in 1954 the themes of the novel are still pertinent to the world today. War, violence, democracy and the breakdown of civilisation are the topics that still populate the pages of our newspapers and flash up on our phone screens. In Nicola’s talk she took this rhetoric one step further, and unpicked how it is many of the other elements of Golding’s debut novel make it his most enduring masterpiece.
So where does the commercial success of Lord of the Flies lie?
It lies in the characters… Despite all being allegorical figures representing voices in society, Golding’s characters too are vividly and realistically written. Nicola poses that this may have been due to his time as a schoolteacher at a boys’ school, which gave him an insight into the real behaviours, speech patterns and misgivings of the boys in that era.
Furthermore, since publication what the characters stand for and how they are treated has endured. Nicola used the example of Simon and Piggy being arbiters of truth who are later killed for their convictions and throughout are ‘wilfully denied or pointedly ridiculed’. It was sobering to be reminded that wilful hostility towards reason and logic is still common in conversations regarding domestic and world politics.
Its commercial success lies in the environment… Nature is at the forefront of Golding’s storytelling, as well as the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nicola noted that those are not simply worries of a different decade and are still as pressing today to the modern reader. The inherent darkness of the novel’s action and themes is balanced through Golding’s use of vivid and beautiful descriptions of nature. The boys don’t struggle to survive, because Golding’s island is bountiful; it is the island that struggles to survive with the boys inhabiting it. Butterflies are replaced by flies and their carelessness causes the fires to rage across the island. This mirrors quite poignantly the summer of fires across the world we have faced in 2023.
Nicola also signposted us to one of Golding’s other works The Inheritors. This book presents a joy for nature and a reverence for the world within a different context to that of the Lord of the Flies’ Island.
Its commercial success lies in hope… Nicola finished her part of the evening’s talk with perhaps her most poignant point. All of Golding’s novels end with hope despite the pessimism present in his stories. Whether the hope is entangled with the nature left behind, or in the future of humankind Golding places hope in sight.
Gift for the darkness
Judy Golding then took her place in front of the assembly. She started with a heart-warming story about the family’s connection to Bath and her father’s fondness for the City. Judy’s talk offered a little more insight into the ‘beyond’ the talk had to offer.
Because of its success Lord of the Flies is seen as the quintessential Golding novel. However, much of the novel was heavily edited. Judy focused on the missing scenes that depicted Simon’s experience of the miraculous, the side of island life that puts man and nature together and at their most mysterious. Golding removed much of Lord of the Flies’ overtly miraculous scenes. Judy argued that his later novels searched for this magic.
Throughout her talk Judy was able to give relevant and fascinating personal insight into all aspects of Golding’s life and how they manifested in his works. Golding was a funny and affectionate man. He was not always so solemn and bearded as his biography pictures suggest. He was once a sensitive child with a fear of the darkness and a mind that spotted the uncanny, which would follow him into adulthood and appear in his novels frequently.
It is common in Golding’s writing for visions and appearances to get confused within one’s mind — for example, Simon talks to the totem of the lord of the flies. The question stands, was that an otherworldly occurrence or simply a seizure?
Judy offered an interesting way to label these kinds of mysteries within Goldin’s books; they are ‘qualities lying dormant’ a quotation from his final novel The Double Tongue. Golding’s skill in conjuring the uncanny despite his fears of it aids the production of ambiguity and fantastical elements that permeate his writing.
Judy was also able to lead us to the blurred lines between autobiography and total fiction on Golding’s work. In Free Fall and Lord of the Flies Golding used real people to inspire many of his characters. He also often used himself and his life experiences to colour the worlds of his novels. In literature it is possible for the visionary and the actual to come together and this is certainly present in the works of William Golding, as well as in the 1 million words of unfinished journals that he left behind.
A view to a death
In many ways Golding’s literary career has left him defined by his debut, a tightly crafted story of boys trapped on an island fighting and surviving. But from this evening we learned that Golding’s legacy holds far more than that. He wrote about the world laid out in front of him as well as ‘fearlessly trying to describe the indescribable’ in Lord of the Flies and beyond.
You can also read Marcie Burnett’s summary of the questions from this event.